“It is plain that these signs constitute true hieroglyphs, in which man, to the extent that he contributes to their formation, is only a form like the rest, yet to which, because of his double nature, he adds a singular prestige.” Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double
Photography has the misfortune of being the second most cerebral of all the arts. Only sculpture exceeds it. Because of this, the artistry of photography – or, more precisely, its aesthetic originality – has always been troubled intellectually, first and foremost, by its secondarity when it comes to concepts. Worse, the analytical interference that arises from this secondarity is itself, in fact, a duplicate problem, exterior to itself. Thus, in a further complication of replication, this twofold trouble can’t truly be understood in itself – and does not become manifest by itself – unless it is linked in with the parallel and also doubly-layered dilemma of that other intractable observer, the art critic, in regard to the art they evaluate, inimitably, but do not practice (or, if they do, do not ever practice quite as originally). This double-skulled, split-spined predicament is difficult to neologize but can best be outlined as follows: in the first place, to always be an analytical runner-up to the intellectual self-sufficiency of the object of representation itself – which is also to say, to be entered, effectively, as a contestant in the wrong race – quite impressive, therefore, for almost winning it – since they’re not conditioned for actual participation, after all – but subject, thereby, to an ineradicable suspicion that their near-win was gained by means of aides which could only be considered contraband, prohibited, inherently fraudulent, by any decent standard. Then, in the second place, by the same token but on the utterly other hand, in the entirely counterfeit yet absolutely authentic proximity of each form to conceptual vision, to be utterly forefront and indispensable to the epistemological portability that any art depends upon – even at its most stubborn and recalcitrant – to make some human impression, to be the sharable slot box of sight through which the obscure object of a sense-making humanity, in any given epoch, takes shape.
—-Now, of the two, it is, perhaps, the latter aspect most of all which makes photography and the practicing critic so jointly irksome to art-haters and artists alike – if, as one would expect, for quite opposite reasons in each separate case. For if the aforementioned philistines find that critics and photographic reproductions only compound the original mistake that art represents – a mistake which could be defined for them, in a nutshell, as indulging the infinite fatuity of human senselessness (and it does need to be acknowledged that they frequently have a point) – so, in turn, do the most sophisticated artists become rather justifiably frustrated by having their painstakingly abstracted, meticulously cryptic and patently unreal work reduced, no matter how advanced or acutely sophisticated the labour that goes in to it to resist interpretation, back, nonetheless, to that – to the grotesque banality of some bracing illumination, some subterranean social-work or alleviation of abuse, some sort of “meaningfully developed” consciousness or conscientiousness it cannot but bestow for the aesthetic or intellectual or phenomenological edification of that awful hydrocephalic flat-earther, that voracious heap of insular mirror-mazing shit, we call our humanity. Indeed, when a sharp-eyed Walter Benjamin spoke of the withering away of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, he spoke not of the consequences of democratization, of the coming into contact of more and more persons with the relics of art, through whatever means, but, quite oppositely, of bourgeoisization and, thus, of this – the hollowing out of the illusion of artistic authority through the general exhibition of that authority on the ramparts of human validity, the dispersal, in total, of its cultic capacity not to be “meaningfully developed” through its compulsory epistemological portability into the universal humanity of affects and knowledges, its new incapacity to keep its own counsel and maintain the vow of its silence. It shouldn’t really need to be added that Benjamin identified the main progenitor of this rendering incidental and anachronistic of the artistic function to be, of course, photography, just as he delivered down this bad news – news that has long been denounced by both revolutionaries and capitalists for its dreaded determinism – through the formal-historical categories of the genre of art criticism. The singularity of photography, for Benjamin, as with art criticism, properly done, was the insight it provided to the incontinence of contemporary mediation, courtesy of the commodity form, which layered the objects of art with a relentless inability not to lose sight of themselves as exchangeable creations, humanly produced, the insight it offered, therefore, into the saturation of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction under capitalism, through and through, with an automatism of ideology that existed precisely in the form of the mandatory semiosis of a “thought”, an “affect”, an “experience”, whatever it might be, however it might be interpreted, in terms of the closed-open profits system of the ostensibly bottomless affordances of human being. Mechanical reproduction and metanoic overproduction became standard as one.
