This is the sixth installment in a conversation series initiated by Lucas Blalock with contemporary artists concerning materiality in regards to current photographic practice.
Ruth van Beek is a Dutch artist who works mainly with an archive of found photographs that she manipulates and re-contextualizes in ever changing relationships. The disjunctions in her collage works are often redoubled by the feeling that each piece is somehow part of a greater network. Ruth’s work has been exhibited widely in Europe and the United States and she recently had a solo exhibition, The Great Blue Mountain Range, at Okay Mountain in Austin, TX. I caught up with her on occasion of a two person exhibition (with Philip Miner) currently up at SEASON (a residential gallery opened by Robert Yoder) in Seattle.
LB: I feel in your work a kind of insistence on the subject of the photographs that is often absent from collage / bricolage work. For me, the psychic drama of the work is in trying to reconstitute the object (as in the one above [will be the one attached]) where in most collage the attention is in constructing a picture plane. Is this an attitude that is important to you in making the pieces?
R: Yes, for me it is not so much the technique of collage that interests me, but its the ability to transform existing photographs into the images of my imagination. By cutting and folding, the work not only represents an object, but also becomes an object itself.
Untitled, (orange), 2009
LB: There seems to be some consistency to the content of the photographs you use. Rocks, animals, and furniture come to mind. Do you see this content as particularly important?
R: When I collect these pictures I think a lot about the way the subjects are photographed. This is more important than the subject itself, since I can easily change or cover up the original subject of the photograph. So in this way the content doesn’t really matter.
But then again, I intentionally go for these kinda nondescript, “useful” photographs. It is not as if it is just any image that I can get my hands on. Most of them come from books published to teach people about how to make things: how to decorate your house, how to take care of your plants, how to recognize gemstones, all about hobbies, cats or rabbits and so on. How to do things the right way. So the content of the single image does’t matter to me, but the origins of the photo are important.
LB: For me there is a kind of intimacy in your obscuring. As if by removing or folding together the “faces” of these objects we are left to explore the pictures for other clues. This leads to a kind of weighing and measuring in an attempt to come into terms with the image. Or in other words, it is as if by obscuring the face you have come to reveal the body. Tthis sense of physicality is really pervasive. Does this relate to your idea of an object? And do you see this objectness (the one w/in the photograph) as dependent on the second objectness of the physical thing itself?
R: I like your comparison to the face and the body. I actually try to animate the objects. The work is much about actions related to the object: obscuring, collecting, transforming, but also the guessing or longing brought out by these interventions. They come alive once separated from their original function. When I cover up the object, it is to make the viewer curious about what is behind, but I also give the viewer a clear shape in return. The original object is never to be seen, only to guessed at. This makes the viewer long for what he can’t see, which in these works becomes an impossibility.
LB: It is a strategy that is really successful in the work! When I have seen your work in the past I feel like the obscured content in the photographs has often been similar — leading to feelings of a group or collection, also a museum display. The works in the SEASON exhibition feel more disparate, which makes you focus on them more as a group of pictorial interventions. Is this something you were thinking about?
R: I guess like the collections I have brought together in the past, the images I selected for the SEASON exhibition also try to tell a story. Either case begs a reconstruction of something by its traces. In this case, I do not only hide and transform furniture and objects, but the people in a number of the pictures also become hidden in their homes. The exhibition is actually in a house. I wanted to play with this.
*All images copyright Ruth van Beek