Juan Hein: Clouds and bombs
By Trine Ross*
We, humans, have a special connection to clouds. We are fascinated by them and cannot help attempting to decode them, either to forecast the weather or just for the fun of it. We seem to recognize everything from faces to rearing horses reflected in these formations in the sky. But certain clouds signify something different than a mere approaching rainstorm or a vivid imagination. Those are the kind of clouds that are shaped by destruction, the kind that is pulled upwards and bloom like a mushroom after a nuclear detonation, or furiously rise over an erupting volcano and become terrifying epitomes of nature’s immense powers.
Encountering such destructive clouds can quite clearly leave us horror-struck. But gazing at them from a distance or seeing them in photographic reproductions allows a small crack to appear in our feelings of terror and a hint of fascination to seep into the mix. And precisely then is when we have arrived at what is known as the sublime. In our daily lives, we put a lot of effort into taming the powers of nature and stowing away our own potential for mass destruction. But standing in front of Juan Hein’s pieces, all that silenced potency is reactivated. The cloud formations are signifiers of situations that either frighten or disgust us, while we—almost against our own will—are attracted to those exact scenarios that are threatening our very existence. This is the essence of the sublime experience: horrific and fascinating, paralyzing yet vitalizing, universal and entirely private.
Our relationship to photography is just as ambivalent and still dominated by the deeply ingrained idea that a true reality is captured, in spite of countless examples of that reality being an altered or constructed one. Strangely enough black and white photography often feels even more believable and authentic than its color counterpart -perhaps because of the sense that such images belong to a faraway and remote past. Even if we rationally very well know that photographic images have been staged and manipulated for as long as it has been possible to create them.
Hein is showing us that now we can even capture and create photographic images without the use of a camera. Instead of seeking out clouds in the sky, he mines the digital cloud, where all our photos and information are stored, and re-photographs the images that he finds most interesting. These photographs are anonymous, without a known mastermind, either because the photographer did not take credit or because there is really no creator, as it is the case for all sorts of surveillance imagery and automatic captures that no human eye consciously vets and chooses.
And this is where Juan Hein steps in: He chooses the motif, he enlarges it, crops it and digitally manipulates it. This process stretches the final image into something in between an almost classical etching, with strong sculptural aspects, and a deliberately pixelated digital meta-reality. By doing this, Hein points to the very origin of the picture -historically, technically, conceptually- while the pixels melt into images thus reminding us of the myriad of water droplets that gather into those cloud formations that we ponder in the sky.
And what do we actually see? Bombings, natural disasters, or the silhouette of a rearing horse? Documented truth, aesthetic choices, or pure fiction? Hopefully, any answer will always remain in flux, just as fluid and transient as the clouds themselves. Indeed, therein lies the intrigue and the mastermind.
*Danish Art historian and critic. Essay included as an epilogue in the book.
Reflections on Clouds and bombs
By Dr. Sophie-Charlotte Opitz*
On several levels the book Clouds and bombs, by Juan Hein, is a relevant piece for research on and about photography and memory.
1. New Memory, Remediation and Premediation
Clouds and bombs takes up dynamics of remediation and premediation. Remediation(i) describes the active use of past mediatized acts. Premediation(ii) , on the other hand, is an unconscious provision of schemata by the media themselves, on which further mediatizations can draw. In the case of Hein’s book, one can see how the author has selected those very images that come from our past (remediation), but in doing so Hein himself has created a media product that builds on the schemata of existing mediatizations of visual events (premediation). Clouds and bombs becomes consequently a part of these very mediatized movements.
The close interconnection of media and remembering has become a more widespread part of collective remembering in the last two decades due to the progressive development in the digital sector and the expansion of its application and use possibilities. The expansion and outsourcing of individual and collective memory to digital memory storage is what Andrew Hoskins calls "New Memory". According to him, this kind of memory was triggered by the connective turn, which describes a "shift to the massively increased abundance, pervasiveness and accessibility of communication networks and nodes"(iii) . The content produced individually and locally gets implemented on digital platforms and social media and thereby gets globally accessible (for those who have Internet). Said so, this photobook project stands exemplary for and against this movement, because on the one hand it feeds its visual material (and memory material) from the sector of New Memory, but at the same time, as a physical book, it eludes these tendencies.
