Jochen and Esther Gerz

Jochen and Esther Gerz have been collaborating since 1984 on interactive public projects. Among the most notable of these was Monument against fascism, realized in Hamburg in 1986, a work consisting of a twelve-meter, lead-covered column that was progressively lowered into the ground as it was covered with signatures and inscriptions by passersby. In 1996 they also published the question “If the twentieth century were to start over, what would you change?” in a Ruhr newspaper—later presenting readers’ responses in a book and an exhibition. In their recent show, the Gerzes chose to display three stages, or “fragments,” of an ongoing project. Begun in Paris in 1996 during FIAC, and then continued in different cities throughout the world, Reasons for Smiles, 1996–, is a work in progress that assumes a different identity depending on where the artists are at any given time. The many forms this project has taken have included a publication, an exhibition, a pedagogical study, and an intervention in the press. In Paris, on the walls of the space’s “storefront,” they presented a group of zoo photographs depicting people thinking of something that made them smile. These images are black-and-white and color negatives that were enlarged and placed in front of mirrors; as one approached, a reflection became visible in the mirrored glass behind the image of an “other.”

Reasons for Smiles is obviously less about the ridiculous forced smiles presented to the world in most snapshots than the relation between interior and exterior, between self and other. The photographs were divided into three groups: one was generated at the Max Planck Institute of Historical Studies in Göttingen, Germany; another at two universities in Tallahassee, Florida; and the last at this year’s Arles photography festival. The Gerzes use photographic workshops to render a portrait of the city or country in which they are working. In Arles, for example, young people photographed the elderly, and vice versa—underlining a major social schism in France. For the project that was realized in the US, the artists asked the students of a primarily white university to photograph the students of a largely black university in the same city, and vice versa. In Reasons for Smiles, “we” doesn’t represent the dissolution of the subject in the group, but rather a simultaneous vision of self and other. The artists invoke a collective responsibility, noting, “Tomorrow’s culture will be made up of this relation to the other.”

The neighborhood surrounding the exhibition space was not neglected: during the show, 300 rolls of film were distributed free of charge. Anyone who sent in an undeveloped roll of him- or herself became an active participant in the work. As the artists noted in the invitation: “There are probably as many reasons for a smile as there are people and, for all we know, these reasons are as short-lived as the smiles they produce. Indeed, there always seem to be more reasons not to smile. We smile in spite of them, as we do other things in spite of what we know. Little seems closer to us or further removed from death than a smile.”

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Rachel Knecht.