Leif Claesson’s moral dilemma.

Images that engender a resistance. Images that upset and engage the viewer. Images that manage to both question established truths and push the arts dialogue in a new direction. Works of art made to enter and change the course of the conversation, demand other strategies than those that merely confirm the status quo.

When we first set eyes on the photographic series Decomposed by Leif Claesson its tempting to quickly pass judgment; to distance ourselves both from the action we think we are witnessing and the story we infer. It takes a while before we realize that all is not as it appears. What triggers the initial reaction, encouraging a simplistic moral statement, is a carefully set trap.

Leif Claesson has, like no other Swedish artist, problematized the everyday. From the moment he chose his subject, it’s been handled with utmost seriousness.

Claesson’s works have changed over time, as he has had to wade through the moral swamp established by documentary photography and bang his head up against its ideologically charged practice. He photographed reality, but it did not come with him to the darkroom. A problem that proved difficult to solve. He has had to find his own strategies, new ways to solve the task he set himself. To show us the outsider’s perspective. Claesson has tried everything, even dressing up wearing the clothes of others. In order to represent another’s existence the artist has indeed pushed himself as far as he was able.

In the work “Decomposed” the focus has shifted, and a new set of questions appear. It is as if his own interior void now functions as a metaphor and a manifestation of the dark depths of human desire. Claesson isn’t so much interested in the excluding mechanics of todays society, as he is in shedding light on moral issues relating to one’s rights to remain outside society. He questions our right to abdicate from societal norms and ask if those who want to exist beyond all moral rules and concepts can still be considered human? Or, is human worth intrinsically linked to the participation in the implicit social agreement?

Can those who utter the words “ I am not one of you” still be considered humans and enjoy the same rights as the rest of us? If the breach has been motivated by social revolutionary motives the answer will probably be yes. But if my desire takes me in a direction that makes me go against all norms and moral conventions and I do this only to satisfy my own desires, what am I then?

The basic concept of the series “Decomposed” is a re-photographing of found images collected by Claesson in some homeless universe. Here moral issues can be seen to enter the story. Claesson gives us access to personal images not made for sharing with an audience. When I see them my thoughts run to questions relating to who is the victim in this case. Images in the form of a collage, created out of cut-outs from pornographic magazines. It is all too easy to see the work as a reproduction of proof. Proof of mans brutal violence against women. To put it simply, viewing these creations is not an uncomplicated act. The collages are based on classic pornographic iconography. Submissive heads tilted backwards, pouting half-opened mouths, faces stained by sperm. But even more troubling perhaps than having to contemplate sperm-flecked faces is the fact that somebody has removed the eyes of all the featured women with a pair of scissors.

This is scarily consistent. Both real and affecting. When I realize that what I see is not an artist’s illustration of the belief that the male gaze objectifies women but rather the personal tool of someone’s desire, I wonder who the victim is?

This is an area more commonly addressed by film and popular culture than by art. An area that touches on the mechanics of male desire rather than showing us its consequences. One example can be found in Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where Dennis Hopper’s character screams “ Don’t you fucking look at me” at Isabella Rossellini’s female counterpart as he tries to satisfy his desires with her help.

What I see then are the results of a desire given free reign. Where omnipotence, a wish to be King in one’s own universe, compels a man to remove all looks that may engender doubt regarding his authority. The removal of  eyes from pornographic pictures in this narrative is less about hating women or even about loving them. It is about creating an illusion of mastery. Those present disturb the desire for absolute power. So, what is a person, so entirely without self-confidence that he cannot face his own reality, to do? He remakes it. He makes it his own.

When then, does fantasy hit the limit, how far can human desire be pushed, when does it become an act that threatens the pervasive order? When does a deed qualify the perpetrator as insane? Claesson does not pose the question: Is that allowed? He incites us, the viewers, to do so. To make a moral judgment. Try and see where you end up. Do use worlds like pervert, crazy person, insane and mental. Then try to combine them with terms like human worth, individuality, rights of man. What Claesson does is return these collages, found and collected, to nature. He sites them within the natural cycle, and in the process defuses the social question. He remakes them as a sublime and lyrical piece of work. A piece beyond moral standpoints. He refashions them into objects of desire, fine art. Perhaps Leif Claesson’s own moral dilemma is located here? Using materials found amidst social misery for his own purpose, taking proofs and creating sublime imagery replete with meaning? Struggling to articulate the validity of this act?

I believe Claesson questions if he can afford to indulge in the whole visual spectra of his medium. Can he permit himself the pleasure of using a beautiful vocabulary, is he allowed to adopt what is aesthetically pleasing to solve his task? Is he allowed to make art?

Personally I don’t think he needs to ask himself these questions again.

Martin Sjoberg    Swedish artist


Decomposed – Moral Statement

Decomposition is the process by which organic substances are broken down into simpler forms of matter. Bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death. Although no two organisms decompose in the same way, they all undergo the same sequential stages of decomposition. This process can be transposed to society and the processes inherent within social space. However, the societal body’s moral and social conventions do not follow predictable patters of decomposition as they are maintained by normative systems

Decomposed is Leif Claesson's third solo-exhibition at the Centre of Photography. After C/O (2000) and Organizing Absence/What are you longing for (2007) Claesson now shows the next installment in his pervasive investigation of norms and boundaries inherent in contemporary society. He takes his starting point, as in the previous work, on the borderline dividing insiders and outsiders in our society, looking at those who exist beyond a conventional existence, yet constitute an unavoidable part of our joint civilization. Its a way of life that works as a sort of mirroring of the normative structures in society, a mirroring that in Claesson’s work sharply points towards exactly that which society is most keen on repressing.

Although societal processes are governed by different codes compared to organic matter there are different procedures at work on the borderline between norms and disintegration. It is within these kinds of breakdowns that it’s possible to observe how the different norms that govern our society are really formulated. Leif Claesson questions precisely these historically constructed norms in his work. His images demand a re-examining of accepted scripts and conventions, normally taken for granted. For instance, how does power balance play out in the images of the women’s faces? Who constitutes the victim in this context, and who is the perpetrator? And what role do we as viewers play, a role that is unavoidably part of the same global market economy that enables us to view human beings like products to be consumed, through the ever-present principle of supply and demand. Whose gaze do we meet in the images, and if we are unable to meet anyone’s gaze, are we not forced to look back at ourselves instead?

Claesson asks unsettling questions that tell us to free ourselves and instead look beyond the primary set of meanings within the images. Questions that problematize how norms and values are constructed, for instance, do they come about from an inferior or superior position? And what sort of values might we be applying in our own meetings with the eye-less women? The works ask the viewer to re-examine their own set of values and views of human life.

Taking a starting point in Claesson's depictions I am also confronted with a wider question regarding the implicit contract between citizen and society today. Has it shifted from a sense of collective responsibility for individuals to a place where individuals are valued for their (purchasing power and) inclination to submit to the governing norms? The critical gaze in the works by Claesson bare the mechanics that produce and confirm normative conventions in a society where outsiders are needed in order to confirm the sense of belonging among the rest of us. Those of us that do not play part can, as a consequence, easily be condemned, a rational way for those who conform to get out of meeting their own (existential and?) moral ambivalence. To project one’s own dark machinations on he who stands apart, a so-called scape goat, is a classic modus operandi both on a collective and an individual level.

Claesson’s works manage to illustrate power structures currently at play without superficial simplifications. The questions that we are faced with in his work ought to worry us. What is depicted is that which we don’t want to see, but that still affects us, as a sort of repressed societal subconscious.

Gunilla Muhr   Director/Curator att Centrum för Fotografi