SPECTRAL NETWORKS AND POLITICAL ABSTRACTIONS: NEW WORKS BY RAYMOND TAUDIN CHABOT

By Quinn Latimer

Here are the men who run the world, yet who are ostensibly invisible within it. One catches glimpses of them in newspapers or on the television news as they sit on panels in snow-banked chalets in Davos, Switzerland; testify in the fluorescent-lit halls of governmental oversight committees; chair those government committees; run multi-international corporations; run countries. One recognizes them as one might recognize the outline of a figure, yet without the ability to fill in their singular facial features. This is because in an age ostensibly defined by diversity—racial, sexual, economic, geographic—these figures are anachronistically similar: wealthy, white, male, suited, unspectacular, overwhelmingly Western. Such men, and the various economic systems and symbols of their influence, are more often than not the explicit subject of Raymond Taudin Chabot’s impressive body of photographs, films, and artist books. These figures are woven throughout the Dutch artist’s work even when their faces are, as in the real world, occluded. And in an age of the instant digital image and virtual access, this prevailing caste’s relative invisibility is both a very real and an immaterial sort of power—which itself might be the more implicit subject of Taudin Chabot’s oeuvre so far. See his “Henkersmahlzeit” series (2010), for example. These color photographic portraits of suited men could easily be the bland corporate portraiture—studio light, starched collars, expensive ties, unnaturally dark backgrounds—that businesses regularly commission of their highest-standing employees, but for one strange detail: The faces have been obscured. Each visage has been silk-screened over with an egg-shaped color field of a flat, pixilated grid, which magnifies the Caucasian skin tones that define each image. It is as if a Pop-minded Mondrian or Malevich set up shop in the middle of a shareholder’s portrait session. That Taudin Chabot took these starchy portraits of real captains of industry, then laboriously reduced their faces to a caricature of modernist geometric abstraction, is curious, conjuring up a raft of questions and points about his willful veiling. In answering those questions, it might help to look closely at his process. The Amsterdam-based artist very loosely (and perhaps wryly) cast his subjects—which include an executive on the board of a large bank, an influential publisher, and a wealthy Internet entrepreneur, among others—around Jung’s theory of “Psychological Types,” a sardonically sociological comment in and of itself. The images themselves were taken in the psychologically astute style of Nadar, and then were cropped to resemble political headshots. Taudin Chabot first presented them as grids of pasted flyers on city walls—faces uncensored—throughout the streets of Budapest in 2003. This display tactic holds up a kind of politically ambiguous mirror to California artist Robbie Conal’s more satirical “Men With No Lips” portraits of ’80s-era American conservative political luminaries, Ronald Reagan and James Baker among them, which Conal famously wheat-pasted all over Los Angeles in the middle of that decade. After Budapest, however, Taudin Chabot was inspired by the infamous series of self-censored Stalin-era photographs by Alexander Rodchenko to occlude his own subjects’ faces; Rodchenko, of course, began blurring the faces of the numerous political figures in his images as many of them were executed by Stalin's regime, doubling the record of disappearance. The Russian’s anxious formal “purging” made these deaths not just physical but art historical as well. Not quite a palimpsest, Taudin Chabot’s strangely veiled “Henkersmahlzeit” series instead somehow exemplifies Derrida’s idea, borrowed from Heidegger, of sous rature, or “under erasure.” This term roughly describes the writing of a word and then striking it out, but not completely erasing it, so that both word and deletion—its very haunting absence—are inscribed in the text. By inscribing an abstract icon over a figurative face, however, Taudin Chabot is taking this idea of “under erasure” into even deeper waters. To that end, both the political context of Rodchenko’s self-censored photographs and his art historical lineage is potent for conjecture. The aping of the modernist reduction of form and pictorial flatness in Taudin Chabot’s series connects to the twentieth-century formalist trajectory that Rodchenko exemplified (Constructivism, modernist photography and graphic design), and to the politics twined through those movements. It also connects to the current economic landscape—and the contemporaneous politics that determine it—in which the global financial markets are driven as much by immaterial abstractions (derivatives, say) as traditional physical products and production. Thus the concerns of “Henkersmahlzeit” are twinned: