Paulina Pukyte


Last summer I brought from New York a wonderful object. It is a poster-type print of a compilation of 31 photographs of book covers. The books are travel guides to various countries from a Petite Planète series, published in 1954-1964 in France. All these covers were designed by the influential French photographer, writer and filmmaker Chris Marker (1921 - 2012).

On every cover there is a monochromatic portrait of a woman and a name of a corresponding country. In fact it is a series of photographic portraits.

When I showed this poster to my friend art and film critic, at once she started wondering (I understand – it is her job): are these women really from these countries? Is this Audrey Hepburn? Why is she representing Holland?

I don’t know. None of these questions bother me. I don’t care. I even got slightly annoyed and had an urge to quickly take my treasure out of the room. I just wanted her to say: what a wonderful print! Or even in most primitive way: how beautiful! When I say “beautiful”, I mean not only that I like it – it affects me, very strongly, but not just aesthetically, and not because of factual information.

As we know, audience these days desire “reality”, factual rather than artistic truth.

Jean Baudrillard says that finding the ultimate truth, verifying, identifying equals extermination. Truth exterminates the world. To exterminate means to eliminate duality. A search for truth is not only “a crime against the real world, which becomes a useless function”, but also “a crime perpetrated against the illusion of the world, that is to say, against its radical uncertainty, its duality, its antagonism – everything which underlies the existence of destiny, conflict and death.” According to Baudrillard, if “the world is paradoxical – ambiguous, uncertain random or reversible – we have to find a thought that is itself paradoxical”, if we wish the thought to make an impact in the world. Our thought has “to make uncertainty a principle”, uncertainty must be “a rule of the game”. But we “must know that it is playing without any possible conclusion”.

But is it not the purpose of art to look for truth?
Nietzsche described creative process as lying. Oscar Wilde praised lying as art.
Roland Barthes wrote about photography as “uncertain art”.

Barthes, photography theorist, often repeats: I am moved – I am not moved, this one I only like, this one I love. It is impossible to avoid subjectivity (or, rather, according to Baudrillard, objective thought is no longer adequate for the image of a destabilised uncertain world of today). But he also speaks about looking at a photograph having dismissed all knowledge and culture. I look – and I see all these women with different features and all these names of different countries, and I believe that these women are from these particular countries. And I think: yes, this androgynous girl is a real German, and that one with wide eyes and open forehead – real Austrian. The Pole – a definite Pole. Japanese – Japanese. And this one is a real Tahitian, even though I have never seen a Tahitian woman in my life. Does that mean I am looking uncritically, without thinking? Does that mean I am accepting stereotypes, preconceptions as a given? Or does that mean I engage in a game, accept the conditions, take advantage of the situation? But perhaps this piece (or a series of pieces) does not aspire to trigger critical thinking? And should that not be the purpose of every work of art?

Barthes is affected, moved, animated by a “piercing” of a photograph –
punktum. I do not know whether there is a punktum in this one, and if there is – where exactly. Why am I so moved by this group of photographs? According to Barthes, punktum opens existence beyond the single frame of a photograph. (Most photographers, I believe, are not interested in that “beyond” at all). Looking at these women I feel that they exist before and after. They live.

Could this be because the portraits are frozen film stills? I do not know that, I am just guessing. (Chris Marker’s best known film
La Jetée is an opposite case – a series of filmed photographs; only at one moment in the film the frame comes alive: a woman opens and closes her eyes.) It seems to me, most of these women are actresses, because they are posing, but not the way one poses for a photograph. In this case I do not care whether they are famous actresses, I do not want to know their names. If they were instantly recognisable stars, I think this series would have a very different effect. Less interesting for me.

However, does the photographic portrait of Andy Warhol by Duane Michals in which Warhol is covering his face with his hands, has “before and after” or “beyond” because we know it is Warhol? When I look at that photograph, I think, first of all, whether it would work the same way if it had no title. Susan Sontag says that photograph’s “meaning - and the viewer’s response - depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words.” A title, even a false one, is an important part of a photograph. But I do not ask “is this really he”, because I want to let myself to be deceived, if needs be. Yet, I suspect, today in a world full of celebrities, shifting identities, Photoshop and “reality”, many viewers of this photograph would have the identity question: “he or not he?”, “real or not real?” While the photographer, I think, was more concerned with Warhol’s personality, the clash of celebrity status and shyness.

(Chris Marker avoids public exposure, does not grant interviews and when asked for a picture of himself usually offers a photograph of his cat instead, yet he has become something of a cult figure for his fans. I am exceptionally lucky to have seen him in person; when he entered, I realised at once that it was he, even though I had no idea what he looked like.)

And Barthes, looking at this photograph by Duane Michals few decades before us, is not interested in Warhol’s gesture (covering his face with his hands), not interested in “this game of hide-and-seek”; this photograph is pierced for him – actually, entirely filled – by Warhol’s nails. In photographs he often notices peoples’ nails. Sometimes not very clean ones. Those nails irritate him.

I am irritated and therefore probably fascinated by uncertainty. For me the most interesting lens generated (that is, based on “representation of reality”) works are ones that are not obvious, not certain, ones that carry unavoidable duality. I do not have in mind montage, digital or even composition tricks. Duality can only exist in photographs that are, at first glance, “normal” and “real”. Authenticity and doubt (uncertainty) are the two ingredients that make especially effective cocktail. A cocktail is not for sobering you up. It is meant to intoxicate.

Baudrillard speaks against unified, homogenized world based on single principle, without duality, without uncertainty; and Barthes speaks against a unary photograph that has “no duality, no indirection, no disturbance”.

Barthes regards duality as photograph’s essential value. But this duality is not achieved consciously, by logic of creation. Duality is not “development”. And
punktum is not found by analysing.

If we viewed each of those book covers separately, would they work the same way? How would we perceive them if there were no writings on these portraits? Well then: if we mixed up women’s faces and the names of the countries, this piece would perhaps be more subversive, attacking cultural clichés. But would it still be convincing? War on stereotypes can also become stereotypical.
Now, after I started analysing my treasure in this way, I feel its fascination is diminishing, melting, slipping away, and only its structure remains, a skeleton, without any mystery, without uncertainty. So I stop.

I prefer looking at it like this:

There is a woman, her expression, hairdo, clothes, attributes; there is a colour of the portrait, its composition; there is a name of a country; a colour of the letters; there is a place where a name rests on a woman; there is a book cover with its wear and tear (the books are not new, somebody collected them from “second hands”); there is a certain number of similar but different covers, arranged in a certain way; and finally, there is a poster as a whole and as an object.
There are also three exceptions: two painted portraits and one primitive sculpture, representing Egypt.

But there are also other multiple layers which you might not notice or perceive straight away: there are actresses, or “actresses”, their films, real or imagined, with their plots and characters’ fates; and there are contents behind the book covers, there are texts that inform, invite, encourage, warn and lie. Behind the names are countries with their history, their wars, their cities, roads, roadside restaurants, restaurant chefs, their hands, their nails. Nails again. How clean are their nails?