Mariken Wessels – Taking Off. Henry my Neighbor

By Anne Baptist

Surrounded by thousands of black-and-white nude pictures, you are instantly captured by an unsettling yet intriguing feeling when walking into Mariken Wessels’ new exhibition at FoMu. Taking off. Henry my neighbor is an exhibition of the works in Wessels’ latest book of the same name. In Taking off she creates an artistic reconstruction of the failing marriage of two people: Henry and Martha.

Wessels (°1961), a Dutch artist, is internationally renowned for her photobooks, but also creates series of photographs, sculptures and installations. She is known for working with found photographic material and recreating the stories behind it. These artistic reconstructions, as she calls them, are based on the untrustworthiness of truth. She recognizes the human restrictions of the concept because truth is only ever someone’s truth. Memories and interpretations are always tainted, failing or fading, limited due to our ever changing personal perspective. This idea is closely related to the nature of photographs. They seem to be the closest thing to a true representation of reality, but the reality they show isn’t necessarily true. By calling her photographic narratives ‘artistic recreations’, Wessels plays into these limits and leaves the spectator guessing and in search of authenticity.


Mariken Wessels (NL), from the series Taking Off. Henry my Neighbor, 2015

In Taking off Wessels constructs a visual biography from a collection of works by an amateur artist named Henry, which was entrusted to her by American friends. The collection consists of more than 5500 pictures, collages and sculptures made in the eighties, that all feature the same subject: his wife, Martha. She seems to have been his only muse and for a long time during their marriage she posed for him, before eventually leaving him, and throwing his work out on the street. The photographs picture her in different stages of undressing, taking on different poses, highlighting different parts of her naked body. She presents her body with a vacant and indifferent gaze, her eyes often averted from the camera. After their split he recovered the photos, cutting them up and reassembling them into collages. These collages mostly contain pieces of similar pictures and body parts, seamed together at joints and creases, thereby assembling a new, hybrid body. Often Martha’s face wasn’t part of these creations and they have an uncanny and vaguely disturbing sexuality about them. Later on the collages in their turn inspired clay sculptures, smooth, pale and seamless versions of these strange bodies.

Seeing the exhibition, that starts chronologically with a space completely plastered with these images and continues into three spaces that respectively encompass pictures of the split, of the sculptures and of the collages, is fascinating to say the least. Although their story is presented as true, Henry and Martha’s hidden motives remain very mysterious and hard to understand. In this alienating presentation of material that was clearly meant not to be seen, Henry seems overcome with an unhealthy, even scary obsession with Martha’s body, void of any love or tenderness. Furthermore, feelings of shame are omnipresent. Her shame, his shame, our shame. But at the same time there are so many unanswered questions. One can only wonder how authentic this representation is and where Wessels’ hand in it is. Do these pictures tell a story of sexual fixation or artistic study? Of objectification or appreciation? Of obsession or inspiration? We are left to wonder, staring closely at these pictures and collages in disturbed amazement.

The exhibition runs in the FoMu Antwerp until  05.06.16
For more info see:

This review was written for the Photography and Visual Culture Class of the Cultural Studies Program

Ukraine, a state in constant transition

By Julie Verheye

Boris Mikhailov’s Ukraine, currently running in FoMu Antwerp, shows a moving portrayal of a state in constant transition. The retrospective covers the unfolding of events in Mikhailov’s homeland by illustrating the developments from Soviet communism to Western capitalism and the recent Maidan protests. Pushing aside the grand narratives of the cold war and the macropolitics of the Soviet Union, Mikhailov visualises the influence on the everyday and, hence, portrays Ukraine in its most intimate setting. The exhibition blurs the boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity, documentary and diary, and recording and performing. Emphasising notions as imposition, alienation and the body, Ukraine stirs emotions with hints of witticism and vulgarity.


Untitled, from the series Case History, 1997-98 Boris Mikhailov, courtesy CAMERA – Centro Italiano per la Fotografia

Mikhailov openly – yet cunningly – criticises the communist regime. His subtle critique is already present in Superimpositions, which double exposes two colour photographs so as to create a psychedelic dreamland. Mikhailov aesthetically and unmethodologically juxtaposes icons and banalities of Soviet life with deep-seated cultural taboos. The playful overlays allude to the surreal and stand far from the photomontages of Rodchenko’s, El Lissitzky’s and Klutsis’ constructivist photography. The series stunningly counteracts the strict formulated aesthetics and narratives of arts in service of social practice by deconstructing preferred-readings and creating flexible meanings. Mikhailov continues his fight against communism with Black Archive, a series of monochrome photographs contrasting the intimacy of the home with the formality of the streets. Although his critique is barely visible, the series condemns the surveillance culture and numerous restrictions in public life during Soviet times. Mikhailov’s critique of communist society peaks in the colourful series Red Skies and Luriki. The alarming red colours of the former immediately stand out due to the serial representation that alludes to the profusion of communist symbols in day-to-day life. Similarly, Luriki, a set of colourised black and white photographs with a Méliès-like allure, refers to the hypocrisy of communist propaganda which constantly painted a rosy picture in order to beautify reality. During the eighties, a period of political and economic changes caused by Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, Mikhailov’s work gradually lost its colours both literally and figuratively. The sepia tinted photographs of Crimean Snobbism, a visual diary of Mikhailov’s friends during a holiday, and Salt Lake, an objective account of an ecological disaster, are merely a shadow of Mikhailov’s more provocative work of the sixties and seventies.

