Stuck in Limbo

Essay in the catalogue of the eponymous photography series Void by photographer Dirk Hardy (2015)

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Most spaces we inhabit have a clearly defined purpose that is matched with a specific social etiquette. For each of them, there is an unwritten social script that one feels compelled to follow. In restaurants, for instance, we abide the ritual of being served. In sauna’s, nakedness is normalized as we come to regard it as a form of dress despite being taboo almost everywhere else. Yet in some cases, the social script to follow is less obvious and it is up to us to find the appropriate conduct along the way. This is true of changing rooms in gyms and elevators in both office and private buildings. They impose physical closeness with strangers as they connect places with each other while they themselves seem to be deprived of an essence of their own. In his photo series, appropriately entitled Void, Dirk Hardy takes this perceived lack of essence characteristic of elevators to almost mythic levels. He does not picture them as places where social rituals are merely less articulated than elsewhere or where the boundary between the private and the public becomes blurred. They represent a place larger than life: A limbo between life and death.

The light coming from an invisible source on top of the scene hints at the typical bipartite composition of classic religious paintings in which the divine literally breaks into earthly reality from the clouds with glowing aura (fig. 1). On the other hand, the almost fully deprived interior of Hardy’s elevator seems to foreshadow the material dispossession of death. The elevator in Void is, quite literally, a stage. Designed and built by the photographer himself, it enables him to control every detail of the images. One of Hardy’s sources of inspiration for crafting his scenes is the work of Edward Hopper (fig. 2). Like once said about the realistic paintings of the American artist, Hardy’s work can be characterized as ‘a blend of observation, memory and imagination.’ The props, costumes and hairdos in Hardy’s Void are nods to twentieth century fashion without specific reference to any trend in particular. Likewise, the mises-enscène seem to recreate characters as well as situations lifted from the mass media imagery surrounding modernity without quoting any exact movie or photograph. Hardy makes use of his models’ specific body language as well as stereotypical depictions of modern figures such as the clerk packing his stuff, and the suburban husband holding a crying baby.

But what links Hardy’s photographs most clearly to Hopper’s paintings is perhaps their emphasis on a form of loneliness that is specific to modernity, a loneliness expressed by establishing a parallel between places and characters. Both artists choose spaces typical of the modern urban landscape: While Hopper painted individuals in bars and motel rooms, Hardy features people in elevators. All these places share a common denominator. They are places of transit or, as French anthropologist Marc Augé described them in the 1990s, ‘non-places.’ They all lack substance and do not seem to have an identity of their own. Their essence, paradoxically, is to have no essence.

In both Hopper’s paintings and Hardy’s photographs, such non-places reflect the mental condition of the characters to be found in them. The individuals pictured in their work have lost touch with themselves and their surroundings. They stare into space as if they were blindingly holding on to a thought. Emptied of their substance, they have become shadows of their previous selves hopelessly waiting for something to happen, stuck in between two states. Places have become characters and the other way around. Whereas the lift and the bar have become endowed with a soul, those who inhabit them seem to have surrendered theirs. Alienation is therefore doubly figured in Void. Once by means of the metaphor of the empty vessel that is the elevator; and a second time by the apparent estrangement of the characters from themselves and others. Together with the retro look of the photographs, and the instantaneous recognition of its characters as part of a worn-out collective visual imagery of modernity, Void lends its artistic strength to its play with the idea of loss: The longing for past times, meaningful images, and strong emotional impulses that would elevate us above the monotony of everyday life.