Fotograf Magazine

Aziz & Cucher

Any discussion of the photographs of Aziz + Cucher necessarily starts and ends outside of the field of photography. It is not just that in creating   their images the couple uses traditional ‘analogue’ photographs solely as a ‘raw material’ that is later reworked in a computer into the final image.  The issue is, more importantly, that the format of a two-dimensional, motionless image was always a bit too tight for their project (I think it would not be rash to unify the wide variety of series they have made with the idea of a guiding theme or a common orientation). By this I do not at all  mean to insinuate that their photographic images might have failed in some sense; on the contrary: by pushing their medium to the limits of what      it is capable of they discovered much of its hitherto untapped potential. It was only a natural move to step out of it in eventually. Since the photographic work of Aziz + Cucher now forms a closed book, we might try to go back and trace this self-transcending movement in it. This New York City based artistic duo is an exemplary case of a phenomenon critics of contemporary art are going to have to get used to: artists freely crossing borders from one medium to another, investigating the potential of each with an eye towards making their visions a reality.

We will also start our discussion of the work of Aziz + Cucher outside of ‘Aziz + Cucher’ –namely, in the period preceding the sign of summation in their signature. The authors themselves admit that many of the approaches and themes manifested in their work during the period when they  were still working separately carried over into their collaborative work. Anthony Aziz, born in Massachusetts in 1961, devoted his studies by and large to documentary film and installations combining photography and text: a fascination for the ambivalent character of the photographic     medium, with both its faithfulness to life and its contrasting illusory nature, is clearly projected into the photographic series of fantastic beings        and objects that would come in the future. Sammy Cucher, three years his senior and originally from Lima, Peru, came to photography by a less  direct route: his first ambitions involved experimental theatre, but later he began to lean towards video and video-installations. This background    was to prove fundamental for both artists: there is a certain theatrical quality evident in the way they ‘staged’ their images, but above all, they      tried to avoid limiting themselves to the formats of prints, television or projection screens, working with space itself as a kind of medium.

The couple became well known thanks to one of their first series: an enigmatic collection of digitally altered ‘portraits’ titled Dystopia (1994- 95). Using Photoshop, they carried out a kind of visual transplantation: eyes, ears, nostrils and lips of the subjects were erased and replaced with skin tissue. The resulting images are mysterious, bizarre, even repulsive; they force one to look away. The reason is that the subjects are divested of their expressions, of any signs of their individuality and the possibility of identification. Though they give the impression of being living beings due to their typical portrait poses (heads or torsos on a neutral backdrop, most of the time), they have a corpse-like inertness about them: they are barred of any possibility of a link between the inside and the outside; the continuous surfaces lock each within his sealed monad, allowing us little more than conjectures as to what –if anything— might be going on behind the facades. If we were able to communicate somehow with these beings, it is certainly not ‘face to face.’ With their images, Aziz + Cucher comment programmatically on the potential of new technologies and the influence they have on reality as well as on our own character. The telematic media no doubt change our ‘sense-ratios’ and the ways we relate to one another.

Among these ‘dystopian’ (the opposite of utopian, i.e., designating a hypothetical place where everything is as bad as it can be) portraits is     a paraphrase of well-known Man Ray’s photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse’s head next to an African black mask (Black and White from 1926). In Aziz + Cucher’s version we see one fundamental change: instead of an anthropomorphic sculpture, beside the woman’s head (treated as described above) is a strange object covered with white plastic the lower part of which ends in a plug of the kind computer cables have, thus reminding one of a sort of organ, a prosthesis or perhaps some other part of an unknown body/mechanism. Under the stretched plastic surface one can make out certain details of the underlying figure: unfortunately, it is all not quite intelligible enough, so the function and the general meaning of the object elude us, much as does the expression on the face next to it.

In 1996, Aziz + Cucher made a whole series of similar objects endowed with technological aurae and gathered them together in ‘Plasmorphica.’ By taking apart items commonly available from shops that sell electronic devices or office goods and reassembling them into absurd forms covered with a white plastic ‘skin,’ they created what seem to be body parts out of Frankenstein’s laboratory or a sort of do-it-yourself, bricolage alternative to cloning. It is possible to connect them to one another using a variety of cables and plugs and display them in an installation that makes one think of a dissected mechanism of the body of a strange cyborg.

The life of these hybrid prostheses did not stop there, however: Aziz + Cucher decided to start photographing them and covering them digitally with ‘real’ skin. This resulted in the series titled ‘Chimeras’ (1998-99). The title of the collection is rather eloquent by itself; what should, however, be emphasised is the multi-layer quality of these works and the progression of steps and transformations that brought them into existence. Three- dimensional assemblages of objects taken from everyday life, which were, of course, originally intended for quite different ends, are then transformed into electronic images and combined with another element: photographs of human skin.

In the photographs that make up the collection titled ‘Naturalia’ (2000), we rise to yet another degree of ‘recycling’ of the preliminary material.     It consists of pages of a fictitious physiological album where internal structures and compositions of the ‘Chimeras’ are unveiled. It is fundamental  that they are not entirely imaginary and contrived, but created in keeping with previous collections: the likenesses of internal bodily tissue displayed in the  images  were  created  by  photographing  the  surfaces  of  a  variety  of  organic  and  inorganic  materials  which  were  then  processed  in a computer. Here, Aziz + Cucher are playing variations on the theme of the ambivalent nature of photographic images which is interwoven in all   their work: however imaginary an image might seem, there is always at least a grain of reality in it. And vice versa.

However mysterious and, at times, chilling the creations of Aziz + Cucher might be, they are still playful and easily to get a grip on at first glance, which is precisely because of the fact that they are still only ‘objects:’ they take on a much more monstrous quality when the outer casing is turned inside out and we enter their ‘Interiors’ (2001). This series is the macabre representation of a sort of variation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis: we can feel how the inner surfaces, walls and ceilings covered with skin palpitate almost imperceptibly with a living pulse. Thanks to the prosthetic extension of our bodies, we become less and less able to perceive its bounds, and though we are increasingly capable of manipulating our environment at     will, we begin to lose control over ourselves. We transcend ourselves, blend into the surrounding world, engage in mimicry. Our bodies spread out into the space around us. These tendencies are analogous to the way Aziz + Cucher present their photographs. At their exhibition at the New York Museum of Contemporary Art you would not have found them lined up and neatly mounted on the walls, but mixed in with other items on exhibit,  in unexpected corners of the gallery, or hung high up, close to the ceiling. Instead of trying to fit them into the category of works as objects, they were trying rather to create an environment. Projections are also carried out based on the photographs of ‘Interiors’ at a club in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood. In this way, the images and the manner in which they are presented follow the tendencies visible within   them.

The artists themselves consider ‘Interiors’ to be a sort of breakthrough work; though it is still photographic, it opens new horizons to different media and the greater use of movement and space. The changeability, plasticity and flexibility they have attained thanks to the ability to digitally process the original ‘real’ raw materials transform the depictions of people and things, dissolve them and put them back together in new ways. The electronic environment has brought them to a state similar to that experienced by Saint Anthony in Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony: ‘The blood in my veins is beating so hard that it will burst them. I feel like flying, swimming, yelping, bellowing, howling. I‘d like to have wings,   a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odours, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter – to be matter!’ Just wait until you see the Aziz + Cucher’s new videos.

Tomáš Dvořák