Intimacy, Distance & The Poetics of the Series: The Work of Erik Van Der Weijde

22.09.17

With the long-awaited release of the retrospective publication Erik van der Weijde: This Is Not My Book (Spector Books, Leipzig), we reflect on the Brazil-based, Dutch photographer and publisher’s uniquely pragmatic and poetic approach to the photograph, the series and its expression in book form.

It could be argued that ideas of iconicity or the singular image have less and less of a place amid contemporary photography’s various expressions and discourses. While the desire to achieve the decisive photograph remains central to image making, the series has assumed a more prominent position in the way we think about the photograph, its roles and its languages.

It’s easy enough to point toward the digital morass of the Instagram and Google generation, but the reinvigoration (or as some have termed it ‘renaissance’) of contemporary photographic publishing has plenty to answer for. It’s impossible to deny that the photobook’s rise to prominence among a younger generation of photographers and spectators in contexts as diverse as Europe, Japan, North America and Australia has helped foster a new (or at least renewed) set of attitudes toward making work. In simple terms, the book and the idea of the series as a whole has gone some way to unseating the photographic print and the exhibition as a desirable (and economically democratic) context for the presentation and dissemination of work.

It’s in this schema that the photography of Erik van der Weijde finds its bearings. Perhaps more so than nearly any of his generation of photographers, his output has been defined by ideas surrounding the poetics of the series, not to mention the book, the zine and the facsimile. Whether photographing his family, iconic and historically loaded architecture, or various suburban typologies (motels, rubbish bins, gardens or parked VW Beetles), his work possesses a kind of quiet formal candour that shifts its frame of reference. His understated monochromatic images compress the iconic and dramatic down to more manageable, readable morsels, all the while elevating the familial and vernacular to its deserved place at the centre of his world. The simple design and material qualities of his countless self-published books – released through his prolific 4478zine imprint – only add to the dynamics at play. It’s no mistake that he has described himself as a “reproduction artist”.

In this context, an appraisal of Van der Weijde’s work needs to broach not only the philosophical, familial, architectural and socio-historical concerns that repeat, reprise and loop back throughout his work, but also the format by which he explores them. There’s perhaps no other motif more central to the artist’s work than his family, namely the collections of photographs populating the books This Is Not My Son (2009), This Is Not My Wife (2011) and Privacy Settings (2013). In each of these series, seemingly nondescript familial scenarios, moments and actions come to form a taxonomy of play, performance and, ultimately, poignancy.

This Is Not My Son formed something of a precedent in this regard, the title’s humorous conceit belying a series of monochrome images of a boy interacting – sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously – with the paternal gaze of the lens. One image shows the boy crouched beneath an oversized T-shirt so as to create an abstract, boulder like impression; another sees him play up to the camera while wearing nothing but underpants and a Mickey Mouse mask. There are further fragments of a life together: an older woman (perhaps a mother-in-law) bending over to move a coffee table, her posterior in the air; the boy, this time perched on the sofa, holding a pillow so as to obscure his face; and mother and child posing for the classic family portrait (only that the boy’s hand creeps beneath his mother’s blouse). It’s at this intersection of moments, intimacies and perverse flashes of humour that the work begins to find its rhythm and cogency.

As its title suggests, This Is Not My Wife acted as something of a sequel to its predecessor, with Van der Weijde shifting the focus of his image making to his partner. A sense of play and flirtatious performance offsets moments of obliviousness, calm and sleep. Humour and mischievousness again play a role; that the majority images of Van der Weijde’s wife are sporadically interrupted by another woman (who happens to look remarkably similar to his marital muse) creates a happily jarring resonance. We can’t help but laugh, but we’re also left posing questions of ourselves. While droll on their own, Van der Weijde’s interruptions could be interpreted as critical in their intent. Indeed, perhaps the interloper is awakening us from our slumbers of desire (the fact that we barely notice her at a glance would certainly suggest as much).

Privacy Settings is somewhat simpler in its devices, the book’s images of “a small boy sleeping” operating almost in the realms of a typology. As with much of Van der Weijde’s work, there’s provocativeness to both the title and thematic terrain of the series, which sees the boy contorted at various oblique angles in bed, deep in the throes of sleep. It’s discomforting at a glance – we become voyeurs in someone else’s familial scenario – the title and the subject matter conjuring the funk of child protection paranoia, ethical considerations surrounding consent, voyeuristic behaviours and surveillance. But as with most of Van der Weijde’s work, it is a mere proposition. With time, we’re able to break through to the other side. As much as the photographer sets us up to be shocked or disturbed, the tenor of the images defies their title. These intimate, delicate photographs invoke a loving father watching over his son as he sleeps. It is as simple and innocent as it is loaded to the brink. The qualities of the series – its repetitions, subtle shifts and sustained tone and subject – garners the images a new weight and significance en masse.

In an unlikely way, Van der Weijde’s considerations of architecture function via a similar set of principles. Loose typologies and sustained repetition are central devices. Architectural edifices – grand, iconic or mundane – are subjected to the same compositional treatments and formal logic. Icons of modernism are consumed in a sea of each other – a quiet accumulation of formal nuances, details, tones and types. Van der Weijde’s ‘outing’ of his private familial life butts up against a personal vantage of the built form and collective experience. The fact that Van der Weijde’s 2012 book O.Niemeyer was published in the same dimensions and with the same design qualities as This Is Not My Wife (only in landscape format rather than portrait) says something of the artist’s attitude and approach. Even in the face of the legendary architect’s most famed buildings in Brasilia, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Europe, Van der Weijde acts as if a collector, accumulating monochrome evidence in a manner that downplays fanfare or drama. It is a clear eschewal of iconicity; we’re left instead with something more akin to an architectural language. Likewise, his earlier book Superquadra (published in conjunction with Roma Publications in 2010) reduced Lucio Costa’s vast residential apartment blocks in Brasilia to a flickering series of types, textures, shadows, facades and spaces.

Not unlike his familial images, one can’t help but feel there’s a critical intent at play. Costa’s Superquadras were built for housing people; they were designed as spaces and contexts for living. Yet Van der Weijde’s images are completely void of human presence or life. Architecture becomes artifice. As much as Superquadra – and indeed O.Niemeyer – could be read as the diaristic photographic studies of an architectural fanboy, they upend both architects’ ambitious visions. They are ruminations on modernism’s beautiful missteps and grand failures.

His later architectural series Third Reich (2014) operates in a different mode. Viewed without context, there is very little to give this series of school buildings, museums, factories, government buildings, bridges and tunnels in Bavaria away. But the implications of the images – however implicit – are clear. As the title suggests, this is public infrastructure that remains from the Nazi era. The book, with its extended series of downplayed images, is about resonance, about echoes. What does a building or another form of infrastructure whisper of the past? What does it say about us? We walk the same streets and occupy the same buildings as those who came before us, even if our value systems, cultures, attitudes and lives seem diametrically and irrevocably adverse. As always, Van der Weijde broaches these ideas with a kind of nondescript candour, a rhythm and tone – he creates a language. It is up to us to interpret and decode its insinuations, however small, vast, innocent or sinister.

The singular image has very little place in Van der Weijde’s wider vision. His body of work is a proposition for a different read on photography. Whether depicting built forms, home life or a boy sleeping – whether describing vast distance or intense intimacy – Van der Weijde’s photographs revel in the implicit narratives and poetics of the series. His images are nothing without each other; they are stanzas in a much longer verse.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the book Erik van der Weijde: Gebilde, published by Camera Austria to celebrate Van der Weijde’s retrospective exhibition of the same title.

Perimeter x Heavy is a new editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.