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