For over two decades, Dutch photographer Jacqueline Hassink, from her base in New York, has devised complex high-concept projects that entail traveling around the world much of each year. Although widely varied, her missions can be roughly divided into those that explore a symbology of corporate power, and those that contemplate the dichotomy of public and private space. Hassink’s fascination with the impact of global corporations’ decision-making on contemporary society led to her most celebrated project, The Table of Power (1993-95), wherein she photographed the capacious but unpeopled conference tables of top multinational headquarters. Although often compared with Hans Haacke’s critiques of power structures, Hassink’s series (and its sequel) is more typology than indictment. She prefers to remain neutral about the trappings of high capitalism and its arguably detrimental effects on the world, giving us instead a dispassionate interior view of its cockpits, as it were. The photos appear as serenely composed and innocuous as those in a glossy architectural magazine, the tables acting as a synecdoche for the potentates who sit at them. The set of empty table and chairs represents something far larger, and decidedly more climactic, than itself.
Getting into the boardrooms took months, with elaborate contractual negotiations that sometimes, especially during the 2008 banking crisis, equaled those of Christo getting permissions to execute his ambitious public projects. Inevitably, the companies were sensitive to how the photographs would be presented to media, and many chose to decline her request. The photographs in that sense became as much a record of a process of entering closed citadels as they are a study of the rites of economic power. The red tape is just another dimension of the artwork. Hassink considers the writing she does describing her patient maneuvering toward realizing her visions to be a key element. She relishes the uphill battles, and their hard-won results are evident in her books and exhibitions. In the end, many did accommodate her request, possibly because, as she says, there’s nothing she’s trying to expose, condemn, or satirize with these tableaux of wealth and entitlement — even while insisting, “I’m not an architecture photographer but someone who is interested in the global economy and current issues.”
When Hassink began listing the names of those who sat at those tables, she discovered, unsurprisingly, that there were very few women. So she found 50 female corporate executives, in order to make a portrait of them … and their dining tables at home (!), which became a book. (It’s worth noting that spotlighting women in lofty ranks is particularly relevant during another election cycle that features a viable woman candidate.) Someone at the UN saw it and asked if Hassink could do this project in the Arab world. In 2005 and 2006, she visited 18 Arab countries to make portraits of 36 women — which she says was among the most physically exhausting projects of her career. For this work, Hassink was shortlisted for a prestigious photography award, the Prix Pictet. “I think the picture the Western world has of Arab women is very limited,” she says. “People think Arab women just wear black abayas, have nothing to say in the household, etc., and they can’t imagine that these women are heading huge corporations. In Saudi Arabia I photographed a woman who was heading a bank. People have no clue about that.” She gets many requests to use her images “for political reasons,” especially from left-wing organizations, presumably to highlight the arrogance and excesses of high-end capitalism. But she always refuses, saying that was not their intended meaning.
Another project, Car Girls, examined corporate marketing tactics, again by isolating a mundane fragment of a complex marketplace: the beautiful women hired to attract buyers at car shows. Asked if this was a critique of the objectification of women, Hassink declares that it was not, while allowing that her viewers are always welcome to formulate their own ideas about what her images really mean. “It’s a way of mapping, putting it into a means of understanding it.” To Hassink, all of her subjects are closely interconnected, and she will let them develop, sometimes over years, until their relationships are clarified. In one project, Haute Couture Fitting Rooms, Paris, Hassink shot the lavish inner sanctums of the most elite couturiers, as a way of thinking about how public and private space is used to manipulate perception of product while ritualizing comfort and privilege. At least that’s how they could be interpreted …
Perhaps less ambiguously, in 2001 Hassink went to Kyoto and became fascinated with Buddhist temples there, in particular the way the architecture merges private and public space. She saw how nature and domestic life flow in harmony, inside and out. Though it may seem a far leap from her earlier series on haute couture fitting rooms and corporate boardrooms, her focus on the nature of space, light, and containment in human interaction is consistent. But it has many layers as part of “an ongoing story.” Again, she encourages viewers to find their own insights in her work rather than a distinct singular message. “A beautiful woman without a brain and a soul is not very interesting,” says Hassink by way of expressing her conviction that a photograph does need a subtext to sustain value. The images in her View, Kyoto series are testaments to the beauty of Japanese building crafts, but there are higher truths witnessed there as well. Space becomes a fluid medium by which humankind remains continuous with and reverent toward nature. Her content spun off into a 20-minutes film she made wherein a quartet of head monks discuss the Japanese concept of space, or ma, and the psychology of moving between garden and manmade structure. Two of the monks invited Hassink to remain longer as their guest and arrange the sliding doors, tatamis, and other elements to suit her photographic instincts — such that the temple, she says, became her sculptural material.
The Table of Power 2 (2009-11) will be shown at the Art Deli festival in Amsterdam, opening January 28.
The related book Blue Walls, USA will be launched at the event. The View, Kyoto series (curated by Els Barents, former photo curator at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) will open in Kyoto at the KG+ Photo Festival on April 22.
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