The artist as creator
by Kim Knoppers

Anyone who thinks that Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) is famous purely for inventing the daguerreotype – and along with it, photography – is doing him an injustice. Daguerre achieved great renown as a set designer in the early 19th century; journalists were even more appreciative of his naturalistic sets than of the plays and operas for which they were designed. On 11 July 1822 the enterprising Frenchman came up with a new form of entertainment that left the discerning Parisian audiences speechless: he opened his spectacular Diorama where the Place de la Republique is now located. The Diorama was an enormous building in which visitors were directed into a circular, darkened room by an invisible guide. As their eyes became accustomed to the dark, a Swiss mountain landscape slowly began to unfold before them. The response was enthusiastic: ‘Here is an extraordinary combination of art and nature, producing the most astonishing effect, so that one cannot decide where nature ceases and art begins.’ Through changes in light and shadow, like clouds passing before the sun, the transparent set paintings came alive. Wherever visitors looked they were surrounded by mountains, valleys and snow, completely forgetting that it was actually a dreary autumn afternoon in Paris. Time and place no longer mattered.

Today we can scarcely imagine why Daguerre’s public reacted so effusively to his Diorama. We have since come so much further in the creation of illusionary worlds scarcely distinguishable from reality. But the diorama hasn’t disappeared. A diorama built in 1971 in the De Efteling theme park has practically become part of Dutch cultural heritage. Or consider the somewhat dusty dioramas in natural history exhibitions like Heiman’s Diorama in Artis’ Zoological Museum. Dioramas pop up from time to time in visual art settings, too; a notable example was the exquisite, contemplative diorama by the Belgian artist Hans op de Beeck on show last year at the celebrated Holland Festival in Amsterdam.

Visual artist Koen Hauser is also indebted to Daguerre’s legacy. Hauser considers his photos personal dioramas – spy holes constructed so that the viewer can glimpse a world never seen before – an invented world rooted in reality, a world that can carry viewers away to a spot where time and place are forgotten, where they can imagine themselves in a world that invokes stories, stimulates the power of imagination, ingenious and multi-layered. Hauser consistently makes the diorama the centrepiece of his photos, installations, texts and performances, sometimes explicitly, sometimes symbolically. The elements he employs can be found in the work of such American icons as Matthew Barney and Cindy Sherman.

Diorama Stereografica (2005) is an installation based on a 19th-century Kaiser panorama, usually to be found at fun fairs, showing viewers photos of exotic spots all over the world. The panorama’s mechanism changed the photos, which were illuminated by an oil lamp. In his Diorama Stereografica Hauser shows fourteen stereo photos of fairytale figures, nature and architecture, which together invoke a feeling of nostalgia, mystery and alienation. At the same timeHauser accentuates the act of looking by including typical symbols of viewing, such as a shoebox diorama and a stereo camera.

Photograph I (2006), a three-dimensional interpretation of a photo, was created as a logical consequence of thinking about and developing the diorama theme. Here, for the first time, Hauser radically reversed his form of presentation. He had previously created two-dimensional works; here he created a three-dimensional diorama that made reference to a two-dimensional photograph.

Hauser carefully stages his photos, using signs and symbols often seen in dioramas: stuffed animals, fairytale figures and imitation flora. By regularly inserting himself as a figure in the diorama, he makes the pictures personal. This could be considered a sign of vanity, but it is chiefly a logical development of a second major theme in his work: that of the artist as creator of a new world.

In his Diorama Mechanica project in 2005 Koen Hauser was depicted as the creator of his own world. Dressed in a 1950s outfit with hair sharply parted, surrounded by collections of records, stuffed animals, scientific drawings and symbols of looking such as a microscope, he created his own universe in a secluded attic room. The romantic cliché of the artist is perfectly preserved. The computer, important though it is for Hauser, has been carefully excluded.
In the De Luister van het Land exhibition, which Hauser produced in 2008 at the invitation of Galerie 37 Spaarnestad, in Haarlem, the artist as creator is the central theme. For this exhibition Hauser was given the opportunity to draw on more than 9 million (!) photos from the Spaarnestad Photo archives, produced from 1850 to the end of the 20th century by press and documentary photographers from all over the world. This was right up Hauser’s street. Ever since his art academy days he’s been collecting, arranging, combining and reusing pictures from sources such as medical encyclopaedias, architectural handbooks and gardening books. He sometimes uses them in installations, but more often they serve as inspiration for his staged photos, which seem to conceal a longing for bygone times. As a viewer, the moment you see these photos you are instantly transported back in time. Hauser accomplishes this effect by working in black-and-white and by giving careful thought to the places, the architecture and the clothing he uses. The historical feeling he is searching for in his work is unquestionably present in the Spaarnestad Photo collection. That this archive also provided a good opportunity for studying the history of photography was a welcome bonus. Hauser’s work, doesn’t just deal with the diorama, the artist as creator and giving new meaning to old images, it is also a reflection on the history of photography. The artist makes much use of visual language from specific historical genres within photography in his photos.

The book De Luister van het Land (selected as a 2008 Best Designed Book) was released in cooperation with graphic designer Bart de Baets concurrently with the exhibition. The portfolio that appears here in Foam Magazine is based on this book. One can gaze for hours at the photos: through the precise selection of images and the order in which they appear, new relationships can constantly be discovered. It becomes evident just how well the book has been thought out.

Koen Hauser has chosen all sorts of photos dealing with theme parks, zoos and stage sets: illusionary, constructed worlds which, in the best case, dissolve the distinction between real and unreal. Sometimes that distinction presents itself powerfully, and you realise that everything you are looking at is a sham. The illusion is penetrated and you are brought back to reality. The diorama turns out to be a mere construct.

Hauser intersperses the photos of flower arrangements, stuffed animals, theatre and film sets with photos of people. Their clothing or unique faces, or the combination with other photos, make them almost characters in a film. In between the archive photos, Hauser himself is the lead in staged and ‘Photo-shopped’ photos that fit in perfectly with the spirit of the archive. He is consistently depicted in the role of creator, the maker of new creations, as pondering architect, producer of plaster models, taxidermist or Dr Frankenstein pedantically explaining how he has brought his puppet to life. It becomes clear that, as far as Hauser is concerned, the roles of artist, scientist and inventor are closely related. All three start from a deep-rooted determination to search for something, although what that something is, often remains unclear.

Kroniek der Lichtwerkers, a video Hauser made recently, deals with this search and the creative process. The film occupies the middle ground between a kitschy musical, video clip, children’s programme from the past and self-portrait. Above all, it is an ode to photography. American artist Matthew Barney must have served as a source of inspiration here. In his Cremaster film series, this completely unorthodox artist created a mythical and super-aesthetic world in which performance, sculpture, fashion and film come together: a world as bizarre as it is inviting, one that is not unequivocal, but multi-interpretable.

Cindy Sherman, too, the queen of set-up post-modern photography, must certainly be included as a source of inspiration for Hauser. With her Untitled Film Stills of the late 1970s she was able to make use of Hollywood’s visual language to appeal to the collective memory of the audience. To this day, Sherman still acts as the protagonist in her photos.

Although certain aspects of Hauser’s work can surely be compared to the work of other artists, what he does remains utterly unique. How often does an artist develop a fully authentic visual language and construct a solid oeuvre that can be experienced on multiple levels, using existing photo material as its starting point? How often does an artist create photos that are inviting to look at and yet at the same time have a strong conceptual viewpoint? Koen Hauser is an heir that Daguerre would have been proud of.