I think, therefore I aim

Image of Peter Aspden

Artists famously love to flirt with (and occasionally succumb to) self-destruction. Some are more serious about this than others. The only way they can make sense of their own art is if it brushes up against the imperative of death. This can take the form of a searching intellectual inquiry into mortality, or simply the taking of too many drugs. In either case, their art consumes them. It is as true of Primo Levi, throwing himself to his death after a lifetime of attempting to describe the indescribable, as it is of Amy Winehouse, constitutionally incapable of finding a benign balance between a troubled life and some beautifully crafted songs.

Others, by contrast, just enjoy playing with the idea of their own demise. In Shoot! Existential Photography, a dramatic show that recently opened at central London’s Photographers’ Gallery, there is a revealing little photograph of French philosophy’s glimmer twins, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, in a shooting gallery. The picture is taken at the moment the rifle’s trigger is pulled. It is a literal snapshot of their relationship. De Beauvoir is the one doing the shooting, but she has her eyes closed. Sartre has his hand on her shoulder, pipe in mouth, his own eyes seemingly gazing in two different directions. There is a thesis in there, somewhere.

It is something of a surprise that the photograph exists at all. In the golden age of the shooting gallery, starting just after the first world war and continuing into the 1950s, an automatic camera next to the target would be triggered only if the shooter hit a bullseye. The picture was then handed over to the successful marksman as a prize (this was the pre-cuddly panda era). The combination of de Beauvoir’s closed eyelids and Sartre’s astigmatic gaze into the middle distance suggests that the hitting of any bullseyes in this particular instance was as improbable as writing a bestseller entitled Being and Nothingness.

But here is the strange thing: as the show’s title implies, it appears that existential philosophers were obsessed with these shooting galleries. After a rousing debate over the nature of individual freedom at the Café de Flore, there was nothing they loved better than to fire off a few rounds at the nearest Luna Park and gorge themselves on candy floss and espressos. Interested as they were in the annihilation of the self, here were their inner 10-year-olds celebrating their new-fangled philosophy. And what rich symbolism the hapless galleries offered: if you hit the target, you received photographic evidence that you were trying to destroy yourself.

This is a great strange-but-true show. Everywhere there are French intellectuals taking solemn aim against their own pretensions. The adolescent François Truffaut, the wide-eyed Henri Cartier-Bresson, the smirking Brassaï. Juliette Gréco in a floral dress and pearl bracelet seems to wink as she fires off her pistol, while Man Ray receives a withering look from his lover Lee Miller. His demeanour is deadly serious; she is wondering what a good surrealist like this is doing auditioning for a John Ford western.

The show, lovingly curated by Clément Chéroux of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, goes on to show that it was not only Gallic swats who became absorbed by this macabre pastime. Ria van Dijk, from the Dutch town of Tilburg, was 16 when she shot her first shooting gallery self-portrait in 1936. From then, she scarcely missed a year, and she continues today, in her nineties. The succession of pictures makes a fascinating chronicle of changing times and fashions. In the final pictures of the series, van Dijk is surrounded by photographers and television crews who are making her the subject of their news reports: the woman who couldn’t stop shooting at herself.

In a darkened room elsewhere, we are surrounded by four screens, which suddenly fill with famous film images of stars shooting straight at us in a tightly edited crescendo of gunfire. This is Christian Marclay’s 2007 work “Crossfire”, and it is mighty disconcerting: there is no looking away, no hiding behind a nearby rock. I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is what a hail of bullets sounds like, and it is a lot more menacing than gangsta rap.

Where existential philosophers went all those decades ago, the contemporary artists of today follow. They too are obsessed with the look, feel and sound of death, without showing the slightest sign of trying to understand its more profound implications. In “The Triumph of Death”, Argentine artist Oscar Bony photographs himself mimicking the contorted poses of Hollywood actors being torn apart by gunfire. Elsewhere there are fiddly games with the camera obscura, and more visual puns relating to the “mortal nature of the photographic gesture”.

Perhaps this is the safest way for artists to deal with death: ironise it, turn it into a game, portray its physical effects while emptying it of any deeper meaning. It is the spirit of the age after all. We may surround ourselves with the iconography of mortality – skulls, animal corpses, bad boys cocking rifles – but rarely pause to wonder what the difference really is between being and nothingness. There’s no hitting that bullseye.

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden


‘Shoot! Existential Photography’, Photographers’ Gallery, until January 6

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