Paul Kooiker’s Anti-Fashion Photographs

BY Eric Miles, March 1, 2024

From its beginnings in 1920s Paris right up until the present, Surrealism has never gone away, but now it seems to be more  ubiquitous than ever. From the films of Oscar contender Yorgos Lanthimos to the novels of Haruki Murakami, and the work of contemporary artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, Tim Walker, John Currin, and Neo Rauch, now more than ever, it is hard to overstate how deeply it has permeated the culture, both East and West. Last year, the art magazine Apollo asked, “Why does Surrealism feel so Contemporary?”’ while a headline in Elle magazine this year declared, “The Second Coming of Surrealism Is Here.” 

Historically, Surrealism took as its object of inquiry the depths of the unconscious mind, manifest in dreams, desire, and the irrational. Repression is central to almost all Surrealist art: repressed sexual desires, urges, fantasies, and fetishes. Bypassing the restrictive clutches of the conscious mind was the ultimate aim. 

Paul Kooiker, Untitled (Acne Studios), 2022. Courtesy the artist and Art Paper Editions

It wasn’t long before those working in commercial artforms began to adopt some of its stylistic tendencies. Since Surrealism was so closely tied to Freud’s concept of the “fetish” – the fixation on a piece or fragment of a whole as an object of erotic desire – fashion was among the first and most enthusiastic adopters. It is in this still-extant grey area between art and commerce that Paul Kooiker’s fashion photography exists. And though Kooiker has found great success shooting campaigns and editorial features for major fashion brands and publications, it is an open question whether it fits within the genre of fashion photography at all. His new book, Fashion (Art Paper Editions, 2023), presents a survey of work done for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Valentino, among others. While every now and then a familiar face appears (Kim Kardashian, for instance), in general Kooiker’s “anti-fashion” photos take the form of absurdist collages or Dadaist readymades. One has to squint to discern the luxury object, and his mordant, dark humour subverts most every convention of editorial and commercial fashion photography. 

Paul Kooiker, Untitled (Numero), 2017. Courtesy the artist and Art Paper Editions

Fetish remains central to fashion’s vocabulary: Kooiker plays on the fetishization of bodies and subconscious desires that is inherent in fashion almost by definition. And like Surrealist photographers, he amplifies the uncanny nature of the medium, manipulating its capacity for contradicting the viewer’s expectation of reality, especially with regard to the human figure. He stages symbolic objects in odd and frightening ways, confusing animate and inanimate, male and female, sexualized and sexless, the familiar and the radically other. So complete are the displacements that his pictures become, to use Barthes’s famous description of photography, “a new form of hallucination.” 

The sepia tone used in many of Kooiker’s images is a simple formal device that produces a sort of “Atget effect,” making them appear uncannily “out of time.” Like stills from a forgotten David Lynch film, they are imbued with an ominous narrative tension. If fashion, driven as it is by newness, is about what is trending at any given moment, the period style of many of Kooiker’s pictures is nearly impossible to pin down. His fragmented subjects are often covered with coarse hair, slick vinyl or rubber; sometimes objects dig into supple flesh. All of which make his unlikely assemblages – parts of which might happen to be luxury commodities – teeter quite comfortably on the brink of beauty and abjection. 

Paul Kooiker, Untitled (M le Monde), 2020. Courtesy the artist and Art Paper Editions

What drew the Surrealists to Atget was that he rendered the quotidian fantastic. Kooiker’s photography, on the other hand, renders the fantastic, the absurd, the illogical into an utterly new vehicle for sartorial ideas. A sepia-toned image of a headless wool form shot for Acne Studios makes only the most oblique reference to the human form, let alone a wearable garment; it looks more like the macabre creation of a mad scientist than luxury fashion. Constructed with little in the way of studio manipulation – most are in fact shot on an iPhone – the images betray a perfectionism/obsessiveness at odds with the chaotic anatomical disruptions, reflecting the desires that are the stuff of both the subconscious dream state and commodity fetishism. 

Paul Kooiker, Untitled (Luncheon), 2021. Courtesy the artist and Art Paper Editions

If fashion is what turns us from mere bodies into individuals in a vast sea of ideas and conventions and possibilities, Kooiker scrambles the signs, thrusting us into dreamscapes where bodies are contorted into peculiar poses, or shown only in pieces, with faces obscured, concealed, or absent altogether. They are playful riffs on the fetishization of the body and thwarted desire. He turns the fashion photograph itself into something it wasn’t quite meant to be: rather than the representation of aspirational dreams, a reflection of the tensions between desire and abjection; reality and fiction; beauty and haunting malevolence. 

Pauk Kooiker, Untitled (Beauty Papers), 2021. Courtesy the artist and Art Paper Editions