Review by Steve Harp •
Nico Bick’s Parliaments of the European Union (nai010 publishers, 2019) is an imposing volume. The book — 12″ x 15″, 272 pages, weighing in at almost 9 pounds — exudes the gravitas of its subject matter. Consisting of 30 four-page foldouts (double gate-folds), it depicts the legislative chambers of the 28 countries of the EU (including, at this point, the UK, Brexit notwithstanding) as well as photographs of the EU Parliaments in Brussels and Strasbourg. Each space is presented as a panorama across three or four panels, so the image with which the viewer is confronted is either roughly 33″ x 14″ or 46″ x 14″. Imposing indeed, not to mention unwieldy.
No small, intimate volume here, for a viewer to peruse up close. This one needs to be supported by a desk or table. Which, as I looked through these spaces devoid of human actors — no parliamentarians, politicians, lawmakers, charlatans, opportunists or demagogues — seemed apt. Given the difficulties and inefficiencies of representative democracy in our current era, why should the depiction of its spaces be any more convenient or comfortable to navigate, any less in need of propping up?
The book is prefaced by three essays, “The Semi-Circle of Democracy,” by Joris Luyendijk, “Parliaments — Sanctuaries of Democracy,” by Ulrike Guérot and “Where a Viewer Becomes a Participant,” by Frits Gierstberg. The first two deal more generally with the implied subject of the photographs, the condition of democracy in Europe at this point in the 21st century. The arguments contained therein are nuanced (both acknowledge the current strains on representative forms of government, and not only in Europe) but they seem eager to acknowledge the foreordained “egalitarian strains of parliamentary democracy” (p. 11). As Luyendijk blithely closes his essay, “For now, we are probably safest with Winston Churchill’s maxim that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ ” (p. 10).
The third essay shifts our attention to the visual aspects of the work and its presentation. Gierstberg identifies a number of significant perspectives from which to access the images. He points to the notion of typologies — “the comparative ordering of a specific subject according to a narrowly defined language of form” (p. 15), specifically referencing the work of August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher. He also finds the panel structure of each image (“a broken-up form that . . . forces one to adopt a slow, halting and studious manner of observing” (p. 16) to be “slightly reminiscent” of the altarpiece. Gierstberg writes that the photographs “symbolically place the viewer . . . in the space itself . . . the viewer becomes a participant.” (p. 16).
I wonder. His website (nicobick.nl), states that Bick “investigates . . . the use of (public) spaces, . . . focus[ing on those] that reveal a tangible tension between the public and private domains.” This tension between public and private, participant and observer is unsettlingly in play here. We become voyeurs as we peer into these uninhabited “people’s temples,” which, deserted as they are, have grown irresolutely mute, refusing to divulge the progressive or cruel decrees they have witnessed. In their abandoned states, we have been abandoned by them, left with no angle from which to evaluate the perhaps false equivalences implied by their juxtapositions. Against the example of the altarpiece, we are not seduced into their illusionistic scenes but, rather, into another position altogether, essentially that of the observing supplicant, desiring of acceptance and admission but unworthy. Have we arrived at Kafka’s Castle?
Like Kafka’s Castle, the presentation is imposing. The spaces exude a kind of vague dignity and importance, while displaying varying degrees of historical awareness. Some spaces do seem to harbor the echoes of their particular pasts — France, Spain, Portugal, Italy (reminding me of nothing so much as an opera hall), Ireland (in examining the photograph of the Irish Dail Eireann, I wondered whether one of the busts along the back wall might be of Roger Casement). Others — most notably the EU Parliament spaces in Brussels and Strasbourg — seem quintessential, anonymous, Modernist, evoking any number of shared co-working or meeting venues or university lecture halls.
In particular, I wondered what I might learn from the parliament spaces of the two arguably least democratic countries of the EU, Hungary and Poland. Both borrowed heavily from the iconography of the church interior, particularly Hungary’s Országgyűlés, with its arched boxes, stained glass windows and paintings depicting religious scenes. What does it mean to include these spaces in this collection of typologies? The depictions of the spaces themselves convey most powerfully an emptiness not only of actors — the people who activate them — but also an emptiness of purpose, stage sets available for the next spectacle. I felt less a participant than an outsider, unsure as to what and who the space was for.
In thinking of Bick’s photographs, I was left with a sense of visually impressive surfaces, impressive to the point of inaccessibility. I’m reminded of Sander’s People of the 20th century, but unlike Sander’s types, whose similarities and differences — between “Pastry chef,” “Gypsy” and “Member of the Hitler Youth” — the viewer is able to read closely, Bick’s book — like the religious imagery referenced in Gierstberg’s essay — distances, renders unapproachable. The viewer becomes not participant but spectator, and the photograph, thus, a spectacle.
In viewing these images, I was reminded of a passage near the end of Walter Benjamin’s “A Little History of Photography”:
As Brecht says: “The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. . . . Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations — the factory, say [or the parliament space?] — means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed.”
This idea of “building up,” in turn, reminded me of another book of photographs that had been haunting my thoughts as I considered Bick’s depictions of these mute spaces, Allan Sekula’s Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes (Vancouver Art Gallery and MIT Press, 1997). In it, Sekula examines the iconography of the narratives that present the visual face of the “imaginary and material geographies in the advanced capitalist world,” images of industry as well as of those architectures that convey cultural, economic and political stability and stature. Sekula’s project is an intricately built-up narrative, using photography to examine the complex myths of culture, economics and government that so ambiguously reinforce ideals and notions of identity and values. Does Bick’s book pave the way for analogous building-up, or is it simply a testament to promises foreclosed? We stand to the side, scanning the empty halls, with nothing to do but wait.
The jury for the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s (LACP) first Photobook Competition selected this book for an Honorable Mention and subsequent exhibition earlier this year.
Parliaments of the European Union, Nico Bick
Photographer: Nico Bick, born & resides Netherlands
Publisher: nai010 publishers, Rotterdam, Netherlands, copyright 2019
Essays: Joris Luyendijk, Ulrike Guérot and Frits Gierstberg
Hardcover book, clothbound, printed by NPN Drukkers, Breda, Netherlands
Book designers: Studio Joost Grootens
Other photo books by Nico Bick featured on PhotoBook Journal: P.I.