Expansion of a 15 Minute Conversation to 800 Words: On Jason Hanasik’s He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore.

by John Neff

Showing and telling, or not showing and not telling, or any combination thereof. Asking and telling: likewise.

He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore is an installation of photographs by Jason Hanasik. Or photographs presented under the name – the cover – Jason Hanasik. He took fifteen of the images, borrowing the rest from his sitters Patrick and Steven, surnames unknown. Hanasik’s portraits depict Patrick and Steven in and out of uniform. They are soldiers, Iraq War veterans and straight. Their photographs depict military life in Iraq, themselves. Hanasik is an artist, a civilian and gay. All of them have known one another since childhood.

How do I – a would-be viewer of the installation – know any of this? Some of the information is easy to come by, part of the protocol of institutional presentation: invitations, press releases, title sheets. But then...

Jason: hey john, sorry, was pulled away from my computer. so, the titles are a part of the installation but they are provided via a sheet of paper that people take around with them. i see the lectures i give during the shows as part of the project as a whole. 3:32 PM on Monday

So we are looking at an installation of photographs – mostly portraits – made and selected by Jason Hanasik, who appears before the audience but not in front of the camera. And there’s another man.

Jason: those relationships are obscure when people engage the work, and that’s purposeful. i am a specter in the series, as is josh – the marine whose death ignited the project. 3:34 PM on Monday

Josh was Steven’s best friend. Steven is Patrick’s younger brother. Patrick is Hanasik’s best friend. Josh and Jason were friends. Steven kept his distance from Jason (homophobia?) until, after Josh’s death in Iraq, Steven suddenly and unexpectedly opened up to the artist, sharing his confusion and grief at the killing. Shortly after that encounter – which occurred during a two-man car trip from hometown Virginia to holiday New York – Hanasik began his project He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore.

Traveling around the gallery in an uneven line, the collection of photographs suggests a journey through these spaces – Virginia to Iraq to New York to California – while the modulations of gaze between photographer and model (sometimes one and the same) in the images seem to chart a subjective passage from suspicion to openness.

Jason: the relationships i have with these men are “hidden” but still gestured towards. 3:35 PM on Monday

Although Hanasik the artist provides the project with a proper name, He Opened Up resists the narrative and stylistic unities we associate with an “Authored” work. His portraits derive equally from the conventions of photojournalism and that reservoir of approaches, images and themes we have come to call queer culture (think The Fleet’s In), finally resting in neither document nor fantasy. Their pictures, on loan (from what, Facebook?) and reframed as art, are no longer communiqués from a crisis, proofs of life. Yet they retain the brusque rawness of images dispatched without regard for style.

Jason: btw, i now see why you had trouble chatting with me. i was invisible – logged in but no one could see me. 3:37 PM on Monday

When Hanasik’s voice “appears” in speech or text, it does not smooth over the apparent incongruities in the photographic elements of He Opened Up. The verbal component of the project doesn’t function as an explanatory supplement standing outside of its visual dimension; rather, it is another figuration injected directly into the heart of the work.

Rendered as a first-person confession, Hanasik’s narration provides some biographical details – maybe true – about the figures we see in the photographs, but it does very little to explain the scenes depicted. What is that wooden goose? Why is Patrick in bed? Especially: who is that man carrying two bottles of piss? In this way, Hanasik’s lectures and texts are like the libretti of operas (and maybe his rehearsals of the complex connections among his subjects recall soap operas). They provide dramatic direction to his work, but do not suture words and embodied images tightly together. Zones open inside the project where collapses of coherence within and between images and language elicit aesthetic and emotional responses outside of, or at odds with, the work’s ostensible sentiments. (Something like Barthes’ punctum?)

Jason: could you elaborate on your previous point? 3:41 PM on Monday

For me, the strength of the project lies in the fact that it does and does not tell a story. I don’t want to see He Opened Up only as a document of relationships between civilian and soldier, gay and straight – or imagine the work as a humanist expansion of our appreciation of American masculinity. I want to suggest that, at the level of construction and form, He Opened Up demonstrates the ways in which differences and lapses in our understanding can make new connections and identifications – with self and with other – possible.

John Neff, 2010

Originally published for a catalogue created for the exhibition "He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore" at Iceberg Projects in Chicago, IL.