Friederike von Rauch’s Sleeping Beauties in Antwerp

The exhibition by Berlin-based German photographer Friederike von Rauch is a departure from her usual, primarily monochrome images of everything from industrial estates in Rotterdam to fin-de-siècle Brussels architecture. This new collection in Antwerp’s Fifty One Fine Art Photography gallery sets out to reveal the structural purity of the empty gallery and its lonely artwork.

People hunger for the inside story, be it the details of shady backroom political dealing, scandalous celebrity gossip, or just what some neighbour said about another neighbour’s wallpaper/garden/dog. In the same vein, art-aficionados adore the studio visit, in which they’re offered a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes life of the artist and the art they create. Jill Krementz’s 1999 collection of images from writers’ desks is a perfect example, drawing as it does on this longing to be a part of art in its earliest days of conception, making our bond with the finished piece more intimate.

This urge finds a different expression in the psyche of the exhibition-goer, who fantasises about falling asleep in a gallery and waking up in the middle of the night to wander its empty halls, alone with the art.

Friederike von Rauch’s new project does just this, giving attendees a glimpse into the artwork’s hidden world. Her ongoing series of photographs capture well-known pieces in their undisturbed, after-hours life. It’s the first project of this sort that von Rauch has embarked upon, and the photography remains rooted in a structural focus on the space itself, rather than objects within it. A self-proclaimed sunlight-phobe – “I try to avoid the sun” – the images are also notable for a sparing use of cool-toned colour.

Von Rauch, originally trained as a silversmith, studied industrial design and later worked as a location scout for film. This personal take on behind-the-scenes subjects allows viewers to trade their role as ‘voyeur’ for ‘insider’.

Photographer Nicolas Karakatsanis ‘Adjusting Infinity’ at Alice

Nicolas Karakatsanis boasts an impressive resumé: the celebrated photographer and director of photography, with his use of chiaroscuro, has attracted the interest of many. He has worked with innovative directors like Romain Gavras of M.I.A. and Justice music video fame andMichaël R. Roskam, and he’s even made some controversial music videos of his own for Balojiand Hickey Underworld. He was the first photographer to be awarded the Jo Röpcke award this October at the Ghent Film Festival.

Antwerp-born Karakatsanis’ brooding aesthetic speaks with a powerful and deeply personal voice. A self-proclaimed member of the ‘Cold-War’ generation of artists, Karakatsanis grounds his work in the reality of human experience and sees no need to bury his images beneath layers of heavy-handed symbolism, something that’s unfortunately all too common. Rather, he’s consumed by the technical detail of constructing a photograph.

The title of the show refers to the absurdity of Karakatsanis’s artistic enterprise, in that his search for profundity is constricted by the impossibility of complete honesty. The thirty pieces, all taken within the last year, were personally selected by Karakatsanis and arranged by the creative force behind the Alice Gallery, partners Alice van den Abeele and Raphaël Cruyt. Karakatsanis has also prepared a basic photography booklet for the show, which suggests a desire to concentrate more exclusively on photography and to bring the show worldwide.

Through his photography, Karakatsanis attempts to do the work of a painter, leaving a personal, physical mark upon the image rather than attempting to represent intangible truth. The influence of Caravaggio is apparent in his portrayal of a dark-lit, gleaming skull, while throughout the Alice collection the contrast between light and dark cements his bond to the Flemish baroque masters. There will be only one printed copy of each image: Karakatsanis believes the printed, tangible image is something totally unique (though there’s an abundance of photos posted on his blog). Rather than working thematically, he captures encounters and does not choose his subject matter in an abstract or ideal way, but rather tries to record experiences as they occur.

A retrospective of Belgian photographer Dirk Braeckman in Germany

Dirk Braeckman, the much-lauded Ghent-based Belgian photographer, opens his first German solo show at Kunsthalle Erfurt. The exhibition is curated by art historian, lecturer and resident curator, Silke Opitz.

Known for his charcoal-toned photography, Braeckman is one of the most important photographers of his generation, both in Belgium and abroad. The exhibition, which just opened yesterday, showcases the development of Braeckman’s signature greyscale style and focuses on texture, lending his images a painterly quality.

The pieces were chosen by Braeckman and Opitz and centers upon the perception and (re-) construction of an image, planned from the beginning as Braeckman’s first survey show in Germany. Rather than simply being a retrospective, the collection engages viewers by offering different modes of perception, situating them within a landscape of often perplexing textures and space. Braeckman features the industrial and man-made, and consequently the human influence upon space: his work often hints at human stories, but above all enacts a repurposing of the physical world.

The show features 30 works covering Braeckman’s last 20 years, with the earliest dating from 1993 and the most recent from 2011. What makes this show particularly unique is the inclusion of one of Braeckman’s rare 16mm films from 1996, as well as a commissioned film for Louis Vuitton featuring Luc Tuymans and Jan Fabre.

Photographer Frieke Janssens takes your last shot before you die

Frieke Janssens, the Bruges-born photographer famous for her hyper-stylised, distinct and sometimes controversial images, is setting out her stall as a portrait photographer with a twist. Her ‘customers’ pay over €1,000 for a final portrait – to be displayed on their tombstones.

