Rineke Dijkstra: The Gymschool, St. Petersburg, 2014 @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A 3 channel HD video installation, with surround sound, 15 min. 16 sec., playing on three screens on a loop in the darkened South gallery. The work dates from 2014 and has been produced in an edition of 6. There are also two triptychs of inkjet photographs, matted in white frames, on the walls of the director’s office. Each of the three unframed images is 5 7/8 x 10 7/16 and comes in an edition of six. (Installation shots and stills below, courtesy Marian Goodman Galley; photos by Rebecca Fanuele.)

Comments/Context: The first photograph that Rineke Dijkstra will proudly sign off on as her own is a 1991 self-portrait in a one-piece swim suit. Taken after exhausting herself doing 30 laps in an indoor pool, part of her rehab from a road accident, the image documents the slow repairing of her adult body. The atmosphere is clinical, the milky indoor light bouncing off white tile, everything bleached out except for the aqua stripes of her suit and cap and her yellow swim goggles.

And yet, what keeps the picture grounded, quite literally, is the strength of her two bare legs. She has folded her arms and brought her hands to her mouth, as if spent or at her wit’s end, while keeping her feet planted. Her determined figure casts a shadow.

I thought back to that photograph as I was watching her latest video. It portrays a group of Russian girls aged 8-12, students at a St. Petersburg gymnastics school as they prepare routines for a competition.

It wasn’t only their clingy one-piece outfits that reminded me of Dikjstra and her swimming uniform. In almost everything she photographs, and that includes herself, the body is primary. The clothes worn by her characters barely disguise the muscle and skin inside, and her camera usually finds the vulnerable person hiding even deeper inside, behind the eyes. The same stoicism she demonstrated in facing down the camera at the pool can be seen in the faces and postures of the gawky adolescents who stood still for her on the stony beaches of Eastern Europe and here, in the more graceful stances of the tinier and tougher bodies contorting and writhing themselves across the three screens.

Her maternal empathy for the young is again evident, as it has been many times before—in her sequential photographs of the Bosnian refugee as she grew from childhood to motherhood; her portraits of a teenage female Israeli soldier and of male Portuguese bull-fighters; and in her videos of adolescent girls and boys lip-synching to their favorite bands at a music club in Liverpool or of children learning how to look at and talk about modern art at the Tate Liverpool.

In her latest video she seems less concerned with the awkwardness of the Wonder Years and more with the strict disciplining of the body that being a gymnast requires. Training demands repetition, hours of  tedious physicality, a truth reinforced by the staccato rhythms of the video. As with anything that calls for unnatural excellence, failure is as common as success. The large colored rubber balls, which the girls use in their routines to prove they can achieve balance and “touch” in every limb, sometimes roll from their feet, along their legs, butt, and back before being trapped against their neck and head. At other times, the ball dribbles away.

This is not an inspirational video or TV documentary wherein the eager student finally achieves mastery after countless tries. We never see the competition. Whether these girls succeeded is left undocumented. There are no judges, except us.

Dijkstra photographs their bodies on their exercise mats with the calm intensity of Degas sketching the corps de ballet at the barre in the rehearsal rooms at the Paris Opera. She shares with him a sensual pleasure in the female body along with a sense of propriety. A smoldering sexuality can be found in the work of both artists, although nearly always safely suppressed.

Women’s gymnastics (and ice-skating) is far more popular than men’s because women’s bodies are more supple and lissome. (The blockier male body is seldom the star attraction of dance either. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine declared.) Dijkstra’s pre-teens, like Degas’s “Little Dancer,” are already strong and muscular and freakishly elastic.

They stand on one prong-like leg that becomes the base for the surrealist shapes they weave. In their dislocations of normal movement, these girls also disorient our expectations of what muscles and tendons can endure. These are undeveloped bodies but we can see the tension in their extended limbs, the unpredictable growth spurt that soon will make them either more or less coordinated.

The gallery is not showing Dijkstra’s companion video from 2014 of students at the St. Petersburg ballet school. It might have further connected her to Degas’s studies of female dancers and their unique anatomy, and the similar regimentation called for in sport and art. Like the army, gymnastics at this early stage disapproves of individuality. Instead, it thrives on mass conformity to a standard. You do not excel or move to the next stage of your training until you have perfected a few elementary actions and knitted them together. What the video documents is the athletic equivalent of listening to talented class of conservatory pianists practicing scales. Dijkstra does not single out the girls for special qualities but edits them almost interchangeably, as a unit. Only their haircuts and the color of their leotards distinguishes one from another. (I thought that I counted three girls in the video until I was corrected by an assistant at Marian Goodman, who told me there are actually eleven.)

I should complain that Dijkstra has not significantly “advanced” her art here beyond what I’ve come to expect and respect from her in the past, and if I weren’t so moved by her unsentimental compassion for these would-be Olympic gymnasts, most of whom will fail to make the national team and some of whom may come to a bad end, like Degas’s ballet rat Marie, I might be harsher in my judgment. As it is, my scorecard reads a nine out of a possible ten.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The video is priced at 95000, while each set of three photographs is 12000. Dijkstra’s photographs have become more generally available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $180000, with a sweet spot between $10000 and $50000.

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