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Donigan Cumming

A DESCENT INTO THE HELL OF DONIGAN CUMMING
by
PATRICK ROEGIERS

[original in French]

Patrick Roegiers was born in Brussels in 1947, and presently lives in Paris. He is the author of essays on Lewis Carroll, Diane Arbus and Bill Brandt and has been photography critic for Le Monde from 1985 to 1992. In addition to his collections of interviews: Ecoutez voir and Facons de voir and collections ofarticles: L’CEil vivant and L’CEil multiple, he is the author of Beau regard and L’Horloge universelle, novels published in 1990 and 1992 by Editions du Seuil. He has directed films on photography and has served as an exhibition curator.

“From his first work, the rigorously presented Reality and Motive in Documentary Photography (1982-86), Donigan Cumming demonstrated an uncompromising refusal to waste time with seduction. Needing to pursue the truth and strike down appearances, to unveil what is supposed to be left unseen, henrecognized neither propriety nor pity and, proceeding by a series of raids, crossed with penetrating lucidity the boundaries that separate good taste from offensiveness, the pure from the impure, and the norm from abnormality. Voyage to the gates of life, dive into the other side of civilization, the project, constructed as an organized demolition, vehemently expressed his rejection of convention with a savage and sincere vision of humanity seized on a level of appearance shared with Bosch and Goya.

From quasi marginalized proletarians, to lost members of the middle class, to Elvis Presley fans who believe that their idol is still alive, madness and the excess of reality that makes what is natural or true seem unreal, characterized these unknown heroes, these self-executioners or victims of torture who act out before the lens enigmatic and vital scenes to which they alone possess the key. As actors portraying their own lives in grotesque or pitiful situations, they are graced with undeniable presence. They make up a vast den of thieves who, by exhibiting stumps and scars, present the remarkable strangeness of the never seen.

Like Bacon who deliberately used oversized brushes to paint the face and for whom the essence of the pictorial project was the hope of one day making “the best painting of the human cry”, Cumming probes that which simultaneously attracts and repulses. Wanting to uncover the most secret aspects of the human being, he seeks to bring out, rather than to describe, anonymous characters who are united in physiognomic excess, reminiscent of the hysterical figures that were studied in the late nineteenth century by Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.

Distress, despair and loneliness inspire the moving ritual of these portraits. They are a sort of exorcism without illusion, a therapy session, an instant psychoanalysis or an exhausting psychodrama with the sole purpose of drawing out the self. “The self, the terrible and constant self” is what is really at stake in these improvised happenings, these tableaux vivants, these voluntary crucifixions, that shriek with violent distanciation the failure of an entire life. Despite the impact of these images, one cannot forget that this intensified representation of reality is based on the use of a dramatic device which permits the operator to control almost everything. Between artifice and truth, Cumming chooses his decor — a living environment or a stage set — engaging with his models, who often are paid, in a powerful and extraordinary complicity. Able to see themselves as Others, extracted from their humdrum agonies, from the monstrous day-to-day, the subjects, often raised up on pedestals (a bed, a bureau or a chair) are pure living presences.

Each tragedy is different, unique and incomparable, as shown by the giant mural fresco, mosaic or tapestry, produced between 1987 and 1990, and aptly called The Stage. Multiple version of the decisive moment, this detailed composition of 250 photographs, oscillating between the general and the particular, forms a vast assemblage which the author carves up and fits together, switching around or inverting, piece by piece, the distinct parts. Truly a social entity, this sequence of countless fragments, reassembling the compartmentalized lives of unclassifiable individuals, includes some of the protagonists from Cumming’s theatre: Beverley, the pregnant woman; Bruce, the amputee with the articulated arm; Louis, the homosexual, the plastic surgeon; Bernard, the old man wearing the mink coat and suffering from a hernia, who, with Andre, the paralytic in a wheelchair, makes an astounding couple,literally Beckettian.

Members of a living pathological museum, these exiles or exclusions from the social fabric pose on the sets of their material existence. Protective enactment against death and the obsessive fear of nothingness, the extensive disorder of their environment exhibits the worrisome cosiness of recluseswho compensate for their ostracization by accumulation. They are like people who take in any trash theycan find and are threatened by its proliferation which symbolizes a part of themselves that they neither recognize nor understand.

“If it’s not chaotic enough, I’m not interested,” says Cumming who functions on-the-spot in their lairs (bedroom, living room, kitchen) and catalogues like an ethnologist the bizarre contents of their private hells. Made up of scattered objects and debris, the decor itself serves as a metaphor for disorder and decay. In this sense, the fridge is the mythological object par excellence for Cumming, just as dentists’ chairs, sinks and toilets are for Bacon.”

(…)

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July 13