—-For its part, Michael Salerno’s photography concentrates its own particular second-place sight on children. Not merely on children as an immanent category of humanity, either, but as a transcendentally stark and grippingly embodied brood. Waxen, mostly on the cusp of adolescence, but sometimes younger, these children move in an oscillating range between categorical prepubescence and trespassing teenagehood, such a narrow but critical range being, maybe, what is most important to Salerno – certainly more crucial, at any rate, than their past or future growth. At no point, therefore, do these young depicted ever turn into toddlers, or babies, or lapse into any kind of infancy, for they are not intended to be children in this sense. To be sure, far from being too innocent and untouched by experience to feature in his afflicted work – a work which is here, after all, called Scars, a title quite indexical of his larger oeuvre – infants are, on the contrary, entirely too exploitative and culpably alive as humanitarian beings to star in these shots, too saturated with narcotized sentiment about worth and future possibility, not to mention their own biologically projected image of generalized need and pleading, to really express anything compelling whatsoever about vulnerability or blamelessness in any upsetting, displeasing sense – or not, at any rate, without distorting the babes somewhat, without tampering with their sanctity – say, by means of pornography. And the issues that would stir up are a whole separate set. For pornographic is exactly what Salerno’s photography is not, whatever our dubious sense of sexuality might lead us to believe.
—-Such an assertion may seem, at first glance, anti-intuitive, given certain patent, latent aesthetics his work candidly displays: for example, the tendency of the images to beeline in, with unsettling intensity, on children’s bare bodies caught in unprotected intimacy; or the obvious absorption of the shots in riffing upon the libidinal economy – the surveillant eye and scandalous tabloid materials – which accrue around the presentation, in the press, of the life-shattering lust of child sex predators; or the restrained but mawkishly romanticised trace-marks of longing in regards to the transiently pure interior of a fast-deteriorating childhood, which the images, in a pantomime of proficient paedophiles, do indeed try to mould to their conceptual favour in a bid to have the underaged come out their way. Nonetheless, what is unambiguous about Salerno’s photography, especially in the sequence assembled here, is that it is utterly uninvested in human development – which it treats with a kind of atheistic horror – and is accordingly, as an extension of this aversion, not at all to do with sex. This too might seem anti-intuitive, for through the prism of a half-chewed un-knowledge of Freud, sex is broadly understood as being intrinsically connected to resistance to, or escape from, the pathways of development – a reprieve from thought and subjectivity, an expedition into the erotico-sensate auditorium of the flesh, which drags us outside of the shuttling sequence of lineated and responsible time and lets us body ride a bit etc. For Salerno, however, the facts of the matter insist upon quite the reverse: in truth, what goes by the name of maturity is nothing other than the disastrous developmentality that drags on in and throughout such apparent “resistances” to development. An utterly “adult” nature inundates the anti-development of development through and through – rendering it adult, then, in both the outdated X-rated sense of a dirty book depository and the Kantian sense of an Enlightened maturity – and, thus, proceeds to codify these ostensible “flights” from growth in strictly instrumental terms as flights toward it, as artefacts of age. This, therefore, forces Salerno to reconceive the ostensible linearity that characterises the alibi of a “responsible” progression into adulthood and turn it on its head, such that all the wobbling and spinning of uncontrolled libido rotates around a funnel not absconding and awry but focused and deadingly centred, like the cataract eye – hidden from images, shrouded from analysis – that stands at the heart, say, of a headlong tornado rushing relentlessly toward the vulnerable vanity of one’s prettified but heavily mortgaged lifehouse.
