“It’s an Encyclopedia of Life”: An Ironic Look at Photographic Tropes

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Photography by Paul Kooiker, courtesy of Art Paper Editions

Paul Kooiker’s pleasing new series is a genre-by-genre examination of photography’s well worn signifiers

If you were asked to assemble a roomful of photographs to tell your life’s story up until this point, would you know which ones to use? This summer, Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker showed an exhibition of his work at Antwerp’s FOMU – in which one room, housing a new series entitled Eggs and Rarities, was formulated to question exactly that.

“The museum asked me for a retrospective,” he explains over the phone, “and I suggested a work about what a retrospective is”. Working through his archive, Kooiker chose a selection of images taken over the course of the past ten years that had yet to see the light of day. He added to these a handful of new pieces, to create a photographic sampler, of sorts. Both macro and micro in equal measure, Eggs and Rarities leans into photographic clichés through a genre-by-genre examination of artistic tropes. Kooiker tries his hand at the landscape, the nude, the still life, the nature shot, the family cooking at home together, the baby in the bath, the train pulling into a station… Viewed in isolation, each of these works seems a work in and of itself. Viewed together, though, they form part of his wry ‘encyclopedia of life’ – so that the theme of the work, but also the format in which it is shown, is ‘a retrospective’.

“In the 1980s and 90s, punk bands would make these albums and they’re always called B-Sides and Rarities,” he continues.So that was my starting point. It’s a very broad, almost ambitious way to begin, because I wanted to make a work about the world, and about myself, and also about photography as a medium.”

Irony has always been at play in Kooiker’s work – whether he’s working on a playful collaboration with Rick Owens or shooting surreal nudes. Here, naivety and complexity are happy bedfellows. “There’s a lightness to it, but also it becomes heavy,” he summarises. “I love that when people enter the work [Eggs and Rarities, at FOMU], they think: ‘oh yeah, I know these kinds of images’. But they kind of infiltrate; after a while they think there’s a story, but there is no story. So, the longer you look, the more complicated it becomes.”

Eggs and Rarities by Paul Kooiker is out now, published Art Paper Editions.