Hanspeter and me

By Peter Matthews

fathers-day-hanspeter-ammann.jpgFather’s Day

Portrait of the Artist: on the video work of Hanspeter Ammann

Hanspeter Ammann is a London and Zurich-based video artist whose work hasn’t always received the attention it deserves. Let me admit my partisanship straight off. I have known Hanspeter for almost seven years – and more than casually, it must be said. I hasten to add that this won’t be a confessional essay (or not principally), for I assume that few people apart from ourselves are interested in whatever gory details there may be. Still, I find it hard to keep the personal out of sight completely because I figure as a model in several of the tapes I will be describing. Now, I might try putting on my critic’s cap and writing objectively about ‘Ammann’ and his ‘camera subjects’. But that would be a ridiculous fraud, supposing it were even possible. Moreover, any such feint at dispassion could only be a violation of the work – preoccupied as it is with exploring the imponderables of private desire. So it appears I should somehow factor myself and the backstory I share with Hanspeter into the equation. On the other hand, love and loyalty are snares for the conscientious critic. An enamoured puff piece would be of little material benefit to Hanspeter or the inquisitive reader. It behoves me, then, to temper emotion with a degree of reflection. Fortunately, ‘Ammann’ leads the way by striking the same delicate balance in his video art.

macau-handover-hanspeter-ammann.jpgMacau Handover 

I use the term advisedly, knowing that Hanspeter rejects it as a suitable designation of what he does. For him, video art now signifies (with however many important exceptions) a formal and conceptual aimlessness that preens itself on some residual notion of avant-garde experiment. Eclecticism can be the last refuge of the scoundrel. Prizing rigour above all else, Hanspeter has methodically weeded out any lingering traces of flash and easy gimmickry. His work grows more ‘conservative’ in that it gathers progressive strength from the discipline of traditional forms. Portraiture has been his chosen genre in recent years, precisely for the fruitful limits it imposes on maundering self-expression. Your efficient portraitist can’t afford the luxury of solipsism. There’s an inbuilt duty to serve the particular subject by revealing his or her salient qualities. At the same time, a stringent tact is demanded, since human beings must be accorded the space of their own integral solitude and mystery. For antecedents, one should look less to the authorial hubris of video art than the observational tendencies of film art – Hanspeter cites cinéma-vérité and Italian neo-realism as enduring influences. That doubtless explains the baffled response to his tapes in some quarters. It’s never entirely clear which team the artist is batting for. He resists entry to the self-satisfied electronic ghetto, but can’t be called a documentary ‘professional’ either – if that job title conveys an attitude of impersonal, pedagogic authority.

Hanspeter’s videos don’t quite belong anywhere, and in some measure suffer the fate of all homeless mongrels. Yet it happens that ambiguity is also the chief value they embody. Their elusive imagery fascinates without really satisfying. The viewer is offered glints – mere phantasmagoria – of meaning that seem to melt into thin air on the verge of being consciously seized. Though my friend would take issue with so pat a diagnosis, I see him as engaged in a running war against cliché – the whole culture of spin, sound-bites and feel-good formulas that tries to engineer our responses towards an ever happier consensus. Hanspeter wants to cast doubt on ready-made interpretations, but understands that not every aporia is created equal. The free-floating indeterminacy that’s a product of bungling and laziness should be distinguished from the structured ambiguity characterising his work. Hanspeter collects prodigal masses of raw footage, then meticulously sifts and eliminates until the fugitive target is nailed. While this procedure holds potential moral implications (as an ethics of vision, for instance, a lesson in patient attentiveness to the world around us), the documentarist recognises that his underlying motives are far from pure. In so zealously hunting down the abstruse quarry of each portrait, Hanspeter is fired by emphatic – even crude – self-interest. A blunter word would be lust.


All Hanspeter’s videos are autobiographical in that they body forth the obscure, fleeting – but still strangely preordained – shape of his own desire. As a confused young man, he made Rush (1981), which records the blizzard of snow on a defunct TV monitor for three ear-splitting minutes. It’s an apprentice work that feels like covert testimony – Hanspeter might be confiding that he too is an empty screen, surging with blind, directionless energy and seeking a channel for it (libidinal or otherwise). The tapes that followed were equal throwaways, yet demonstrate an appreciable sharpening in resolution. Both Condition (1981) and Attar (1982) employ the classic surrealist gambit of releasing the unsuspected poetry trapped in some tawdry Grade-Z artefact. The sources are popular Egyptian movies, which Hanspeter edits and loops to create a reverie of drifting clouds and anxious, masculine faces. He penetrates the manifest text and pinpoints its latent beauty – those secluded moments that touch him. Once known, desire ceases to operate. Hanspeter won’t traduce his enchantment by giving it a name; instead he bears faithful witness to its intensity and utter irreducibility. But these were just inert cultural objects after all. So far the anomic artist had shied away from the mess of human contact. That may be why he interrupted his video practice and went into analysis, resurfacing a decade later as a bona fide shrink.