—-Perhaps the real problem for photography is that it can never take a picture of this storm’s eye from the inside, by definition, although it can tell us it is there, and, indeed, will tell us, continually, for it, like the art critic, is all about exposure: it likes to show people things, and say it is a showing, as though this showing, said, were not, in turn, a type of tell. Yet beyond such sighted say, that eye demands something far more absolute, a set of utterly inhuman disclosures, right out of its senses, if we were to really gaze upon it as it is, and respond to it, for the first time, as though it made sense. The very conceptualism, then, that makes the medium of photography a media means, in turn, that the images it produces are not only seen to have been taken but are always, in their taking, taken as if to have been seen – and this is a principle that holds even if the images are taken without any intention whatsoever to ever show them to anybody, or if they were taken purely by accident, or on timer, or by other convoluted means without even a human photographer to hold accountable for the presence of envisionment in the medium. Certainly, if nothing else, the scale – the all-too-human depth and frame of sight – is simply inertial in the media, which exists to be processed, as photograph, by a conceptual perception that will, it seems in advance, almost certainly be soulful, since cockroaches and stones, to take rival examples of possible alternative, anti-psychical audiences, have, to put it politely, a vastly different “attitude” toward the captured moments of photography – which is why photography, and the art critic, however sweeping their respective objectivity in regards to what they see, cannot but churn out some humanimal-shaped vision from the captured universe, which proceeds to bob there like a brain, or a turd – either way organically – in a vat.
—-From this angle, then, one can begin to understand why it is that Salerno inflicts damage upon the materials he assembles to photograph –which are themselves prior, independent images, torn, creased, scratched, peeled, stained and attacked with scribbling marker – at the same time as this damage always remains underneath the final photograph, which is kept clean and unassailed, fully conspirational in the clarity of the final presentation, offered to us, modestly but unapologetically, as art. Unmistakably, as with the children these images depict, we are meant to see this untouched outer frame as a divider, the precipice of a prison (and a prism) that sets us at a distance from the debris the photos symbolically relate to a wreckage attendant upon our continuous sense of habitation in a dangerously developing form. It impresses that debris upon us, therefore, not ventrally or viscerally, but through a lens, hidden in plain sight, that insists that our gaze upon this trauma is treated by a mediating frame that isn’t merely a buffer but rather, without us immediately knowing it, is observed by our eyes in advance. We are looking at it even as we look through it at the images that are there. The point being not the matter of alienation-through-mediation – itself passé – but the materialization of mediation as the sight we see through. For the thing Salerno reaches for, again and again – and here that touch of mawkishness returns, but with far darker implications – is nothing less than the arrival among his audience of a future that would have arrived in time to prevent it, a foresight which would have supplied us, like Neverland, with the clear mind’s eye to make the propitious decision to have ended it early enough, to have never grown old. Put more plainly, in their direction of our attention to the substantiality of the substance of sight, what these photos are about in structure is also what they are about in theme: namely, the melancholic optics that are tucked within the folds of adult suicidality and how the only thing that can really satisfy its craving – the craving, that is, of the melancholia and not of the suicidality, which are two different things – is the death of one’s self as a child. Rephrased differently, these photos are about how the desire to die like an adult is not automatically the same thing as dying as an adult. Too often, the thought of self-cessation – even if carried through to conclusion, later in life – falls short not of a perfectly valid resolution – suicide – but of a hoped for melancholic closure that attends closely upon its sufficiency and rigour, the desire for a passage out of melancholy and into mourning, for an autocide, since no matter how promptly you do commit suicide, it always comes on too late. The damage, that is to say, has all-too-humanly developed, is irretrievably done, and cannot be terminated. After all, you exist. And, for some, this insight irrevocably prevents an absolutely necessary suicide from ever taking place while, for others, it allows no other response, irregardless of its definite necessity. Suicide, in other words, is utterly reasonable, no matter the circumstances, but not, thereby, autonomously reasoned, as though its circumstantiality were not to be. For, indeed, what person who has well and truly experienced the desire to end their tormented life in a persistent way and, as follows, has had to then either face utter decimation at their baffling incapacity to carry their suicide out, notwithstanding how bad it all is, or, alternatively, to swallow the mortifying discovery they do, indeed, have the ability to end their own lives, notwithstanding how bad it all is, that there is no compulsion or grounds for them to wait for the miracle in which it gets better – what person, in these circumstances, does not wish, idly or secretly – or, if they are of a different temperament, at their most relentless and scrupulous, but with the same lack of results – that they could somehow transpose themselves back through time to pre-empt the impasse or the inevitable ahead of time, to un-universe the future, not so as to reverse it but so as to pre-empt it before its impossibility arrived as something that is? Who has not wished to end it all truly prematurely, that is to say, to cancel it in advance, a-priorily, not beforehand exactly, in a time when they were innocent, no, never that, but, proleptically, in a time when they were incipient, yes, initial, before all this damage. That time back then, as a child.
