by Jason Lahman
“A uniform provides its wearer with a definitive line of demarcation between his person and the world… It is the uniform’s true function to manifest and ordain order in the world, to arrest the confusion and flux of life, just as it conceals whatever in the human body is soft and flowing, covering up the soldier’s underclothes and skin…” ~ Hermann Broch
“Spontaneity is only a term for man’s ignorance of the gods.” ~ Samuel Butler
In October of 2011, a number of San Francisco artist Jason Hanasik‘s photographic and film works were installed at Krowswork Gallery in Oakland. Hanasik has become well-known for his portraits of military men. His images are uncluttered and sparse, but there is always something quietly seductive in the way they lure the eye beyond a first impression of simplicity. Hanasik’s photographs are only one aspect of his multimedia installations which incorporate film-footage and occasionally objects. When seen as a whole, these function not only as intense, visual biographies, but as serious tools for deconstructing the performance of “the self” in both public and private spheres. The lives of soldiers have given Hanasik an effective way to explore the processes of self-fashioning and self-revelation. In two of his projects, “I slowly watched him disappear” and “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore,” Hanasik focuses on gestural control and the expression of spontaneity between men to get at deeper questions of identity, and to collapse our social ways of seeing men’s “innate” qualities.
For several years Hanasik has photographed Sharrod, a young African-American man who has spent much of his life within the U.S. military system. The images of Sharrod that make up “I slowly watched him disappear” reveal a great deal about how the body is made into a sign for things totally unrelated to its everyday biological functions. Who this young man is outside his (chosen?) career path is a tantalizing secret that hovers evasively beneath his intense gaze and his salute. Hanasik has taken Sharrod’s picture in a number of civilian spaces that accentuate his presence as a soldier. They also remind us that we are free at any time to see through that layer of social reality. Sharrod’s role as a cadet and future warrior is the visual starting point for any other question we might pose about who this young man is in the world.
In one photograph from this series, an official dress and comportment guide for young cadets rests open to the section which outlines the acceptable haircut along with terse explanations for why it must be so. To those outside the military, such manuals have a certain archaic quality: relics of an age when honor and sacrifice were more closely connected to day-to-day living and when the act of questioning formal dress-codes would seem an attack on civility.
The body of a soldier is not his own. The body in service to the nation is the representative of an idealized form with a set of particular functions connected to the programs of peace-keeping/warfare. In his classic text Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault discusses at length the way the human body of the warrior is programmed to be the component of a larger machine, to immediately respond with particular moves to command signals. This draws in a closely-related subject of memorized movement: dance. Authors as far back as Plato (in his discussion of the pyrrhic dances) have pointed out that dance and military maneuvers have a long, entangled lineage. Through the calculations of gesture many bodies become one–or at least create the appearance of oneness.
In the film-loop "Sharrod (Turn/Twirl)" the subject is recorded as he turns 360 degrees while holding himself in the position of salute. In the small room at Krowswork where this was projected, I had the feeling that I was some sort of a clinician watching for the slightest twitch, an authority figure judging the ability of the cadet to maintain his posture. The sheer tedium of this performance becomes a kind of yogic exercise for the watcher–and fascination leads to other emotional responses: pity, respect, horror, consternation. Issues of age, class, gender, race, authority, and tradition flash like little sparks, troubling the surface of appearances. One wonders what the REAL story of this man/child is. How is it that we as a culture give so little thought to the actual lived experiences of those in the armed services? What hopes, impulses, feelings are flowing beneath the crystal surface of Sharrod’s eyes? I was surprised at the compassion this footage elicited in me, not because I felt bad for Sharrod, but because it suddenly became clear to me how much energy all of us exert performing our “selves” in order to manifest that image which the gaze of others has necessitated.
“In the Green Zone: November 2007” is a second loop which is generally shown alongside Hanasik’s series of photos and objects “ He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore.” Krowswork had installed this as a projection in a room full of old church pews where visitors could sit. With my back pressed firmly against the vintage furniture of worship, I noticed my posture changing. The turning image of Sharrod just a few feet away had affected me physically and I was suddenly aware of my spine and the ability to hold it erect. In complete contrast to these exercises in holding form, “In the Green Zone” shows two soldiers dancing together, caught in a moment of childlike fun, without thought, as it were, of meaning. It is not a memorized pyrrhic dance but a spontaneous expression of the joyful moment. We are unaccustomed in our society to seeing grown men engaging in behavior that is so gentle, funny and intimate.
The sense of recognition that I experienced grew stronger the longer I sat with the work. Then I suddenly remembered the 1894 Edison footage of two men dancing together. There is an uncanny similarity between these two pieces. On a phenomenological level we occupy the spot of the proverbial fly on the wall, peeking in at an unguarded moment in which men shed their social armor of aggressive and/or formal gestures and allow a spontaneous softness to emanate from their bodies. On a sociological level we can consider how these images show us the fluidity of a category as contentious and unstable as “masculinity.”
Hanasik manages to hold and frame his subjects in such a way that both the ambiguity of the real human being and the hard edge of their roles stand together. Like the image of Sharrod standing on the balcony viewed through a glass door on which milky reflections pass, we seem to see through a series of transparencies layered over these figures. They move back and forth between being just guys we might pass on the street, and mascots of a monolithic social-system whose very essence is rooted in the ancient rituals of choreographed violence.
But Hanasik does not judge his subjects nor does he encourage us to pass judgment on people whose professional way of life and its attendant disciplinary requirements is a mystery to many of us. Through his focus on gesture Hanasik allows authority and the performance of duty to exist in equanimity alongside the moments of its spontaneous release. “What are we?” these images seem to ask. “How is it we can be so many things: the machine parts of war, the exquisitely innocent children of nature at play?” This is of course only a paradox because we think in binary categories. Hanasik’s images reveal to us that there really is no paradox. These image reflect back to us the truth of our impressive malleability, our capacity to perform and communicate through our bodies. This transformational elasticity is perhaps our species’ greatest trait, and one so basic to our very being-in-the world we rarely take the time to contemplate the ramifications of its uses.
This essay was originally published on Art21.com.