Mariken Wessels, Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Art Paper Editions (here). Softcover, 330 pages, with hundreds of black and white and color reproductions. Aside from a short epilogue by the artist, there are no essays or texts included. In an edition of 1000. A special edition of the book (in an edition of 25) includes posters, prints, and other ephemera in a custom-printed wooden box (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As archival investigation and reuse become increasingly popular strategies for contemporary photographers, the diversity of approaches being employed is starting to spread out. While many artists are simply using found imagery (either analog or digital) as available raw material for their own unrelated projects, others are staying much closer to the archive itself, attempting to piece together incomplete narratives or to reengage with lost stories that are buried amid the pictures. Reconstructions like these are built with the framework of the actual archival material, but then sequenced and presented in ways that highlight the artist’s vision – since we can never know the truth of the matter, we see the artist’s particular work as a kind of interpretative history, as one of many possible versions of what actually happened.

Mariken Wessels’ challenging new photobook gets inside the married lives of a seemingly ordinary middle aged couple (Martha and Henry), only to discover a rotting core of obsession that drives them apart and ultimately leads the husband further downward into his own convoluted compulsions. As organized by Wessels, their disturbing story probes our worst imaginings of the private secrets of our neighbors, those who seemed so normal in public but who were actually leading double lives.

After a handful of ominous scene-setting family photos, Henry takes out his camera and starts to make a few pictures of Martha in the bedroom. Martha isn’t noticeably beautiful, so these images (displayed in contact sheet like grids) initially feel like the intimate photos of supportive willing participants – she takes off her top, poses gamely, holds up her breasts, and lies back seductively while Henry snaps away incessantly. As the session goes on, her face betrays a sense of boredom and weariness; whatever anticipatory sexiness filled the air at the beginning has long ago disappeared.

Wessels masterfully uses successive page turns to make this playful private nudity into something much more unsettling. Turn the page, and there are two more spreads of Martha posing. And then two more. And then two more. And then two more. Suddenly, this doesn’t seem so much like a shared game as a something weirdly scientific. And then two more. And then two more. And then two more. Now this repeated scene is looking like a predatory trap, an obsession. And then two more. And then two more. And then two more. For a total of 147 astonishing pages. The piece de resistance is Henry’s meticulously creepy tracking spreadsheet, laid out monthly for four complete years, with typed image descriptions like standing taking off, squeezing, laying flat, bust close ups, kneeling, blouse/bra, night gown, cover over bust and the like matched against ratings like good, XX, XXX, and ok. It’s a Muybridge-like study of female movement, but weighed down by leeringly cold objectification, and Wessels’ arrangement of the archive makes the depth of his compulsion hit like a ton of bricks.

The struggle on Martha’s face in these pictures betrays her knowledge that this posing wasn’t at all normal, but it clearly wasn’t easy for her to say no. The story turns even darker when Henry’s hidey hole office is discovered, filled floor to ceiling with images of Martha, just exactly like a serial killer lair from the movies. This is the proverbial last straw and Martha walks out, tossing the loose pictures out through the open window of the house like a tragically cathartic ticker tape parade. Wessels celebrates this moment of freedom with an image of Martha with her arms spread triumphantly, followed by a glowing white peacock with a similar wingspan.

With Martha now gone (and no more photographs to be taken), Henry was left to stew in his own juices, and he turned inward to his remaining prints of Martha for solace. Slicing and dicing the pictures into angular, layered collages of fragmented, largely anonymous body parts, he channeled his obsession in a new direction. What’s both fascinating and surprising is that if these works weren’t so freighted with the ugliness of the preceding episodes, we might actually find them artistically intriguing – arms, legs, breasts, and torsos jitter and stutter across the page in Cubist-like planes, multiplying, mirroring, and disintegrating into agglomerations of sculptural forms. They still pulse with authentically disturbing fascinations, but Martha has become more of an abstraction, her body reduced to lines and curves that feed into a new kind of precision calculus.

As the years passed, Henry retreated further from society, and the collages became maquettes for a series of three-dimensional sculptures in white clay. Undulating and sinuous, they twist the flattened shapes into bulbous forms, like ancient fetish figurines with too many breasts and legs. The best of these are lusciously curved, simultaneously seductive and agonizing, and yet unknowable. But it’s impossible to forget the relentless pounding of those endless contact sheets of Martha – are we to see these artworks with utter (and/or extreme) revulsion or unlikely appreciation? That’s the thorny question that Wessels leaves us pondering. The story ends with Henry living off the grid in the deep woods of New Jersey, making hand crafted snares and traps out of sticks and string, seemingly already across the line of paranoid delusional derangement.

The fact that our impression of Henry’s personality oscillates back and forth between psychopath and tortured artist is due largely to Wessels’ open ended brand of storytelling. She lays out the competing evidence dispassionately and allows us to see alternate perspectives without stepping in to overtly guide us. This uncertainty is what gives the photobook its enduring resonance. That we feel sympathy for Martha is undeniable – she was caught in a suffocating situation that required real courage to overcome; that we might feel even the tiniest glimmer of sympathy for Henry as well is entirely unexpected and largely counterintuitive. But it’s that unsettled emotional dissonance that keeps us thinking, and Wessels has smartly left us hanging, with both sides of the tragedy still echoing in our heads.

Collector’s POV: Mariken Wessels is represented by Johan Deumens 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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Read more about: Mariken Wessels, Art Paper Editions

One comment

  1. Pete /

    It’s hard to reconcile what’s said in the review with the sample pages. Clearly the experience of leafing through the entire book must have been far more unsettling an experience, and the tragic narrative arc doesn’t come across at all.

    But terms like obsessive,psychopath, serial killer seem a bit harsh, and as was said very early on ‘we can never know the truth of the matter’. Hm.

    The impression I get is just one of a compulsion to take a particular kind of photograph of a person who may be bored but who was free to leave, as she apparently did. Yet this kind of compulsion is admired in great photographers, find any that don’t have it. It’s not a million miles from the drive that made Edward Weston spent his life persuading women to get his kit off for his lens, or Harry Callahan tellng his missus Eleanor to stand right there for five minutes while I set my camera up (for the millionth time), or even Cindy Sherman with her multi-million portraits, of herself, et al. Is it possible to get anywhere without that madness. Maybe ‘Henry'(is he even real?) seems too seedy – but there are plenty of similarly seedy projects now shown in presitigous art galleries (usually from Japan or Eastern Europe, I know I’ll get slaughtered for saying that), and not that I’m dismissng them! So, I’d argue, it’s not straightforward as it seems on just those terms – but I didn’t have to leaf through the whole book and suffer some unpleasant psychological recoil at what human beings do. That spreadsheet thing is a bit creepy, maybe if it had been done in Excel it would look less so, and anyway, not everyone conforms to ‘normal’, normal is not the whole story.

    As for being ‘exploitative’ – as so much great photography has been accused of being – seems to me (if the whole thing isn’t fake) couldn’t Markien Wessels be accused of just that, too?

    Not saying this is great photography just a bit surprised by the tone of this particular review, that’s all.

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