I’ll be honest, it was the impending closing of Rineke Dijkstra’s retrospective that served as catalyst to finally haul ass to the Guggenheim. Upon entering the first room of her monumental portraits, I immediately let go of my issues with the Guggenheim as a suboptimal viewing space. The first images were perhaps the ones I’m most familiar with: pre-teens at puberty’s cusp, faces with a hormonally induced surface of acne and an oily sheen, adult sized noses on a child’s head, the soft edges of a youth’s transition to adulthood and the modest swells of a young girls breasts unable to escape the attention of even the shiest aspiring suitor. Dijkstra is a master of humanizing the awkward. Each series is a collection of survivors. The triptych of mothers who have just given birth is perhaps, as a woman, a challenge to wholly accept as an ode to “Mother Earth”. In one, blood trickles from the fresh sutures in her vaginal region, as mother holds the tiny little infant close to her chest. In another, the new mother wears the decidedly unsexy hospital undergarments with a delightful maxipad to address post birthing incontinence or bleeding. The third lucky lady’s stomach is emblazoned with the scar of a Caeserian delivery. Yes, it’s natural, yes, it’s the vulnerable aspect of one of women’s many tests of endurance and that all human life must enter this world through our vaginal portal. Like her other subjects, we are touched by the signs of human frailty and the commonality of it courses through our lives.
The works that were perhaps most titillating are videos of teens dancing at a club in the UK. Split screens capture girls revealing their untapped sexuality with hips and pelvis undulating to techno in ill fitted dresses, not fully aware of its impact, and boys, rocking out in untamed jerky bursts, swiftly taking drags from cigarettes in an effort to mimic cool.
The crowd pleasing video, one of Rineke’s more recent works, captures a typical British Museum scene of a group of young uniformed school kids engaged in discussion about a particular artwork. In this case, it is a Picasso painting, and in a crescendo and decrescendo of speculations, children speak openly without interruption about what they see or think they see. It is a charming display of their unfiltered imagination not yet restrained by social expectation. Funny how we revere youth to such an extent that whatever awkwardness exists, with the roles of dominance and submission already palpably apparent, there is less discomfort and more often, a positive reception. We are forever charmed by innocence.
Rineke Dijkstra is from the Netherlands. She began her second career as a fine arts photographer following a terrible bike accident after which she spent a grueling year in rehabilitation. Included in the exhibit is a self portrait by a pool, with her appearing in a vulnerable stance, in her bathing suit. It was a precursor for a stream of portraits of young women, in crotched soaked bathing suits averting the gaze of the eyes behind the lens. Her intimate understanding of what it is to be fragile and to overcome life’s obstacles surges through her portraits with alarming honesty and magnificence. I was held captive over and over again and came to see the photographs as two dimensional monuments to the awkard in all of us.