Collision: Confrontational Impulses in the Works of Nicolai Howalt
by Torben Sangild
The collision when you walk into a door. The collision when galaxies clash over millions of years. The collision when centrifuged protons are hurled against each other in a fraction of a millisecond. The collision when you bump into an old friend on the street. The collision of destruction, disaster and war. But also the collision that sparks a new thought, a new expression, a new complex feeling.
When two bodies collide there can be four different consequences: one of the bodies is damaged, the other body is damaged, both bodies are damaged, or neither body is damaged. The outcome depends on the size, speed, shape and material of the bodies. A small body can do serious damage to a large body if it has the right shape and is fired at high speed. A bullet that hits a living being, penetrates the skin and enters the flesh is a collision even though we rarely think of it as such because it is the body that suffers and because we only empathise with the body – not the bullet.
The archetype of a collision is something else – when both bodies move towards each other and both are damaged. That is what we usually think of when we hear the word collision, as if there is no real collision if one body unilaterally uses force on the other.
The Danish word for collision is ‘sammenstød’ – the word the artist Nicolai Howalt has chosen as the title of his exhibition in Denmark. In English the word can be translated as ‘collision’, but also ‘clash’ and ‘crash’. And whilst collision is more physical, clash is often an immaterial conflict between individuals, digital data, or civilisations. ‘Crash’ on the other hand is a word that can be seen to refer not so much to the collision itself, but to its consequences. The destruction and the sound of destruction. An onomatopoeic echo of something sizeable being smashed.
The Danish word ‘sammenstød’ is, in itself, a collision - if you pull it apart. The first part, ‘sammen’, means together, gathered - close. Whereas the second part ‘stød’ (punch/blow/shock) moves in the opposite direction, repelling and breaking the closeness. Uniting the two in the Danish word for collision – sammen + stød = sammenstød – juxtaposes sudden proximity with the damage it causes. The closeness is too accelerated to be intimacy. It becomes – instead – violence.
That collision can be seen as a theme in the works of Nicolai Howalt is not the result of a conscious strategy. It is only in retrospect that it starts to emerge, and even then not as something essential but rather as a force running throughout his oeuvre, more strongly in some works than others. There are undoubtedly other perspectives from which to see his art, but collision is a fruitful point of departure and point of entry to the works – especially the works in Car Crash Studies and Boxer. The images collide, the boxers collide, people, things and states clash. And in Howalt’s works familiar categories also clash and collide: beauty and barbarity, the ordinary and the exceptional, aesthetics and realism, masculinity and vulnerability, hardening and opening.
Car Crash Studies I – Between Beauty and Destruction
[Image: Abstraction #1)
At first glance it looks like an abstract painting. Or maybe a landscape of glaciers crashing down on the reddish brown earth.
But it is actually a large detail of a totalled car with the white paintwork partially stripped away and where the reddish brown could be rust, but also dried blood. It is simultaneously beautiful and appalling, the result of a violent crash totalling the car. The detail is all we see. We know nothing about the car or the accident.
Seen from the outside cars are smooth, hard and robust – far removed from human skin. The paintwork is an untroubled, superficial surface, also when it is destroyed. There are no symbolic cracks to depths below, just more, rougher layers of metal. Still, in the midst of all this cool smoothness there is something reminiscent of vulnerability.
The scratches on the car evoke memories of wounds on a body and the body’s vulnerability. Not only as a parallel but also as an extension – the car as an extension of our body, a potent prosthesis enabling us to move at high speed with just a few carefully coordinated movements.
The vulnerability is real. The car is not only a means of transport but also a death trap – a killing machine. No matter how careful and alert, the driver is always dependent on other drivers being just as responsible. And even though experience tells you that they are not, as a driver you have to repress that knowledge and throw yourself into the traffic in the hope that everything will be all right.
