The Black Box
In Nicolai Howalt's twin images, boys on the brink of adolescence regard me with strange stares. They are all wearing sports outfits of various colors; some have a very serious and committed look in their eyes. It is hard to figure out at first what they are doing. Each portrait has been photographed against a white background, with no apparent variation in lighting and no other surrounding objects which might distract the attention, just like in the classic clutter-free portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, or Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1875), who preferred to focus on the face itself. What are the boys doing in the clean, sharp and apparently unemotional stereo images? We clearly recognize the physical bodies, but there is a nagging feeling that there might be something beyond that.
Any system is like a black box: we know the entry point and the exit point, but what is in between has to be figured out by feedback. The two images we see represent the entry and exit points, and a closer look may allow us to define the equation by which the system works. The difference between the two very similar photographs is clear: the one on the left is always cleaner, with a look which is hard to define, at times fear, at others defiance, while the right one may have drips of blood, or a body language that can be interpreted to reveal a modified emotional state. Some characters wear boxing gloves. Little scars are present, blood stains, or maybe simply just a different curvature of the eyebrows; more often then not, the only apparent difference consists in the physical signs left on the body. One has to wonder what is going on with them, because a neutral expression of the portrayed has been successfully aimed at.
The title of the series, "The Boxer", is not simply a label, but is derived from the feedback of the small details like the boxing gloves, to decode the systemic meaning. In fact, it is the equation which describes the process going on inside the black box: all the characters are an embodiment of the boxer himself, the man that enters the scene ready to fight. Only this time there is no man, but aspiring pugilists, prepubescent, who obviously still preserve the idealism which most of us feel we lost along the way. They do not have the permanents scars, broken cartilages and flattened noses of professional fighters yet, but instead have a sweetness, innocence and freshness pervasive in the apparently objective image, and tremendously moving. It is an innocence that will never be recuperated, because it belongs to a period which is almost as a time bubble, that can be remembered but never fully reactivated, because it has to do with the personal past, in other words with a history charted by obscure fragments of memories. We can always mimic that kind of bravery later in life, we can always pretend that it is still there, but the raw feeling will never exist in the same form again. It is replaced by an understanding of life which may not be tremendously different, or it may branch out from that primordial innocence, but can never be fully equivalated to it.
Nicolai Howalt provides us with a very intimate look into a world which for most of us might be just a faint memory. It is a universe of phantasms, of wet dreams and concern for details which might seem menial to the adult world, of menial fears without echo and undefined frustrations; it is a universe where violence is not an aim in itself but more often the closest instinctual outlet for repressed sexual feelings. These feelings have no precise target or sometimes are not defined at all, but they exist in a marshland of emotions and attempt definition and clarification at an intuitive stage. Instead of choosing the solitary way, the characters in Howalt's images choose the institutional, ritualized option that places them into an environment which helps shape them, by providing a set of rules and a request for inner discipline. Boxing is more than any other sport a proof of personal power, and the most important part is that the fight in itself contains in nuce the possibility of defeat, and just accepting the challenge may be enough.
This powerful body of work, even more disturbing because it contains no clear signs of violence, breaks the patterns of what the consumer society wants to make us believe teenage boys should be in the made-up world of advertising cleanness one can see in TV commercials or upon visiting Disneyworld. It is the uniform McDonalds world, where everything comes pre-packaged and where individual emotions tend to be standardized to further mass comfort. Howalt's characters are not the antiseptic creatures in the ads: they are individuals ready to assert themselves, even though sometimes subconsciously, who have taken a step towards the masculinity ideal as it is presented daily through an interrupted stream of redundant information. Some of them may purge anger by playing violent games over the internet, by themselves or networked with hundreds of other unknown players all over the world, who feed from the same emotional pool. In spite of all this, physical contact is still tremendously important for a child to be shaped as an individual, and it is a self-confidence builder one can hardly compete with. "The Boxer" represents, more than anything else, a quest for identity and for finding oneself in the relationship with the other, and if this means putting oneself out there and risking physical damage, it is a price worth paying in this powerful rite of passage. In certain respects, such as the artist's objectivity, Howalt's images evoke the work of August Sander (his project, started in 1910, was to produce a catalogue of representative types in German society), only this time a category is created from individual representations.
It is obvious that Howalt aimed for a neutral expression of the portrayed. The main reason is that his work is not descriptive in itself, in spite of its appearance, but it is rather about personal expectations, consequences and shaping, about a unique, timeless passage between one stage and the other, instead of about portraying pre-adolescents. It is about establishing a sense of identity during a transitional age and about the formative aspects that either victory or defeat can have. His subjects are boys who aim to live up to cultural fetishes about masculinity, reinforced by the daily advertising image from glossy magazines or billboards, by newscasts and reality shows, and it is clear that in their fights they risk a lot more than a scar. We live though in a world which glorifies violence, but does not want to deal with its by-products or residues. Ultimately, violence is looked upon as just another product that sells, like sex, and it is of little importance what the actor really thinks. What is important is the willingness to exhibit or maybe just mimic the raw emotions, to package them well instead of actually living through the process. And when everybody is role-playing, authenticity such as one can find here is scarce. Inside the black box, the transfer of violence takes place uninterruptedly, and its cathartic role in the growth process becomes paramount.
Howalt's process invokes the unmanipulated photography of masters such as Alfred Stieglitz or Ansel Adams. But in the same time, his characters are alienating in their solitude, reminding in a strange way of the eerie images of Concorde planes by Wolfgang Tillmans. The only solution for us to relate to them is to understand that the technique purposefully puts a distance between the viewer and the viewed and as we are pushed away, we are also forced to understand that the apparent end result is not important at all in this world. What is important is being open and strong enough to go through the process, to face the inherent possibility of defeat and to be able to go through it. In other words, to figure out the equation that creates this world.
(c) Dana Altman
New York, September 2004