But Is It Art?

The recent exhibition by Belgian photographer Frieke Janssens entitled ‘The Beauty of an Ugly Addiction’ is a real challenge. Simultaneously haunting and captivating, the photographs of children smoking are exquisitely retro-styled. The viewer cannot fail to be impressed by the skill of the photographer, and yet the subject matter is problematic, leaving a residual sense of unease. Janssens was fully aware of this, and sought to challenge our ideas about smoking in the West, taking inspiration from the East. She saw the viral video footage of Aldi, a two-year-old Indonesian boy smoking – a forty a day habit he found very difficult to quit, throwing tantrums and banging his head when deprived of a fix. His parents were seemingly at a loss to know how to stop him, and if the video had not gone viral he may have been smoking to this day.
The shocking footage of Aldi provoked amusement in some. The juxtaposition of an innocent child and an adult vice was an unsettling sight, and it is this ambivalence that Janssens is exploiting in her photos. She says, “The video highlighted the cultural differences between the east and west, and questioned notions of smoking being a mainly adult activity. Adult smokers are the societal norm, so I wanted to isolate the viewer’s focus upon the issue of smoking itself”. What do you think? A serious point about smoking, or an excuse to shock? For some the issue highlighted is not smoking, but the use of children in art, resonating with the recent controversial Vogue shoot, which used young girls in an adult fashion setting. Children doing adult things. For adults. To make a point. Kind of metacreepy?
Janssens says she was trying to capture the aesthetics of smoking. On her site she explains, “The aesthetics of smoke and the particular way smokers gesticulate with their hands and posture cannot be denied, but among the different tribes of “Smoking Kids,” – Glamour, Jazz, and The Marginal – there is a nod to less attractive aspects, on the line between the beauty and ugliness of smoking…. the culture around smoking has a retro feel, like the time period of “Mad Men,” when smoking on a plane or in a restaurant was not unusual.” Janssen highlights an aspect of the photographs that is instantly recognisable. The gestures and positioning of the children, undoubtedly quite innocent, are uncannily accurate. The faded, retro hue to the photographs lends a perfect air of nostalgia. There is no doubt that the styling of Janssen’s work is stunning.

Typical Mad Men smoking shot

The idea that in the West at least, smoking is becoming a ‘retro’ look is playful and interesting. Janssens plays with that notion skilfully. It’s clever. The photography is beautiful, and a viewing of the short film on her website shows how tenderly she treats the children during the shoot. But it also highlights how tiny and innocent they are, how totally unaware of the nature of this big adult thing they are being used to create. None of them smoked real cigarettes; it was done with incense sticks and pieces of chalk. But the effect is powerfully realistic. There are so many strands to pick out in this collection. Like all the best art is raises questions, forces the viewer position themselves and leaves unfinished thoughts that trail off who knows where.
I like the photos. Kind of. I think. But then again…

Janssens ‘The Beauty of an Ugly Addiction’

Copyright Frieke Janssens

Vogue shoot:

Short film on Janssen’s website about the shoot

Lucy Milton spent much of her young life on a sectional sofa in the V&A, waiting for her father to finish his shift there. She’s been fascinated with all sorts of art ever since, especially the pieces which would have spoken to her as a girl.

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1 Comment

  1. 09/04/2012

    It’s really cool and mind blowing Art… Good, Good, Good