Democracy and Desire

Per Huttner

This text is a reflection on the process of the project Democracy and Desire which opens at Vacio 9 in Madrid November 23, 2006. A longer version of this text will appear in the catalogue that will document the exhibition. For more information about the project and related events please visit:


Above blanket

When I started writing this text I was standing at the airport and waiting for my love with my laptop propped up against some metal fitting. The plane was almost two hours late. This was extremely frustrating, but not out of the ordinary. What was slightly more unusual was that airport security had found an abandoned suitcase in the arrival hall and everyone waiting for their respective loved ones were herded like sheep further and further away from the arrival zone until we were finally squeezed into a corner located as far away possible from were we had originally been waiting and watching the screens and peeking through the glass doors, hoping to see a familiar face appear in the milling strangers with their luggage. Finally everything went back to normal and we were allowed back there and we could all see traces of how the bomb-probing robot had made its way into the luggage and then how the police had gone through all the clothes that could have been mine or yours and how harmless, vulnerable and sad someone's possessions look when they are spread across the stone floor in an airport.

Berlin night

But my eyes just scanned quickly. I was looking for the woman of my life in the crowd and did not have time for such unimportant matters. When she finally appeared she looked more beautiful than ever - however she does that trick to me every time is her special form of magic.

We quickly touched upon the topic of the suspected bomb and the delay, but very soon we were back to talking about things that lovers talk about, kissing and holding hands in the back of a cab and enjoying the silence of being together.

Canal dress

In our world an event of a suspected bomb is virtually trivial and passes fairly unnoticed. But at the same time we seem to be obsessed with the expressions of evil. Bombs falling on innocent people, serial killers roaming our neighbourhood, husbands beating or killing their wives and children, paedophiles doing horrendous acts to little boys and girls. All of this is truly terrible and needs to be fought with any means available.

Ersha dao

But it does not allow us to understand the source of evil - only its expression and surface. Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Because it is this superficial gaze that art too often engages in. We have seen it a million times. It is a painted flower which is beautiful without understanding what is inside, its textures, functions, smells, why it exists, why it has been picked or planted - what it is its true spirit. We can see it in human beings depicted in films or photos where we are unable to understand why the person is there and what reasons lie behind the actions that he or she undertakes. Sometimes the artist turns in another direction and does something deliberately strange and incomprehensible without understanding why. It is as if art has become separated from life. An outcome of this communal laziness is that the world engages in various pseudo discussions that on the surface relate to art. But if art engages in a monologue that is obsessed with the surface of the world rather than the very sprit at its core it will get nowhere. Art has become a wall flower instead of being an absolute necessity for the artist and its audience to understand the world and to further human knowledge about our predicament which we all share, enjoy and suffer.

Hainan test

The conflicts that take place around us are at its heart a reflection of conflicts that take place within us. In order to deal with and discuss evil, we are forced to accept that evil is in all of us and in many of our actions. Only through this acceptance will we be able to understand what we are and through that also the world around us. If we distance ourselves from our own dark side and see it only in people and actions that surround us it will at best remain an un-resolvable mystery. But most likely it will, like throughout history, become a political tool in the hands of the people least equipped to deal with it.

Hanoi night

But what will happen if we turn the question around? What if we ask ourselves why human history is so unfathomably gory and brimful with violence? What happens if we assume and accept the fact that there is a drive in all of us to inflict pain on others? What happens to me and my life if I accept that there is a monster dormant in the depth of my soul that could emerge as a killer and a rapist? Can I look myself in the mirror with the knowledge that it is the people that I love truly, honestly, deeply and unconditionally that can unleash this side in me? What would they have to do? What would have to happen to me for the monster to break loose?

Moto 1g

I am clearly entering psychoanalytical territory here. In the work with the project Democracy and Desire I deliberately wanted to avoid this and embark on a slightly different trajectory from my previous work. I wanted to part from a Freudian approach in order to address the present and the future and not only the past. But most importantly I wanted to look beyond my private trauma and open myself the to world. In my previous work I have used my personal experience and particularly my childhood as a starting point for a general discussion on how we deal or do not deal with grief and what implications unresolved sorrow can have on a person's life. In this project I start with a fundamental conflict that rages within all of us and then see how it affects me and other people around me.

Most of us share a deep-rooted will to do good. We care for each other and try to help and support good causes. This very cultivated and just side in us, is what brings our society forward - it is the human foundation that democracy rests on and which allows us in the industrialized west to live lives that from a historically speaking and from a materialistic point of view richer and also more secure than ever before.

