Body and Soul

Bellies, backs and feet make for unique portraits at Moving Gallery We have all posed for that proverbial portrait photo whether for travel, license, family, job or glamour with mixed results. A little makeup, some flattering light and shadow and a Photoshop edit or two, as we hope the photo artist will help us put our best face and figure forward. It’s not just vanity. It’s about identity. We know the lens doesn’t lie, but it’d be okay if it would just fib a little in our effort to create and control the self-image we project publicly and privately. After all, one can’t really be blamed for being so self-aware given the barrage of commercial and social media that remind us of our imperfections and insecurities. Which is why it is so refreshing, a relief really, to see an exhibit of “portrait” photography run counter to expectations. But when you attend the Moving Gallery’s new exposition, Photographs by Anja Sijben, the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in the Old Market, don’t forget your sense of humor and an open mind. Portraiture can include the torso as well as face, but floating bellies, backs and feet? Oh my. Sijben, who lives and works in Amsterdam, has exhibited throughout Northern Europe and participated in artist residencies worldwide including at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in 2008. She currently has two works in Bemis’ large group show previewing its auction next week, and though these small paintings are wildly different from her photography and installations, they too reinforce Sijben’s counter-intuitive perspective and vision. The artist is a self-described “conceptualist” who says she offers her work to viewers in order “to trigger them, to challenge them to think, not only about the art but about themselves. I don’t tell them what to think but only to engage, to begin the dialogue.” This exhibition includes three series of 30-plus photographic prints that do indeed feature bellies, backs or the soles of feet. Her subjects are not models of perfection, but ordinary individuals found in everyday circumstances. Some are family and friends. One back is her own. What they have in common, along with diversity of age and gender are their skin textures, body patterns, marks and scars. What they have in common makes them unique, a quality normally associated with faces which Sijben effectively crops out. The artist further enhances this paradox by presenting her subjects in a very detached, clinical black-and-white with a similar pristine texture and tone, and arranging them like so many wanted posters. But the images clearly deserve a second look, not only for their aesthetic grace and clarity, but for their humorous, humbling point of view. This is especially true of the bellies, all of them male, which resemble “before” photos in a diet ad. There are no “after” pictures on view. The only six-packs here were a product of considerable consumption and proud of it. Sijben makes other editorial and curatorial choices to reinforce her POV including the use of belly text such as: “Why would you want a six-pack when you can have a whole barrel?” or “A good roof protects your crown jewels.” In addition, the feet are placed upon the floor with mirrors above them daring viewers to place theirs, bare-footed presumably, on top or along side. Comparing one’s back or belly to those in this exhibit might take a bit more discretion, but it reflects the show’s interactive quality despite its scientific nature. Whether you publicly participate, the artist does anticipate some audience involvement, at least by way of recognition and identification. Ultimately her goal, as she says in her artist statement, is “to collect … various aspects of people’s bodies and behaviours all over the world.” In her effort to express universal human behavior, Sijben hopes “some viewers will wonder a moment how his or her body looks or how he or she experiences her own body part.” The connection she hopes her audience will make has less to do with this study in microcosm but more to do with how we relate with our own self image and worth. She says it’s all about the vulnerability of the human condition. “I wish to open our eyes again,” Sijben says, “to see with the eyes of a child. To counter our conditioning as to how the world is supposed to be. A child connects with reality without making judgment.” The same thing can be said about art, including this exhibit, which challenges notions of beauty, propriety, even wisdom. Again, Sijben opts for a younger vision advising the viewer “to look again and see the fascination children have with art without wanting to control it or completely understand it. Otherwise, it is only something you already knew. Art opens us to the possibilities of things.” Of course the artist is counting on a mixed audience reaction to the exhibit. One “previewer” told Sijben that when she saw the images, she wanted “to compare myself with them, wonder who they are … on the other hand, I felt a bit ashamed looking at them, looking into their privacy, as if I am some kind of voyeur.” Anticipating this tendency to view the work with all sorts of baggage or preconceived notions, the artist Photoshopped out all background information in the image hoping to remove any distraction from her subjects. The effect is somewhat surreal, but it does accentuate their artistic value, in spite of the imperfections, in a sort of sculptural way. Whether we compare favorably or unfavorably, we can identify or at least wonder at how much each series reveals as well as conceals. The “bellies” more than hint at being at home with their girth, while the “backs” may be unaware of how their posture indicates attitude and well-being. As for the feet, they may not be the proverbial windows to the soul, but they do bear the weight of bellies, backs and public taste. And, like this entertaining exhibit, remind us not to take ourselves too seriously while tickling our fancy. Moving Gallery’s Photographs by Anja Sijben continues until Nov. 28 in the Garden of the Zodiac, 1042 Howard St. in the Old Market Passageway.

posted at 12:09 pm
on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

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