The Art of Jakob Zaaiman: Exploring the difficult and the disturbing

As a boy I remember being deeply unsettled by the posters and lobby stills for a sci-fi disaster film that was showing at a local bug house. The title alone was enough to scare me, and the mystifying stills pointed towards some kind of inexplicable horror. The film had an age restriction – thank God - so the closest I could get to its content were the teaser pictures. And the fact that it was showing at a disreputable bug house - outside of the mainstream - actually increased my anxiety rather than reduced it, because it was as if ‘decent responsible people’ were ignoring the frightening ideas being portrayed, and pretending they didn’t exist, rather than confronting them.

The film was ‘Crack in the World’ (1965), and in my pre-adolescent mind I understood all films to be semi-documentaries, and if not a hundred percent accurate, then as close to reality as to be indistinguishable from it. That the world could crack in half – as depicted on the poster – really worried me, and I tried to ‘work out’, from the ‘evidence’ what the film was about, and how the people in it were going to be able to reverse this catastrophic event. Perhaps they couldn’t – after all how could you possibly fix a cosmic disaster like that? – which meant we were all threatened with death in a most horrifying way.

"Crack in the World" (1965) movie poster. Source:

But what has this to do with ‘art’? Simply that my encounter with the ’Crack in the World’ poster and lobby stills can be seen as an illustration of the elemental mechanics of contemporary ‘art’ in a very straightforward way. ‘Mechanics’ is the key concept here, because my encounter with the sci-fi posters was not an authentic experience of ‘art’ as such, insofar as I wasn’t able to differentiate between fact and fantasy, so the presentational and theatrical distance essential to art proper was not present, leaving me on the wrong side of the experiential divide. Art is not direct reality; it’s a theatrical representation of it, and I wasn’t able as a boy to make the distinction. But if we disregard the specifics of my particular case and concentrate instead on the interplay between the presentational objects (the posters and lobby cards) and anyone encountering them recreationally, we can easily see how modern contemporary art functions, and how it attempts to get its narrative across.

For example, successful film posters are packed with ‘narrative direction’, in that they direct the viewer towards a greater narrative (namely the action of the film itself) located elsewhere. The viewer makes the required mental leap from poster to film automatically, and doesn’t need to think twice about it, because everyone understands the elemental relationship between a ‘teaser’ poster and the film itself. No one asks, ‘What does this poster mean?’, except perhaps in those rare cases when the visual grammar on display is so minimal or confusing as to point in the wrong direction – it can happen. But the elemental connection between indicative object (film poster) and core narrative (the film itself) never changes, and is key to understanding the relationship between a modern contemporary artwork and any deeper narrative (or lack of it) that the artwork is inviting the viewer to appreciate.

Chanel N°5 Advert, 1970

In the 1960s and 70s Chanel occasionally used to advertise ‘No 5’ just with a plain black and white photograph of its distinctive bottle, and very little else by way of explanation. These ads were strikingly dull alongside their competitors in fashion magazines like Vogue and Nova. It was minimalism to the point of arrogance, as if to say to the public ‘we don’t even need to make the effort to seduce you – we know you’ll buy the stuff anyway’, and it displayed a total confidence in an unambiguous connection between object and ‘narrative’; underlining the fact that the more potent the symbolic grammar, the less you need to explain it. This is what art objects in modern contemporary art aspire to achieve, but rarely do, except in a handful of cases: there’s no mistaking, for example, a Warhol, or a Koons, or a Cindy Sherman.

This essential relationship may sound somewhat complicated, but it’s not. It’s the very familiar everyday connection between a symbol and the thing symbolised. You see an advertisement for Coca-Cola and you know immediately what the whole ‘narrative situation’ is, from start to finish. You understand exactly what’s on offer. On the other hand you might see a modern contemporary art object and not have the faintest idea what its ‘narrative’ is, but you should still be alert to the fact it is trying to present you with one. And it may even turn out that, after investigation, you come to realise that the artwork has absolutely no story to tell at all, and that the artist is simply trying their luck; but that doesn’t mean that artworks aren’t trying to involve you in something. The fact that some of them fail doesn’t negate their intent.

"I want the artwork to act as a portal to an experiential frame of mind – an imaginative landscape - and one that you reach by a kind of direct mental congruence, or understanding."