Other milestones in Mikhailov’s work are the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991. At Dusk, Tea Coffee Cappuccino and Case History are reflections on the changeover from communism to capitalism and the related impact on the body. At Dusk and Tea Coffee Cappuccino emphasise the disparity between consumer culture on the one hand, and the deteriorating of the social body and urban space on the other. However, both series are easily towered over by Case History, which is probably the apotheosis of the exhibition. The images vulgarly – yet intimately – depict the precarious living conditions of the homeless, a new social class emerging with capitalism. Apart from focussing on the bodily evidence of poverty, Mikhailov also fulfils a performative role as he stages a grotesque drama in paid collaboration with the bomzhes. Appearing in recognisable poses that refer to Christianity, the photographs provoke and could be seen as modern icons. The series raises questions about the traditional relationship between photographer and subject. The exhibition concludes with The Theatre of War, a series depicting the protesting body in moments of inactivity during the recent pro-European Euromaidan revolutions.

In sum, Ukraine shows a moving and intimate portrayal of the social body in transition from communism to capitalism. Sporadically verging on the vernacular, Mikhailov records a visual diary wavering between the objective and the subjective and, hence, reopens some probing questions about photography’s ethical imperative. The exhibition inserts a sense of realism by beautifying ugliness and by rendering visible what lies dormant beneath the surface of society. Simultaneously acting as an objective witness and a participating producer, Mikhailov depicts reality not only with great solemnity but also with a sense of humour. Nevertheless, the exhibition is a roller-coaster of impressions since not all works are equally outstanding: Mikhailov’s early series, along with Case History, rise above the other works, which unfortunately sink fast into oblivion.

The exhibition runs in the FoMu Antwerp until  05.06.16
For more info see:

This review was written for the Photography and Visual Culture Class of the Cultural Studies Program

Why visit Mons?

By Jan Baetens

Why visit Mons? Why visit a city that is no longer the European capital of culture (2015), a place so small that one may overlook its very existence? A place so near-by and so well connected to Leuven that it seems deprived of all exoticism? A place without railway station, that is without actual building, the existing one having been demolished and the new one eternally under construction, a place with no professional football team (and the basketball team did not very well either this year)?

Many questions, but countless answers as well, after a pleasant and very instructive city trip (we were there for business, not just for entertainment), that helped discover not only the rich cultural infrastructure of the city but also the extremely pleasant atmosphere of daily life in Mons.

In a nutshell, this was the program of the day: sight-seeing on the one hand (yes, the station: a ruin in the making, the main church, a grandiose copy of that of Leuven, the belltower and of course the little monkey at the city hall, the collapsed but rebuilt Arne Quinze installation, the new Manège theater – alas due to a strike it was not possible to recite some poetry at the entrance of the local prison, so famous in European literary history) and great cultural activities on the other hand (the city museum BAM, with a great exhibit on performance art and Bill Viola; the Mundaneum with the astonishing Paul Otlet archives as well as an exciting special exhibition on data visualization, big and small, and the artothèque, which a lack of time prevented us to visit from attic to basement).

In short: why visit Bruges if you can visit Mons?

Save the Date: colloquium Choreographing the Self during Extr’act | 19 & 20 May


Thu 19 & Fri 20 May14:00-18:00STUK AuditoriumFREE (reservation required through

For the symposium Choreographing the Self the department Cultural Studies at KU Leuven and arts center STUK have invited several international renown theoretician and artists to think about the role of choreography in the production of the individual and the social. Together they examine how choreography can be understood as a tool to analyze both the aesthetic organization of movement and the socio-political construction of singular and collective identities, in search of different intersections between these ‘small’ and ‘great’ forms of choreography. With conferences by Paula Caspao, Bojana Cvejić, Jason Read and Bojana Bauer.

The definitive timetable will soon appear here.

The symposium Choreographing the self is organized within the framework of the course Contemporary Dance: Theory and Analysis hosted by the department Cultural Studies at KU Leuven in collaboration with arts center STUK. Contemporary Dance: Theory and Analysis is a result of the policy plan culture KU Leuven 2013-2017. The symposium will be the first event of a series co-organized by both institutes aimed at bringing together spectators, artists and theoreticians around dance and choreography.

This symposium takes place during Extr’act – a compact two days with challenging work by a new generation of makers – the evening programmes can be checked here (Thursday May 19) and here (Friday May 20).

do 19 & vr 20 mei14:00-18:00STUK AuditoriumGRATIS (inschrijven verplicht via

Voor het colloquium Choreographing the Self nodigen het departement Culturele studies van de KU Leuven en kunstencentrum STUK verschillende internationale gerenommeerde theoretici en kunstenaars uit om samen na te denken over de rol van choreografie in de productie van individualiteit en collectiviteit. Samen onderzoeken zij hoe choreografie kan begrepen worden als een instrument om zowel de esthetische organisatie van beweging als de socio-politieke constructie van singuliere en collectieve identiteiten te analyseren en zoeken ze naar de verschillende kruisverbanden tussen deze ‘kleine’ en ‘grote’ vormen van choreografie. Met presentaties van Paula Caspao, Bojana Cvejić, Jason Read and Bojana Bauer.

Het definitieve uurschema is binnenkort hier te zien.

Het colloquium Choreographing the self wordt georganiseerd in het kader van het vak Hedendaagse dans: theorie en analyse, dat wordt georganiseerd aan het departement Culturele Studies van de KU Leuven in samenwerking met kunstencentrum STUK. Hedendaagse dans: theorie en analyse is opgestart vanuit het Beleidsplan cultuur KU Leuven 2013-2017. Het colloquium luidt het startschot in voor een serie van events die zullen worden georganiseerd door beide instituten en die telkens tot doel hebben om toeschouwers, kunstenaars en theoretici samen te brengen rond dans en choreografie.

Dit colloquium vindt plaats tijdens Extr’act – een gebalde tweedaagse met uitdagend werk van een nieuwe generatie makers – het avondprogramma van donderdag 19 mei vind je hier, dat van vrijdag 20 mei hier.