Rineke Dijkstra is an internationally renowned Dutch photographer whose exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York presents her project Night Watching (2019) and also a selection of new works after a period of revisiting her archive. Dijkstra is one of the most original interpreters of portrait photography, and her large-format images, made with a 4×5 plate view camera, stand out for their exceptional quality from a technical and formal point of view. Hers is an approach that fits into that strand of Germanic aesthetics in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s – of obvious neutrality, of cold strangeness of gaze – which leads Dijkstra’s photography to be without aesthetic and emotional frills, but on the contrary, a true investigation of reality. Both the video and the new photographs in the popular Beach Portrait series show the different ways in which people connect with each other in front of the camera, the art, and the viewer. Night Watching is a three-channel video installation commissioned and premiered at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam in 2019. It presents 14 groups of people observing and talking in front of Rembrandt’s iconic painting The Night Watch (1642), where conversations from visual descriptions and random conjecture, alternate with more reflective circumstances, such as the group of Dutch schoolgirls discussing whether Rembrandt gave the only female face in the painting the appearance of his wife Saskia. The scenes in the video are sequenced to explore the different ways a viewer can relate to a painting and its subject. Early groups make assumptions about what they are seeing, while later groups examine the work in an art-historical context.
“I try to capture the personalities of these people, but at the same time extrapolate something universal about humanity in general.”
The artist’s broader reflection is to note the importance of narrative in the creation of meaning, culture and history. The same themes similarly explored are found in Dijkstra’s 2009 video installation, I See a Woman Crying, which features British schoolchildren looking at and discussing Picasso’s painting The Weeping Woman (1937) at Tate Liverpool. The constant and pointed photographer’s operation is an opportunity to engage us in reflecting on the nature of dialogue and conversations in a discursive relationship with art and history, and to consider works in an ever-widening context from those in which they are presented. The other part of the exhibition concerns Pictures from the Archive, that is, a further selection of Beach Portraits, the famous ones selected over a decade and taken in locations around the world. While those that Dijkstra exhibited early in her career often focused on young people as autonomous subjects, the works in this new exhibition focus on connection.
“I also look for a sense of calm and serenity in my photos. I like it when everything is reduced to its essence. In a culmination. A moment of truth. […] For me it is essential to understand that we are all alone. Not in the sense of loneliness, but rather in the sense of the impossibility of completely understanding someone else.”
We see as protagonists groups of people immortalized around the world, from the beaches of Poland, the United States and the Netherlands, to various locations in Ghana, the United Kingdom and Ukraine. In these images Dijkstra raises the question of how the bond between people becomes visible and how the photograph can be shot through by a subtle similarity in appearance, bodily attitude toward the camera, or the gesture of casually holding hands. Night Watching and Pictures from the Archive invite the viewer to consider the ways in which human beings can forge identity and power through their connection to one another. The exceptional eye for detail and the unique gestures of each individual in these portraits shed extraordinary light on the power of Rineke Dijkstra’s work.
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