RINEKE DIJKSTRA---A Retrospective
SFMOMA February 18 - May 28, 2012
It is a widely shared belief among some Native American tribes that photography can steal a soul and imprison it within the film. Members of these tribes refused to be photographed during their life time and established a set of practice to “recover” the soul once it is in danger of being captured. One of the reasons why photography, in their point of view, steals the soul is that, unlike mirrors, photographs do not reflect the image. Once the image is taken, it stays forever on the film.
Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra challenges this notion of permanence in photography by capturing the state of transition in her photographs. She follows many people for several years, recording their life with her photos, and exhibiting them one by one in the order of time on the wall of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. All of her subjects are in the state of transition: teenagers, women undergoing pregnancy, young soldiers and so on. As all stages of transition are laid out on the wall, the soul, “trapped” in her films, seems to be liberated, little by little, by the change the subjects are going through.
Dijkastra’s beach series is a group of work with great simplicity yet significant depth. Teenagers in bathing suits stand in front of the camera in a relaxing pose, either looking straight into the lens or deviating their glance to the side. The background in this series is constantly seascape under an overcast sky. On one hand, the nature elements in this series, which is the ocean and the sky, suggest permanence, which sets a great contrast to the teenagers on the foreground who are undergoing a transition. On the other hand, the subject of ocean, which is consisted of water, implies change, flexibility and the state of flux: perfectly facilitates the teenagers in the foreground. The simplicity of the composition and the depth of nature give this series much sensitivity and subtlety.
Her series on soldiers in different countries continues the simple composition of portraitures. For instance, Dijkastra followed a teenage boy named Olivier when he first enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in the summer of 2000. He is posing in front of the camera wearing a navy blue shirt against a plain background. His muscle structure is unclear under his shirt and his big brown eyes set a great contrast with his pale, almost porcelain like face. Dijkastra recorded his life in the army for following two years, during which Olivier’s physical appearance and mental state went through significant transition. In the photo taken in the winter of 2000, Olivier, with extremely short hair, is slightly frowning at the camera; his face is partially covered by camouflage and his uniform signifies his broadened shoulder. Two years later, in the summer of 2002, Dijkastra took another portrait of Olivier. This time, his face is a lot more angular with a wide and strong jaw that permeate a sense of strength and maturity. His neck is more rounded as well, joining his angular head with his bulging chest muscle, which is visible under his army green t-shirt. The last photo of Oliver in exhibition is taken in the summer of 2003, three years after the Oliver enlisted in the Legion. This portrait of him resembles Vin Diesel, barely visible hair, square and strong jaw, muscular arms and a solid chest under his uniform which is now in a higher military rank. He twisted his eye brows and look into the camera with slightly squinted eyes: the wonder boy image from the first portrait back in 2000 is gone without a trace. Maturity, power, steadiness and strength replace the innocence and youthfulness of young Olivier. What the audience sees is the subtle transition of Olivier, the development of his soul from 2000 to 2003, instead of just one moment of his life that is frozen and framed by the photograph. In other word, one single piece of photography can never capture the soul: it only represents a moment of the soul, here and now. Through transition of time and space, the soul will be fully captured, and freed at the same time.
The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.