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The philosopher Martin Buber said, that only by confronting the other, man finally becomes himself. In this confrontation, the I loses its narcissistic structure (by experiencing) friction and resistance. This principle of dialogue is a reoccuring characteristic of Markus Rock’s work.
Ralf Hanselle (in the catalogue for the exhibition ‹Leib›)
Photo: B. Reich
Introduction to Markus Rock’s Photographic Art
Markus Rock’s photographic work centres on the question of what it means to be human in contemporary society. His earlier series show de-contextualised naked female and male bodies floating on black surfaces. The ‹larger than life size› prints confront us with different states of individual being. But they also thematise the universal human longing for intimate and meaningful relationships. The physicality of the human body, the images suggest, is the landscape into which such searches for and struggles over human identity and selfhood – individual and collective – are inscribed.
The ultra-realistic aesthetics of Rock’s photography can be deeply unsettling because the boundary between the body’s reality and its representations is kept open, porous and undefined. The powerful drama of human life is there for us to see and we are inescapably drawn right into it, complicit in the construction of ‹the Other›. The struggles of fellow human beings for dignity and recognition, Rock’s powerful images remind us, are always part of our own.
In his most recent work Rock continues his visual exploration into what it means to be human in today’s world. He is particularly interested in what role material culture plays in who we think we are. Is there a meaning to the physical world that goes beyond its materiality, its mere use value?
Rock is inspired by the old genre of vanitas still-lives which first emerged during the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish culture in the 16th and 17th century. Decorating the parlours of the burgeoning merchant and bourgeois classes such meticulously arranged and amazingly realistic paintings aimed to show off the wealth of the patrons. They also celebrated the then growing stress on worldly accomplishments and human abilities: colourful paintings carefully combined the precious, rare and exceptional produced by the arts and to be found in nature with the pleasures of the mundane: flowers, bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables, books, jewels, golden and silver wine-filled chalices, scientific objects, maps, mirrors, Venetian glass, Chinese porcelain, silver cutlery, Indian cloth and Turkish carpets.
Such opulent paintings were – and still are – a material feast for the eyes. Some of the objects there depicted, however, such as the hourglass and even more importantly the human skull, drove home another profound, if invisible, philosophical message: all is vanity, they reminded the viewer, and thus pointed to the transience and brevity of human life as well as to the shallowness of all human pleasures, of power, beauty and wealth. All material things and personal achievements amassed during your own life time, the painting warned, are insignificant. The essence of your being is your immaterial eternal soul granted to you by God.
Such profound Christian beliefs led the still-live paintings to ooze in symbolism and to depict allegorical compositions in which every element had a deeper, hidden meaning to be deciphered by the pious onlooker. It was only at first sight that a vanitas painting celebrated worldly goods, possessions and human abilities. Their exuberant materiality ultimately aimed to take the viewer beyond the shallow materiality of the physical world onto a spiritual journey to encounter and explore the mysteries of the human condition, and renew one’s faith in the love and power of the Almighty.
The peculiar double-meaning of such early modern paintings radiates a unique aesthetics which inspires Rock’s carefully staged 12 vanitas photographs, all of which are immersed in dark atmosphere. But he gives this old genre a fresh meaning. Each of the pictures juxtaposes a skull with a carefully composed scenery of familiar objects used in our contemporary consumerist culture and many of these compositions carry a significant dose of satire. Arrangements such as the ‹conversation› of the human skull with an empty and seemingly hastily thrown-away bag of crisps or the assembly of battered-looking plastic toys are humorous and even funny. But they don’t make you laugh full-heartedly. One cannot help wondering what it means to be human in our throw-away global consumerist culture.
What are we as humans if all we produce is trash? What is left of the faith in human dignity and unique abilities so cherished by our early modern ancestors if human knowledge today is reduced to quick visual searches on the web to be downloaded by everyone onto a cheap electronic device? Is the human skull still a meaningful reference to human mortality at the time when the cognitive life sciences are promising us to soon be able to unlock the mysterious of eternal life in our brain chemistry? What is left of the earthly pleasures such as delicious foodstuff if consumed in a haste from plastic containers? Does the material world really have no deeper meaning to us than its immediate use value?
Rock’s vanitas images celebrate the pleasures of sight but, simultaneously, they also leave us deeply unsettled: meanings are emptied, plastic consumerism seems to take their place and the shock of a global trash culture lingers in one’s mind. One is left with the old question: who am I in all of this?
Markus Rock’s photos are both brutal and tender at the same time, showing humans as they are. Alone and in relationship. Their impact is not defined by their size. He gives us an opportunity to recognize the real I and the real Other.
Markus Rock – The I and the Other
The human body is, depending on one’s perspective, an object as well as the home of the human subject. Its physical existence poses the boundaries, behind which the subject is protected and imprisoned in a sort of existential isolation. Never will I really be able to feel what another feels, never will I take his place or be fully united with him. He will always remain the Other to me, the unfathomable. Yet, the body is also the means, by which to come into contact with the Other and, at least, in part overcome this loneliness acquired at birth. Because the encounter with the Other envelops me in a cloud of sensual impressions – his voice, his touch, his warmth and smell – which leave emotional traces in me, to be integrated as memories. In this manner, the Other may become part of me and I of the Other and we thus break through our isolation.
Being entered by the Other, however, also presents a danger to me. I cannot completely know, alone control it. Will it hurt me, emotionally or physically, or overwhelm me so that I can only feel and think the Other and no more myself? Caught between my desire for union with the Other and my fear of it, I am facing a fundamental dilemma.
In his current work, Markus Rock looks at this dilemma, the human body and its inherent ambivalence. Rock declines some of the innumerable constellations of this conflict. In his pictures, the bodies appear in a vacuum without context – in their nakedness before the black background – reduced to their physical presence as objects, but in meeting the viewer also as subjects. The lying woman with her eyes closed remains distant and passive, while the men who gaze directly at the camera or decidedly away from it emerge as active subjects. Other figures stay occupied with their bodies as objects or their inner experience – the tattooed man who steps away from the viewer, the woman reaching between her buttocks, and the man holding his head in his hands. In their self-absorption, these figures reveal themselves also as subjects – as sentient, self-aware beings.
In the images of the couples, the encounter with the Other is shown as a constant struggle, which poses the question of power – in the form of penetration, the taking of as possession, the exercise of a force upon the Other – and the question of identity – Who are you? How do you respond to me? How resilient are you; how resilient am I? This struggle is playing out in the conflict between the desire for and the fear of the Other, between intimacy and distance, the fundamental conflict of human relations.
When the figures gaze directly into the camera, entering into eye contact with the viewer, so to speak, we can feel clearly what is present in all the images. Every man experiences himself in his dichotomous existence as self-aware spirit and physical object, as an I and as an Other. Each encounter with another person is the field, where this split is staged anew. As painful as that may be, it remains our only hope.
Here you find a film portrait by Frank Bertram about the work complex «The I and the Other», filmed during the exhibition in Berlin.