Rachel Mercer on the stark and moving photography of Rineke Dijkstra, now on view with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum.
As a photographer whose focus is portraiture, Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, captures a range of vulnerable subjects, including children and teenagers, soldiers, bullfighters, and women who have literally just given birth and stand before the camera, naked, clutching their red, grub-like newborns to their chests. Dijkstra, is particularly well-known for her portrayals of adolescents, young children/adults in the throes of puberty. Her approach, in all her work, is tender yet unflinchingly honest. Her portraits are confrontational in the ways their subjects peer, stare, or glare at the viewer, and yet inviting at the same time; they draw us in, asking us to recognize ourselves in the faces of those before us. No matter whom Dijkstra depicts, her work is about vulnerability and transition. The identities of the subjects are often at stake in the photographs, as they are portrayed at liminal stages in their lives, and so the work is underscored by movement, the ever-present forward motion from birth to death, which is at the core of what it means to be human.
The series Beach Portraits is comprised of photos taken in vastly different locations, from South Carolina to the Ukraine. In each image, an adolescent boy or girl (or sometimes a group) stands before the camera in a bathing suit, with an out-of-focus ocean in the background. The subjects’ expressions and bodily postures reveal in an instant the profound range of emotions and experiences, fears and hopes, struggles and triumphs that each contains within him or herself—the universal rage, riot, noise, and itch of being a teenager. The portraits are by turns self-conscious, embarrassed, defiant, grave, and utterly sweet, offering the viewer the rare chance to simply stand and stare at a teenager in all his or her awkwardness and glory. It is an exceedingly enjoyable, though at times uncomfortable, experience. And what really makes the Beach Portraits unique is Dijkstra’s way of deftly balancing the heavy intensity of her subjects with a levity that comes from her presence behind the lens: a loving mother, her confidence is calming, her compassion reassuring. The photographs never feel cold or clinical. The camera never acts as a distancing, alienating device. Rather, the work generates a community: the child on the beach, squinting into the sun or leaning away shyly, Djikstra herself, the guide, the mediator, and you, the viewer. Everyone is implicated and therefore responsible; you are called upon to care. Dijkstra’s project is, in this way, deeply humanitarian.
In addition to the single images of youth, Dijkstra also photographs people over the course of time, capturing them as they transform and grow, year after year. Almerisa portrays a young Bosnian girl who starts out at the age of perhaps six at a Dutch refugee camp, and progresses in the images through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and finally to full adulthood as she has a child of her own. As each year passes, the viewer is able to glean the rapidity with which Almerisa changes, assimilating further and further into her new culture. While the transformations in Almerisa are especially visible in her external appearance—her clothes and her body—several other of Dijkstra’s time lapse series explore change as it takes place on a more internal level. Both in the series Olivier and in two sets of photographs depicting young Israeli women before and after they are inducted into the Israeli Defense Forces, the outward shifts are present but minimal; the real differences are to be found in the subjects’ eyes. They are subtle and unnerving.
Olivier pictures a young French man as he enters the French Foreign Legion. In the first image, he looks like a typical nineteen or twenty year old, in his plain black t-shirt and messy hair. In the subsequent images, which span three years, Olivier is shown in various official military outfits as he progresses in serving out his duty. The second to last image once again presents him in a plain t-shirt, facing the camera head-on. In some ways the changes are negligible: he looks slightly older, more mature, his facial features are sharper. Yet there is some unmistakable aberration, a contrast that can only be described as coming from within. Dijkstra trains her eye on a single subject and extracts what is essential about his or her experience, translating it into a haunting image.
In addition to the photographic work, the retrospective also includes several of Dijkstra’s video pieces. Two installations about club life, The Buzz Club and The Krazyhouse, filmed more than ten years apart, are continuations of Dijkstra’s signature fascination with teens and young adults. In The Buzz Club, youths dance—for the most part alone—before a white backdrop as music from the club can be heard in the background. These scenes are projected in pairs on a screen, so that the viewer observes two segments at once, allowing for poignant and sometimes hilarious comparisons of the subjects’ various dance styles, clothing, and attitudes. The Krazyhouse, filmed in 2009, is made up of five different video segments in which young men and women dance solo before a white backdrop to music of their choice—metal, techno, pop—played by a DJ off-screen. The installation is presented one segment at a time, projected on one of four large screens set up on the four walls of a room. Viewers pass in and out of the room quietly, while others sit in the middle on the floor, rotating around as one segment finishes and another picks up on a different screen.
The club videos are funny, exhilarating, and at times, extremely moving. One girl in particular, when the song begins, sways her body tightly and awkwardly. Her shyness and reluctance are palpable and difficult to watch without cringing. Then, as the music picks up (David Guetta’s When Love Takes Over), her body superscedes her mind and begins moving freely, beautifully, of its own accord. Watching this young woman look utterly lost and confused, uncomfortable in her own skin, and then suddenly, in the process of finding her rhythm, find herself, is cathartic; it actually brought me to tears. In another video, a young man with a tattoo on his neck and a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude—contradicted by his sweet blue eyes and the earnestness of his dancing—begins moving the instant the song begins and continues thrashing throughout the segment. Each video conveys a sense of urgency, related to the subjects’ age, which speaks directly to what it is to be young in a world of overwhelming social pressures and influences.
Rineke Dijkstra is an anthropologist in the purest sense. In her photographs and videos, she is equally attentive to the impact of social context on the individual, and to their essence or identity, inexorable and inextricable from the world in which they live. In her portrayals of people and their worlds, Dijkstra transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, forcing the viewer to really see her subjects as the artist herself does.
The retrospective will be on view until October 8 at the Guggenheim Museum.
Rachel Mercer is a fiction writer from Taos, New Mexico. She now lives in Brooklyn and writes for BOMBlog.