It’s apt that in the immediate fall-out of the talking cure, he should produce his most baldly cathartic piece. In Couch (1994), I confront the naked body of my predecessor as he and a fully clad Hanspeter lock limbs for a tender, anguished embrace. Their pose carries faint associations of a sorrowing Pietà – though who is the mourner and who the sacrificial victim remains an open question. The punning title aligns the erotic with the psychiatric, and the tape indeed exhibits a painfully literal case of love-sickness. Sweet nothings can’t save this pair; intractably different claims and needs have ground the relationship down to a visible stalemate. Hanspeter casts himself as the dupe of thwarted passion, and retrospectively, its cool, clinical voyeur. If the plan was to exorcise his demons by objectifying them, the onscreen therapy worked. He would never again find cause to be so self-exposing. These days Hanspeter stays firmly lodged behind the camera, acknowledging – even relishing – the phallic power it wields. That’s where I enter the picture. I first met Hanspeter when he accosted me during my shift as an usher in a gallery. The dangled bait was an offer to do my video portrait – his usual tack, as I quickly learned. The resulting tape, Flat 23 (1996), is probably too intimate for wide public consumption (I have sat in a theatre and watched half the audience walk out). Its implacable minimalism entails the stretching out of a single gesture – I rock my head back and forth – to a cataleptic eternity. I may be romanticising after the fact, but I suspect that he required this narrow and leisurely inspection of my charms to decide about me. The camera (or more specifically, the editing) focused a passing fancy and turned it into desire. You might say that Hanspeter appointed his own fate, arranged to be surprised – by love.


As for me, I coquettishly evade the seducer’s bold appraisal; but in the final moments, return the look and thereby (I like to imagine) signal my consent. The pact sealed, I became Hanspeter’s model – not his muse, but a theme he could reliably vary when no fresher opportunities arose. Spiritually, he has strayed many times. In Ferrara (2000), the camera picks out one strapping specimen from a band of amateur jugglers. Perhaps mindful of its admiration, this Adonis haughtily displays his pulchritude. With similar concupiscence, Two Songs (2002) enlists Bryan Ferry and Maria Callas to discriminate the rival pipedreams sparked by patrons of a Southeast Asian bar. Stronger and more confident, Hanspeter has put aside the claustrophobic brooding of Couch and gone out into the world – catching life on the fly as a nimble documentarist should. Yet sooner or later, the public scenes he invades crack open to betray some inscrutable private current. Mission (1998) studies the ritual choreography of a busy formal reception. Mingling with the throng, yet ineffably set apart from it, is a handsome diplomat whom we creep upon by stages and would almost suppose to have earmarked for ourselves. It’s a fiction of cruising that might stand as the emblem of Hanspeter’s approach. Trusting his instinct, he waits for the thunderbolt – the object of objects that will deliver a sudden thrill, a frisson, of recognition. The enquiring eye draws a bead on the suave emissary and discovers: what? Tiny fissures of doubt, a furtive restlessness that slightly mars the seasoned mask of protocol. A disturbance at any rate, though it could as well be irritation at the camera’s indecent liberties. In the end, Hanspeter’s subjects always swim away from our human compulsion to interpret them. It takes a mystic (or a psychoanalyst) to brave the void. Couple (1998) invites the viewer to spin alternative stories and fantasies around a continuous shot of a pensive young man – myself – seated behind a chic Japanese woman. Flirtation, devotion, frustration, enmity, jealousy, indifference (or mere spatial coincidence) can be posited in turn, but the jury is permanently out. Those willing to pass beyond judgement, however, and listen to the silence may experience something like liberation.


Commissioned to mark the return of the Portuguese territory to China in December 1999, Macau Handover (2000) counsels acceptance too, this time on the scale of history. Though the official ceremony can be heard on the soundtrack, it remains tantalisingly off-screen. Excluded from the sacred rites of power, we take our place among the milling crowds at street level and await the fulfilment of a destiny outside our control. The departing brass sit stiffly for one last portrait, the army trucks rolls in; yet Hanspeter undercuts the stately pomp with vignettes that argue the resilience of common humanity. He will forgive the indiscretion, but there’s mounting evidence in his work of a longing for truths above the tumult of the flesh. In Johor (2002), we glimpse a bride and groom posing decorously at a traditional Malaysian wedding, their festive solemnity reminding us of the pudgy gods and goddesses we also see adorning an outlandishly coloured façade. Temples, caves, murals and people as still as murals – serenely self-sufficient images that promise redemption and yet withhold it. The tableau-like shots suggest moments frozen in eternity, while the non-synchronous sound implies the whole earthly hubbub going on regardless. Hanspeter seems to be navigating due East in search of enlightenment. I can’t help thinking of Father’s Day (2002), therefore, as a final gift to me. This 60-minute tape is outwardly the most ‘conventional’ of his documentaries, since it combines interviews with fly-on-the-wall episodes (the title invokes Richard Leacock’s and Joyce Chopra’s 1963 vérité classic A Happy Mother’s Day). But look carefully, and you’ll spot another couch – albeit a cheap synthetic one in a suburban motel room. Hanspeter accompanies me back to my roots in small-town Canada, meets the family and tries to repair the damage. My heartfelt thanks. And here’s something for you, HP.

Peter Matthews is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to Sight and Sound.

Father’s Day will be screened in London by the Lux, early in 2003. For venue details and times, please visit www.lux.org.uk