Jörg Colberg beautifully describes that "photo books live in the space between a person's hand and eyes"(iv) . He draws attention to the important aspect of haptics and I would like to add: A book is always perceived multisensory: One can see, feel and smell a book. It is precisely here that I find the discrepancy in Clouds and bombs between material and image interesting. Because the image, which is digital found footage, rubs up against the physicality of the pages. I understand the resulting tension as a tool that once again refines the content of the book.
3. History of Perception
In the sense of the theory of cultural memory, Clouds and bombs shows very nicely that experiences can never be immediate, since they always fall back on existing stocks of knowledge. When looking at these pictures, it can be understood that media does not only represent but shape perception. Or to put it in a nutshell: observing the world (often) means observing pictures. At the same time, the discrepancy between the world and the image becomes clear while looking at these pictures and asking yourself: Is this what I see reality? Of course, this question leads nowhere, because what I see is neither a bomb nor a cloud. It is a picture of a bomb (or a cloud). And even further: It is an analogue print of a digital picture of a bomb/cloud.
In this extreme distance of danger the viewer can sit back and indulge in his own voyeurism. Isn’t the destruction so far away that we can enjoy it? It will not hurt us, right? I am pointing here to the fascination with war/danger that is part of our human history and has been described from Voltaire to Goya to Arendt. The urge to experience war without being present points to the theory of "Metaphorical War" by Holert and Terkessidis(v) . These wars are not physically experienced but characterized by the use of warlike iconography. The media-mediated images allow the recipient to have a feeling of sympathy and to experience a "peaceful side" of war as an entertaining spectacle. Clouds and bombs, which is both a product of and a reflection on these mechanisms, is also created in these cultural dynamics.
Germany, April 2021
* Ph.D. Visual Cultural Studies, author of Bilderregungen-Die Produktionsmechanismen zeitgenössischer Kriegsfotografie (Jonas Verlag, 2020), Director of Exhibitions & Collections The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm (Germany/ New York)
i. For further insights into the concept of remediation see: J. D. Bolter & R. Grusin (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
ii. For further insights into the concept of premediation see: A. Erll (2011) Memory in Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
iii. A. Hoskins (2010). New Memory. In: Andreas Brøgger, Omar Kholeif (Ed.). Vision, Memory, and Media. Liverpool: FACT; p. 72.
iv. J. Colberg (2016). Photobooks. New York: Routlegde; p. 3.
v. M. Terkessidis & T. Holert (2002). Entsichert. Köln: Kiepenheuer und Witsch Verlag.
About Clouds and bombs
by Brad Feuerhelm
Juan Hein’s Clouds and bombs is a study of the phenomenon of atmospheric disruption or change. Clouds are not a fixed part of our environment and exist in passing as ephemeral elements. Artists and photographers have been obsessed with cloud studies. Turner, Constable, and Alfred Stieglitz are but a small list of artists interested in capturing clouds as a subject matter. In the case of Stieglitz, the cloud itself held metaphorical value…here is he ruminating on their value…
"to hold a moment, how to record something so completely, that all who see [the picture of it] will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed." - Alfred Stieglitz, 1926
The yearning sentiment as expressed by Stieglitz asks the viewer to consider, time, meaning, and the inevitable capture of all that is fleeting.
Bombs are another subject matter that have held particular interest in twentieth century life post-WWII. Bruce Nauman, Stanley Kubrick, Shomei Tomatsu, William Eggleston (obliquely), Vittorio Mortarotti & Anush Hamzehian and Kikuji Kawada are all artists that have found interest in the theme of the bomb among many others.
In Clouds and bombs, Hein plays with the themes of clouds and bombs through the use of an imagined viewing of their imagery. Hein uses the Internet to comment on the spectacle of clouds and bombs through their digital dissolve and poor resolution. Bathed in a digital bath, their forms are pulled apart by poor resolution which asks the viewer how they see or perceive their physicality and potential. Its an interesting book that reminds me in parts of Batia Suter’s encyclopedia studies.
The cover is attractive and the relatively small amount of images define the point perfectly without being overloaded with too many images which would fatigue the viewer and make the experience less interesting. This is the sort of book for people thinking through archive and history. The important part of Clouds and bombs is between spectacle and "the digital" and the wiki commons type of usage asking what is universal in images and traumatic experience coupled with an acknowledgement of how quickly life moves both on and off screen.
