A state of vulnerability seems to shroud human beings in Sylvie Zijlmans’ Hurricane series. Each work is titled after an actual hurricane: the 2006 tropical storm Vince that hit the Spanish coast in September 2005, Hurricane Emily or Hurricane Bret, Rananim or the 2005 devastating Katrina that hit New Orleans so severely.
Vulnerability might come from the way people are pictured: they’re bearing rather than wearing their wet clothing as water drips down their bodies and streams of water run through hairs. But the viewer is also fixed with a sense of the reality of a surviving body. It is, in fact, a discourse the artist carries on multiple levels, from the power of nature and our very confrontation of disaster to a challenge of gender codes, politics, and confrontation of body types. In May 1960, Walter De Maria claimed that unpredictable disasters are the highest forms to be realized and art cannot stand up to nature: ‘I like natural disasters and I think that they may be the highest form of art possible to experience. / For one thing they are impersonal.’ (Walter De Maria, ‘On the Importance of Natural Disasters,’ in An Anthology of Chance Operations, ed. Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young, self-published by the editors, New York, 1963; reprinted by Heiner Friedrich, New York, 1970.) This is not only a challenge to artistic representation – it can interleave identity issues, political issues, and the nature of humanness.
Events like the tsunami that happen as a surprise change the lives of many people from one moment to the next. It’s difficult for anyone to relate to such an event – victims or observers – because it is simply too big and too overwhelming. I tried to find a more familiar image by portraying the catastrophe as a human being, enlarged many times over. My giants are enormous, but they look like you. The danger of the disaster becomes both close and recognizable.
Natural catastrophes and the images of devastation continue to mirror our rapid destroying of the natural systems in the world. While these systems are naturally balanced, our interventions hold as natural, yet unbalancing. We disrupt the equilibrium of balanced ecological systems and raise a Malthusian curve growing exponentially only to disrupt our very own dependencies. Yet competition and dependency are two natural characteristics without which we would not have been able to survive: it is a drive that is manifest in nature, the organic body and society too.
People in Sylvie Zijlmans’ photographs are set against a black background, as if suspended in a void of identity or origin. Any national, civic, socio-cultural, or religious properties have been erased, challenging conversence if not the very foundations of social family and human belonging. Mauling experiences cross their memories and the viewers’ perception. The construction of the exhibition brings the viewers closer to the victims and amplifies a feeling of being dwarfed by their powerful, almost threatening presence and expression: photographs are enlarged and left to hang freely like wet towels on a clothesline, to show the human anatomy as an extremity of skin at an extreme condition of survival. While the photographs maintain an image of classification, the artist destabilizes some of our rooted perceptions on how we classify the living bodies. As our ability to preserve ecological conditions for our own survival becomes increasingly questionable, an ‘extension’ of ourselves as body and consciousness becomes primordial to our survival. This photographic extension of our own body takes the definition and perceptions of what a body is in different and alternative directions. Here, the body grows in size, presence and complexity as a threatening pose for addressing our limitations in the understanding of ourselves as an integral part of the ever transforming ecology of the world and the frailness of our social, cultural and political constructions.
But as the power of nature strips down the subjects of their constructed subjectivity, it also unveils nature’s indifference. In an essay accompanying the Hurricane series suggestively titled Under the Weather, Berlin-based critic Jennifer Allen sees the black background as nature’s indifference to the cornerstones of nation-state, regardless of its political system: borders, language, religion, family, etc. ‘As the tragedies of England and Greece demonstrated,’ says Allen, ‘the nation-state will be increasingly defined by its capacity to respond to a state of emergency, in other words, by its capacity to suspend democratic operations in order to deal with the disaster and its victims.’ The artist thus dismisses any identity politics: gender, sexual orientation, race, class or body perfection cannot account for the individual’s struggle to survive destruction in the face of natural disasters. In a storm, the fight for equal rights becomes a fight for survival. According to Allen, Sylvie Zijlmans portrays this levelling effect by combining the super-enlargement with an almost microscopic view. This does not only allow the viewer to gain a new visibility of body details, but also enables an undifferentiated view of body manifestations under natural conditions. It is because of this that body interactions in Zijlmans’ photographs treat the human body uniformly, with children as tall and as menacing as their adult counterparts.
Zijlmans’ combination – the overview and the close-up, both exaggerated to extremes – manifests the disaster’s ability to dominate every perspective and to decide every fate with a drastic amplication of natural forces, from fire to flood.
