Usually when I visit art museums and galleries, I spend some time thinking about how the work would be better presented most anywhere else. Between the whine of the tourists, the whine of my gallery foot, the forced sanctification of a space in white, and the panopticism of an institution with such intense insurance concerns, I get distracted from the ideal experience of art, which is material bound by intersubjectivity and transcendence (right?).
The last three times I’ve visited the Guggenheim, I’ve felt the opposite. Last year, Maurizio Cattelan’s massive mobile was the perfect f-u response to Frank Lloyd’s f-u to modern art in the form of those notorious slanted walls. A few months ago, I watched pop-opera performer Zola Jesus scale the spiral ramp. Most recently, I ached at the sight of Rineke Dijkstra’s mid-career retrospective, which will be hanging in the museum’s off-ramp Annex galleries through October 8th.
The reason Dijkstra’s photographs work so well in the museum setting has little to do with any apparent curatorial intention (though the curation is very good) and has everything to do with the museum, and the New York museum in particular, as institution. Rineke Dijkstra is a Dutch photographer who makes large scale colour portraits and videos. Most of her portraits are of young people, adolescents on the beach, lounging in the park, English club kids, Israeli and French soldiers, Portuguese bullfighters, and Dutch new mothers. Her subjects are more or less contemporaneous (1990s through the 2000s) and from all around the world, though predominantly from developed countries, just like the summer crowds at a New York museum.
Dijkstra’s portraits explore the details of conscious self-presentation—the clothes we choose, an engaged gaze—versus those details that slip through, the cues in body language or body, like a chewed fingernail or tense shoulder, that may reveal themselves to a viewer without the subject being aware. This is an idea I scribbled down after considering Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits series (1992-2002) of adolescents standing in front of oceans from Coney Island to Croatia, South Carolina to the Ukraine. In one of the next rooms, by Dijkstra’s Buzz Club photos, I overheard a Japanese woman repeat this same thought to her group of students.
As I looked upon Dijkstra’s portraits, I wasn’t distracted by the multilingual crowds, but moved to examine them as portraits of selves. Dijkstra’s images are about people. Yes, they are about people in time, as all photos are, and there are sartorial indicators that place us in the past, but it’s the visceral flesh of her subjects—the simultaneous feeling of being in their skin and in their clothes, and watching them in their skin and in their clothes, as we watch ourselves sometimes—that is so powerful.
Dijkstra’s photographs tune you in to the fact that we are our material substance as much as we are our interiors. To the Parisian teen girl on a group field trip to the Guggenheim, I may be just as she is for me, an image, an object from one day. We navigate our lives, especially in an urban centre like New York, through dismissal; it would be impossible to engage with every person and every object we encounter. Dijkstra’s photos impart a sense of what it’s like to be in another’s skin, and make you want to look upon the other as art, as a source for material bound intersubjectivity and transcendence. In other words: art is, as David Foster Wallace said of fiction, “about what it is to be a fucking human being.”