What would a self-portrait made by an object look like? We usually forget a product’s packaging once we bin it after using the product. But what about, say, a tin of pringles? Is it the too-salty curved crisps that you think of, or is it the red tin that’s always too small for your hand to fit through? Can you separate what you consume from the way that it has been advertised?
In his project, A Product’s Self Portrait, Rotterdam-based visual artist Helmut Smits commits a playful approach to this topic. Because photography is a material process, Helmut has been magically creating 27 pinhole photos of products, using 27 matching pinhole cameras made from their packaging. “When you take Chocomel out of its packaging to photograph it, it immediately changes shape, while a piece of Spam keeps exactly the same shape as its packaging,” Helmut tells It’s Nice That. “The packaging of a puzzle always contains a photo of the representation on the box, as we use this photo to reconstruct the image.”
Helmut was born in Roosendaal, a mid-sized city in the south of Netherlands. After dropping out of school at the age of 17 without a diploma, he started working with his father in a printing house, initially planning to follow his footsteps at the job. After a couple of years, he realised that a steady nine-to-five was just not for him, and decided to go to art school. “I had never come into contact with art during my upbringing. Before I went to art school, I had never been in a museum,” he says. The experience though was a welcoming one, describing his years at art school as similar to coming home.
For A Product’s Self Portrait, Helmut searched for products and packaging that he felt were interesting to use, which meant looking at a diverse mix of shapes, content and concepts. “In the case of Playmobil, this spoke for itself by simply imitating the image that was on the packaging,” he describes. In another picture of Mikado, or pick-up sticks, Helmut dropped the sticks from a standing position just like how they’re commonly used. “How they fall is always so good,” he describes.
In his work, the creative also prefers to keep the concepts as simple as possible, applying improvisation and play to iterate these ideas. “People often tell me my work is funny. I don’t think I necessarily search for funny ideas, it’s just something that’s inside me I guess,” Helmut explains. “I do like that most of my works contain humor as humor is a good tool to communicate. Humor also puts everything into perspective, something I find really important.”
Helmut Smits: A Product Self Portrait, Lightbulb Camera (Copyright © Helmut Smits, 2020)