Photography is like the “stream where you gather your mulberries,” to quote the poet Li He. Allow me. What characterizes both a stream and a photograph is its access, the access either provides. Streams access both mulberries and distant places. Access connects. Access chronicles and celebrates. This is the ethos, primarily, of London-born and now Dutch-based photography talent, Charlie Koolhaas. What her photographs so successfully access is this “new” absence of boundaries in thought and possibility in a globalized world. There is no grey, no black or white; every pigment of human life is accommodated, considered, and memorialized.
Here Koolhaas gives her insight into the notion of identity, the agenda of feminism and the misinformations of art in globalized world.
Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility in terms of what you portray through your work to the outside world? Are you ever afraid of potential perceptions and misperceptions of your work?
I do feel a responsibility to not condemn something with a photograph, to not make things look bad. I want to create openings rather than closure. I hope that people do not assume that I am making work about how global capitalism is flattening culture, that I’m contributing to the argument that a multicultural world makes things more generic, because I don’t believe this. My work is not a critique of capitalism; it’s an exploration of capitalism, glimpses into its more absurd and surprising outcomes. My photographs do not portray a ruined world, or globalization gone mad, on the contrary it shows creative moments and unexpected possibilities, that makes way for an optimism that our cynicism about globalization has taught us not to expect. Most of all I hope that people see my work as funny because I look for weird conditions and humorous moments. I think that serious messages are always delivered best with humor.
Does a feminist agenda in art still apply? To what extent does it apply in your work?
Yes of course. There are still proportionally not enough female artists and curators at the top of the food chain; the people in power are still predominantly white men. And yet undeniably art is a very female industry. The directors of museums are most often men but there are a growing number of female collectors, and galleries are either run by or employ a lot of women. I think that in places where the art industry is starting from scratch, such as China and Dubai, women are determining its shape. Of course this is not to assume that women will necessarily pursue a feminist agenda or that men will not. The greatest feminist I know is a man whom I worked for, the historian Theodore Zeldin, who writes the history of the world from a female perspective. He is determined to have us recognize the role of women. I believe that no one has more to gain from the power, presence and fulfillment of women than men and most men already know this. I don’t think the feminist agenda is the same now as it was when it was called a ‘movement’—today it is fragmented. Women no longer get together and discuss the feminist ‘agenda’ under such a formal banner. But I do think that we have a lot of expansion still to come with regard to images of women, with how we deal with or don’t deal with the female body, and the art world has an important role to play in that, as other creative industries such as fashion, and music fail us.
People often want to discuss my work in the context of female art. I wonder what it really is that makes my perspective female, if at all? Is it that I have no fear of the failures that are a part of life? I photograph the cracks, the peeling apart of the cities surfaces, the places that have been infected by mold and leaks. A Chinese man in an alley selling kittens with a missing shoe. What attracts me to my subjects are their vulnerabilities. That’s what I can relate to. Maybe the feminist agenda is in the way we deal with pain. I think the world has a very ‘male’ attitude to pain, that we need to kill whoever causes it, we need to cover it up and repress it with painkillers, but I think a female attitude to pain involves a more open sharing and conversation about what hurts. Maybe the feminist agenda today is to get us to be less dismissive of things that are judged to be bad. I have this intention in my work. I hope to get people to question their ability to make judgments, or rather to suspend judgment, by offering them something confusing instead. When I approach an environment I search for the places in which the intentions of the politicians and planners (the man) have been thwarted by the chaos of human life.
Is there a pressure as a female artist to explore gender?
Yes. I think that there is enormous pressure within the art worlds to explore ‘concepts of identity’ of all kinds. If you are black you are under pressure to make work about that, if you are Muslim there is pressure to talk about that, if you are gay, etc. For some reason the world has become obsessed with labels just when labels are more irrelevant than ever because no one exists as one thing anymore; we all have multiple identities. But the art world will only support you if you stand under a banner. You can’t get funding from anyone unless you can squeeze yourself into a category. I think it is a consequence of this crazy new multicultural world we live in and all the tensions that are coming out of that. People want instant ways to understand each other, and art is there to provide instant insights. But I think that this creates a lot of ‘cheap’ art—people creating similar works expressing the same thing. In my view identity is less interesting than ever before—why address ‘identity’ when identities are dissolving? I’m interested in hybrids.
Written by Jenny Cusack