Jakob Zaaiman

And this is exactly what I’m trying to do with my artworks: set up a relationship between the work itself and some kind of accompanying narrative realm; the stranger and more disturbing, the better. I want the artwork to act as a portal to an experiential frame of mind – an imaginative landscape - and one that you reach by a kind of direct mental congruence, or understanding. In other words, you just ‘get it’ – somehow - from the evidence you are presented with. An artwork is like a crime scene: the detective moves intuitively straight into the chase. This is quite different from reducing things to cosy conceptual explanations: this is about being presented with a portal to another experiential realm, and then finding yourself, however fleetingly, pulled into it. You understand the imaginative elements at play directly, and all at once. My artworks are like film posters to films which are hidden in your own experiential imagination.

More importantly, this has nothing to do with ‘decoding’ symbols and visual puzzles of the kind so beloved of people who treat contemporary art as if it were a type of crossword. You don’t ever need to ‘decode’ a movie poster into its elements to ‘get it’ – you understand right away that it’s part of a wider narrative, even if you haven’t a clue about the specifics of the plot, or, more interestingly, haven’t a clue as to what the visual imagery in the poster refers to. You just know what the situation is. Movie posters advertise movies; genuine contemporary artworks advertise strange and disturbing possibilities of the imagination, sometimes in a very allusive and indirect way so as not to weaken the strength of the allure – and what could be more enjoyably fascinating and interesting than that?

So what follows has nothing to do with ‘explaining away’ what it is you are looking at, and trying to domesticate these artworks by endowing them with reassuring ‘meanings’. Of course there is no law against thinking any thoughts you want to, but it’s a straightforward mental congruence with the worlds that they conjure up that is my key objective; which means the accompanying captions should, if anything, enhance the viewer’s sense of enchantment and fascination, rather than diminish it. At least, that’s the plan.

Steinmeyer Overlord: bastard Devil Doll, (2018)

'Steinmeyer Overlord: bastard Devil Doll' (2018) by Jakob Zaaiman (150 x 103 x 0.1 cm)

An advertisement for a clinic somewhere – you’ll have to make an effort to find it, as the usual avenues afforded by social media may not help – which claims to be offering options in Voluntary Human Extinction, clearly going beyond mere ‘reproductive abstinence’. It looks to be adding a medical dimension to the proceedings.

Medical advertising is normally based on the premise that, whatever it is they are offering you, your life is either going to be normalised (as in cured of some malady), or enhanced (as in surgically improving the functioning or appearance of your body). This clinic appears to be heading in the opposite direction. And they’ve copyrighted a couple of useful phrases along the way, the best of which is ‘goodbye, bastard Devil Doll, go sleepy tight’.

I once found a Devil Doll floating in the sea off a beach in the Mediterranean, but didn’t quite have the strength of mind to bring it home with me. The doll pictured under the blanket in the bed might look to be harmless, but I wouldn’t count on it, and the clinic wouldn’t either.

Coca-Cola 5¢ bottle: 10 years that night (2017)

‘Coca-Cola 5¢ bottle: 10 years that night’ (2017) by Jakob Zaaman (103 x 150 x 0.1 cm)

This is a straightforward advertisement for Coca-Cola, employing, if you like, retro-chic, taking the viewer back to the early 20th century, yet holding them in as contemporary a frame of mind as possible.

Not the least trace of satire, or visual humour intended. Warhol showed how Coke images could be a portal into an inverse world of camp sociopathy and glitzy emptiness. This is going one step further, advertising Coke to people distressed by compulsory optimism, combined with the additional idea that anyone, from criminal to saint, or sportsperson to retiree, is ever able to participate in Coke’s dark sugar magic, and by taking a sip find themselves transported from whatever it is they might be suffering from, to a pleasantly self-contained ‘here and now’. Mindless mindfulness, via a mysterious black soda.

Unlike most things, every ice-cold Coke is always as good as the last, which is always as good as it can be. Come the nuclear winter, I shall be hoarding a crate of the stuff.

Nice hair, nice eyes (2016)

‘Nice hair, nice eyes’ (2016) by Jakob Zaaiman (103 x 150 x 0.1 cm)

‘Commissioned’ poster and magazine advertisement for Locust Valley Christ Community in Romania, whose speciality is mobile psychiatry.

