Contemporary Photography from Hungary 2.


Group Mania or the Impossibility to Escape

Viewing Anna Fabricius’s photographs one is tempted to endow the notion of “group” with a meaning that is at once too wide and too narrow. While her earlier series Temporary Company (2003-2004), Room Saints (2004) and Tigresses of Housekeeping (2007) infinitely expand the concept of constructing a group, her later works present organised groups that are perfectly distinguishable in visual terms. That is to say, in a few years her focus has shifted from isolated individuals towards individuals determined by their relationships, thus embedding into visual correlations the question whether groups still exist, and if they do, where.

Confining a group is inseparably connected to how we perceive the individual and how contemporary discourses delineate the relationship of the two. Owing to the changes in the industrial society of the second half of the 20th century and to the phenomena of modern life (including the role of the internet, the emergence of the big city and individualised lifestyle), social groups are not so clear-cut as before, and family, religion, profession or ethnic-national background have ceased to mark the individual’s domain of life. Accordingly, social sciences have shifted their focal points. Sociometry, the ever so popular research method, developed in the 1930’s to map the relationships and structures within (small) groups, has almost entirely been abandoned by now, to be replaced by social network analysis. The 80’s and 90’s brought about a growing interest in cultural problems to the disadvantage of social and economic issues. At the same time, the changes not only concern methods and preferred research themes, but also the foundations of social thought. Reports and studies on the pluralisation and individualisation of lifestyles, the aestheticisation of the life world and the individualisation of biography and career-models have been published in ever greater numbers. These novel descriptions employ “culture” as their central notion, as a means of apprehending this changed social and historical reality.

Sociology, a science that has since its foundation interpreted societies in terms of the nation state, more particularly as self-controlling systems , has come to a point where it needs to face the fact that its subject is becoming ever more difficult to grasp. The model that conceives of society as a spatially confined unit has become unmaintainable in the age of globalisation, just as the categories that are used for describing society. Of course we can still mark out primary and secondary, or formal and informal groups, but the mere fact of belonging to a group is insufficient for describing the surrounding reality or the individual’s identity. However, the question of how to interpret the constantly dissolving and reorganising loose relationships that enmesh an individual’s life in today’s constantly changing, alterable environment is still a valid one.

Going against scientific experiments attempting to define new social formations , several contemporary artists, including Anna Fabricius, undertake to create groups along a single common characteristic, which might be a selected feature, or a personal life story. This way they introduce such new aspects into the exploration of the contemporary life-world that, in addition to crossing categories used to describe groups, cannot be interpreted using the methods of sociology. In the meantime, the arbitrariness of selection reflects on the (already mentioned) phenomenon that the meta-narratives of class and religion, on which earlier life stories were founded, have lost their obligatory nature, as a result of which there is a greater compulsion and a wider horizon for constructing individual identities.
By virtue of a similar life situation or a seemingly identical living space, the members of the Temporary Company (2003-2004) appear as a group to one another, and especially to the viewer, even if this community is rather short-lived. The exaggerated, staged gestures and scenes – although not intentionally – actualize individual and group identity in relation to the given situation, by highlighting similarities and differences. The temporariness of the Temporary Companies is manifested in being organised around one particular event – preparation for a party – while the parallel roles of the participants – traveller, artist, student – are left in the background.

The women portrayed for the Room Saints (2004) series are connected by the appearance, garments and poses that correspond to the iconographic rules of Virgin Mary depictions. Tigresses of Housekeeping (2007) are mothers protecting their children, who, in the midst of activities that correspond to classical female roles, use household utensils as weapons against an invisible enemy. Similar gender and age situations as well as self-definitions related to roles might be conceived of as group and identity-forming options. Although female roles and the image of motherhood have emphasised culture- and society dependent aspects, the identity founded on them depends largely on the individual these days, since it is her who constructs it on the basis of available models, which, in turn, are constructed mosaic-like from various cultural sources, including the media image.

The interpretation of the three mentioned series is fundamentally influenced by the fact that each photograph presents the solitary individual person, while in later works it is exactly “man for himself” who is eclipsed by the collective representation of the selected group. The photographs of the Cavalrymen and Equestrienes (2005) and the Hungarian Standard (2006-2007) series reveal “paradise lost”: fragmented individual existence is replaced by the illusion of a found identity. Apparently everyone is in the right place: what is revealed to us is a complex – and closed – microworld with a division of roles, a system of relations, and an accepted internal hierarchy, where the community gains sense by the individuals forming it. These two series are closely related via the role-play in which everyone takes part with zealotry. Immersion in a single role overwrites the quotidian; however, the moment of ecstasy fails to arrive once we notice that occasionally the artist herself puts on a costume and her figure warns us of the playfulness of identities and the traversability of groups one supposes to have found for good.

Organising elements of the real along predefined aspects is important in revealing the visualized structure in the photographs of Cavalrymen and Equestrienes and the contextualising role of the uniform in the images of Hungarian Standard. And yet what Anna Fabricius does is not bringing order to reality but creating it; a carefully and precisely staged imaginary world is recorded using previous models, archetypes (like the group representations of panel paintings or the tradition of the studio photograph) and stereotypes. The resulting photographs are fictions on the one hand, but may be considered models of reality on the other. Fiction is essential in both artistic and scientific cognition, as well as in laying the foundations of societies and conceptions of the world. At the same time, non-artistic representation endeavours not to reveal, but, conversely, to conceal its own fictionality, in order to endow its interpretations with an illusion of reality. In Anna Fabricius’s case the behaviour that commits to and accepts the photograph’s constructed nature also means a critical approach to documentarism along with issues of representation. From the 70s it has become ever more obvious that since its invention, photography has played a key role in the visual representation of people who are Others in terms of ethnical, mental, sexual or economic qualities – that is: women, non-white races, the demented and the poor. Moreover, photography reinforces social relations extant at the time of exposure in case of those groups that lack the means of self-representation. So, by explicitly revealing the element of fiction, that is, the act of photographing, Anna Fabricius counters the practice of documentary imaging.

In the images of Group “A” (2007) and By Rule (2008), each group is recognizably a collective participant of an event – nevertheless, the entire series lacks coherence. The events exist in themselves, without climaxes and dramaturgical emphases: the narrative is merely referential. Making a difference between event and story, as these two series do, is one of the basic motifs of contemporary literature on identity: life story is constructed by endowing our life situations with meaning. In the age of traversable, mosaically constructed identities the unity and continuity of the self is construed as a coherent story. Similarly, belonging to a group can only exist through stories, or rather through collective memory, and is shaped by participation in interactions and communication processes. If a group membership ends or if the individual becomes the member of a new group, the memories change, the process of remembering is altered. With reality’s changed reference frames the act of remembering is replaced by the act of forgetting.

Anna Fabricius keeps posing the same question: to what extent can the individualised human coexist with the contradictory and fragmented nature of their identity, and what might belonging to a group mean to them – simply a game, or the creation of new self-definitions, and towards what bindings does the eternal desire to belong propel us? We live in an age when we always depart from ourselves, and that is where we return, so it may not be incidental that Anna Fabricius observes and explores situations that are relevant to her in her own environment, sometimes a little provocatively, which further verifies the authenticity of the result.

Judith Csatlós