But parallel to that, we are also people who have desires and who need to get acknowledgement, love, sexual satisfaction and appreciation. We are subject to stress and pressure and we need to pay our rents and be loyal to my friends and family and very often these clash with our wish to do good. In a hugely over-simplified manner it is this inner conflict that causes the moral question in a story where the hero has the choice of either stealing or staying hungry.


This inner conflict is truly universal. Very few people are evil or do evil deeds out of malice. The do so to protect their children, family or to create a better world - even greed can easily explained as a wish to create jobs and wealth as well as profit. Without greed we would not have the high living standard that we have to today. As a matter of fact I think that it is safe to say that we would still live in caves. So, even cardinal sins have positive effects on our lives.

Democracy and desire are not polarities, but allow us to see this conflict. Democracy today, is closely related to western capitalism and considered unquestionably good in our culture. But could it be that it has gone stale and lost its dynamism because it has become a holy cow that we are not allowed to criticize? Could the biggest threat to democracy be found in this anti-change stance? To acknowledge the presence of these very real questions I paired it with desire in order to reveal its own weakness - because our desires relate to greed, violence, jealousy as well as love and sex. Anyone who has truly loved also knows what behaviour your loved one can provoke in you and vice versa. Desire opens a floodgate of questions that democracy cannot answer or deal with.


Some of the photographs in this exhibition are taken in countries where governments systematically do great evil to its population, but where I have met wonderful people who have taught me incredible things about life and their culture. Others depict the traces of great despots' megalomania or places where books have been burned and innocent people have been killed - but also where marriages have been consumed and great loves born. There is also in Democracy and Desire other conflicts; the system is not the same as the people who perpetuate it. Is it possible for people who do heinous crimes at work to be loving mothers and fathers at home? Or does power corrupt even in the realm of the private and domestic? How does a position of power and wealth affect our abilities to love and be true to ourselves? Can a great despot also be a great lover? To what degree does our life change when the political system change and who are the people responsible for these changes?

I have now formulated questions that come out of an inner conflict that more or less is present in all our lives. In what way do my images differ from this text and how do the two interact? How can an artist avoid that his/her art becomes a stale sermon? How can we create art that transgresses time, cultural borders and speak profoundly about life to its audience?


I have for long time believed that it is enough to formulate a question rather than a message and that this is what constitutes the difference between science, politics on the one hand and art on the other. This offers a good beginning, but I see now that it is actually far more complicated than that. The Chinese 17th century artist Shih-t'ao speaks of yugen which has been translated as "subtle profundity " or "deep reserve". This quality offers to imply, suggest or invoke rather than to represent, depict or preach. Through yugen we can imagine the depth and mirror ourselves in the artwork and it will remain vibrant through time and travel well between cultures.

Andrei Tarkovsky explains his relationship to art in a similar way when he writes about the poetic. "Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality. So poetry becomes a philosophy to guide man through life". In another text he goes further by using the analogy of the Japanese Haiku on which he wrote: " [it] cultivates its images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves, and at the same time express so much that it is not possible to catch their final meaning. . . the great function of the artistic image is to be a detector of infinity. . . [and to give] the beholder a simultaneous experience of the most complex, contradictory, sometimes even mutually exclusive feelings."

The filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha has written about Tarkovsky saying that what he tries to do "is to retain and make incarnate, new each time is the Formless, or as he said it, the life principle unique in each moment of life. Thus form is not intended to express form, but rather, formlessness. The non-consumable relationship between form and formlessness or between art and life defies every binarist attempt at reducing it to the old dichotomy of form and content. In Tarkovsky's definition the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected in a drop of water."

Bucharest night

In the making of the photographs and in the preparation for this project I have for the first time in my artistic career explicitly embraced the poetic, the formless and yugen. They follow more the logic of the dream and have lost the connotation to the rationality of the documentary that was the case before. Through this new approach and freedom, my photographs have become even closer to life than before. They are so to a degree that it has become impossible for me to speak of them as representations. They are life itself and an absolute necessity and prerequisite for me to exist. They are the very interface between past and present in my reality. Each image is a way to negotiate my own relationship to the pains of the past and at the same time they are incantations for my future to be. An example from the exhibition is "Pillows and Bowls (Paris)", 2006. In the image you see a street intersection at night. In the top right corner you see the lower part of my body. I am wearing white socks and trousers. In the left you see two white pillows lying in the middle of the street and in the lower right corner you see four white bowls crossed over by chop-sticks. The street below bowls and pillows are wet. The water denotes the continuous rebirth that is necessary for the artist to retain a constant development and search for personal truths. The photograph connects the past and my interconnected problems to accept my own sexuality and my inability to embrace commitment. But likewise the image constitutes a profound wish to commit to another person enough to establish a family. But my images do neither represent this wish for a different future nor my problems of the past. The image has nothing to do with realism. It is an incantation for another future. It is my life in the flesh.