When it does go wrong it is almost always unexpected. The traffic accident hits like a sudden fatality in the midst of everyday life. In Howalt’s interiors of cars there are traces of this daily life, and it is these elements that make the strongest impression: a cup stand, a cigarette butt or a shoe. They are, in all their banality, more alarming than the few traces of blood because they are evidence of life lived - traces of ordinary activities. It is this contrast between the ordinary and the horror of the accident that generates the tension in the interior shots.
Whereas the exterior images are abstract, the interior shots are concrete. We are on the backseat of a very real car looking at the devastation and the very specific traces of the people who drove the car. We come closer to the accident itself, but not so close that the story is told. The concrete realism is limited and relative – kept at a distance.
So we are dealing with three sets of opposites in Car Crash Studies:
Beauty versus atrocity in the abstract images.
Everyday life versus its violent interruption in the interior shots.
The abstract versus the concrete in the abstract and the interior images respectively.
Both A and B are dialectically opposed: there are points where the contrasts meet, and where the one reinforces the other instead of reducing it. The dialectic of A is that the beauty vibrates in its clash with the violence. The beauty is not reduced. On the contrary it has more edge, becomes more beautiful in some ways - or at least deeper. The dialectic of B is that the horrifying exception is accentuated by the traces of everyday banality left in its tracks.
The third contrast (C) between the abstract and the specific is not really dialectical, but stands more as a choice between two aesthetic and artistic traditions: aesthetic abstraction and realist documentation. Although they are not separate and distinct: the aesthetic/abstract images are genuine documentary photographs, and the interior shots are aesthetically staged.
Warhol’s Mediated Catastrophes
In the early 1960s Andy Warhol made his ‘Disaster Paintings’. Most of the images were of real-life traffic accidents, with flung and crushed bodies. The works were silkscreen paintings with a single image repeated in different patterns on coloured canvasses.
Plastering the canvas with crash victims has an element of cynicism, but it is important to emphasise that the original images Warhol used were from news archives - that it is this mediation that is the real subject of Warhol’s images. The real cynicism is the cynicism of the media in using the images, and our own voyeuristic consumption of them. Warhol’s images combine detached registration of this with elements of ritualised grieving, like the diptychs with black monochromes on one side.
Footnote: For an analysis of Warhol’s Disaster Paintings see Chapter 2 of Torben Sangild’s Objektiv sensibilitet (Multivers, Copenhagen, 2010)
Car Crash Studies II
Nicolai Howalt’s images differ from Warhol’s on several fronts. The images are his own, not the media’s. The photographs are also far more aestheticized than the press photos Warhol uses. And, perhaps most importantly, whilst Warhol’s images show the victims of the accidents they are markedly absent from Howalt’s works. We know nothing about the accident, and neither did the artist when taking the photographs in a scrap yard over a period of three years. Yet still they share an element of cynicism with Warhol: making the tragedies of others’ lives into aesthetic material, and in Howalt’s case even finding beauty in it. As aspect of the works that points towards the precarious relationship between aesthetics and ethics.
Howalt’s images are memento mori: reminders that death strikes when we least expect it. Yet at the same time they play on the seduction that makes us accessories to the crime through our fascination. The exterior shots are smooth, almost sensual fetishist abstractions.
Crash and the Car Accident as Sexual Fetish
[Image: Film still]
J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) takes this kind of fetishism to the extreme, with characters that are sexually aroused by car crashes and especially by the combination of car crashes and celebrity. The book opens with the main character Vaughan’s planned suicide in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. Before the crash itself, he arranges the re-enactment of fatal celebrity traffic accidents with real stuntmen and cars for an audience of people who share his sexual fetish, including the narrator who has the same name as the book’s author.
The book is a bleak, misanthropic satire on the desire we base on celebrity and sensation: of contemporary numbness and sexual fetishism. The perversion knows no bounds. One sex act includes the penetration of a wound in a woman’s thigh rather than vaginal penetration.
It is a nauseating read, and David Cronenberg’s film version from 1996 is no less nauseating - despite the omission of the worst scenes from the novel. The film is closer to Howalt’s medium, with a strong focus on the smooth yet dented visual surface.