The idea of abstraction is understood and explored in both formal, art-historical terms, and in contemporary economic practices. Taudin Chabot reprises this dualistic approach in an even more affecting photographic series from the same year, playfully called “Country Road Casual” (2010)—though here the artist discards his industrial titans for the symbols of the very companies that they run. On first glance, the large-scale photographic prints that comprise the series appear to be the painterly progeny of Constructivist design. Clean, blandly autonomous symbols are centered against flat, graphic backgrounds, conjuring both Frank Stella’s mid-century paintings and John Tremblay’s more recent ones. But another look reveals texture, gradation, dents, even drops of dew stud the grounds. The images are not simply abstractly graphic reductions of form; they are detailed depictions of the logos of transnational transport companies as emblazoned on the sides their huge trucking rigs. The artist took the photographs at night near the Belgian border, at the ubiquitous gas station–adjacent parking lots where truck drivers park and sleep while they’re on the road. Using a medium-format camera and extremely long exposure times, Taudin Chabot’s only light source was the ghastly natrium glow emitted by the attenuated light poles that loom like trees over such parking lots. This garish light coaxes out the worn surfaces of the vehicles: dented, warped, dingy, oily. Against these oddly gestural grounds, the simplistic logos of snakelike parallel lines or overlapping triangles appear at once vaguely sinister and mildly ineffective. The vast scale of the photographs, meanwhile, which are roughly one to one, conjures the absent bodies of the trucks, which one feels like phantom limbs hovering around the images on the wall. Taudin Chabot notes that he got the idea for the “Country Road Casual” series while riding in the passenger seat of a car on the way to a lecture in Belgium. “I realized that we are almost perpetually surrounded by these trucks covered with their tawdry logos,” he says, before adding slyly: “And, yes, I tend to have a liking for common things.” Common, yes, but also—like his obscured businessmen—reliably invisible to our notice. Despite their rote familiarity and uninspired formalism, however, these logos represent the coursing economic networks that circulate through our societies like waterways. The power and pervasiveness of these networks is dully symbolized by the sharp, vectoral shapes that characterize the logos; more emphatically, though, it is represented by the much-worn and maligned metal grounds (the actual semitrucks) atop which the logos are painted. This remarkable series of photographs is loosely related to an earlier series, from 2008, entitled “Silent Queue,” which Taudin Chabot offers as a slide show. As the slide projector begins to hum, projected images of depressingly provisional and impoverished waiting rooms click on and off. Cheap, mismatched chairs and uneven tables sit under maps tacked to yellowing walls. Fluorescent-light fixtures, NO SMOKING signs, and plastic clocks hover at awkward angles over old microwaves and lackluster potted plants. Though it is not at first obvious to the viewer, the slides depict the rooms of clandestine cab companies in London that employ drivers from Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Albania, and India, among other nations. In contrast to the graphic truck logos of “Country Road Casual”, which coolly emphasize the multinational corporation and the transnational shipment of goods via driving, the images in “Silent Queue” depict an ever-less-powerful parallel economy, one where stained maps and worn furniture replace cold corporate iconography, and the goods being transported are simply people. Formally, the stylized images of the logos—large, graphic, cool to the touch—also play counterpoint to the more empathic “photo-documentary” images delivered by means of the humble slide show. Nevertheless, it is interesting to find that the two series—and, in its own way, “Henkersmahlzeit” as well—do indeed intersect. All are strangely devoid of people, those that operate the vehicles and trucks, and those that operate the businesses behind them. This spectral population finally appears en masse in Taudin Chabot’s Archive I (2009), an 18-minute-long digital video that collates newspaper images documenting street protests and revolts, riot police and violence. Here, finally, people are to be found in abundance. The video begins with crowds from demonstrations across the world raising their opens hands or fists in solidarity. Some of the images are immediately familiar, such as the crowds of Iranians decorated in bright green cloth and monks in brilliant orange wraps, from two recent democratic uprisings that were ultimately put down by authoritarian governments in Iran and Myanmar. These images—at once hopeful and