Bertien Van Manen: Yancey Richardson Gallery

By Hudson, Suzanne | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Bertien Van Manen: Yancey Richardson Gallery


Hudson, Suzanne, Artforum International


In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag characterizes photographs as melancholy objects that "state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction." Implying Sigmund Freud's idea of melancholia as unresolved mourning, photography here enacts an analogous drive toward death. But in partaking of nostalgia, even if peremptorily, the fascination with death that photographs exercise is, as Sontag cautions, "also an invitation to sentimentality." No one knew this better than Roland Barthes, who found the premonitory suggestion of an open wound in every indexical mechanical trace. His own Camera Lucida (1980) is a meditation on absence, compounded by his decision to withhold publication of the very photograph at the core of his musings (his deceased mother as a child in a winter garden).

Sentimentality might be too cloying a word to use in reference to Bertien van Manen's recent show at Yancey Richardson Gallery, but it isn't too wide of the mark. Originally commissioned by the Swiss Ministry for Foreign Affairs to photograph immigrants in the suburbs of Paris, van Manen extended her project to Greece, Lithuania, Moldova, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, and Holland, among other places; she also broadened her focus to family photography in general. The resulting series, "Give Me Your Image," completed between 2002 and 2005, is unremittingly intimate. Yet it is as sweeping as it is specific, inadvertently tracing European history from Auschwitz to the last years of Franco's rule to close to the present day.

Views of domestic interiors reveal family snapshots propped on doilies, slotted amid collectibles, nestled among teacups, tucked into mirror or window frames, or hung on walls. In their tight cropping and off-kilter compositions, they imply a happenstance methodology that belies van Manen's often staged reconfigurations. …

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