18 MAR - 02 APR 2023
Opening: 16 MAR 2023, 6 - 10 pm
FRAGILE is pleased to announce the exhibition USER by Kristina Nagel.
I am a user. We are users. You are a user. Stare at the word longer than you must: “user.” Strange, no? If I keep saying it repeatedly — user, user, user, user, user — I stop feeling like a person and start feeling like a user. One of the saddest sentences in the English language is “I feel used.” This depersonalisation — where we become more product than person — takes our souls and empties them. I am UserZ1009. We are Users2038-5323. You are User#001. Depersonalisation and derealisation—what is lost and what is gained—is what is happening in Kristina Nagel’s photographic series, entitled USER.
SUPER LOW-KEY WRONG
User generated self-portraits or portraits found on dating portals, web search, eBay, Craigslist. Self-taught style that’s anti-style. Awkward poses. Misplaced confidence and uncontrollable shyness. Cameras have been forcing us to fake our photogenic selves for at least a century and a half now. What happens to a person—a normal person, a horny person, a lonely person—when a camera lens is pointed at them? Wishing to be a better self? Craving to be remembered ideally? A picture of me may lead to a misunderstanding of who I am; then I am that image, forever. For Kristina, these kinds of amateur photos are like found fashion shoots. They’re staged but also truer. She collects them. She studies them. She mimics them. Because they’re untrained, and therefore, close to beautiful.
PUNCTUATE HUMAN DRAMA
Let’s talk about beauty for a moment. It might sound cringe, and the history of modern, Western art discarded beauty a long time ago because beauty inherited oppressive, often patriarchal power. And yet, beauty has persisted. The need for it, the way it builds consensus. Nowhere is this more insistent than in high fashion and its preferred mode of representation: fashion photography. Orthodox fashion photography (and let’s pretend such a monolithic thing exists) articulates all kinds of idealised norms: perfect body specimens, equine gait, sanitised teeth. My teenage years were sexually influenced by first-generation 1980s supermodels (Cindy, Yasmine, Eva), delivered to me via fashion magazine editorials and ad campaigns. Gloss is more than a surface effect. Gloss is aspirational. But every orthodoxy produces its errant iconoclasm, so fashion photography is no stranger to abjection. As Mark Cousins wrote in his influential treatise on “The Ugly”:
“What sets the work of a genius apart from that of an artist who merely makes a beautiful object? Rather than effortlessly and swiftly creating a totality, the genius may incorporate alien objects into the structure of the work, elements that would defeat a lesser artist, in whose hands the whole world would break down into ridiculous collection of incompatible fragments. The genius is able, indeed needs to, pit themselves against a seemingly impossible task—to mould individual, inappropriate elements into a final whole. The greater the difficulty, the greater the final impression that the totality makes. In this sense the ugly is part of the power of genius.”
Kristina’s photography for fashion brands (such as Balenciaga and Rick Owens) summons the ghost of The Ugly in pursuit of a higher order of beauty. She inverts our expectations of that perfect body specimen into something else. Often haunted, haunting, what André Breton called “convulsive beauty.” Or, as Sonic Youth sang, “Beauty lies in the eyes of another’s dream.”
“I don’t really like faces,” Kristina tells me. In USER, the faces you see are faces you can’t see. They’re effaced, like those parts of Google Street View blurred out, to protect privacy or political statecraft. This de-facing of faces is a key visual obsession in Kristina’s world. Is the right to be invisible—to not be known—a fundamental human right? I’ve come up with a new term, “Perception Ick,” which I define as:
“A tussle between the desire to be seen by as many people as possible vs. the desire to disappear entirely.”
Do I Story or do I not Story. Do I broadcast my visage to everyone or to my Close Friends only? Is my face a currency, as everyone keeps telling me, or is my face just my face? The face is where first, and often final, judgments are made about others. You are your face. You become your face. Or do you end up with the face you deserve? This week, I’ve been applying the “Bold Glamour'' TikTok filter to my face. It’s apparently made using Generative Adversarial Network AI, which makes it feel like a deepfake as opposed to some janky, cartoonish face filter. People who use “Bold Glamour '' are shocked at how realistic the hyper-realism is—and many believe it needs to be banned. Because it downgrades reality. But this is just the beginning. Our faces—not our bodies—are a battleground, and Kristina’s hunch to question them, may turn out to be the only moral decision left.
Painting has been in crisis ever since painting was invented. “The Death of Painting” is one of those threats that perpetually prove painting’s vivacity. Increasingly, it feels as though professional photography is under a similar threat: personal phone handsets have cameras far superior to expensive dedicated cameras from just a few years ago. Maybe not everyone is an artist yet, as Joseph Beuys had predicted. But everyone certainly takes photographs. Never have so many pictures been taken every second of every day. Is this stage of photography something like post-photography? Especially since these digital images are so easily manipulated and morphed—for example, into text-crash memes, fried and frazzled. “There are two extremes in my work: either totally Photoshopped or not at all,” Kristina confided. Only one of the examples on show in USER has been edited. It’s an Easter egg for those of you eager enough to distinguish between raw and cooked. Even in “Poor Images,” there is magic and mystery.
A MANIFESTO OF DISTRESS
You are a user. We are users. I am a user. These could be confessions shared at an addiction clinic. Except the substance of abuse isn’t alcohol or drugs, but digital information and images. When engorging on some new intoxicant, your body’s sensations are heightened. You are high. And then, after a while, the kick isn’t the same. The kick has gone. You’re desensitised. I’m certainly not the only one who disassociates in the feed. It’s a common feeling, a feeling removed, a million windows away, once full of desire, now emptied of emotion, except the lust to leave the windows open. Kristina Nagel’s USER comes from a similar place where sex and desire, connection and isolation, the past and the present kiss each other through a frittered, shatter-proof glass. Whatever makes these images wrong is, in a spiritual sense, what makes them so very right.
 Mark Cousins, “The Ugly,” AA Files, Issue 28, 1994
 Sonic Youth, “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” taken from the album Sister, 1997
 Shumon Basar, “The Lexicon of Lorecore,” Zora ZINE, 2023
 Hito Steyerl, “In Defence of the Poor Image,” e-flux Journal, Issue #10, November 2009
Text by Shumon Basar