The hope as a must
By Patricio Loizaga*
I – The history of photography recognizes a meaningful documentary origin in the portrait, linked to the anthropological and also to the socialization. The id photo, the close-up or waist shot with a neutral background, blank of references, is a practice that has been used by great photographers like Richard Avedon or Andrés Serrano. In both cases, many times, they showed us through a process that implies a triple sight, what we don’t know, or what we don’t want to see. Juan Hein lies his sight over the sight of the portrayed ones, who direct their sight to our sight, building that triple process. There is a whole ethical conception on putting the sight over the sight from those ones that the society doesn’t want to look at. In that ethic is inscribed the series “Dreams of cardboard” by Hein, that rescues, dignifies, and legitimize a group of cardboard searchers.
II – The Argentinian crisis imposed a culture of resistance. Some observers, particularly in the press mass media, have focused on identifying that resistance within the growth of the urban cultural consumption. There have been some of us that did not agree with that view and we identify the whole resistance idea with an idealistic social expression against the adversity, like these cardboard searchers. There is a creativity of surviving in them that also builds a social pedagogy. It is not about renouncing a level of creative excellence but to recognize the moral value of that survival creativity.
III – In his book Last consumer the poet Pedro Mairal says in the supermarket the cashier lady / with her red uniform asks to me / final consumer? / I answer yes / and I think that one is me, / the final consumer, / the last link in the chain, / last carnivorous pesified* / the last witness of the final fall, / the one who eats to everyone else, / the one who ate what was left / the one who carries in the trolley / mammals chopped on platters / wrapped in cellophane, its cold limbs, / tubercles, grapefruit, grapes, / milk from electric dairy farms, / light blue water bottle, / trash bags to fill / and fill and fill. /... / to fill with what? / consumer of what? / of which final? / what is ending in me? / terminal consumer? / is it me the great consumer / that is dying? / or is it the end of everything? / emaciated, final, / finished, skinny / wasted, fallen, / finally the ending, / consummate, / consumed, / final stomach, / the final hunger, / the one that digests to all, / final masticator**, / final ghoul, / final omnivore, / predator, / the last animal, / final, equal as the tiger? / the consumer in extinction? / the best murderer? / ... / and we go with the trolley, to where? / which is the horizon towards we walk to / all of us that pushes the trolley? / we push the trolley to the dawn, / towards the end, oh, final consumers, / the night falls into the world and we go pushing / the trolleys of the shinning supermarkets / through infinite streets between gondolas*** / streets of gondolas, hoods of gondolas, / suburbs of gondolas, / countries, under the cobalt blue sky, / a horizon of gondolas, the last ones, / we, final consumers, / in our extinction path, / we go, we go consuming, / choosing products, no stopping, / quick soups, saint vincent noodles, / gillete shaving foam for soft skin, / goodbye cruel and fluorescent world, / goodbye my gondolas, / goodbye milky and sausage sectors, / price comparisons, / free samples, we leave, / we push the pack trolleys to the desert, / to the dumps of the pampa****, / towards the last towns of gondolas, / with acid crying drops rolling down the face, / to the obscure oblivion, and at the end, / to the end, to the wind of the night, / final consumers, / final, until the end.
IV – The Buenos Aires urban scene expresses as a paradox the contradiction of the faces of two realities in a supermarket trolley that originally is the same trolley that has been used by the first cardboard searchers from these recent days. A culture around the abundance confronting the culture of a lack of resources, a culture of the permanent in-satisfaction, before a culture of satisfaction, as Galbraith would say because it is about insatiable capitalism, a final culture, dying and decadent, in words by the poet Mairal, in front of a culture of the individual and familiar responsibility, in front of a conception of the hope as a must before than a right.
*Palais de Glace Director
Text for the exhibition catalogue of 'Dreams of cardboard'
November 2004, Buenos Aires, Argentina
General curator: Gonzalo Villar
Note: The translation into English of Pedro Mairal's poem, "Consumidor final" (Final consumer), originally in Spanish, was made by Juan Hein with the permission and approval of the author. The title "final consumer" refers to a tax-status in the Argentinian tributary system.