The above mentioned theme of rebirth is recurring throughout the exhibition. This idea is manifested in the images through water, which is present in different forms in almost every image. I sometimes appear soaked in water and a puddle of water surround my feet. In one case I am even sitting in a river and in another I fish out a non-descript object out of something black and abysmal that could be the unconscious but also a river or the sea. In other photographs objects are surrounded by water or covered by white cloth and water. This theme correspond to some very complex issues related to the role of the artist and exhibition, but more than anything the search for a personal truth.

Life is forever changing and the concept of truth is both complex and contested. The artist needs to continuously reinvent him/herself in order to move forward and to re-adapt to the changing environment along with the changes that take place in his/her inner life. Through the completion of a series of photographs dealing with grief that was shown in three different solo exhibitions in 2006 (Repetitive Time at Göteborgs konstmuseum, Xiao Yao You at Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou and Tundro at The National Museum in Szczecin) I have been able to deal with a very personal trauma in life. This has allowed me to develop and reassess virtually everything in my existence and accept that I am a man, my own sexuality and becoming an adult. Beauty is reborn along with me as something which is separated from a superficial aesthetic.


I have enjoyed the luxury of starting over, both as a person and as an artist. I am facing an unparalleled artistic freedom (To what degree does the artist become free through the enslavement of the necessity what he or she has to do and to what point are we slaves when we are "free" to do anything?) which comes from a must to go to the bottom of uncomfortable questions related to violence, sexuality and its relationship to language. Art has become a way of uncovering truths and it is moulded on my life. But my life is not important more than as a foundation for the self-discovery of the audience that meet my work. Again, I quote Tarkovsky:

". . .the poet has nothing to be proud of: he is not the master of the situation, but a servant. Creative work is his only form of existence, and his every work is like a deed he has no power to annul. [...] The allotted function of art is not, as it is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."

In Democracy and Desire, democracy is thus more connected to inner qualities and a personal development where one amongst other things accepts certain desires and revoke others - more superficial ones. Democracy, like the artist, needs to continuously reinvent itself in order re-adapt to the changing society that it is part of. It needs to accept desires that are of a more profound nature than where it is related to consumption. But this I suspect is a gargantuan task for western society to embrace that could take decades or centuries to resolve. But it is a goal worthwhile fighting for.

Poland lovers

Originally, for Democracy and Desire, I intended the exhibition to be realised in such a way that the visitor could add and remove information to and from the installation. The photographs themselves would be surrounded by texts and images related to the questions addressed in the project. These black and white Xerox copies of the research material for the exhibition would be arranged as an immense collage on the gallery walls. The idea being that anyone could, in discussion with the gallery team, contribute with their own or opinion. The exhibition would work in a small way as a "democratic experiment" or a speaker's corner.

The day before the opening I decided against this idea and reverted to only showing the framed photographic work. Once the images were installed in the gallery I felt that there was nothing to add and any addition to the pictures would only destroy the poetry of the life presented within them. It would annul the truth I had found in the process of realising the project.

Before I finish this text, I want to underline that art can never emancipate us. It does not have any emancipatory qualities just as little as politics do. At best we can only emancipate ourselves. But art can help us to understand ourselves, the world and the people around us and maybe even give us tools to free ourselves in small measures. What is absolutely certain is that art can sooth the pain that life constitutes and bring joy to our humble existences.

Pillow bowl

So coming back the airport where I met my love, evil, desire and democracy in a very small but symptomatic moment, which proves that there are two things that are important in life - to be true to oneself and being true to love. We are enslaved by the necessity to make art that seeks out the truth. But it is through this bondage that we become free. It is just like in love where we slaves to ones we love, but by accepting this form of oppression that we can truly love and through that find freedom. In many ways the search for truth and love are one and the same. But writing that takes but a few seconds and actually living it is a life-long challenge.