Sunil Shah: Into the Subject’s World

Into the Subject’s World, Katja Stuke’s Nationalfeiertag (National Holiday)

A news image of global importance is the both the beginning and the end. The first visual recall for everything subsequently remembered. Recollection, takes us back to this image which finds itself effortlessly receptive to meaning, yet heavily burdened to hold its signification forever. It’s becoming, is steadily processual, drawing in every word spoken and written about the event, each truth, fiction and myth. The image becomes the signifier for its subject’s world. This is the world of the event; encompassing every eventuality and every possibility.

The famous ‘Tank Man’ image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square ‘Incident’ in China is one such example. The student protests, the national turmoil, the imposition of martial law, the fatalities – the authorities on the verge of losing their grip on public order. These event headlines are embedded in this single image, now symbolic of defiance against the brute force of state power. It is both the beginning and the end – the beginning the event evokes and an end that stops at the image.

Katja Stuke’s book, Nationalfeiertag (National Holiday) gives us the photographic departure point for considering a somewhat indirect interpretation of this history, yet possibly without a defined end. Her practice begins with surveillance. Her process, two-fold: her tourist-like filming of people in heavily watched and monitored public spaces and her use of the raw footage in a secondary process, where photographs are taken from the screen. The editing is where the work takes shape and sequence. The aesthetic is one of paused video stills – cathode ray tube portraits.

The unassuming public, filmed during a national holiday, are depicted in states of natural oblivion. Stuke captures stills in her footage when an instant resonates for her, the moment when a portrait lifts itself beyond the screen and speaks of an unconscious relationship to the past. In this case, it is a past which lays dormant awaiting resurrection or fades away completely. Stuke’s portraits offer themselves against this collective amnesia.

The re-photography is supplemented with newsprint scans dated around the fateful days of the student protests in Beijing. The scans are sourced from an archive held at the June 4th Museum in Hong Kong, dedicated to the memory of those who died. In China, the events have been systematically erased from the national consciousness. The book’s Japanese binding and folded pages, by most part; enclose the newsprint within the insides of the folds. It is perhaps a metaphor for the concealment of this history beyond the cosmetic consciousness this society is forced to display?

This book invites a re-visitation of the Tiananmen Incident and doesn’t reduce it to a mere singularity. Instead it provides an entry point into the subject’s world, a world which would otherwise remain hidden behind the single image or media symbol. Stuke subverts a mechanism of control to unlock that restricted and censored past. In sites where surveillance is necessary to keep things from getting out of hand again, we see the faces of those who perished, now somehow present, in the mute faces of those who must be silent.