At the beginning of the film James is involved in a head-on collision with a couple in a car. The man is killed, but the woman survives. She caresses the wrecked car at the precise point of impact. Her glove is the same colour as the paintwork. James buys an identical car and starts an affair with the woman.
After Vaughan and two assistants have re-enacted James Dean’s fatal crash in front of an enthusiastic audience, there is complete silence. Nobody knows whether the participants have survived. Instead of seeing them, we see the side of the beautiful, white car: the shining paintwork surrounded by smoke from the engine.
Later in the film the main characters drive slowly past a multiple car crash. The survivors are still there, dead bodies are being driven away or cut free from the wreckage. Vaughan photographs excitedly, declaring ‘This is a work of art!’.
Car Crash Studies III
Is Nicolai Howalt like Vaughan when he takes photographs of crashed cars and examines their aesthetic, seductive qualities? Despite obvious parallels, the answer has to be no. By removing the wrecks from the context of the accident Howalt’s focus is different. There is no desire based on and aroused by death, injuries and disaster. The accidents are horrifying, and it is this fear mixed with fascination that Howalt confronts us with.
They are so silent, Howalt’s Car Crash Studies. The hush of the cabin can almost be felt. The only sound is your own breathing, your own heartbeat. Just like the silence that falls when crashed cars are stopped on their path of destruction, when they just lie and rest. A hush like the silence of death, after the last audible breath.
The three sets of opposites in Howalt’s Car Crash Studies named above are not vague or diffuse. They are sharp, precise collisions that vibrate at numerous levels due to the dialectics and tension. This sensitive and brutal subject is dealt with in such a way that the direct confrontation is never offensive. Here Howalt’s intuition is striking.
Boxer I – Between Hardening and Vulnerability
We see a series of young men, two images of each. A before and an after shot. Something has happened in between the two photographs. The boys have entered the boxing ring and clashed with an opponent. Their face and body have met repeated blows, and their fists have dealt out just as many. We witness nothing of this drama. We only see its traces on their faces. Something happened in between, and we are left guessing exactly what. All we know is that it was a boxing match.
Howalt has not chosen to focus on the most dramatic changes – blood, wounds, broken noses and split lips. These there are very few of. Instead it is the more subtle differences that come to the fore.
All of them are redder in the face and sweatier. That is the most banal result. More interesting is the way many of the ‘after shots’ possess a sense of openness and relaxation, as opposed to the tension of the portraits before the match. The tension has been released, they have experienced a physical climax, and they seem mellower, even though half of them must have lost the match. If you ignore the bumps and scratches they could just as well have had an orgasm.
The openness is sometimes very physical: the eyes are no longer narrowed, the mouth no longer clamped shut. The mouth opens, and the eyes too. Boxing is first and foremost a fight, but it is also a kind of brutal massage. Hence the relaxation.
The physical collision of bodies is also the subject of the work of another contemporary photographer, Harri Pälviranta (FI), whose series Battered shows young people who have been beaten up or in fights in Helsinki by night. Pälviranta’s focus is the blood, the injuries, the black eyes and the split lips, plus to a certain extent the psychological state of his subjects. But even through Pälviranta’s theme is related to Howalt’s there are many oppositions. In Pälviranta’s images the violence people are subjected to is usually involuntary – there is a victim of the violence. The images are also snapshot-like, and very diverse.
In Boxer Howalt’s visual formalism makes the work more detached, more tight, more sequential. All the boys stand in the same position in front of the same neutral background. They images remind us of passport photos or mugshots, the sole purpose of which is identification. ID photographs are per definition distanced, and by borrowing their aesthetics Howalt goes against the tradition of the empathic portrait.
