Bert Danckaert

Ironically, having arrived in the land of “New Belly” (with which everyone is immediately in internal knots) the actor had picked up a virus from back home. He had been vomiting all night. He was white as a sheet and in no state to perform the role of a lifetime. Even so, the brothers were filled with eager anticipation for what the day’s experience would bring. After a wild rickshaw ride they arrived at Mehboob Studios. They followed a passage between large buildings, passed several trailers with the names of the actors written across them, and were pointed in the direction of the make-up rooms upstairs.

“You will have to shave.” They were each given a disposable razor and directed to the restrooms where other men were attempting to remove their weekend beards with just a bit of water. The actor had recently started growing a beard for a role he was about to play in the Netherlands. He would be playing Uncle Vanya in a production of the same name by Anton Chekhov. Ten years back he had performed in the same play (with the same director) in the role of Astrov, the doctor. An idealist and ecologist avant-la-lettre. Now almost fifty, and certainly far from thirty, the actor had been given the role of Uncle Vanya, a washed-out grumbler who had laid his ideals to rest a long time ago.
Was that the group they were now associated with? The category “washed-out,” that had seen it all before and now no longer wanted to shake the tree?

Clean-shaven, they joined the other extras still in their tourist garb waiting to be seen by the dressmaker. Measurements were taken, costumes altered, hair combed. Slowly but surely they were transformed from T-shirts with baggy pants to men and women in business suits. Sandals and flip-flops were replaced with elegant black leather shoes and stilettoes. Loose hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and the photographer was given a side parting like he hadn’t seen since he was ten. He took a couple of shots with his pocket camera, anticipating the real work he was already focused on and for which he had brought along his proper equipment. From the outset it was clear to him that he also needed to do something with the “extras.” He was thinking about a series of portraits of these oblivious tourists who had been transformed by a gay Indian “costumier” into an identity-less unity, fitting the picture they (Indians) have of Westerners. A preconceived, ideal image: a person as facade, empty packaging. Just like the buildings the photographer liked to photograph in the streets of sprawling world cities, or like the room of their hotel—islands of non-identity. Starbucks and Ikea. A clone of all genes.

They heard that the scenes they were filming that day would take place in a London branch control room of British Rail. No open-air decor, no lifesize imitation trains. Nonetheless, the photographer was already looking forward to seeing the hyper-constructed reality, like in the photographs of Thomas Demand. He picked up his rucksack and tripod, looking crisp in his brown business suit and sharp side parting, resolute that today he would take the most important photographs of his life.

Thomas Demand, Control Room 2011