July 2012: Bertien Van Manen @ FOAM Amsterdam

Bertien Van Manen, Vlada in the Kitchen, Kazan, 1992. Courtesy of the artist and FOAM, Amsterdam.

Bertien Van Manen: Let's Sit Down Before We Go 
FOAM Amsterdam
19 March - 24 June 2012

Recently on exhibition at FOAM Museum in Amsterdam is a group of photographs by Bertien van Manen entitled Let’s Sit Down Before We Go—photos she didn’t select or sequence herself, but which have instead been chosen and arranged by Stephen Gill, a friend of the photographer. At first glance the pictures wash over you. Moving past them they look aesthetically coherent but a bit random, with no apparent link from one to another in terms of a progressing narrative. You look back to the title for a clue as to how to approach the work—“Let’s sit down before we go” is explained in the introduction to be a reference to an old Russian superstition: a belief that before you walk out the door to set out on any journey you must take a moment to reflect on what it is you are about to do; spend a moment with your loved ones, and perhaps consider what awaits you and what you’ll be leaving behind, lest you might misstep into some bad luck. The question is then about whether the photographs on the wall are marked moments preceding a departure of some kind. Are they what the photographer is leaving behind? Were they what once awaited her? A commencement of sorts? Perhaps the title is more an allusion to the stretch of time between when the photographs were actually taken (1991-2009) and when they are now for the first time being published and exhibited (2012); the pause of reflection the photographer took in order to be ready to begin showing them. All of these possibilities seem reasonable enough to aid in making sense of the work. For, after all, as many find out during the course of a life, it often takes years to realize what one has created, or has the potential to begin creating, and by that time your departure from the not-knowing is well underway and you are, indeed, ‘going’.

Bierten van Manen, Pjotr and his Family, Apanas, Siberia, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and FOAM, Amsterdam.

Each photograph is hung one after the next, filling three rooms on the ground floor of the museum. There are no captions or further textual clues per the request of the photographer. In an interview with Van Manen posted on FOAM’s website she explains that she wants the viewer to make his own story out of what is shown. She wants us to consider how the photographs relate to ourselves, and to use our own imagination to make sense of them based on the memories they might conjure in us all. In a way she is asking us to transfer our histories onto this diary of images before us—these bits and pieces of memories of a woman’s travels in the former Soviet Union. Yet she has not curated them in any way it would seem and so Stephen Gill appears to almost have played the  role akin to that of the individual who finds a shoebox of images from someone’s life at a flea market, and has the task of selecting his favorites and sequencing them in a way that in the moment makes sense for him, with little or no guidelines as to how to do so. Or perhaps that is more accurately the role of the anonymous viewer, since they have likely never met the photographer—unlike Gill. Part of what makes this task feel natural though, is that the photographs indeed look immediately dated to our digitally conditioned eyes of 2012, having been shot in on film as far back as twenty years ago, and while the scenes are sometimes odd, they are far from alienating. One is left to piece the snapshots together, because so much of it looks like it could have happened to a not-so-distant relative. One pauses, with all the people in the photographs, to look for the recognizable, to reflect before you go. 

Bierten van Manen, Baikal, Siberia, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and FOAM, Amsterdam.

Bertien van Manen, Tomsk, Siberia, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and FOAM, Amsterdam. 



Sabine Mirlesse

Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer and visual artist currently living and working in Paris. She is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography and Related Media program at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City and has written for The Paris Review and BOMB Magazine in addition to the NY edition of Whitehot. Contact her at info@sabinemirlesse.com or at her website


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