by Eve Kalyva
Rineke Dijkstra’s exhibition at the Stedelijk is a must see. The vast space of the museum’s upper galleries is always a challenge – what from the outside looks like a bathtub was, after all, the largest free standing exhibition space in Europe at the time of its construction in 2012. In an effort to maximise space use, curators usually overcompensate by putting up shows that are dense and heavy with exhibits.
Dijkstra’s exhibition is an exception. There are relatively few works, and they are thoughtfully sized and well allocated in space. Born in 1959, the Dutch photographer won this year’s Hasselblad Award – an award for major achievements in photography previously awarded to renown photographers such as Sebastião Salgado (1989) and Jeff Wall (2002). Dijkstra’s photographs and videos often explore the vulnerability of adolescence, the transformation of the body and the processes of constructing identity. Apart from these engaging topics, her work is highly accomplished in technical and formal terms. Her photographic, serial or video portraits present carefully framed subjects who are moreover set in a finely tuned dialogue with the viewer.
Olivier (2000-03) follows the transition of a young boy into a man as he becomes a soldier of the French Foreign Legion, notorious for its very demanding physical but also psychological training. The work’s eight face portraits are blown up and placed directly at eye level. Looking into Olivier’s eyes – which are looking back at us but also beyond us – we see the loss of innocence and its gradual replacement by anxiety, enquiry, apprehension and resolution.
In the wall opposite to Olivier, we see the transformation of one’s self and one’s body through a different type of force: the force of life. Full body portraits of women who have recently given birth seem to hang mid air (Tia (1994), Julie (1994), Tecla (1994) and Saskia (1994)). They all hold their tiny pink babies tight, but they also very tenderly press them against their naked skin. The mothers’ bodies are swollen and their faces look exhausted with sweat dripping down their temples. But their eyes are radiant, full of vitality and an inner strength that no external discipline or training can ever force into a person.
Another key interest in Dijkstra’s work is the construction of identity, which she explores as a navigation through social conduct, set behaviours and the subject’s positioning in relation to these. The Stedelijk’s white carpet, no shoes allowed auditorium is an ideal setting for her 26 minutes long video The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK / Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1995-96). Anyone who, like myself, remembers shell suits will immediately love this piece and let herself be immersed in the video’s defiant close ups of youth drinking, smoking and dancing to a loud background music.
When it comes to durational portraits (portraits that span over a period of time), Dijkstra’s treatment of her subject matter is exceptional. Video works are technically very demanding since the artist must consider the size and focus of the frame but also how the succession of images is composed in relation to space, to one another and to sound. To film this piece, Dijkstra had set up a small room behind two local discos and followed her protagonists throughout the night. In their eyes but also in their movements, one can see a nascent sexuality, intoxication, excitement and exhaustion.
As uplifting as this video was, my favourite can only be Marianna [The Fairy Doll] (2014). This piece captures a young girl training to audition for the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in Saint Petersburg, the most prestigious and toughest of all ballet schools. In contrast to the disco piece which was a compilation of different scenes and shots, this video is one long take. Zooming in and out of the girl’s face, a static camera traces those same feelings of excitement and exhaustion, but also of apprehension and resolution.
In addition, the video’s installation at the Stedelijk enhances the dialogue between the viewer and the object of viewing. Set in a small dark room, the viewer comes between the image of the video projected on the wall in front of her and a low audio coming from the speakers placed on the wall behind her. This setting replicates the contents of the video where we can see the dancer and hear but not see her instructor, who encourages her but also relentlessly corrects her; and formally conveys a sense of concentration and immersion.
This exhibition is highly recommended. Make sure you have enough time to see all the pieces, and it is almost guaranteed that you will want to see them more than once. There is also a special treat (two, actually) for museum educators and those who use Visible Thinking strategies, but you have to go to the show and see for yourself!