The boxers all stand without making faces and without being able to strike the pose they want to most – the classical boxer pose with one foot forward and fists in front of the body - simultaneous defence and attack. If they had this posture, the images would represent something very different. Here the boxers stand with their legs together and their arms at their sides, something that also influences their facial expressions in the images where only their faces can be seen. [Footnote: In an earlier series and the book Boxer many of the photographs of the boys are half and full-figure]. A discrete sense of vulnerability or sensitivity is created.
There is an overwhelmingly large number of faces in Boxer. First you meet a wall of uniform images, then you focus on the individual portraits that draw your attention and start to notice the differences between them.
Howalt’s boxers are amateurs, and most of them beginners. They have little experience of real fights, and the tension of the before shots is largely generated by their nervousness. They are about to enter the ring alone to meet their opponent. Some of them for the very first time. Here the match can be seen as a kind of rite of passage, something that will change them forever. But in the images themselves the first-timers are the ones that change least. Like Boxer #, who may have a hint of hardness in his eyes, but otherwise seems unchanged. Or Boxer #, who looks almost identical before and after.
Even though the début must be something special, the feeling of a rite of passage pervades all the images and all the boxing matches, regardless of whether the boxers win or lose, take a beating or emerge virtually unscathed. The very act of entering the ring for a real fight, clashing with an opponent, is a ritual and laden with masculine codes.
Hemingway and Boxing as Hardening
The experience of boxing is a process of learning and maturation – learning to take the blows without being knocked out, without being afraid, without being shaken. As in Ernest Hemingway’s short story 'The Current', where the protagonist does not like boxing. He hates fighting and being knocked about, and only does it to prove himself to the woman he loves. But he slowly matures, and the fights become less frightening.
Hemingway: "He learned what it was to take punishment, to be hit hard and often. He had his first black eye, and he learned the thrill of the knockout. That feeling comparable to none when the perfectly timed punch crashes home, and the man who has been battering you slips down to the resined canvas floor unconscious." [NB: Sidetal skal præciseres til 204]
[Footnote: Ernest Hemingway, 'The Current' in Peter Griffin: Along With Youth, PUBLISHER Oxford, 1985, pp. 200-209.]
Developing masculinity, the transformation from boy to man, is traditionally seen as a process of hardening – toughening up. Male maturity is defined by being able to get by without giving in: entering an arena of physical demands and danger without showing signs of weakness, without being nervous, without giving up - without a whimper. Many of Hemingway’s works are about men trying to live up to this ideal. But the protagonists are not free of fear, they have just learned to deal with it without losing face. Hemingway’s men are not the unambiguous macho men many have claimed them to be. They are often driven by equal portions of fear and love, conceit and self-delusion. They just learned the rule of silence: if you don’t say it out loud it will probably go away. But it never does. Not really.
Nicolai Howalt’s young boxers experience the collision and are no longer the same. But hardening is not what we see. By avoiding the striking of boxing poses Howalt focuses on their vulnerability. There are no aggressive stares, and rarely hardness in their gaze. We see bodies and faces that have been subjected to the blows of boxing gloves, but we see no traces of the blows they have dealt. The bodies are exposed, the minds vulnerable – at odds with the macho ideals boxing traditionally represents.
This does not mean that they are less masculine, but that they are part of a more complex masculinity with the duality of the tangible hardening of boxing and the unavoidable vulnerability of the flesh. This duality becomes dialectic, where it is the very blows that should harden the boxer that open the face instead.
The Lens of Collision
Looking at Howalt’s images through the lens of collision is very concrete in relationship to his car and boxer works. The theme could be extended more figuratively to his other works, where places collide at almost invisible boundaries ((Borderline, DATE) where hunters meet their kill (How to Hunt, DATE) where a family clashes in conflicts and falls apart (3x1, DATE).
As well as the clashes that take place when cars and boxers collide, Howalt’s images are also a clash between conflicting principles. Seen through the lens of collision, the energy of his works is generated by the meeting of opposites – in itself a collision. A collision that can break rigid categories and through very different aesthetic strategies convey a striking, stringent photographic perception of the reality that surrounds us.