—-Salerno’s photos, in this respect, are a kind of Monkey’s Paw in the shape of a heartfelt, precocious gift to a fantasy of the anterior, of any such prevenience, an invitation to speculate upon the anachronism always already attendant upon one’s overbearing sense of interior disaster, especially in its intimate connection to the nostalgic prochronism tucked into its most raw and unforgiving demands. It is at precisely this point, however, that one should make a key qualification. For while Salerno’s photography is clearly on the side of the bleak, partaking of the energies and attitudes of interior disasterscape, and must be understood resolutely in these terms, it is also, just as clearly, not at all misanthropic – or, to be even more exact, not at all in line with a homesickened superego’s vindictive distaste for itself and others. Pitiless in its truest sense, through its very capacity to feel, these photos contain, nonetheless, not a trace of cruelty or hate, and even, in a seductive way, some warmth. Yet how is it, we might be brought to wonder, that a photographic sequence that thinks scars so thoroughly that it can lead a viewer onward to the scandalous prospect of looking upon the death of themselves as a child as the only ethical act that ever mattered (and one which they conclusively failed) could also, simultaneously, be entirely free of revulsion toward the rude health of its subjects – could even be, actually, kind of in love with them? How can the wounds inflicted by the artist not come across as pious acts of malice against a compilation of cherubic provocations that ought, by rights, to drive us to ungodly despair, unless Salerno thinks his art makes him somehow exempt from the living deadness it delineates, unless he believes it somehow frees him, and therefore fails us? Perhaps, though, the question answers itself in that the spectre of such utter inadequacy stood in the presence of such subtle adoration outlines the highly moralizing abasement before human dignity that hating these child-models would really entail. In any event, it is not that Salerno finds the violated child-image-model he has crafted ideal and thereby aesthetically salving for himself – in a sort of atheist amor fati – since, as noted, the damage he does to their bodies does not reach through to the final photographic still he takes himself, which remains picture perfect, and holds within it the barrier between identification and ontology – which is also an identification with the absence of identification with ontology – that acts as the very grounds of the accusal. Besides, what defacements there are, anyway, are clearly signalled, by the sequence, to be the work of adult traumas, trussed up as natural forces, projected into the past as the fountain of their development. And this is an alibi for which Salerno has no sympathy, as his fastidious enjambment of the lure and juice of the sexuality of children at risk of harm in our future-fucking culture all too amply shows and tells.
—-The conundrum can maybe best be addressed, ultimately, by looking at the other main feature of this particular work: specifically, the cracked-and-broken designer bourgeois houses. Possibly the most stunning thing about this sequence is the way its symbol-heavy surface story – the trauma of children at the destruction of their luxurious childhood dwellings by the blind rage of a storm – becomes, on closer appraisal, a story about the destruction of the homes by the tornado that rages out of the unblinded minds of the traumatically untraumatised children. Note, in this respect, that the opening shot of this sequence is not a photo of the storm or the houses but is simply an emotional portrait – of a boy, hands to mouth in realization (though with his visible eye scraped out), looked upon by the lens from the side. Less gentrified Gummo than acclimatized Carrie, the houses, viewed this way, would not only be the ruins they are because of the horror attendant upon an inability to ever close out childish insecurity, a Götterdämmerung inflicted by the prospect of a true arbitrariness of impersonal disaster that unifies hysterics at the prospect of child-like susceptibility with the very substance of adulthood subjectivity, but, more crucially, would be monuments to an erstwhile adjustedness devastated by the violent and quite “mature” securitization measures unleashed by the ineradicable possibility of a malfunctioning in the perfectly ordinary adult-eration of the young. This, obliquely, brings us back to the point at which we started: with the clinging doubt over the capacity of photography (and, by analogy, critical analysis) to move us beyond the reality effect of an indisposable humanity, which it contagiously introduces into all things. The philosopher and aphorist, Emil Cioran, once wrote, in regards to fellow feeling, “If I detest man, I could not say with the same ease: I detest the human being, for in spite of everything there is something more, something enigmatic and engaging in that word being which suggests qualities alien to the idea of man.” The reason why there is no trace of misanthropy to be found in Scars – or in any other instance of Salerno’s art – I’d wager, is precisely because of his signally grown-up comprehension of the moralistic puerility of adult maturity – of which misanthropy is not the cure but the most advanced symptom – a comprehension which propels Salerno toward the more radical decision to overturn the link between maturity and Enlightenment itself, as that which serves as the very basis for the metaphysics within which the human frame has come to gain such a permanent hold over our being. For this other being of which Cioran speaks – which he rightly, though not quite intentionally, pits, in gendered terms, against that superciliously phallic gibberer we’ve inherited as ‘man’ – marks out something much more than a universal humanity or a developmental escape. It opens on to a type of xenomorphic mal-development, a living of the human body – brain inclusive – on the outside of itself, amidst the outside of itself, which is exactly why, for Salerno, the only suitable subjects for his work are children (and, again, not infants or babies, which, for all their seeming “alienness” to subjective capacities and dimensions, such as language or liability, that seem to define humans as miraculously special cases of existence, are nevertheless implausibly drenched in what Artaud, above, dubs the ‘double nature’ and ‘singular prestige’ that combines so readily to compress the hieroglyphic figures of reality into the special theatre of humanity).
