Doing Things

Posted in Uncategorized by Joachim Schmid on April 7, 2015

Jan van der Til’s Book IV

The first thing I saw by Jan van der Til was a presentation of Book III. This book is a substantial block of office paper, consisting of 250 folded A3 sheets, each of them holding a few loose A4 sheets, black and white inkjet prints depicting plants or gardening activities. The sequence of pages does not matter, it may be different in every copy of the book. It comes as a shrink-wrapped stack of paper, no cover, no binding, no ISBN, no bullshit.

I think it’s an interesting selection of photographs because I found it interesting without being interested in gardening, at all. But looking at the photographs you start thinking about gardening and the ideas behind gardening, and I think that’s because taking the photos out of context and presenting them in such an unusual but clear and simple way creates a new form of attention. The photographs are no longer instrumental but at the same time they do not lose their reference to the remote subject they were originally linked to. They don’t tell us any more how to put seeds into soil or how to crop an apple tree but they make us think about the ideas and principles of gardening.
Before Book III there were Book I and Book II, now Book IV and Book V are in the works. Simple and clear. The books are related but each one has its distinct features.

The source material for Book IV are „How to“ books, illustrated manuals for people who want to know how to do things. These books explain and show how to braid hair, how to make a pot, how to fill a hole, how to wash a horse, how to break a plate, how to dry a herring, how to clean one’s teeth, how to fillet a piglet, how to paint a wicker chair, how to fold a sheet of paper, how to stick a sausage into a slice of pineapple, or how to kick someone in the groin if need be. Terribly interesting things. If you don’t think so, have a look at the photos nevertheless.

These photographs are meant to be instructive, they are meant to be as clear as possible, they are carefully staged and composed for this reason, but without their captions and taken out of context things are not so clear any more, the pictures take on a life of their own. Hands turn into actors and things become enigmatic props in a series of inscrutable plays. For the uninvolved viewer the main issue may soon be a minor point while peripheral details become the focus of attention.

Let’s have a look at the picture of two hands with a brush and a dozen sardines for example. Someone must have had the desire to show other people how to dye dead sardines. We don’t know who and what and why, but we learn there are people who do such things, people who are knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise. If you’re not really into dyeing dead fish you may start to look at the image in a different way. It does make sense to cover your desk with an old newspaper when dyeing fish but the photographer probably did not reckon that some viewers may focus on yesterday’s headlines rather than on the fish. Trying to read them you nearly forget to wonder why on earth anyone would want to dye dead fish. Great picture by the way, never photograph dead fish without flash.

Now look at the other pictures. There are hundreds of them, and each one proposes questions and triggers imagination. Quite often we simply don’t know and anyone’s guess is as good as any other one’s guess. These photographs open a door to an universe of human action most of us had no idea it existed. They seem to be made by an unknown twin of the Hubble space telescope, but its perspective is inverted. We are looking at and wondering about our fellow human beings and about ourselves, and we discover aliens.

As I am writing this, Book IV exists as a blog. Things may be different when you read this. Check for up to date information.

Joachim Schmid
February 2015

Abbreviated version published in ELSE No. 9.