The obsession with the "perfect baby" and children who would be progressively more intelligent and fit than the last generation, is an ancient one. Today through genetic technologies, social engineering and developmental psychology we believe we control previously inaccessible natural workings that strongly influence the way children are born, learn and grow. Pedagogues and biologists are continuously debating the beginning of life and the formative years with every step of progress, before and after every experiment, successful or not. From the abortion wars to gifted sperm banks. From extreme authoritarian rhetoric to schooling systems of total autonomy. The revolution in reproductive science has come to add yet another dimension to the issue, and blurred the borders between fact and fiction. "Tasks & Games, portraits of the never young" is a series of 24 portraits, depicting children caught in the middle of the pursuit of perfection before and after their birth. A pictorial record of my reactions to the mixed messages on the subject. I process and then output the information I retain, combined with my own visual obsessions, symbols and motifs. The images communicate questions and concerns rather than opinions, since the deeper I researched the more divided and confused I became. Developing the images was a interactive process. The series evolved to showcase the loss of innocence. Innocence of simpler times, simpler games, simpler childhoods. The portraits at first appear to have a peaceful, archival quality. Dramatically lit and staged in traditional photography studio settings, in front of bizarre backdrops or locations that some times overtake their little bodies, or what's left of them, the children are posed with their favorite toys or objects, in their Sunday best. A closer look will reveal signs of severe pain. We get to observe visual renditions of the nightmares they live in, and through them, maybe we face some of our own. They have obviously taken their toll on the kids even if most of them are smiling or smirking. The digital, on-screen process of creating the art, followed numerous pencil studies and was finally transferred to copper plates and printed traditionally as photogravures. Seamless connection between old and new is important through every stage. The majority of the raw photographic materials originate from the early nineteen hundreds. The children are real.. Their names and ages are scribbled in the back of their photos. They are fused with contemporary objects and environments that seem to consume them. The images are titled after traditional tasks and games. A sharp juxtaposition between the pure nature of old fashioned children activities with scientific methods and their results. "Tasks & Games" is a testimony. A body of work detached from specific schools of thought on development, past or present. It's a series of extreme cases where the natural, unadulterated curiosity and creativity of children was suppressed. Proof that genetic inheritance and growth derive from a complex combination of variables, impossible to predict or mastermind.
Viktor Koen, May 1999
ESSAY ON TASKS AND GAMES BY JONATHAN GOODMAN
Viktor Koen's series, "Tasks & Games: Portraits of the Never Young" (1999), comprises 24 photogravures of babies and small children, presented in extreme, nightmare-like situations. Most of the children have been fused in some way with macabre technology, giving the image a threatening, surreal aura, in which almost anything can, and usually does, happen. Additionally, the black-and-white tones lend gravity to these scenes of lost and even butchered innocence. One has the sense that the work is meant to disturb, to provoke a feeling of horror almost without hope on the part of the viewer. Of course, the question to be asked following the shock of the imagery is, Why? "Tasks & Games" can be seen in a number of ways - as a psychological fantasy, in which the artist is occupied with rendering pain; as a Surrealist exercise, in which horror is made new by the grafting on of modern objects to the children's bodies; and as a warning about genetic inheritance and technology, two powerful means of influence on people and their development in modern culture. In each case, the implications of the image strike the viewer as a meditation on good and evil, innocence succumbing to dark forces bent on destruction of simple virtue. The art which Koen makes is constructed from a self-contained logic; the pictures may remind us of our world and its brutal constructions but, in their enclosed torment and angst, they are fully expressive by themselves. The artist is most interested in playing out the ramifications of his own sensibility, whereby he builds a world of his own as he struggles both to differ from and to imitate what he sees. As one can see, what Koen does is to juxtapose and conflate extremes - of innocence and violence, of nature and science, of happiness and great pain. Children are innocent, but often what is done to them is not. KoenŐs fusions take two points of view at once - he sees and records the potential of the child, and he also acknowledges the violence inherent in life. Art can't change reality, but it can objectively comment on what happens to our days. Koen's powerful, affecting images depend equally on the sweet subjectivity of children and the terrible things that can happen through manmade interventions.The technology of his imagination is in some ways objective - a calm, clear act of reporting. But the feelings he calls up are intensely personal, subject to frailty, insecurity, even doom. He is a kind of visual poet, in possession of a toughmindedness that constructs visions of both the horrific and the sublime. In this way, he cannot be called only an artist of dark vision; he must also be understood as a medium of light. As he instinctively knows, one cannot stand without the other; his portraits turn on this unified duality. Koen's striking mixture adds up to a recognition, or as he puts it, Ňa testimony.Ó The bizarre imagery that results from his hybrid machine-children looks to scientific investigation; the artist is trying to determine what would happen if such grafts were possible. But somewhere too we can see that the children, despite their circumstances, retain an innocence and innate creativity. Koen comments that "Tasks and Games" is "proof that genetic inheritance and growth derive from a complex combination of variables, impossible to predict or mastermind." A statement implying that the freedom of the individual stands out in opposition to manmade restraints, that the innocent child can take on all manner of change and still remain guileless and free. In some ways, though, it is the terror of technology that comes through; its constraints nearly straitjacket the childrenŐs innocence, whose loss is KoenŐs principal theme. The world of experience is not shrugged away or decoratively engaged; he treats it as what it is an environment in which the brutal occurs on a regular basis. This is why his art is so affecting and, finally, so real.
Jonathan Goodman, November 2OOO