One of the most remarkable images in the Jeff Wall exhibition currently at the Stedelijk Museum is the constructed photograph After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue (1999-2000). Ellison’s nameless protagonist sits in his underground hideaway, surrounded by 1,369 light bulbs illuminated by currents rerouted from Monopolated Light & Power. To counter his invisibility he surrounds himself in light. And if the world doesn’t want to see him, he’ll exploit that, thumbing his nose at the authorities, stealing their “power” without them being any the wiser. The novel prefigures his return from this underground hole, but he is, for now, getting by unseen.
Not far away, in Amsterdam Noord, there are photographs of another Invisible Man, one whose geography and milieu differ, but whose visibility is also thrown into question, not—as Ellison writes—by any biochemical accident to the epidermis, but simply because others refuse to see him.
Mohammed—or Karim Ramtani, depending on circumstance—fled his native Algeria during the civil war and lived illegally in North Amsterdam on and off for the past twenty years. Throughout this time, he and artist Michiel Voet regularly crossed paths, including periods when Mohammed lived in Voet’s North Amsterdam studio and even collaborated on photographs with him.
Michiel Voet, The Invisible Man, Installation view at Nieuw Dakota, Amsterdam, June 2014; Photo: Andrea Alessi
The Invisible Man at Nieuw Dakota culminates a four-year collaboration probing the immigrant condition, including an intensive month of studio photography earlier this year. These are not documentary images; following his long relationship with Mohammed, who was at turns friendly and evasive, Voet knew he could neither understand nor fully capture his subject’s complexity. Instead, with Mohammed as model, Voet staged surreal photographs evoking the sense of rootlessness, disenfranchisement, uncertainty, and invisibility experienced by illegal immigrants in Europe today.
Ellison’s protagonist was invisible both because of his skin color—that particularly stubborn brand of invisibility—and his defenselessness at the hands of those fighting to maintain power. In the sixty years since the book was written many more have become invisible pawns in political structures equally invested in maintaining the status quo. The most recent EU elections saw a reactionary swing to right, characterized by nationalistic sentiments and widespread suspicion, while across the Atlantic immigration policy has already played a large role leading up to the midterm elections. Invisibility is not inherently linked to race or any other signifier of difference; it’s a manipulative strategy. It’s easy to close off minds and borders when you won’t see the humanity in what you’re afraid of—be it poverty, nationality, race, or religion.
Voet’s images, shot head-on with the staged precision and sensibilities of fashion photography, show a man hidden in plain sight. We never see Mohammed’s face. His limbs emerge from cabinets and upholstery; his face is obscured by masks, clothing, and blankets; his body is mummified in plastic wrap or swallowed by a couch; he disappears behind a curtain, inside a mattress cover. In one series of photographs, he hovers unnaturally in the air, hugging a suitcase as if he and all his possessions could simply float away unseen on a passing breeze.
As much as they consider invisibility, these images, constructed by a white, Dutch man, also document Voet confronting his—our—blindness. It would be paternalistic to say the photographs grant illegal immigrants visibility—it cannot be granted—and to some extent they gloss over the struggle for agency so important to Ellison’s work. Once his narrator identifies his invisibility, he tries to exploit it. “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen,” he writes, “although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” Voet’s photographs rarely allude to this subversive side of invisibility. If it’s there, it’s overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness and dispossession.
Yet this is not entirely true of Mohammed’s experience. In a book published in conjunction with the exhibition, Voet offers a more nuanced picture of Mohammed’s story. Invisibility has advantages and complications: for example, the ability to assume someone else’s identity. Mohammed adopted the identity (and residency card) of Karim Ramtani (and was deported briefly to Morocco and later arrested for another Ramtani’s crimes). Ghanaian immigrants confided to Voet how they pretend to be Surinamese, ostentatiously disguised to avoid police attention. In one of many similarities, Ellison’s invisible man spends a night exploiting his likeness to a man called Rinehart, navigating the complexities of assuming another man’s deeds along with his face.
Michiel Voet, The Invisible Man, 2010-2014, Photograph; Courtesy of the artist and Nieuw Dakota, Amsterdam
Exercising heavy-handed metaphors, Voet’s photographs show these forced-chameleons at once hiding in and undergirding society. Immigrants are woven into the social fabric; they are hunted prey; they are building blocks and glue. The installation’s labyrinth of large prints suggests the bureaucracy endured by immigrants filtered in and out of an opaque system. Throughout, Voet’s compassion and sincerity balance the scales, keeping the project from leaning toward caricature.
In addition to the exhibition, a theatre project with Orkater commences this week as part of the Over Het IJ Festival, plus two large billboards featuring Voet’s photographs overlook the IJ river. I caught a glimpse of one as the ferry pulled away from Nieuw Dakota, taking me back to central Amsterdam. Despite its size—6 x 3 meters—it quickly faded away, consumed by the industrial surroundings until I couldn’t see it.
(Image on top: Michiel Voet, The Invisible Man, 2010-2014, Photograph; Courtesy of the artist and Nieuw Dakota, Amsterdam)