depressing—then switch to large sit-ins thronged with people, then to crowds of riot police bedecked in black helmets, batons, and guns, then to protestors and police facing off, then of people being beaten, then of looting. As becomes apparent as the images methodically fill the video monitor, Taudin Chabot has arranged the photographs into groups that feature similar visual signs and cues: hands raised vertically, horizontal bodies bleeding and broken, long waves of riot police. The catalogue of images—in black and white or color, old and new, of protesters in Africa, Europe, or Asia—collectively forms a portrait of injustice, abuse by the state, and the human will to protest. Yet despite Archive I’s formal coherence, the video’s political message and Taudin Chabot’s political mood itself is hard to discern. There is an ambiguity in his collation of these images into formalized groupings that depend on visual codes rather than the individual political events that gave rise to them. The lack of sound, moreover, renders the protesters mute. They are as flat, reduced, and interchangeable as the logos of corporations. Rendered as nothing more than design, the protestors become logos themselves. Like in Taudin Chabot’s photographic series of trucks and business leaders, the newspaper images in Archive I are reduced to their base formal element, stripped of context. This dismantling of narrative (even while it references it) might be explained by Taudin Chabot’s background training in photography—and his constant need to undermine it. As he once noted, “I am primed as a photographer and sometimes I catch myself introducing devices trying to confront or thwart that background.” He has worked with such found imagery before, in both artist books and collated videos like Archive I. This mode of collecting newspaper clippings began simply as a source for his larger artistic practice, then turned into a full-fledged entity, and finally into an end unto itself. A sponsorship from a large media distributor ended up delivering fifteen daily international newspapers to the artist’s studio for two years, during which time he began sorting the images into groups variously labeled “Disasters” or “Man versus Nature.” This was also when he began to concentrate on the “man in the suit” and the public choreography of power that such men participate in as they give speeches, shake hands, exit cars, walk across stages, are photographed alone or in groups. As Taudin Chabot recalls, this mode of working awakened the “social ethnographer” in him. “It allowed me to ‘photograph’ without having to produce pretty pictures or ugly ones, for that matter.” In the end, it is perhaps this complicated relationship to photography that, more than anything else, Taudin Chabot is exploring in his myriad works that mine that medium but are in no way limited by its traditional forms or aims. Photography’s inherently political platform—as a document of “truth” or an advertisement for its opposite—is one that the artist attempts to subvert by deleting or obscuring the attendant contextual paraphernalia that usually accompanies it. This effacement again recalls the idea of sous rature, or “under erasure,” though it not only conjures Rodchenko’s inked-out faces but more contemporary incarnations such as the many graffiti artists who now incorporate the ugly and bald overpainting of their tags by city authorities into their larger work, so that text and graphic monochromes exist side by side. It also evokes the recent work of Jenny Holzer, for which she makes paintings of declassified documents on torture by the American government, which are themselves characterized by long rivers of horizontal black lines—echoing the monochromatic geometry of Suprematist paintings—striking out what is supposedly “unsafe” for the public to read. As in Holzer’s paintings, contemporary politics and modernist abstract aesthetics are tangled in Taudin Chabot’s works such that it is difficult to distinguish where one concern stops and the other begins. Distinguishing his oeuvre, however, is the occlusion of the artist’s own political platform, which remains as elusive and yet all pervasive as the corporate figures and economic networks that he so assiduously tracks. Also setting Taudin Chabot’s work apart from the spate of contemporary artists who destabilize the photographic medium is his very interest in the shadowy economic networks and circulatory systems that determine our world as much as the ever-more public governments. Perhaps it can’t go unremarked upon that the global financial crisis in 2008—and the failing national economies that have followed it—turned Taudin Chabot’s unique body of work suddenly au courant. Who were these blank, entitled men running and ruining our counties? Why were their portraits so rare, so obscured? If his nuanced and studiously subtle works don’t exactly provide the answer, perhaps that is their very point.