Rehearsals for Adulthood – powerful narratives of the little things in life
At a time when photographic works have assumed the dimensions of great paintings, and colour and glossy surfaces have been the prevailing choice of the younger generation, Jari Silomäki still believes in the small black-and-white photo, vignette of life. The series that grew into his first exhibition was a tale of a granny, of her peaceful life, light on the parlour wall, potatoes in the cellar, her thoughts about life and even about its end. His small photos and pictorial narratives were accompanied by handwritten texts.
An exhibition that also grew into a book Rehearsals for Adulthood tells about the growing pains of a young man. The method is the same, small black-and-white photos with a diary-like text – colour only bursts forth a couple of times, like in the image of the red room, which is the stage of the young man’s desire. The double-page narratives in the book, rather like photographic short stories or cinematic scenes, are tragic-comic depictions of the young hero’s doings, dreams, failures and yet more dreams. The lovers appear to keep pushing our modern Chaplin off the park bench, but just as persistently he finds his way back to his beloved. There is na•ve credulity in the image of this longhaired, proverbial student, with his half-length curls, beard and whiskers; as for instance in his ‘self-portraits with the one he fell for’, staring vacantly at the camera, remote control plunger in his hand.
In the beginning the objects of his love are far away, the pictures tell of places and strategies how to meet his love, then the young hero gets himself captured in the same photo with his beloved walking in the distance. What proof of promise – me and her in the same picture! Silomäki plays with the idea of a photo’s authenticity at many levels. To the hero, the photos are like mystical rites binding him to the apparently unaware object of his love – the strange things people do to the image of their loved ones or to get into a picture with them! On the other hand, in his ‘self-portraits’ Silomäki persuades us that the stories are a record of his own life, even though in reality they are completely staged fictions and the narrator someone else than Silomäki himself. Silomäki plays with the idea of the authentic self-portrait and at this level talks about the photograph’s documentary function. Photographic nostalgia shines through in the double-page spread The Dreamer, after Man Ray, in which Man Ray’s cropping of a phallic-looking neck and jaw is first expanded to show a half-length view and then the whole ‘self-portrait situation’: homage to the early 20th century surrealist, the ladies’ man who played with photographs. In Silomäki’s version, however, a narrative of dreams set on a high mountain stage reminding us of romanticism and of the Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe), accompanies the sexual message.
The Dear Diary spread shows our young naked lad staring into the distance over a line hung with sheets, the stains on which have been dated. It brings to mind a custom from olden days in many countries of displaying a blood stained sheet after the wedding night as proof of the bride’s chastity. They could thus be signs of conquest, but knowing our hero, the stains are more probably nocturnal ejaculations and proofs of the intensity of the young man’s desires. Machismo is revealed as a daydream. After bitter disappointments and boozing comes the summer when our shrewd hero’s strategy succeeds: “At first, I was strong and assertive. Then, I showed you the stains of my tears on my pillow and you became mine.” The Love-scene spread is a beautiful fulfilment. And for Finns, the magical Midsummer night of love becomes a suitable stage for a couple that fears loosing each other. But in the end there is always separation, when the bed is built, the loved one has fled or fulfilled dreams come to nothing. Success brings its own problems and the young man is forced to learn to talk about his relationship with the woman. Finally, our now confident lady-killer has feasted upon a bevy of beautiful women whilst holidaying abroad and stands in the background craftily observing the scene – absolutely incurable. In the very last picture it seems that life is here and now – not always somewhere else, even though there is no guarantee that our idealistic wanker will ever grow into manhood.
After looking at the series for a longer time, you become convinced that the documentary nature of the cine-camera image and its manipulation is not the only reason for the choice of material, but the black-and-white aesthetic also makes the story sufficiently timeless and ushers in the desired lyricism to even the slimiest of narratives. You don’t have to flee embarrassed from the pictures, but enjoy them to the end with a smile of self-recognition on your face. Humour is a difficult genre in photography. In a staged photo, it is easier to achieve humour unintentionally than deliberately. Silomäki knows how to bring a warm humour to his stories in a way that emphasises their humanity. Authenticity is guaranteed by a certain roughness to his long processed pictures and texts. And the life lived somewhere behind the fiction. Questions relating to people’s identity and bodily functions have occupied the central stage in contemporary photography. Artists have wished to break taboos and sperm has been shown up close, in colour and large size. Silomäki has his own particular narrative style, one that does not attract attention through sensationalism, even though it talks about the same taboos as his more vocal colleagues. Internationally, the photographer who comes to mind is the American Duane Michals, famous in the 1970s for his sequence of shots showing little metaphysical stories. In his time Michals broke the sacred art print series of modernism, so perhaps Silomäki is doing the same to the sacred colour print of post-modernism. As a male artist narrating everyday, emotional tales, he is also shaking the very foundations of the tradition of masculine art.
This article has been previously published on the web page of the Finnish Fund for Art Exchange.