Sorry Mom, But It Looks so Sharp

Text: Robert Brečević

The curling smoke from a smouldering cigarette and the thick puffs exhaled by the smoker are white in colour. A misty veil, light-handedly painted, appears in mid-air.

However, the smoke that you inhale turns into a black sludge, a gooey tar filling your lungs. Breathing will eventually become affected, it stifles your spirit. Your spirit—the pneuma—appears as the repeated bond between you and the physical world; the connection manifests itself through a visible medium: smoke.

The strong-willed may overcome the chemical dependency while quitting, but that is the easy part. It is the very look-of-it that lingers on, haunting the mind with ingrained memories and flashes from the past. To mentally relinquish the cherished accessory of smoking remains a challenge long after the poison has withdrawn from the body.

The title of this photo suite Sorry Mom, but It Looks So Sharp is rooted in personal experience: a mother who hates smoking, a close family member fading away as a direct consequence of chain smoking—most importantly, the title implies a reluctance to endorse custodial paternalism and the related ideals of public improvement through art.

Pure aesthetics will brush off the yearning proposals of high virtue and goodness. The Flowers of Evil blossom as the poet faces the world—turns away from convenience—with an astute attention directed towards that which pleases the senses. It LOOKS good—it IS everything but good.

Believe it or not, Nadja Brečević's pictures do not embellish the act of smoking. The perpetrated action appears the way it looks, i.e. pretty cool. Pretending otherwise would be… pretentious (which is another kind of aesthetics).

Of course, the artist could attach images with X-ray plates of smoke-damaged lungs. Photo documentation of gangrenous toes would also do the trick. In that case, she wouldn’t have shown her pictures, inasmuch as she would have marketed the image of herself—as yet another conscientious and clever opinion-maker.

Smoking is part of a public choreography and a performance. A way of bringing a hand towards its face, slowly letting the air out between a pair of bulging lips. Above all, it is expressed with a bleary gaze—present and yet so distant —which leaves an appealing impression on film. These photographs capture a contemplative state, a sense of presence—distinct from meditation, mindfulness and other techniques—as it occurs in the company of others. Everyday reveries unravel in the spotlight of accidental bystanders. (Maybe it's a question for the future to develop other, less lethal rituals and commonplace practices to achieve this?)

Let’s turn our attention to "the torches of freedom": the mother (and father) of all PR campaigns—as it occurred in the first half of the 20th century.

The plan was to double the market for cigarettes, a long-coveted dream of the tobacco industry. That would be achieved if women were to take up smoking—something that was deemed socially inappropriate at the time.

The task to reverse these ‘prejudices’ was assigned to Edward (Eddie) Bernays, who was about to stage an unprecedented PR stunt, the first of its kind in the world. You see, Eddie’s uncle was none other than Sigmund Freud. In other words, the father of modern marketing was well acquainted with the subconscious.

The women hired for the project had to be convincing and appealing enough to influence the masses, yet not too attractive so as to be perceived as models. A select group of women were paid to join the Easter parade in New York 1929. As they marched down Fifth Avenue, one of the women stepped out and created a scandal by lighting a Lucky Strike cigarette. The press had been informed beforehand, leaflets and pamphlets were handed out with the slogan “An Ancient Prejudice Has Been Removed”.

Bernays proclaimed that smoking was a form of liberation for women, what he failed to mention was that the woman who stirred up the commotion, Bertha Hunt, worked as his secretary. Ten young women brandished their independence from social etiquette that day by smoking in public.

The New York Times dated April 1st, 1929 ran a story titled, “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom‘”. Soon enough influential feminists would join the campaign at their own accord under the rallying cry: "Women, light the torches of freedom!"

By reformulating the relationship between images and words, images and actions, actions and words—a psycho-analytical procedure played out on a public arena—Eddie Bernays succeeded in his intent. Smoking was linked to emancipation, an opportunity for women to claim their place in society. Women thus became full-blown participants of the market.

In this regard, the moral optics have (ostensibly) changed.

Nowadays there is health fixation, paired with the assumption that those who insist on unhealthy habits have themselves to blame and that society shouldn’t be burdened by the bad choices of well-informed grown-ups. Add to this the contempt for weakness of character and the disdain for the lack of willpower that comes from a limited ability to defer gratification. The mindset of the petty bourgeois will always find something to judge, something to frown their noses at.

In the age of diversity, smoking (as well as obesity) is one of the few ways to express a discord within the present times. It is an act of self-destructive defiance, an emancipatory statement of carelessness. The smoker is not adapting to the norms of society—dissensus is performed where liberation comes at a high cost.

But above all: man experiences life—not only in the flesh—but to a greater extent (re)lives it through bodily images. The important thing, after all, is HOW IT LOOKS.

Or… what would you say if we told you that no single soul was hurt during the making of these images? That these were in fact tobacco-free herbal film-cigarettes used cautiously during shooting. Let’s say (or not) that no nicotine was consumed while smokers puffed away throughout these misty pictures. All for art’s sake as appearance remains everything. Would this ‘information’ change the meaning of these images?

We leave you with this thought.