The extraordinary ordinary: Rineke Dijkstra at the Guggenheim

extraordinary-ordinary-rineke-dijkstra-guggenheim
From Dijkstra's 'The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, England, 2009' (Courtesy Guggenheim Museum)
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Last week Aziz Ansari took to Twitter to deploy a few words against one of society’s more irritating excesses:

Shoutout to the folks that videotaped fireworks on their phones last night. So glad we have that footage to look back on.

If you've ever waited patiently for a fellow museum-goer to snap a photo of an artwork before stepping up to get a look yourself, then watched them move on down the line, snapping away in the service of some fantasy future viewing party; if you've ever had to crane your neck, struggling to actually see your favorite band through the dense forest of phones held aloft in the hopes of some inaudible, horribly lit documentation of the event you're missing; if you've ever accidentally clicked on one of those videos and watched it; if you've had to put up with such things then you know just what Ansari is talking about.

Of course it's not just the old, familiar "information overload" complaint that actually echoed through the ages long before the digital era. For those of us who don’t give in to the paranoia that zettabytes of cat videos and baby pictures are unstoppably degrading the sanctity of The Image, it’s extraordinary to be confronted, as one is at the Guggenheim Museum’s current Rineke Dijkstra mid-career retrospective, with rather ordinary-looking images of rather ordinary-looking people, and to be intensely moved.

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53-year-old Dutch photographer Dijkstra belongs to the same generation of European photographers as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, and they all came of age just two decades after color photography finally took hold in art photography. Yet unlike her contemporaries, Dijkstra does not make bullying, gigantic, crowded, color-saturated images. She works on a large-enough scale—most prints are poster-size—but she seeks to strip things away, specifically the self-consciousness of her young subjects. Dijkstra’s photographs of children and teenagers reveal something deep, pure, and undetermined.

It all began with an accident: A real one. Dijkstra had been working, unhappily, as a commercial photographer after studying photography at art school in Amsterdam when she had a bad bike accident in 1991. Months of exhausting physical therapy followed, culminating, one day, in a transformative self portrait (Self Portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 19, 1991) taken after a particularly grueling swim. Dijkstra stands under fluorescent lighting in a tiled room, spent and wet in her striped suit, swim cap, and goggles, arms folded upward, hands covering her mouth, narrow shoulders slumped. It’s not much bigger than 8” x 10”, yet even with her mouth protected there’s a sense of raw expression; unmediated, exhausted openness. That openness became an obsession for her.

It led directly to Dijkstra’s first major series, which she began working on the following year and would continue to build on for a decade. The Beach Portraits include images of children and teens taken on beaches in Europe (mainly the U.K., Poland, and Ukraine) and the United States. The subjects are well-lit, if coldly so, while the backgrounds—always the ocean—are blurred, unspectacular, gray, dead. They could be anywhere, and the children could be anyone. Everything depends on their faces, their ways of holding their bodies, and their (usually very plain) swimsuits. Dijkstra is keen to avoid anything potentially distracting, so there are rarely subjects who are of remarkable beauty or ugliness; there is very rarely a logo or brand-name to be seen; trends appear only in subtle ways; and only in very rare cases are her subjects not very, very thin.

In short, there is no Diane Arbus-like seeking for the anomalous, the bizarre, the singular expression of weirdness—and yet many of these images are hard to forget. In Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 27, 1992, two prepubescent Polish boys stand in identical small white suits: the one on the left stands upright, his superlong arms folded behind him, his fingers crossed behind and beneath his crotch; the kid on the right has his shoulders bent way back, head hunched forward, face caught in a half-grin, his contorted body suggesting an Egon Schiele figure. Both are posed, in a manner of speaking, and yet it feels as though they’re caught in the moment just after they’ve posed, and what is captured is the slackening into something else, something closer to the innate awkwardness of these soon-to-be transitional bodies.

Another pair of boys, this time Americans, stand in an image a few feet away, hair down to their shoulders, cutoff jeans instead of suits, black hair on legs, chests still hairless. It’s the same pair as before, only a few years on, across an ociean, and with faces more hardened, stances blander, the aloof coolness of teen-hood tougher to break down. A girl at Hilton Head, wearing an orange bikini, hip turned slightly, hand held up, holding her blond waves away from her face, mouth in a pout, is clearly extremely aware of the camera, of being photographed, of producing herself into an image. And yet the result shows not the intended telegraphing of coquettish composition, but a body not yet fully formed, never comfortable, worried, and, despite the ostensible pinup pose, utterly unsexual.