Frieke Janssens’ new project, Your Last Shot, is inspired by the same style of 1930s static portraiture that drives much of her work. Born in Bruges, the 32-year-old studied at Sint-Lukas in Brussels and is perhaps best known for her controversial series of hyper-stylised portraits of children smoking. Your Last Shot is her latest enterprise, a collaboration between photographer and subject, with Janssens creating ‘final’ portraits to be displayed on her clients’ tombstones which, rather than being melancholic, are tranquil moments immortalised in porcelain. Citing Sofia Coppola as an influence, Janssen’s style is distinctive in texture and palette. At a funeral she attended during the summer, Janssen got to thinking about the importance of one’s final portrait as “the last image people have of you, the one that they keep”. The influence of August Sander, a German photographer who documented the human experience of the Weimar Republic and who is perhaps the most important portrait artist of the twentieth century, is just as evident here as it is throughout the rest of Janssens’ work. Janssens agrees with the label of ‘surreal’ photographer – her child smokers pictured in distinctive clothing reflective particular lifestyles draw at once upon caricatures while exposing them as such, allowing for duality of perspective.

How’s the project going so far? Many takers?

I’ve only shot five people, but me and my gallery will probably organise shooting days the first Sunday of each month.

How did you meet your clients?

I meet them on the shooting day, but I don’t like the word ‘clients’ – I think ‘portrayed’ is a better word.

Do you think the project is morbid?

I don’t think it’s morbid – my intention is to immortalise people.

You say that you don’t want death to be a taboo, what do you mean by that?

Death is still a taboo in Belgium in my opinion, because people try to stay as far away as possible from it, and many don’t know how to act when somebody dies.

Some people might call it vain to be concerned about a photograph of yourself after you’re dead. Is this photograph for the people themselves or the people they’ve left behind?

I don’t think it’s vain – it’s more about pride. And hey, we all want to look good in a picture, don’t we? The picture is for both the one’s left behind and for the person who’s died; they can enjoy the portrait itself and he or she can be certain about the last image they leave people with.

Would you consider turning it into an exhibition?

I’m thinking about collecting them in a book, so that the people will be made even more immortal.

How limited is the project? How many people will you do before you start doing something else?

It’s more a statement, but I couldn’t make sense of it if I didn’t offer the shoots for real, that’s one reason why it’s limited. Let’s say for the moment it’s limited until I have a full book.

Photographer Vincent Delbrouck’s solo show Autofiction in Bienne

Born in Brussels and currently residing in the rolling Belgian countryside, Delbrouck has reflected that he’s more at home in the tropics, which is clear from the subjects that have cropped up in his past work. Delbrouck’s photography is filtered through an intimate search for identity, capturing chaotic and human moments that he conceives of as fully conscious moments.

Tell us about this new series at PhotoforumPasquArt in Bienne , “Autofiction”, a selection of the photos of your travels around Cuba and Nepal.

Autofiction can refer to many different things, but for me it ‘s the search for identity, expressed not so much within the photographs themselves but as the steps between each piece. It is not strictly meant as nostalgic or retrospective. This is what is far more interesting. My first mood – during the Havana series – was quite nervous. The Cuba material was more mixed, as opposed to the work from Nepal that I consider to be much more filtered, refined, distilled. Autofiction is also related, for me, to self-healing. The contemplative feeling from Nepal is one of complete freedom, a ‘being there’ mixed with this present moment. I link this dream-like state to happiness. It is comparable to the deadly risks one takes to do or achieve something worthwhile. In that moment, you are able to forget who you are. Like with my new project, Wilderness, it’s about losing oneself to something larger.

How would you describe your creative process when embarking on a project?

I prefer the idea and attitude of what I call the ‘non-project’. It involves empathy and curiosity, in that I begin my work with no agenda or preconceptions, on an entirely blank page. I do not box off projects after completing them, but continue working with material in an organic way. Because of this, the pictures cannot be separated. My connection with Cuba, in particular, is still evolving.

Are you happy with how ‘Autofiction’ has turned out?

Yes, at first I had six pieces that progressed perfectly. I then chose four very quickly – they were ones that dealt with the earthiness and promiscuity of Cuba. The pictures from Nepal were slightly more difficult to choose between. Because that journey was more about interiority and spirituality, I didn’t use any photos of my son or girlfriend. This series wasn’t really about family, but more focused on my own spirituality and an organic type of empathy, with the subject matter often being trees or stones. I am influenced more by what’s outside rather than working from within. Instead of working in terms of ‘projects’ I see my creative pattern as being based more on ‘energy’ – an intuitive approach I cannot entirely understand or explain. It’s related to my understanding of the connection between mind and body. It is similarly mysterious and organic in nature.

You mention on your website your interest in “collecting the illusions” you see as “forms and rhythms”.

In putting together exhibitions I am very attentive to form and colour. I want to create a narrative in the same way that we model life on stories. I really dislike the attempt often made to separate humans from animals. It’s part of that inane and mechanical Cartesian division between mind and body. I see human bodies as being one unified piece with many connections. I approach photography a little like meditation, particularly the installation stages. The Cuban photos that are all small and colourful, on the other hand, require an intuitive focus.

