HALFWAY BETWEEN THE GUTTER AND THE STARS
Man is certainly crazy.
He could not make a mite, and he makes gods by the dozen.
– Michel de Montaigne
I first met Adam Saks in Berlin in 1999. After five years as a student at the Royal Academy of fine Arts in Copenhagen, he spent a year at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, 1996 – 97. He had applied to the school with the specific intent of studying under Bernd Koberling. Saks was drawn to Koberling's free and singular way of depicting experiences of nature in a process that was both spontaneous and analytical.
A young artist who lifts his brush to a canvas inevitably engages in a dialogue with the entire vast tradition of painting and with all contemporary colleagues. In one's quest for a personal voice, adopting a naïve stance and turning one's back to tradition and the contemporary will inevitably lead to failure. In my view, Adam Saks takes the opposite approach characterized by a thirst for information and analysis. When working with images one must have a starting point, a focus for one's quest, if you will, and in this regard Adam Saks presents a personal narrative with an imagery that is paradoxically both age-old and current, raw and sympathetic, and touching upon a myriad of vital issues.
Never before in the history of mankind has the image played the role it has today in the realm of public communications, nor has it been so levelled. In this constant flow of images that is so characteristic of our times, we tend to take the image for granted and to neglect the unique, fantastic and even magical qualities that are brought to bear. It is awe inspiring, for example, that we can be moved by the gaze of an unknown person in a distant part of the world through rastered newspaper images, or enthralled by the smile of a loved one through the pixels of a cell phone display – or that the artist can sweep a brush across a flat surface giving rise to a space for the viewer to lose him/herself in and stoking the fires of emotion and intellect.
If we think back to Neolithic man, who rendered the features of game in the horn, the stone, or the cliff face; or to the medieval sermon goer, surrounded by holy images, perhaps then we can understand how radically different the experience of the image must have been.
In this visual world of yore, the image and the depicted merged together. The depicted offered the image legitimacy and power, and alternately, the image could also be used to directly affect the depicted, as is the case with the African nail fetish figures or the dolls of the voodoo priest.
In our present day, when art all too often functions as risk-free décor and an economic investment (but where a paradox nevertheless arises offering status to ownership and a participation in a mythical force), the fact that the image possesses a magical quality and bears something beyond our capacity to fully grasp is nevertheless an everyday experience for the artist. As soon as it leaves the studio, the image starts living a life of its own, and depending on the viewer, it can be seen as far grander or much less impressive than the artist himself/herself intended.
In the investigation Adam Saks has been conducting for several years now, he approaches a magical world of images and an extreme world of masculinity.
Few images are so intimately connected with ancient magic as the tattoo. Contrary to how it is viewed today, as merely a superficial décor (although to a certain extent it still symbolises tribal unity), in the past the tattoo often had the role of amulet and protector. Many of those who bear the typical sailor tattoo, the anchor, are ignorant of its more profound connotations: the hope that the bottom will hold out, that the chain will not break. Most of those wearing a golden earring are likewise not aware that this was originally a security measure for mariners ensuring that they would be able to pay their way across the river Styx in the event that neither next of kin nor fellow man could fulfil that final act of kindness, placing the tribute to Charon under the tongue of the deceased.
We know that fixing an inerasable image to the skin is an act originating way back in the recesses of time. Tattoos have been found on "Ötzi", the 5000-year-old iceman and on Egyptian mummies, and Julius Caesar himself described the full body tattoos of the Germanic tribes. The symbols in this treasure trove of imagery is steeped in implications preceding language, and often possess a naïve power and poetry in their preoccupation with hope, death, love, solidarity, suffering and betrayal. At times it is a question of written words rather than images – sometimes banal, sometimes aphoristic and powerful poetry written directly on the body. In this form, the inerasable can give rise to wonderful ironies, such as when the Napoleonic Marshall Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who subsequently became the Swedish monarch under the name of Karl Johan, bore a tattoo with the revolutionary motto "A bas de Roi!"– down with the King!
In our longing for self-understanding, we tend to give in to the temptation of effective simplifications, which is why, during a given period of time or within a specific group, man is seen entirely as a product of culture, only to be seen in the next instance –or within another group– as entirely biologically determined. It would seem more reasonable, however, to see us as shaped by a combination of the two. Ancient biological mechanisms, controlled by electro-chemical fields and hormones, as well as various views of the world and ideologies, lead us to act irrationally and destructively, despite our longing to believe the opposite to be true. And history tells us that more people have succumbed to an irreconcilable struggle between religions and ideologies than to epidemics and natural disasters.
Here, Adam Saks has focused his interest on that which constitutes manliness in the extreme, on the French Foreign Legion, as a model and system for instrumentalising manly aggression and lust for adventure.
The legendary Legion has been a haven for men of various nationalities and classes of society since 1831. Prince Aage of Denmark, for example, made a career for himself in the legion, as did men from the gutter. Irrespective of race and nationality, one becomes part of a unity where ideals such as discipline, camaraderie and self-sacrifice for a higher goal –decided by others– are guiding principles, as are gruelling physical training and weapons expertise. This phenomenon is thereby saturated with ancient tribalism and a crusading spirit, and resembles that of the Spartan warriors and the Janissaries of the Caliph, comparable to the Mafia and Hell's Angels of our time.
Adam Saks' imagery entices us to focus, as though through a kaleidoscope, on our view of masculinity, sexuality and violence, femininity and love, as well as morality and ideology, and attitudes towards respect and honour.
In an art world that has long been focused on formalistic research and the urban codes of the day, an artist such as Adam Saks brings an exciting and welcome perspective posing questions that focus on the depth of mankind and the world at large. With a singular voice of his own, he lets us experience both the dark and foreboding energies of the human psyche, grants us access to the myths, and inspires us to reflect upon how profoundly different everything could have been!