In 2020, as the world scrambled to cope with our #NewNormal, Paul Kooiker stayed busy. The renowned Dutch photographer participated in exhibitions, continued to direct fashion photoshoots in person and digitally, and published a new book of photos.
One of the projects was his participation in The Tears of Eros at the Centraal Museum Utrecht between February and August. Including 19 photos of donkeys, the series was titled The Rumour, which was then published into a book in May.
The central figure of the exhibition is Dutch Surrealist Johannes Moesman (1909-1988). A body of his work is presented amongst those of his fellow Surrealists at the time, as well as works by artists today, including Kooiker. Themes of „sex, fetishism, and taboos“ were common in Moesman’s works, and contemporary artists were invited to respond within today’s context. This is a natural collaboration as Kooiker’s photographs can very aptly be described as surreal.
So the artist arrived at The Rumour. The title references Moesman’s most infamous painting with the same name. Once a scandalous painting, it gained a layer of mystery recently. The Heineken art collection, owner of the painting, refused to loan it out for this major exhibition of the artist. Its story and name feed each other, creating a curious narrative. This makes an apt starting point of understanding this series of photographs.
The artist created 19 portraits of donkeys, shot in his studio. To Kooiker, donkeys are the perfect subject for this project. As the horse’s less glamorous cousin, donkeys are often dismissed as the weird, stubborn, less charming one. But while a horse is shiny, elegant and often well-trained, donkeys are far more mysterious. Their eyes, and especially shown in the photographs, shine with intelligence and depth. Yet humans often misunderstand what they’re thinking, and assume they are dumb. Their stoic nature makes the inner workings of a donkey’s brain is incredibly fascinating to those who pay attention. And this enigmatic complexity echoes the indescribable nature and appeal of Surrealism. What am I looking at and why can’t I look away? Why do I love this strange painting, and strange animal?
Furthermore, donkeys are thought to be strong and stubborn, and such stereotypes call to mind men and masculinity. So when the portraits are displayed like a wall of donkeys, it could be seen as a representation of the „boys club“ associated with Surrealism. Although avant-garde and subversive for the time, the movement did nothing to acknowledge their female colleagues. Instead, only the men entered the canon of mainstream art history, and objectified female sexuality was a common trope in the paintings. Kooiker’s group of „macho men“ donkeys reads as an ironic commentary, as here we are, glamorising 18 asses* by showing them in a museum. And is that not what the world has a habit of doing?
The portraits have Kooiker’s signature warm sepia tone and dramatic lighting. Each photo is intimate and tender, with strong parallels to old Hollywood headshots of beautiful actors. High contrast and moody, each donkey is a charismatic yet impenetrable main character. It’s interesting to note that when Kooiker shoots human models, they are styled, posed, and objectified to look like sculptures, and his animal subjects are portrayed with such natural „humanity“, grace, and intimacy. In every series and project, we can see how the photographer blurs the lines between human, animal, objects, art, fashion. Through his meticulous planning, staging, editing, Kooiker’s oeuvre have an unmistakably recognisable quality, even though the subjects are so varied. In the case of The Rumour, the resulting images are intimate, gentle, mysterious, complex.
This specificity affords the artist the ability to remotely direct photoshoots, which is very handy considering our situation for the past year. One project Kooiker directed remotely was one with Kim Kardashian and Michèle Lamy for AnOther magazine. Spread over three countries, the collaboration went off without a hitch. The photographer gave incredibly detailed instructions to Kardashian and Lamy for their husbands to shoot them. When asked whether he was worried about the outcome, the artist said he had no doubt it will be a success. „There is no escape, the rules are so tight.“ This is the confidence of an artist with a clear vision. This method also allowed for another layer of magic where these strong, iconic women were shot intimately by their husbands while quarantining in their own homes. So the end result is not just from Kooiker’s artistic direction, but also the chemistry between husband and wife – an intimacy rarely seen by the public.
He works with voyeuristic perspectives, twisted sexual tension, jarring juxtapositions, all of which challenge the viewer on the notion of beauty, sex, sensuality, comfort, acceptable norms. This kind of provocation is particularly sought after in our time, as more and more of the world seek to break out of the status quo. Mainstream beauty is definitely not interesting to Paul Kooiker. The more worthwhile thing to him is to celebrate and glamorise the oddities, highlight the beauty found in the so-called ugly.
* Only 18 of the 19 works are shown in the exhibition
Paul Kooiker, born in 1964 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is a renowned conceptual photographer based in Amsterdam. He studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague and at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Since 1995 he has been teaching at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. In 1996 he won the Prix de Rome and in 2009 he was awarded the A. Roland Holst Prize. A prolific photographer that has published numerous photo journals and books throughout his career, he has also been working with fashion magazines and brands. Through academic, commercial, and artistic successes, the photographer continues to challenge the viewer with the dichotomy of concepts in voyeurism, beauty, subjectivity.