White Elephant, 2011
By Siri Peyer, Hand in Foot, 2013
“The latent information on the exposed film has been printed onto photographic paper but the image has not been fixed. Any further exposure to light would alter and ultimately destroy it. If I were to open the case in daylight I would recognise what the photograph depicts, but the image would become darker and darker until it turned into a black monochrome.”
When a white elephant – a rarity – is born in Thailand, it belongs ex officio to the king and is presented to him in a public ceremony. Regarded as a sacred symbol of power, it is illegal for a white elephant to work. Hence the animal cannot produce profit and is a financial burden to upkeep. A white elephant is a pure status symbol. Thai kings gave these rare and expensive elephants to their allies in order to strengthen their own positions. But they also used the animal as a ruse. The kings gave a white elephant to a rival or a subject who had fallen into disgrace. The recipient could not refuse such an apparently generous gift. Yet the expenses incurred by the elephant’s upkeep led to the former’s financial collapse. That is why, in the English speaking world, the idiom “White Elephant” has come to mean a valuable gift which is also a burden to its recipient. Could JocJonJosch’s White Elephant be understood as such a gift? The work is exhibited inside a carefully fabricated case made of cherry wood. It measures 33 by 45 centimetres. The case comes with a torch whose bulb has been covered with red film. On the way home I am seized by the desire to open it. But JocJonJosch provided clear instructions: the wooden case should only be opened in an entirely dark space because it contains an analogue photograph in which the last stage of the development process, the fixation, has not taken place. The latent information on the exposed film has been printed onto photographic paper but the image has not been fixed. Any further exposure to light would alter and ultimately destroy it. If I were to open the case in daylight I would recognise what the photograph depicts, but the image would become darker and darker until it turned into a black monochrome. So I must find a makeshift darkroom where I will be able to see the image, which is unusual when looking at a photograph. The process is exciting but I am also apprehensive. I wonder what might happen if someone else has exposed the image to light. There might not even be a photograph in the case.
Equipped with the torch in a cellar cum dark-room, I eventually open the wooden case and see the work. The image depicts the three members of JocJonJosch. Their naked bodies cling to each other, composing a sculpture in the shape of an elephant. An arm looks like a trunk, a leg like an ear, another arm like a tail. The posture of the three bodies seems debilitating, and the artists probably remained in that position only for a short while. The image crystallises a precarious moment. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes observed that a photograph always refers to an object – in this case three bodies – at a precise moment, but that, because of a time lapse, the referent has always already disappeared.
In White Elephant this vanishing point has been redoubled. The moment the wooden case is opened and the photograph is exposed to light, the image will disappear, just as the referent did when the picture was taken. Moreover, if the volatility of the image requires the use of a torch with a red filter, this tool also produces an estrangement effect. As a viewer I assume that I am looking at either a colour or a black and white photograph. Here, however, I only recognise red and black tones. I am looking at something that is probably different from the way I see it. What the image might look like without the red filter is left to my imagi.nation. In this manner the boundary between production and reception is blurred. I become part of the work.
In many of JocJonJosch’s works the moment in which something occurs – either between the three artists or between the artists and the public – has special significance. By means of his or her presence the viewer takes part in the emergence of the artwork. But what happens to the ephemeral instant? Does it remain the personal memory of an experience? How can this experience be recounted, when each individual changes it? Can this moment be recorded and documented, using, for example, a photographic medium that captures and fixes the light? White Elephant explores these three questions. In the work one encounters an incomplete process – the unfixed photograph – that shows a temporary action – the three bodies in the shape of an elephant – which, in turn, is presented in an extremely precarious form. The work is not complete and has the power to evolve in very different directions. Such would have been the case if, surrendering to an irrational instinct, I had opened the wooden case entrusted to me in the light of the midday sun.