Ruud van Empel "Pictures don't lie" Fotografiska Museet, Stockholm March 9 - June 2, 2013
Pictures do lie, and we all know that. Ruud van Empel has made it obvious in his work: the pictures of montaged children, women, and (other) objects both lie and tell the truth at the same time. In the exhibition Pictures don’t lie at Fotografiska in Stockholm, we meet his body of work in an educational, and essentially beautiful, format. Perfection becomes a means to an end, and lies are at the base of the whole exhibition.
Ruud van Empel (born 1958) is arguably one of the most extraordinary international photographic artists of the present day. After his education at the Academie Sint Joost in Breda, in the Neatherlands, between 1976 and 1981, Ruud van Empel worked as a designer on many projects in both theater and television. In the latter part of the nineties, he began focusing on being an artist – by making collages. These were made in the traditional sense: with scissors and glue, and using photos from newspapers and magazines. It wasn’t until later that he made use of the program Photoshop, which became a refined way of making montages and collages.
This exhibition is built on the different series that van Empel has worked on during the past 10 years. There is a question of perfection raised in these pictures that can be seen in, for example, fashion magazines, in which models get photoshopped into oblivion and become almost superhuman. The women in Study for Women (2002) are reminiscent of this. This was the first time that van Empel applied the montage technique to create human figures. In these series, young, slender women are presented against an estranging backdrop, in a somewhat half-darkness. They are clearly posing. They look directly at both observer and photographer with anticipation, and are aware that their bodies and facial expressions are being gazed upon. There is something there that shouldn’t be there, in this presentation. They seem to be semi-living, like a mix between real women and dolls, uncanny in that sense. This isn’t uncommon; we see it every day in magazines, commercials and so on. But should one consider van Empel’s montages as art, then? Or, rather – as good art? I do find it interesting in the aspect of what is considered beautiful, and to what lengths we go to attain beauty.
It becomes apparent that this was the first time that he used this montage technique; there is an air of a process, which becomes even more apparent when one looks at his latter series. When I first saw the commercials for this show in the subway, I immediately thought that I would have to waddle into post-colonial theory, and that I'd get stuck between the combination of the picture from the World (2007-08) series – of a young black girl in a jungle background – and the Dutch name of the artist. I thought it would be impossible not to get into orientalism, but when viewing the show, it becomes difficult to do that because the thread of attaining perfection is so much more present than anything else. I would rather want to say that there is a connection to the United Colors of Benetton commercials. There is a wish to create homogeneity instead of fetishizing over differences. This comes out in Generation (2010) and Wonder (2010), where we see panoramic group photographs of children; even though there are obvious differences like hair color, clothes and so on, there is a similarity that all of the children share: they all look at you in the same way. It’s hard to explain. It becomes even stranger when you look at the various still-lifes in the show, and you get the same feeling. The technical aspect of the work takes up most of the fascination: they don’t look like photographs, but like paintings. The use of Photoshop is both a necessity and stigmatized. On the one hand, you need to know how the program works, but when using it as a tool to alter people’s bodies, like pictorial plastic surgery, it gets frowned upon. Here we’re supposed to accept the unnaturalness and embrace it because it creates a wall that protects you from the uneasiness of the photos. They look so foreign that it makes it hard to connect with them, whereas a commercial is designed to do the opposite.
The exhibition, as a whole, is very organized: the different colors on the walls help navigate you, and they also aid in enhancing the colors in the photos. The end room in the space is dedicated to a “documentary” on the artist and his followers. And there's not just one, but three screens showing the same video, in the same room; maybe it's a bit too much. There is this fear going around in the Stockholm Kunsthalle and museum scene: a fear of not being pedagogical enough. This was a very pedagogical show. The texts are used to explain what you see and what you should experience; videos are used to clarify the artist’s intentions; there is not much room for exploring by yourself. Nevertheless, everything looks well executed, and perfection flows like a wave through the whole experience.