Subsequent series undertaken by Dijkstra explore some of the same themes (how bodies allow and prevent self-expression as children turn to adolescents and young adults) and experiment with subtle changes in orientation. More specific social contexts—city parks, trendy clothing—and sociopolitical issues—Western militarism, Western motherhood—enter the images, with varied results. In these Dijkstra vacillates between privileging background or foreground (both image-wise and issue-wise), leaving some photos laden with potential signifiers and others utterly, and in some cases frustratingly, decontextualized.

At the Guggenheim show, two such series face each other across a room. On one side hang young Toreros in Portugal, photographed just after bullfights, looking like exhausted, energized boy-men, their faces smeared in blood, their clothes torn and frayed. Opposite are a series of nude mothers holding newborns they’ve just given birth to—also exhausted, sometimes with blood still showing on their legs, cheeks abloom, faces half-blank, half-triumphant. One side has taken life, one just created it, one side has taken a path to manhood, another a path to womanhood. It is one of the most arresting spots in the exhibition.

Several series that capture individuals aging over several years are intriguing, yet inconsistent. All of them have political allusiveness, yet it’s hard to tell what we’re to make of that. Israeli twins grow from scrawny, open-faced preteens to older teens with impenetrable looks; a French teen is followed through several years in the Foreign Legion, slowly losing all traces of the child he was when he began. Almerisa, which covers the longest period and most changes, documents a young Bosnian refugee from 1994 to 2008. She dyes her hair, tries on various styles, has a child, and steadily adopts, at least outwardly, a Dutch identity. Not all the series are this successful. Other images of Israeli teens before and after induction into mandatory military service (like Evgenya, Induction-Centre Tel Hashomer, Israel, March 6, 2002; Evgenya, North Court Base Pikud Tzafon, Israel, December 9, 2002, below) feel somewhat strained: A political reading is invited but refused, but it is hard to accept a purely domestic context. What connection is made to the legionnaire? Why Israel? Why France?

Dijkstra’s photos have the capacity for great power, but some of her more recent series are crowded with distracting context and implication. It’s as though she has introduced narrative elements that, instead of provoking, confuse.

Take a series that began in 1998, in which Dijkstra photographed young people in urban parks in Amsterdam and Berlin. Instead of taking the mask off these kids she’s stuck them in virtual tableaux. Many have said that Dijkstra’s portraiture recalls everything from Goya to Rembrandt to Reynolds, but to my mind her best work plays counter to such portraitists. And so when her young subjects appear against rich backgrounds, suggesting motifs from classical painting (including, undeniably Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), community is constructed, but it’s fantasmatic: Three shots at Berlin’s Tiergarten showing barefoot children at play suggest three playmates but were actually taken in three separate years. Their poses, looking out of the frame to left or right, have the feeling not of the moment before or after a pose, but of the pose itself. Instead of documenting one person over time, she is now documenting one gesture, and not the unself-conscious gestures she seems to seek elsewhere. The camera brings together the children in time, and it also interrupts: Many of the photos of Amsterdam’s Vanderpark seem to have caught older teens while making out, or getting stoned, or both: In one, a boy in a garish blue satin tie sits close to a girl in a skirt that doesn’t quite cover her underwear. Both have sly smiles. In another, Vondelpark, Amsterdam, June 10, 2005, a group shot, the girls are draped in hippie jewelry, the boys gaze with smug knowingness, and all around are scattered candy wrappers, glazed expressions.

Dijkstra’s videos seem the purest distillation of her mission: the identities of her subjects can unfurl not over fragmented years, but directly, in continuous time. Her interest, we see here, is not in making something dynamic static, like Struth and Gursky do: She is an animator. In I See a Woman Crying a class of British students in gray sweaters, white shirts, and red ties react with unceasing commentary to an image we never see, three cameras moving ceaselessly over their faces, projected in three overlapping and constantly dynamic channels on a wide screen.

“She’s done something wrong,” they say. “She’s lonely.” “Maybe she’s a ghost.” “She’s the only person she knows who looks like that.” “It could be inside emotions.” They never take a pause and they don’t, as we might expect of such young kids, laugh more than once or twice.

“It’s like when people win the X-Factor they cry ... because they are full of joy.”

In the same room is Ruth Drawing Picasso (2009), where we watch a girl seated on the floor making a pencil sketch. Again, we don’t see the image and we also don’t see her reproduction; what we get are the familiar scratching of her pencil and the image of her face, looking up sharply, blankly, gaping at the Picasso we never see. It’s a fascinating look at the experience of images for children.

