Originally designed as the Austrian Pavilion for Expo 58 in Brussels, the 21er Haus relocated to Vienna where it reopened in 2011. Inside it we find the 21er Raum, a space separated from the Haus’s permanent collection galleries by temporary walls mirrored on their outer surfaces (an intervention by the artist Nadim Vardag). In this stark and enclosed gallery space, the young Austrian artist Barbara Kapusta presented ‘They She We Them’ (2013), a series of photographs that focuses on the complex interplay of authenticity and artificiality in self-presentation and relationships.
Equally spaced across the room’s four walls, seven photographs gather 14 women into constructed poses of trios, couples and individuals. The life-sized, unframed images were pinned directly to the wall and hung at eye level: one could potentially lock eyes with Christina, Tanja or Nora. This community of photographs could be subdivided again according to their background lighting: alternately turquoise, pale yellow, deep blue or orange. Tangible information about each individual that might indicate class, occupation or social affiliations was restrained, though the women resemble each other physically: slim, white and close in age, they all wear dark clothes, and each image is tightly cropped to the central figures. Within this minimal aesthetic, the exactness and intention of the models’ subtle body language, interactions and facial expressions are accentuated: a nose brushed on another’s hair, a hand cradling an elbow, a pair of pursed lips, a smirk, a glance out of the picture plane or an inward facing stare.
Kapusta’s images activated the exhibition space both visually and physically through their divisive use of colours, gazes and poses, which formed a framework for multiple and contingent relationships for the viewer to imagine among the women. A kind of cinematic duration emerged while walking among the photos, attempting to weave a sequential narrative from their incomplete fragments. This effect was heightened by titles like … and suddenly someone else also believes in her. Believes that she’ll jump farther than we and then pulls up with her. (Teona and Christina) (2013), which suggest that a melodrama could unfold. But creating convincing characters or scenarios is not Kapusta’s interest – a point that is evident in her use of her friends as her models, a technique that brings to mind director John Cassavetes’ use of non-professionals in his films to blur real people with his fictional characterizations.
Kapusta’s photographs feel highly static, quiet and formally resolved, distilled to the point that the absence of obvious emotion or narrative continuity becomes their subject. In this environment, we’re made acutely aware of the existence of a group and set of social codes, but we are unable to glean enough information to decipher our own position as an outsider or member of the group, nor fully conceive of a homogenous collective from the women photographed.
Between the photos’ visual exactness and the irresolute nature of the models’ postures and relationships to each other lay an intriguing contradiction. Kapusta’s images are made with a digital medium-format camera, providing a potentially endless sequence of capture, review and the most imperceptible adjustments to posture, positioning, glance or attitude. A trace of this backstage studio process – of the photographer and model collaboratively making a photograph – lies in the image’s formal resolve. Their absolute stillness and crisp focus connote these fine adjustments and re-adjustments. Indecisions on how to inhabit a role become metaphoric vibrations or shudders that obscure any complete interpretation and, in the same manoeuvre, detach the visual qualities of digital high-resolution imagery from notions of clarity.
In this space of perpetual motion (or just a faint hypothetical tremble) Kapusta lays bare the continuous and indistinguishable interplay of reality and fiction within self-presentation – a notion that the sociologist Erving Goffman termed ‘impressions management’ and studied as if it were a theatrical performance: an individual’s attempt to control or guide the impression that another person will form of her, by altering her gestures, expressions or manner in order to maintain a given definition of a situation. Rather than revealing any greater depth to her individual characters, or insight into the artist’s own social context, ‘They She We Them’ took us behind the scenes of photographic subjecthood and successfully provoked questions about superficiality and authenticity in both digital image production and social interactions.
First published in Issue 157