“Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals” In Pursuit of a Natural Pose

Sep. 12, 2016
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Rineke Dijkstra, The Gymschool, St. Petersburg, 2014

“Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals” by celebrated Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra has just opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The work is featured in MAM’s new Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts and serves as the nexus of several other current exhibitions.

The exhibition consists of two video installations – “Marianna (The Fairy Doll)” and “The Gymschool, St. Petersburg” – that find Dijkstra exploring themes that have animated her work in the past. One such theme is, in Dijkstra’s words, the attempt “to find a natural pose” and generally to photograph her subjects so as to make them less aware of the camera and thereby less self-aware.

In “Marianna (The Fairy Doll)” we watch young Marianna rehearsing for an imminent audition at a prestigious Russian ballet academy. In a pink practice room with a wall-length mirror, Marianna rehearses her dance several times. The camera is continually trained on her, leaving Marianna no place to hide and ensuring, as Shakespeare would have it, that the truth will out. As exhaustion and frustration begin to take a toll, the rift between the poised mask of the perpetually smiling ballerina and the young girl becomes apparent. Off camera we hear the directions of Marianna’s instructor, who like the adults in Peanuts is neither directly seen nor understood (supposing you, like I, don’t speak a lick of Russian). Rather, it is Marianna’s face that fields the feedback and serves as our interpretative key to what is said. Then, it is back to square one: the requisite smile is pasted back on Marianna’s face, the jaunty strains of Josef Bayer’s “The Fairy Doll” (1888) begin yet again and we’re off to the races.

“Marianna (The Fairy Doll)” is productively viewed in conjunction with Dijkstra’s “Almerisa,” a suite of photographs included in “The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography Collection,” also on display in the Herzfeld Center. “Almerisa,” like “Marianna” is an extended meditation on one young girl, in this case a Bosnian whose family sought asylum in Amsterdam. Eleven photographs taken at one- and two-years intervals trace Almerisa’s transition from six-year-old refugee to mother who has found her place within Western European culture. Both “Marianna (The Fairy Doll)” and “Almerisa” operate on the principle that people reveal their true selves over time – whether that is over the course of years or a few, exhausting minutes.

Compared with “Marianna (The Fairy Doll),” “The Gymschool, St. Petersburg” is an abstract work involving decidedly unnatural poses. Three channels display young gymnasts demonstrating such inhuman flexibility that they may well have Slinkys for spines. Their dizzying contortions play with the drama of tension and release, which is intensified by the grunts and thuds that constitute the work’s “soundtrack.” There is artful interaction between the three channels, at times focusing our attention on a single channel and, other times, allowing us to revel in the polyphonic interplay of young gymnasts all attempting to roll metallic purple balls from the feet to their heads from a prone position.

The two video installations comprising “Rineke Dijkstra: Rehearsals” are productively viewed in conjunction with the aforementioned Herzfeld Center exhibition “The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography Collection,” which presents Dijkstra’s “Almerisa” and other works that explore “ways photographers have attempted to represent and define the people around them.” “From Rembrandt to Parmigianino: Old Masters from Private Collections” (through October 23) is another interesting interlocutor for Dijkstra’s works. The conceptual and aesthetic similarities between Dijkstra’s portraiture and that of the old European masters has been noted elsewhere. Though separated by centuries, these artists are united by a spare aesthetic and a reliance on subtle details to do the storytelling. 

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