—-Along these lines, if one looks to the final two photos of this sequence, one finds the cycle breaking off from its overt narrative of trauma and wreckage to bring to the fore another thread that has consistently, but more quietly, run through it, in the form of black and white stills of children in lone, blurry environments. In their more numinous quality of photographic development, these photos can be seen to stand in a different frame of reality from the other images, even as they, nonetheless, remain fully related to the others, as though they were their impossible negatives. Here, too, in these sub-images, scars are present: faces erased, mouths spewing blemishes, eyes weeping marker like mascara, a set of zip stitches slashed across a chest as though a surgeon had performed on one little urchin and taken the heart. Such assaults are all in line with the more prominent sequence of photos but, as presented here, are also subtly different. With their spooky lustrousness and indistinct emptiness, with their limpidity and absence of collage, a certain sumptuous starkness is achieved in these pictures, like the kids are the living dead burning in a black and white hell, but fine for it, as with demons, to which they are visually closer, for this is truly their habitat. Glimpsed here is the being to which Cioran gestures, that intrigues and engages not because it entails yet another means for fallaciously finding life so believingly worth living nor because it sets humanity on equal footing as a being among beings and thus shows its flat correlation to all things, a speck of stardust in a faultless little cosmos, darling little sprites, the fruit of some philosophical equality that lasts only as long as you care to indulge in a boutique humility toward it, but because it insists upon the uncompromising priority of a series of ulterior headless powers of existence – entirely unsupernatural yet utterly extraterrestrial, as real as red sand – which are obdurately lived out, detached, often unhinged, around, overhead, under and inside us, in liaison with our facticity, unabridgeably, for the course of our natural lives, and not after. These “true hieroglyphs” are what Salerno detects in his abused angels, who – never innocent but better, subdulcidly misbehaved – refuse the project of domestication, vulnerabilization and traumatization that is set out not only by the socially conscientious development of human adulthood but, also, by the anti-socially melancholic development of a relieving “perspective” upon the ultimate character to be gained out of the abusiveness of such a development, an approach which seems more stoic and sophisticated, perhaps, which certainly helps one take the lead in regard to one’s suffering self – the difference between adult and child – but which is all the more deluded for it. In this manner, then, beyond the damage done to their images, the children of Michael Salerno’s photography are themselves the disfigurements the sequence is named after, allegorically seen. Like sculpture, these manufactured artefacts of rubbled reality are their own unconditionals, cutting sharply through life. They dwell in the position of an unforgivable witness. And they scar because they cannot be grown out.
(Michael Salerno’s images can be seen in the new issue of Dust Magazine)
The book: Childhood
The trailer: Childhood
p.s. Hey. I thought I would restore this year’s-old post by the brilliant writer and thinker, etc. David Rylance — better known around this place back when he haunted it as Slatted Light — dedicated to the just as (but differently) brilliant artist/filmmaker/publisher/etc. Michael Salerno — better known herein as Kiddiepunk. And there’s your weekend. I’m in London but soon to head back to Paris, which is why I’m not live today. I won’t be live on Monday either because, as I mentioned yesterday, I have an early morning meeting. So the blog will see you on Monday, and the blog and I will see you on Tuesday.