– Spring 2011

The Mass Ornament — Revisited: Hans Eijkelboom’s Photo Notes

Dieter Roelstraete

Previous spread: Hans Eijkelboom, Sunday 24 August 1997, US. New York, Manhattan, alongside Hudson River, 10.50—11.20 a.m., 1997, C-print, 50 × 70cm. From the series Photo Notes, 1992—2007

Previous spread: Hans Eijkelboom, Sunday 24 August 1997, US. New York, Manhattan, alongside Hudson River, 10.50—11.20 a.m., 1997, C-print, 50 × 70cm. From the series Photo Notes, 1992—2007

Repeatability is the very essence of a sign.
- Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man

0. Preliminary One
By the time this issue of Afterall hits the newsstands, the Shanghai World Expo 2010, titled 'Better City, Better Life', will have been committed to memory, restoring the balance of power among China's leading cities after the 2008 Olympic extravaganza thrust Beijing onto the world stage as a so-called 'alpha world city'. This will (almost certainly) not signal the end, however, of the steady stream of publications with titles such as China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (Columbia University Press, 2009); China Rising: Will the West Be Able to Cope? (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2009); China's Rise: Challenges and Opportunities (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009); China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power (Random House, 2007); China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World (Scribner, 2005); The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power, and Your Job (Wharton School Publishing, 2006); The Rise of China: How Economic Reform is Creating a New Superpower (W.W. Norton & Company, 1994); The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition (Encounter Books, 2009); The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2009); China Shakes the World: A -tan's Rise and Troubled Future (Mariner Books, 2007); and Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today (National Geographic, 2007). The first thing to observe here is the obvious lack of imagination among Western authors in capturing the global phenomenon of 'China rising'. More

  1. I am indebted to Monika Szewczyk for pointing out many of the titles listed above. The topic of the West's enduring fascination with China's phoenix-like rise to global prominence is one subject that is dealt with rather extensively in her essay 'Negation Notes (while working on an exhibition with Allan Sekula featuring This Ain't China: A Photonovel)', published in e-flux journal #13, February 2010, also available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/110 (last accessed on 26 October 2010).

  2. 'The yellow peril! It is not racial, it is spiritual. It does not involve inferior values; it involves a radical strangeness, a stranger to the weight of its past, from where there does not filter any familiar voice or inflection, a lunar or Martian past.' This passage is taken from what Slavoj Žižek calls 'arguably [Levinas's] weirdest text, "The Russo-Chinese Debate and the Dialectic" (1960)'. Quoted in Slavoj Žižek, 'Mao Tse-Tung, the Marxist Lord of Misrule', in Mao Tse-Tung, On Practice and Contradiction, London and New York: Verso, 2007, p.3.

  3. See Sara Bongiorni, A Year Without 'Made in China': One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007.

  4. This is a reference to the following famous haiku by Ezra Pound: 'The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough' - the informal motto of an exhibition organized by Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and Castello di Rivoli in Turin in 2004 and 2005. Pound's celebrated poem 'powerfully evokes the situation of the individual in the metropolis: personalities suspended in a moment within the life of the city'. The exhibition was intended 'as an exploration of this condition of modernity seen in realist art, especially art of the human face and form. [… It] traces a history of avant-garde figuration from a new perspective.' Clearly, it should have included the work of Hans Eijkelboom. See I. Blazwick and C. Christov-Bakargiev, Faces in the Crowd: The Modern Figure and Avant-Garde Realism (exh. cat.), London and Turin: Whitechapel Art Gallery and Castello di Rivoli, 2005.

  5. Douglas Huebler's status as 'perhaps the most important overlooked figure in Conceptual art' has long been closely linked to what curator Jenni Lomax called the 'humane and humorous vein in Huebler's work' - to his humanism, so to speak. An emphatically unironic work such as Variable Piece #34 (1970), for instance, for which Huebler photographed forty random passersby in the street immediately after telling them 'You have a beautiful face', remains an anomaly in the dour canon of 1960s and 70s US Concept art: in a catalogue essay published on the occasion of Huebler's first ever retrospective exhibition in the UK, organised at Camden Arts Centre in 2002, Mark Godfrey notes that of the four figureheads of the movement captured in a famous photograph from 1969 (the other artists are Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner), Huebler is the only one who is smiling. Would it be too much of a stretch to call Hans Eijkelboom the Douglas Huebler of the Dutch Concept art scene?

  6. Siegfried Kracauer, 'The Mass Ornament', The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (trans. Thomas Y. Levin), Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2005, p.79. Italics in the original.

  7. Ibid., p.85. Of some members of the educated classes who choose to remain oblivious to these undisguised facts, Kracauer says that 'they fail to grasp capitalism's core defect: it rationalises not too much but rather too little'. See p.81.

  8. Ibid., p.77.