From the ancient plains of Athens, Socrates lay down the prudent words, “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.” It awakens only once our cognition takes its brief respite. Built stringently and fundamentally upon social expectations, morals and regulations, it is dominated by an omnipotent, censoring consciousness. All instinctual behaviours and impulses must be halted in their tracks if civilisation is to continue forwards unscathed.
It’s an unavoidable dichotomy that seems inherent to man’s existence – one that Charles Fréger addresses judiciously in The Wild and the Wise. Turning his anthropological eye towards the question of identity, the French photographer examines the gulf between the personal, individual Self and its external representations. His exhibition brings together a display of socially formed self-presentation with that of an opposing subconscious, visceral form of the Self.
“Légionnaires: Portraits Photographiques Et Uniformes,” presents various portraits of individuals that belong to social groups around the world. From French legionnaires, water polo players, Western business men, Japanese sumo wrestlers and an Indian Sikh regiment, each person is captured through the austere, scrutinising lens of Fréger’s camera.
A little nearer on the timeline, in 1943 Sartre addressed the influence of other people in the formation of one’s self, in his philosophical essay Being and Nothingness. The French Existentialist proposed the ‘Other’ to be an indispensable metric by which we are measured and ultimately known. In that vein, Fréger urges us to ask ourselves to what extent our identity exists independently of an external, observing presence. He questions the extent to which individuals within modern, organised communities exist as a single collective body, highlighting the difficulty in self-definition without reference to a group, be it a club, occupation, family or country. One wonders where and when individual identity can be expressed, if ever, within social communities. Do we know ourselves simply by what others say and think about us?
“Wilder Mann” moves at once to the other end of the identity spectrum, opening up a wilderness background upon which to present the more wild and animalistic side of man’s existence that many a Romantic artist has yearned after. Upon returning from his travels throughout 18 European countries, Fréger documented the practices of ancient, pagan rituals that are still taking place across our civilised, refined continent. The photos’ mysterious subjects are embalmed in traditional costumes of animal skins, bones, antlers and plants. Some have been transformed into recognisable animals such as bears, deer and goats, while others emerge as strange part-animal, part-plant creatures. These mysterious figures seem to transgress the identity barrier, straddling the intrinsically confused line between human and beast, civilisation and wilderness.
The natural rhythms and cycles of our planet that these “human beasts” celebrate are seasonal transitions, life, death, fertility, all happenings that we have become entirely disconnected from, excepting the commercialised holidays based ever so loosely around these primeval rituals. Electricity defies darkness, heating wards off winter chills, supermarkets provide seasonal foods every day of the year. Any unifying bond we may once have possessed with the natural world would long seem to have faded away, if it weren’t for Fréger’s encounter with an enduring primal connection to nature, its animals and its seasons. In the midst of modernity and social structures, there seems an undercurrent of nostalgia for the primal. The novelist Robert McLiam Wilson introduces Freger’s photobook: “We languish for the non-mechanical and the pre- or post-industrial. We are pilgrims seeking the past, the genuine, the individual.”
“The Wild and the Wise” highlights, not only the complicated relationships that communities find themselves in with nature, but that they also find with their own selves. It addresses what we have had to sacrifice to become the “wise” and civilised social beings of today.
Mark Twain once said that “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” While the characters of “Légionnaires” have a fixed place in the social realm, it is clear that without then uniforms and accessories they are left naked and powerless in society, having only their bodies to contend with. Similarly, we cannot forget that the wild beings of “Wilder Mann” are really just men hidden beneath elaborate costumes really no different from a uniform.
Far from a wild beast yet so much more than simply a social construction, we remain adrift between the two, attempting to find some way to cover our nakedness, and to shape our uncovered identities into something tangible.