The artist who does have something in common with us: Hans Laban

by Adrian Ioniță

click pentru versiunea română



To commemorate the tercentenary of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the Utrecht Foundation KF Hein released in 2012, the Art Of Making Peace project. The winner of this project, Hans Laban, a graphic artist from Utrecht, presented in 2013: We do have something in common, a proposal which has resulted in the development of large-scale prints following the narrative thread of his personal statement about peace.

[Hans Laban in Grafisch Atelier Daglicht Eindhoven, photo credits Richard Fieten]

In less than two years after its completion, this celebratory project has become a global inspiration for the people on our planet to find out what do they have in common and to resolve peacefully their differences. The Peace Treaty of Utrecht created the model for an European system based on the balance of power between nations. In time, the model proved to be a key factor in preserving the peace, although a fragile one.

The We do have something in common project consist of monumental photographic montages transferred on paper by etching on metal plates, or cuts on wood panels. The photographic material used by the artist contains distinctive emotional and affective attributes that outreach the original intention of a simple family picture. They are photos of families and friends from around the world carefully selected and arranged in subtle transparent layers to convey the visual argument that we can see similarity in difference or dissimilarity. Seventy years ago, in his writings on technological reproduction, the philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin accede to the fact that beyond its canonical approach to viewing, the montage embraces the will for authenticity. Hans Laban does exactly the same thing when he directs our attention to the similarities between people all over the world, beyond their religious, social and political differences, training our gaze to find the truth by looking to the subjects of his highly crafted and edited montages. The people portrayed in his prints, are arranged to enter into a dialog with each other and the viewer and to become connected.

In an academic paper titled „Looking at the family photo album: a resumed theoretical discussion of why and how”, Mette Sandbye, a Danish researcher of the relationship between amateur photography and collective history, underlines the fact that „ family photos contain emotional, psychological, and affective qualities that reach further than the individual owner and that should be put forward, also within the fields of aesthetics and humanities. Family photo albums are about social and emotional communication, they can be interpreted as ways of understanding and coming to terms with life, and at the same time they document more sociological aspects of daily lives, that we do not have access to from other historical sources.”

Mette Sandbye also does a survey of the rare academic studies about the subject of family pictures, as those of Pierre Bourdieu , Richard Chalfen, Mary Warner Marien, Geoffrey Batchen, Patricia Holland, Arjun Appadura and others and concludes that, compared with the amount of material in private homes across the world, waiting to be looked at, or narrated about ”written about it, is still very little.” In this context, the art of Hans Laban provides us a great instrument of study on the interpretation of family pictures used to convey feelings of connectedness.

[Close, photopolymer etching, copyright 2013 Hans Laban, courtesy of Anna van Suchtelen and Jonathan Robertso]

Let’s take for example his print titled Close, a 84/110 cm photopolymer etching. It shows a Japanese family in their tiny Tokyo apartment. The photo was taken by a good friend of the artist who was in Tokio for a few days. As it turns out with some of Laban’s prints, he develops a friendship relationship with the subjects of his photomontages. In this case, they are the relatives of a Japanese colleague whom Laban met in Vancouver , Canada. „They are all very close to each other, Mother, Father and Daughter. The mother is a writer, I have a book with poems of her. I merged this intimate family portrait with an image of my son Kamil and his friend Ivo Soliman, travelling in the San Francisco Bay Area” explains the artist.

According to Mette Sandbye, who, analysed a Japanese photo album in her paper, approaching such an image by trying to find out what is specifically Japanese in it, may prove to be counterproductive because it pinpoints towards cultural differences. Hans Laban solves this problem in a very subtle way by eliminating unnecessary details from the original photos. The tiny Japanese apartment was packed with a lot of things, so, he cleaned up the image to juxtapose in the background the peaceful image of the bay shoreline. The water of the bay reflecting through the head of the Japanese male, the father, has a special meaning for Laban because enhances a reflecting attitude in a particular moment in time. As trivial as it seems to describe art images in these terms, they point to the narrative and metaphoric structure of his artwork. You can somewhat imagine what was before or after the photos were taken, said Hans Laban, talking about ”Close” – everybody can have their particular thoughts in this image, but they fit wonderful together.

[The Well, photopolymer etching, copyright 2013 Hans Laban, courtesy of Jonathan Freundlich, Kim Seongsoo, Filip Korsa, Vincent Laban]

The water theme appears also in ”The Well”a very powerful montage done with photos taken by a Palestinian boy at a hot water well near Bethlehem. It says a lot about connectedness since the two young males from the water are from France and Israel and the girl is from Syria. On top of this image, done by photopolymer etching are printed in laser engraving images of people from the Czech Republic and Korea, photos supplied by Laban’s son who lived for a while in Taiwan.

For the innocent eye of a viewer who does not know details about the nationality of the people pictured in the montage, or about locality, the meaning of the montage may seem puzzling. How can you possible understand such a print if you find it, let’s say, at the flea market, on the walls of a museum or tossed in an obscure archive? The question brings us to the core of Hans Laban’s project. Trying to find answers, we develop our own narration, our own internal story, and by it, we establish a connectedness which proves that, to do have something in common, we have to put aside anything that makes us different.


A photo gallery of the We do have something in common project can be accessed at:

Hans Laban / Beeldend Kunstenaar

Prints from the We do have something in common project were recently displayed through The DIPLOMATIC ART project which presents and promotes professional visual artists from countries that have General and Honorary Consulates in Timisoara/Romania. The show is open between November 12 – December 12 , at Muzeul Banatului, Bastionul Theresia, Timisoara, Romania.

The artist who does have something in common with us: Hans Laban

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