Stuck in an odd location in the gallery space (which, by nature of not being presented in the spiral, is a bit of a pain to navigate, and impossible to make sense of in terms of having a beginning or an endpoint) is one of the best videos, Annemiek (I Wanna Be With You) (1997), in which the titular Dutch teen lip-synchs to her favorite Backstreet Boys song. She’s probably 11 or 12, with braces and a zig-zag plastic headband, and displays two modes: trance-like, unguarded, fully open while singing along, and mortified, giggly, and closed off during the song’s instrumental breaks. Evidently Dijkstra hoped the music would distract and transport her sitter, the capture her out of “consciously composed poses.” It’s not totally successful, but at the moments when it is, the sense of unfettered expression is almost overwhelming.

Finally, perhaps Dijkstra’s greatest achievements are a pair of video projects involving young people in dance clubs. The Buzz Club, Liverpool, U.K./Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1996–97) and The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool, U.K. (2009), are screened on different floors. I wished they had been presented chronologically because they do tell a story about Dijkstra’s shifting approach to documenting her subjects. (I also wished they had been a fair bit louder to approximate the volume levels at which young people and dance music fans generally lose themselves in their music.)

The earlier project is a two-channel projection. We see a series of teenagers, denizens of dance clubs the Buzz Club in Liverpool, U.K., and Mystery World, Zaandam, NL. As techno and house music is heard seeping in from the nearby dancefloor we see people in medium shots against a white backdrop. Kids smoking, pulling on beers, chewing gum, sometimes lightly gyrating to the beat, couples making out. Occasionally the video switches on and off with music, or we get slow-mo shots of the subjects. These elements are more distracting than illuminating. Better is just watching these young people as they attempt to appear nonchalant, then catch a snippet of a beat that makes them let go, if even for a second. One young woman in a rather ridiculous white midriff-baring dress, the woman in the dark bob smoking, the twins in similar track suits and buzz cuts nodding along.

The second project, from 2009, involves five dancers. The backdrops are still white, but we’re not in the club anymore, or not in any way we can sense. Rather, each dancer gets a few minutes with their own song or a couple of songs, and their time is projected on one of four walls of the room, very large.

A stocky guy with a buzz cut and a lone neck tattoo, faded black T-shirt and jeans, thin-lipped, round-faced, sweaty, loses himself most completely in the music, mouthing the words, his moves seeming to emanate from him (he’s not just putting on a show); he fades out, breathing hard when music ends, staring at the audience.

Next, a skinny black girl in a tight printed T-shirt, oversize belt, and jeans (like her best subjects, the outfits are totally understated, the focus allowed to rest on faces, bodies, and more subtle self-presentation) gets off to a slow start, mouthing the lyrics and merely swaying; the camera switches to close-up on her rouged cheeks; she finally seems to let go, making heart shapes with her hands, giggling not out of embarrassment but pleasure in the music.

Then there's a blonde girl, heavily made up with the sort of idiosyncratic teen hairdo that must have taken hours to put just right. She sways programmatically to a cover of “Rhythm of the Night,” her blue eyes striking but her expression never changing.

Next up, a lank-haired boy headbangs to a metal tune, waving his hand aloft during the slow verses.

And then there’s Nicky, whose perfectly set wavy blond tresses, mod minidress forming an X across her cleavage, braids on the side of her head, and pouty, pursing lips show a teenager playing the grown-up; her moves are at once totally overdetermined (even if the buzz-cut dancer's moves seem purer, both summon their dancing from somewhere else, something they've seen, some mode that they can aspire to) and suggestive of a gap between old and young, the child she still is (yet won’t allow herself to be) and the adult she desires (and can’t quite be, just yet). Even when she appears to become deliriously moved by the music, she never quite lets go of her performance. 

The entrancing reminds, as both projects do, of the figurings of dancers investigated by  Mark Leckey, Rashaad Newsome, and most recently, Hassan Khan, even if those emerged from very different contexts. Watching people dancing isn't a new concept, yet it's a rich window into expression, identity, and socialization, and Dijkstra handles it perfectly.

The audience for Dijkstra's videos, when I visited, tittered a bit—usually just after settling down and getting a load of what was going on—but ultimately became nearly as hypnotically focused as the dancers onscreen. If you broke your gaze from the screen for a moment and looked at your fellow viewers, something of that broken-through state Dijkstra’s always searching for could be seen right there in the gallery, alive and well.

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective’ is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through October 8.