Saturday, February 2, 2019

Erik Kessels | Shit

Erik Kessels
Paris, France: RVB Books, 2018
100 pp., 16.5 x 23 cm., linen bound hardcover
Edition size unknown

Dutch artist and ad exec Erik Kessels has emerged as one of the most consistently engaging artists to work with found and vernacular photography since Hans Peter Feldmann. He has published over fifty books of collected images, from Missing Links twenty years ago, to the recent Image Tsunami, which explores the overwhelming abundance of snapshot photography posted to Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram. He has published fourteen volumes of both the In Almost Every Picture series and the Useful Photography periodical he edits.

Kessel's latest title, released in November, collects forty-six black & white photographs from World War Two, of soldiers defecating. Sourced on Ebay, these are the types of images typically left out of history books, but they serve to illuminate an important, if overlooked, aspect of battle. When we try to fathom the horrors of war, it’s mostly a fear of being killed or maimed, or maybe of having to kill or maim. Perhaps the agony of trench-foot or frostbite, if we recall our World War One history. But this collection reminds us there were other indignities and vulnerabilities to contend with.

The photographs themselves speak to the necessary immodesty of the time, as few of them appear to have been taken surreptitiously. Soldiers smile for the camera, or blithely go about their business. In fewer than half of the images men appear alone. Perhaps for expediency or security, the men are often emptying their bowels simultaneously, side-by-side.

"Sometimes if you are at a very temporary FOB," writes a Vietnam War veteran at, "you sit on a couple of planks and drop your load in what is called a slit trench and everybody—your buddies, news journalists and even your enemy—watch while you fertilize God’s green Earth [...] But, nature trumps personal desires, and extrinsic desires for privacy."Another adds: "No movie can ever capture all the things people have to suffer, not the least of which is the biological necessities of just living."

The book is promoted with some unnecessary juvenile puns (I could do without the cover sticker that reads "The Crappiest Book You'll Ever Read”) and this punning continues in the brief forward by the artist, which seems to want to have it both ways: a lighthearted book for the 'Humour' section, and a collection of wartime photography of consequence. Which are not mutually exclusive, I suppose.

Scatological humour appears in works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Swift, Joyce, Pynchon and other major literary figures. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart often wrote about shit in his letters and music (one bowdlerized song title translates to "Lick Me In The Arse"). These infantile vulgarities are typically played for easy laughs, but also to represent wider social anxieties.

Fearing his imminent arrest, a character on the Armando Iannucci sitcom Veep confesses his true concerns:  “It’s the prison toilet situation that preys on one’s mind. Defecating in full view of another man is unthinkable.” In another HBO comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is tasked with guarding the door (a broken latch? I can’t recall) while his wife Cheryl uses the bathroom. He, unsurprisingly, neglects his duties and she chastises him for leaving her vulnerable and humiliated: “Like, imagine the worst moment a person can walk in on somebody.”

The first time toilets appeared on television it was not in a drama, it was on 'low-brow' comedies (All in the Family introduced the sound of flushing to TV audiences, and Married With Children made it a staple). On The Brady Bunch only a few years prior, one of the sets was a shared washroom where the six children would get ready together in the morning. The room had a bath and two sinks, but no toilet.

Of course, there are few, if any, actual toilets visible here, also. There's the occasional doorless outhouse where the soldiers sit on a board with a hole cut out of it, but mostly these men are squatting in fields or next to railway tracks, or seated atop a bridge handrail. One can't help but wonder how often - in the middle of actual battle - circumstances would have been much, much worse. That the soldiers here are some of the lucky ones.

Shit serves as a playful but stark reminder that one of the horrors of war is the lack of the comforts of home, and that dignity and privacy are often intertwined.

The cloth-covered, foil-embossed volume is available from the publisher, here, for 35 €. 

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