Feature on the eponymous book by Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker
ZOO Magazine #47, 2015
What do rabbits, cigars, and the female nude have in common? This is the seemingly trivial question Dutch artist Paul Kookier appears to ask with his latest photographic endeavor Nude Animal Cigar from 2015. For the series commissioned by the prestigious Fotomuseum in The Hague, the artist has selected precisely sixty-three images for each of these categories from his own unpublished work created over the past few years. Given the apparent frivolity of such a question and the infinite range of possible answers to it, what might be the reason for a lauded artist to ask it in the first place? Since more than twenty years, Kooiker has been developing a consistent oeuvre of photographic series presented mostly as artist’s books and featured in gallery exhibitions. His trademark is arguably the female nude anonymized by compositional means, which leave out the model’s face and focus on body shapes, combined with photographs of objects, places, and now also animals.
Most of Kooiker’s photographs exude a sense of forbidden intimacy as if the scenes had been caught by the inquisitive gaze of a voyeur, or by the amateur camera of a candid photographer. Hunting and Fishing from 1999 consists of mostly blurred images of women running away from the camera. Crush features women in various positions in cluttered and dirty rooms, from which Kooiker photographs tipped-over furniture and objects at odds with the surroundings.
Each image appears to function as a clue in a riddle. Placed alongside each other, the photographs seem to convey meaning while Kooiker makes sure their careful selection prevents the riddle from ever be solved. It is never clear what type of photographs these are, or what they actually depict for that matter. They cannot be mistaken for forensic documents, kinky snapshots, or artsy staged scenes, but they do resemble each of them. And that is exactly what is so unsettling about Kooiker’s work. It makes epistemological categories porous and therefore suggests a fundamental co-relation between aspects of human life one would rather keep safely apart. In his work, eroticism verges on torment, murder on art, and photography on killing.
Kooiker has mastered the art of ambiguity. His use of high heels and other subtle props prevents viewers from mistaking his pictures of motionless bodies for post-mortem photography. He makes use of the aesthetics of amateur photography such as home pornography, but avoids explicit sexual content and erotic clichés. He hires models to pose naked, but selects them on the basis of their generous corpulence, inhibiting the possibility of any sexual arousal in viewers used to stereotypically slender female bodies. As a gallery owner once declared, one never quite knows whether to laugh or to cry at Kooiker’s work.
The artist carefully crafts his pictures in the mode of a wishful laboratory worker who uses quasi-scientific rules and protocols to lend credibility to his experimental results thanks to their uniformization. This is especially the case in the series Utrechtse Krop (Utrecht Goitre) featuring close-ups of parts of photographs from a nineteenth-century medical archive featuring individuals with severe handicaps. The artist shot each image from the exact distance of thirty centimeters. This is also the case with other series such as the above-mentioned Fishing and Hunting in which all images are taken using an out-offocus effect; and the series Black Meat featuring typologies of cliché images of the swan, popular among photography amateurs. Self-imposed constraint comes back under the guise of the systematic use of digital sepia filters in Nude Animal Cigar, which gives the photographs an unmistakable turn-of-the-century vintage flavor.
But nostalgia is just one of the emotions that contribute to the paradoxical effect achieved by Nude Animal Cigar. The humor is unmistakable and perhaps most clearly noticeable in the choice of title and its typography. Both can be read as tongue-in-cheek references to cheap postwar commoditized culture. The typography reminds one of advertisements for household products whereas the campy juxtapositions of animals, ladies, and cigar butts calls forth images of Playboy bars and burlesque shows.
Every image from the series Nude Animal Cigar has been shot by Kooiker in the course of the past few years, but has never been shown before. The series can therefore be read as a survey of his work. The photographs of animals were taken during trips to the zoo with his daughter, and Kooiker is a great cigar lover. The female nudes selected to be included remind one of the different series with which Kooiker achieved public recognition, just like the photographs featuring animals are reminiscent of his earlier series Black Meat.
Nude Animal Cigar bears the trademark of a typical Kooiker endeavor. It is a selection and combination of images rather than the presentation of single photographs to be appreciated as such. It is the product of a systematic approach to photography, which simultaneously defi es an easy understanding of its meaning. It is an understated homage to the surrealists, who in a similar fashion before him used self-derision and unexpected juxtaposition to trigger the imagination. In other words, the secret of Nude Animal Cigar lies in Kooiker’s love of photography, its many shapes, history, and power to elicit the most disparate reactions.