Juul Hondius

The large color photographs in Juul Hondius’s show “Faction” evoked topics in the news: illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and civil war. At a time when winning entries for the World Press Photo competition are carefully composed and highly aesthetic, no matter how gruesome the subject matter, Hondius’s glossy depictions of politically charged scenes can trigger a flash of (mis-)recognition. UN/Defender, 2000, shows a man in a white cape leaning in apparent exhaustion and despair against a Land Rover Defender in a muddy field. Although the scene has been staged in Holland, the word Bosnia seems to be written all over it. The fact that the man looks a bit too well groomed only underlines the image’s seductive power. If the man’s gesture is rhetorical, this is precisely the visual rhetoric of grief and despair—rooted in classical Western painting—that the media exploit.

Some works suggest narrative connections: The man who is seen leaving a coach in Man#1, 1999, might be identified with the one making his way through a wood on the other side of a water in Crossing, 2000. The title reinforces the suggestion that he is illegally crossing a border. The bland title Auto, on the other hand, says nothing about the suggestive 1999 image of damp car windows through which some people are dimly seen, suggesting perhaps a drug deal or some other shady activity. The work appears to demand an explicit, narrative, newspaper-style caption. While this emphasizes that photographs function in the news media through the captions and articles that provide them with a clear-cut meaning, it also points out that many images are already structured to generate their captions almost automatically. Highly coded and reminiscent of previous photographic and film images, such news photographs forge a seemingly natural link between visual and written rhetoric.

The somewhat more ambiguous Bus, 2000, shows some black people dozing on a bus. The low perspective from across the aisle was achieved by shooting the photo in a bus that was sawed in two, yet this impossible perspective only serves to make the image more convincing and hence emphasizes its “reality effect.” The sleepiness of the scene recalls David Goldblatt’s dark black-and-white pictures of black South Africans being driven from “homelands” to their work and back again each day on absurdly long journeys. But the bright daylight contradicts this association, and the imagination drifts off to the US, where fully functioning citizenship is linked to car ownership and the bus is the domain of the poor and of ethnic minorities.

Hondius’s works wouldn’t be so successful if he were merely trying to demonstrate, once again, that images can be deceptive and that the mass media are particularly deceitful. His main interest appears to be not the veracity of images but the development of a critical iconography of the present. Virtually all the pictures have to do with mobility and borders and related media subjects like smuggling, civil war, and illegal immigrants “penetrating” the borders of the nation-state. Although Hondius does address the photographic construction of naturalness through his canny actualization of visual stereotypes, his overriding concern seems to be the way in which these clichéd yet always new images form part of a contemporary iconography of mobility. His brilliant variations and condensations drive home the point that this iconography not only illustrates our globalized flows of people, commodities, and capital, but informs the fears and desires we invest in this state (or rather, this flux) of affairs.

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