beauty and contemporary art; impossible? 

 “Oh so beautiful,” I heard an elderly man say as I was walking through the galleries of The Stedelijk Museum looking at the photographs of Rineke Dijkstra. I noticed myself thinking: oh, ol’ gramps, beauty has no place within contemporary art. No, contemporary art is conceptual and beauty is not something worth pursuing anymore.  Isn’t  it? 

How should one approach her photographs if not as an aesthetic experience? A commentary on society? A puzzle? A vanitas? A brief capture of a fleeting moment within the process of growing up? Documentation of persons? Or an illustration of voyeurism? Does this exclude the possibility to be beautiful?

The Stedelijk Museum put effort into clarifying her works although I think that after reading the first sentence of the introductory text at the beginning of the exhibition many visitors call it quits. “When we look at Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits we are prompted to look back at ourselves, our own lives and how we came to be.” What do they even mean? You have to read further to the last paragraph in which they explain that “Through her subject’s own self-representation Dijkstra reveals marks of her subjects’ social inscription. Thus it is precisely through Dijkstra’s artistic control that her subjects are free to drop their guard and forget about themselves.”

Perhaps they try to explain that the subjects in her portraits look back at us – stare at us directly – and therefore make us aware of ourselves? I am not sure. I am sure about the way it makes me feel: very very uncomfortable interspersed with wonder. One reason for this disturbing feeling is that in most cases – or perhaps all cases – the subject is looking the visitor directly into their eyes. An actual fragile feeling of interrelation seems to emerge. Only you probably do not know the one who is photographed and probably never will. Another reason is that she intentionally photographs young adults in the oh so awkward period of puberty. Add up that she is able to carefully and skilfully choose the right moment to capture it. What I would call her strength is her ability to reveal. Her striking pictures reveal a phase of life we have experienced or will experience. They reveal structures in society.  They reveal the quest for an identity for people. Actually, I have to spill the beans: when I get over the awkwardness, I do find the pictures pretty beautiful as well. 

Rineke Dijkstra: An Ode will be on view at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until 6 Aug 2017.

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