Rineke Dijkstra at the MMK, Frankfurt

Almerisa series (1994 - ongoing)
Almerisa series (1994 – ongoing)

Back from a trip to Germany, having made the Gernsheim exhibition at the REM in Mannheim the primary stopping point, I found myself popping in to the MMK in Frankfurt before flying home. Here, Rineke Dijkstra has been given free rein of the entire jumpy triangulated space and its contents, to produce a solo show suspended among other works, as chosen by the photographer herself. The Krazy House, until 26th May 2013 is an exhibition named after one of her video works, a four-screen production of young dancers at the Liverpool nightclub of the same name.

Known for her focus on deceptively simple portrait photography, Dijkstra’s work seen in the flesh is mesmerising. With little technical artifice, the place for masks and theatrical gesturing or posturing is found in the subjects themselves. Particularly with teenagers, the thin gauze of defiance and assertion repeatedly wavers in glances or movements of self-consciousness – and even though the real time of film offers this tangible, visible flip between moments of self-awareness (like the lenticular postcard which advertises the exhibition), the still photographs too, express the undecided and uncertain aspects of a young person’s experience in front of the lens.

Much more than just awkwardness, Dijkstra’s work is more broadly about transitions, and the marked effect of life situations on people’s lives. She has produced series of same-subject photographs, including an ongoing portrait of Almerisa (since 1994, when Almerisa was a 6-year-old Bosnian refugee in the Netherlands), and Olivier (2000-2003, a young soldier in the French Foreign Legion). She has photographed the ‘after’ of women who have just given birth, or of matadors who have just left the ring. She has said that she doesn’t always see the differences when working alongside people in this way, but that the photographs themselves tell of subtle change, and of the things ‘given away’ by the body. Photography, in her hands, reveals the invisible.

The Annunciation’s inspiration

The Annunciation

My Christmas card for 2012 features words from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke and some details of Fra Angelico’s famous fresco – a confluence of ideas from the same titles, but disparate elements coming to the fore. Rilke’s poem, Annunciation, of 1899, is a beautiful, bewitching expression of the angel’s point of view. It unwraps the encounter with a perspective that seems to see Mary as the anchor to heaven’s multiplicity and expanse. Everything eternal and bright comes together in the slender form of Mary – we are perhaps more used to this as a post-annunciation effect, Jesus being the radiant result. Instead, here, Mary is a tree, the Tree, that symbol which is not simply about ever-green life but also about rootedness and a dependent life. Read the full poem here.

The figures of the angel and Mary in my image are borrowed from Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation of 1438-45. The bent knee and the leaning forms of both are more pronounced in the well-known version of the painting at the San Marco convent in Florence, but there is another, simpler painting of the scene in one of the cells at the same convent, probably of a later date. This painting is very simply set in an arched-ceiling terrace that precisely reflects the arched ceiling of the cell itself. It’s a dome both within and through the walls – a precise and perfectly attuned way of suggesting the immediacy of the event (see here). My snow-globe hints at the composition, but this time, the pocketable, shiny trinket is an ever-reflecting, ever-occurring containment of the scene. I like the sense of smallness – something found in a dark corner, whether at the back of a 15th-century cloister, or tucked away in the cupboard where the Christmas decorations are kept. Small, but explosive.

Julia Margaret Cameron and her Marys

‘Mary Mother’, 1867 and ‘The Angel at the Tomb’, 1870

The Virgin Mary is a compelling and complex character for any believer, particularly a woman of the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, she was the ideal of femininity – gentle, nurturing, compassionate. If ever there was a woman who was great through love, it is the Madonna. On the other hand, as both mother and virgin, she presented a paradox. Because her virtue was reconciled with her motherhood through divine interventions, a method not available to other mortals, she represented an unattainable realm for women. … [Noting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proposed by the Catholic Church in 1854] If Mary is without original sin, she is not simply a mortal who has been blessed, but she is both human and divine, unique in her purity, and, as such, all the more daunting as a model of feminine grace.

The photograph of The Angel at the Tomb takes as its subject the angel who was in attendance at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. In the Scriptures, the angel is a man. In this photograph, the angel is Cameron’s maid Mary Hillier. Decidedly feminine, her profile is cut by a light from above that accentuates the delicate contour of her brow, nose and chin. Hillier’s hair is the dominant feature of the picture. rendered in soft contrast and orange-coloured tones, her cascade of kinky waves dissolves to cotton softness at the bottom of the frame. With a sheet wrapped around her shoulders and carelessly pinned just below the sternum, Hillier is slightly disheveled, a woman in dishabille. In fact, she looks more like Mary Magdalene. … The picture is of a woman who seems to be at once a heavenly figure and someone of flesh and blood – she is both melancholy and angelic, sensual and divine.

From Sylvia Wolf’s Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women, p. 62-63.

A little work friend

Big Sheep, Amelie and me
Thursday’s being my normal day for a blog post, Friday involves small chunks of work around my little girl. So the nature of working changes when you’re a mum, no big surprises there. But it means you manage your thinking, your handling of ideas, your creating, your breaks with a greater awareness of your limits. You have always had limits, it’s a fallacy to think you didn’t. It’s just that now, they become more closely connected to your available time and energy. It’s another level of self-employment.

I do wonder though, how the mode of efficiency affects a mode that’s more about relating and love. I believe in the second more than I believe in the first – and I don’t mean to suggest that motherhood and work divide solely along those lines. The mode of relating and love is a mode related to spirit, and I believe, is what Jesus modelled throughout his life as not only possible, but somehow truer. This can and should reflect across all dimensions of living, creating a fuller picture than our compartmentalising does. I’m so far from that fuller picture, but next week, when Lent starts, I’m going to try and pay attention (as Aldous Huxley kept saying in ‘Island’) to where that truth can be found in my work life.

I’ll dive into the Bible, looking at the elements of earth, fire, wind and water for my next project. I’ll play and listen to music LOUDLY. I’ll get outside more. You can keep tabs on me if you like…