The use of a twin anthropomorphism, using names as titles and humans as subjects, is inpired by historical hurricanes and references the meteorological tradition of personifying hurricanes, one of the many ways humans have attempted to master nature over time. A name is given to a storm to enable people to tame the folkloric giant and define its uncontrollable powers in the most human expression possible. Like the legendary giants, Jennifer Allen outlines, the hurricanes are meant to leave not only a path of destruction but also a string of narratives in their wake. It is narratives people cling on to in order to overcome their own frailness and find the heroic power of hope and struggle to survive. Names are given to those phenomena that while damaging to human beings and properties can only awake people’s fight to endure their natural and constructed context. But there is yet another power to this naming – this anthropomorphism is not only an echo to ancient storytellers and modern weathermen; it equates the disaster with the ordinary citizen, whose name survives through heroic, often anonymous opposition. It is gender, age and individual characteristics that separate the subjects and bring them together at the same time, undifferentiatedly.
No one wears shoes and clothes seem to follow the traditional gender codes. Because the design of the clothes does not draw a clear line between a tourist, an office worker or a child, the artist blurs the line between people ‘snatched from their vacations at exotic locals’ or those who follow their daily routine. But this can only make one question whether there is any difference when every site and every being is vulnerable to the extremeness of nature. It is worth reminding here that all humans in Zijlmans’ photographs are isolated. There is no conjoint presence, no sense of community, only the pose of the individual, highlighted in what is arguably the most interesting photograph of all, Sandy (photograph no. 11.) It is one of the artist’s most recent developments in the series, one that amplifies the power and the fury, the obstinate intention to overcome conditions. Even the details of the clothes caution us against a different stance with their more lively patterns and vibrant feel. The viewer is opposed by a gaze as threatening as in Rananim (photograph no. 3), but there is a more active and dynamic pose, one leg ahead as if making a more decisive move toward the viewer, fingers grasping the folds of the clothes while water pours down ever more sturdily, one hand holding an uprooted plant. This photograph seems seductive and condemnatory at the same time, alluring the viewer closer to an unexpected scene.
Sylvie Zijlmans’ photographs explore and subvert cultural expectations by experimenting with the body under exceptional conditions. Through the monumental photographs in the exhibition, the artist undermines social expectations, since the large physical dimensions of the works face the viewer with an inability to avoid the confrontation of a body type and a political typology, implicitly. What does the reality of a surviving body tell us about our expectations and what does it oppose? The photographs also raise a series of implications for portraiture and the place of the body, stressing our ability to control our own bodies and our inability to overcome nature at the same time. They challenge socio-political body constructions and self-constructions to the extreme. These strange images reveal something on either side of the body, a deeper and somehow more mercurial nature of ourselves, willing to struggle with the adverse and the abstract world for all we can tame of it. It is a world at ourselves that these bodies express by challenging the uncontrollable aspect of life. This conflict is portrayed by the perfect isolation of each character having survived the chance of disruption. For there is something definitely disjunctive in our lives that brings us closer to breaking, fracturing, or countering the obvious realities.
Yet the Hurricane series also reveal something about the world we live in and its germinal materiality. The darkness of the background could also be seen as a question of the bare matter, the element in the datum ‘which has no destiny,’ if we are to quote Lyotard. Form domesticates matter and makes it consumable because our savoir-vivre is never enough. It is not only the landscape that is an excess of presence as such, but the matter of the world which reveals us the inhuman and the unclean non-world (l’immonde) (for a glimpse into Lyotard’s interpretation of matter and landscape, see Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Scapeland’, in L’Inhumain: Causeries sur le tems (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1988); trans. David Macey, ‘The Inhuman: Reflections on Time’, in The Lyotard Reader’ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) 214-15; 217.) If the backgrounds in Zijlmans’ photographs make reference to such matter, the extensive bodies themselves can be seen as an excess of presence unveiling our own inhumanity.
By telling us something about the world, these photographs equally challenge the quarantines of life that make us ignore the vitality of matter and, ultimately, the lively powers of nature over us. In her seminal work Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett addresses a question to make history in our age: ‘How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?’ (see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2010.) The forces of the world need to be considered for all the propensities and tendencies of their own, which instead of simply opposing, we ought to integrate into our lives. A world politics that abolishes our instrumentalization of nature is needed. As the uncontrollable alters the course of events, we need to abandon the philosophical project of clearly outlining subjectivity, escaping materiality, mastering nature, or conceiving politics. In Bennett’s words, we must carefully consider an ‘encounter between people-materialities and thing-materialities,’ which is in fact the political embodiment of a conative concern for human survival. Concepts of agency and action, with all their Latourian genealogy, often lead to a breaking point – and it is here that we must push ourselves and our ‘subjectivity’ in order to survive our self-constructed constraints and liberate a different understanding of ourselves and the world. The Hurricane series achieves this rupture with constructed subjectivity, levels the differences between us, and reflects a view of consistent (in)human survival.