Mariken Wessels, Miss Cox

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover (23×29 cm), 64 pages, with 63 color reproductions. Photography of the artist’s studio by Petra Stavast. Includes an essay by the artist and a poster. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of the Dutch multi-disciplinary artist Mariken Wessels engages with archival imagery that she then re-envisions as fragmented or incomplete narratives, often presenting the final work in photobook form. Her earlier photobook Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor (reviewed here) used photographs and collage to re-construct the disturbing backstory of an ordinary married couple, their failed marriage, and the sexual frustration and voyeurism that were part of their relationship. And in a way, Wessels’s new project Miss Cox has its roots in the framework of that previous effort. Of late, she has turned her attention to her fascination with Eadweard Muybridge’s famous series of locomotion studies, and in particular, the photographs he took of an anonymous woman in 1885. 

The story starts a few years ago with an auction where Wessels purchased a Muybridge collotype print (a series of still photographs assembled in a grid of 24 images) entitled Arising from the Ground. The sequence shows an obese woman rising from lying down to a standing upright position. To Wessels’s surprise, she didn’t know about this particular study. Little is known about the model, a Miss Cox – she was unmarried, lived in Philadelphia, her weight was 154 kilos, and she appeared in Muybridge’s records as “Model 20”. He typically assigned numbers to his female models, also noting their age, body weight (including hip, bust and shoe size), and marital status, but he didn’t record any additional personal information (this was different from the copious notes he took on his male subjects, including their names and occupations). Intrigued by this series of pictures, Wessels began an unusual examination of oversized human movement and shape.

Miss Cox combines sketches, studio views, archival research, essays and photographs, giving us a glimpse into some of the stages of the artist’s creative process. The book has a feeling of a dossier – it is thin, yet somewhat heavy, and it has a simple dirty blue cover, with “Miss Cox” slightly engraved in red in the top right corner, as if somebody quickly scribbled it on a folder. In the first few opening spreads, we get a sustained look at Wessels’s studio, documenting her meticulous research into Miss Cox. The walls of the studio are layered and covered with sketches, movement studies, newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, paintings by Lucian Freud, images of Venus figurines, and other ephemera, as well as photographs of installations and clay sculptures (providing a connection back to the artist’s previous project). These spreads are followed by the artist’s explanatory statement, starting with “for the last two years I have been haunted by “Model 20”. 

In Muybridge’s systematic photographs, Miss Cox looks vulnerable, weak, and less human, and a closer look at the sequence raises questions about the relationship between the model and the artist. Wessels wonders if Muybridge knew her name, if he was kind to her, or if she felt comfortable in his presence; Muybridge shot and killed his wife’s lover in 1874, although it is unlikely that Miss Cox knew about it. How he even found her is a mystery, as it wasn’t easy to come across women of her size in 1885. Wessels also wondered whether she had seen the photographs that captured her in that way. But in the end, the images led to more questions than answers.

Wessels was fascinated by the fact that for an obese body, the rather simple act of standing up (one which most people can perform easily) becomes a struggle. To reflect that struggle, she began by creating large clay sculptures of an obese woman making moves to stand up (based on her own studio photographs recreating the movements in the Muybridge stills), and as she was slowly working with clay, she began imagining Miss Cox floating in water, freed from the weight of her own body. Wessels says that she was “curious as to how the body would behave under these conditions, contrary to above the ground, where we know much more about how gravity works.” This moved her to photograph various obese female bodies underwater, offering an unexpected response to Muybridge’s land-based studies.

Wessels started her project with sculptures, but in the book sequence, the photographs appear first. Her images of heavy women swimming underwater are quite astonishing. Immersed in water, the bodies have turned into unexpected shapes, which Wessels compares to landscapes. The photographs show bodies transformed by the lack of gravity and atmospheric pressure, and they evoke a surprising sense of settled elegance and beauty. The images are organized into four studies. The first, Nude Upside Down and Back Again, shows photos of women moving, tumbling, and collapsing underwater, almost like wrestling. Images from Nude, Water and Green Leaves find a woman diving down, with tendrils of green leaves twisting nearby, almost like a Pre-Raphaelite scene. And a photograph from Floating Nude in Silence covers a full spread, depicting a woman with long blond hair from behind, hovering sideways with enigmatic grace, like an ancient Venus figure. The water makes the bodies feel light and free, providing a stark contrast to Muybridge’s studies, which in contrast feel heavy and weighed down.

This fundamental contrast is then replayed, with the sequence of ten smaller source photographs Wessels used for her clay sculptures. The photographs documenting Wessels’s four lifesize ceramic sculptures appear at the end of the book, adding three-dimensional representation to the flow of different artistic approaches.

As an integrated artistic statement, Miss Cox is an exciting investigation of femininity and movement, presented in a beautifully produced photobook. It immerses us in a historical mystery, letting us follow the artist’s concerns, and ultimately, providing a thoughtful and powerful reinterpretation of the original source material. Wessels’s series moves away from pure objectification, and brings life and empathy to the study of a female body type most have overlooked.

Collector’s POV: Mariken Wessels is represented by the Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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