This is not meant to be parodic; it’s meant to be experiential and immersive – you join the community spirit through its poster, and feel your way into their distinctive mentality. It doesn’t matter whether you are enchanted or repelled by the services on offer; what matters is that you enter their world by imaginative congruence, and enjoy the experience of vicarious fascination. Communities like Locust Valley are deliberately off grid, and that is at least a part of their allure.

Elvis plays the Piper of Tucson, (2017)

‘Elvis plays the 'Piper of Tucson' (2017) by Jakob Zaaiman (103 x 150 x 0.1 cm)

Elvis merging with fictional Southern Gothic masquerading as documentary: it was always there in the background. Just before she was murdered by Smitty, Gretchen Fritz had seen Elvis’s ‘Tickle Me’ at the Cactus Drive-In, Tuscon.

I’ve always wanted to establish a connection between the intriguing meaninglessness of Elvis’s musical films – of a piece with the suffocating banality celebrated by Jeff Koons - and the kind of explosive criminality that so often erupts in unexpected settings, and with unforeseen correlations, in America. And this could be it, even if the connectivity is not exactly a causal link, and more poetic than scientific. But physical ‘causality’ is only one way of exploring artistic possibilities.

Hulazulashake - Lemony: help me help you, (2018)

‘Hulazulashake - Lemony: help me help you’ (2018), by Jakob Zaaiman (103 x 150 x 0.1 cm)

The lemony tang of incarceration, perhaps; or the chemical false-fragrance of a bathroom. The Hulazula people believe in exploring the filmic limits of product placement, and are not afraid to skip conventional advertising niceties. They are selling a mood that no one has ever experienced before.

The slogan deepens the mystery by locking you into an unsettling circularity. The context is the optimism and technological promise of the 1950s, merged with a kind of ‘psychiatric nihilism’, as incarnated in a lemony milkshake.

The Mollyana St Paul Series

Mollyanna St Paul is a series of institutions run by the infamous Professor Dr Molly-Michael St Paul, who may or may not be a single person, and might even possibly be as many as four people. So we are talking about going well beyond ‘Folie à deux’ to ‘Folie à quatre’, if there is such a state, and given our infinite capacity for mental disintegration, there probably is.

‘Dr Molly-Michael’ is inspired by the example of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer, who attempted to merge themselves into a single being. And there are others trying the same thing. But the Mollyanna group like to keep themselves underground and far away from the meddling eyes of authority, and so have set up a series of safe houses across America.

Genesis and Lady Jaye after surgery to twin them; from ‘The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye’, directed by Marie Losier (2011)

Psychiatry is the pretext, but of course they don’t see it that way, and if their posters are anything to go by, they are not much interested in conventional medical trajectories. They are creating centres of experimental thought. They now also appear to be flirting with the transgressive and transhuman options usually associated with cult religion.

Mollyanna St Paul: may we cross over now?, (2018)

‘Mollyanna St Paul: may we cross over now?’ (2018) by Jakob Zaaiman (150 x 103 x 0.1 cm)

A Sweet Lovechild in the Image of God, (2017)

‘A Sweet Lovechild in the Image of God’ (2017) by Jakob Zaaiman (150 x 103 x 0.1 cm)

Person of the Year, (2017)

‘Person of the Year’ (2017) by Jakob Zaaiman (51 x 75 x 0.1 com). Time Magazine celebrates Dr Molly Michael St Paul.

What I’ve tried to show here is that the best of contemporary art is not about the aesthetics of beauty; it is about a distinct form of ‘theatrical narrative’. Crafted beauty is all very well, but it’s actually quite trivial in any grander scheme of things. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is inherently tedious when compared with a Francis Bacon or an Andy Warhol, or a Beuys. Crafterly skill has its place, but it’s the experiential narrative that fires us up.

Contemporary artworks – whatever the artform - are like posters for a film; the more fascinating and disturbing the ‘film’ they advertise, the better the art.

About the Author

Jakob Zaaiman is an artist born in 1955 near Etersheim, North Holland, who is currently based between London and New York.

He works mainly with photographs, and is interested only in the troubling and disconcerting aspects of life which can be discovered within the ordinary. Each of his artworks is designed to house its own impenetrable narrative; sometimes self-contained; sometimes reaching out to realms beyond itself.

You can discover Jakob's art on his Artzine gallery.

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