You’re also working on a book with graphic designer Nicholas Gottlund called “Some Windy Trees”. Is the creative process very different from putting together an exhibition?

Not really. It’s not easy asking someone to look at your work, even if you share the same aesthetic. It’s as personal as getting someone to read a chapter of your novel. I’m still waiting for the book to be published in the States. Because it’s a brief collection of a few trees, it has to be completely perfect.

Belgian photographer Charif Benhelima’s Polaroids at Brussels’ Bozar

Charif Benhelima combines the intimacy of the classic Polaroid image with a skewed perspective that re-evaluates the subject matter and forces viewers to realign their emotional perspective. His current exhibition, Polaroids 1998-2012, offers up a crystallisation of Benhelima’s experience of foreignness and his critical dialogue with this dislocation. Furthermore, the collection hints at the (im)possibilities that surround the interpretation of memory.

A massive, pale spectre greets visitors to Benhelima’s Polaroids: a delicately etched, almost painterly bouquet. Overexposed, the common or immediate features that might be immediately perceived of such a bouquet are bleached out, leaving behind only the essential parts, those features encoded by memories, dwelling alongside and upon other memories. This is a key element of Benhelima’s collection – the compilation of memories and experience. The iconic Polaroid is an excellent means of presenting this – very rarely does the tool itself supersede the content in terms of immediate significance.

Theoretically, Benhelima’s intention in choosing the everyday for his subject matter springs from his wish to avert the monolith sensitive social and political issues that riddle German artistic production. Expressing itself in practice, this wish is revealed within Benhelima’s methodology of overexposure that forces viewers beyond the ‘real’ or immediately apparent. The comfort of the Polaroid image is manipulated, making bare our own relationship with the intimacy of others. Viewers encounter a series of intimate memories that become, rather conversely, both inviting and alienating in their familiarity.

On one level, Benhelima’s bleached aesthetic fits well with the prosaic scenes with which we are presented. Combined with his Polaroid palette, the images offers up a kind of Continental dreamy suburban Americana.

Benhelima’s evident visual and critical concern with perspective puts identity and subjectivity at the centre of the collection. The skewed visual representation of the images engages with the rootlessness and displacement which Benhelima has made his subject elsewhere. There is a clear line running between this collection and his work on spatio-temporal dislocation and foreigness, cemented, of course, by the final instalment to the series: ‘Semites’. But even here, instead of a portrait series Benhelima’s shots continually require viewers to reflect upon the limits of their own perception.

Experience is privileged over reality. The dizzying display of the photos, stacked alongside one another almost end to end, makes one’s progression through the exhibition a little like being sat down with a holiday snapshot toy, each picture an intimate rendering of half-remembered juvenilia, while Benhelima whispers a barely discernable stream-of-consciousness narrative into your ear.

The initial detail recorded by the Polaroid, that is, the visual content of the photograph, is in many ways secondary to Benhelima’s choice of form and execution. Like memories, these shots are indistinct, overexposed: used. ‘Overexposed’ is not just in reference to the method but more its metaphorical function: to represent how memories and objects and people are ‘lived in’, that is, to show how they are altered by thought.

A bicycle sits as a distant centrepiece in ‘Black-Out’, Benhelima’s first series. Its buttery surroundings form a kind of shifting plasma, a visual rendering of foggy memory. The paleness of these Polaroids gives thought a tangible sense. Benhelima dredges memories through a lemony mire, upon which the images float like flotsom, delicately suspended aloft upon a foamy sea of memory. At other times it’s as if you’re speeding past an image, your hindered vision holding you at arm’s length. Again, it is more the manner in which the viewer’s perception is impeded, rather than what we are left with, that concerns Benhelima. It is what has been left out.

Occasionally the images are alluring, the subject only inches beyond the viewer’s perspective. Rather than taunting one with its simultaneous immediacy and unavailability, Benhelima’s perspective envelops viewers within its own dreamy pace, lending an emotional clarity rather than one rooted in reality. These are someone else’s memories, lovingly rendered and inherently inviting, drawing attention inwards towards their opaque depths rather than deflecting one’s contemplation.

Benhelima’s second collection – ‘Harlem on my mind – I was, I am’ – is much more directly concerned with Otherness. Again, the perspective here is always slightly crooked. Rather than faces we see reflections of feet and legs in the vast street puddles, the monochrome red images dotted sparingly between the sombre black and white industrial scenes lent a comparative heaviness and inescapability.

Polaroid shots provide, as Dirk Lauwaert remarks in his accompanying text, a “consolation”, of sorts. Alongside this however, they run the risk of suffocation. The Harlem series engages with this suffocation in a very particular way. The switch between industrial scenes and intimate body portraits that never quite catch the subject’s full face in turn alienate the viewer, making our viewing of the pictures feel at once like an intrusion and a rebuff. In this way, the series confronts our own feelings of Otherness without turning our gaze fully back upon us.

Here we see the outline of a cane, there, a close-up of swollen feet in orthopaedic shoes, and at the end a dead cat lying juxtaposed with its chalked cartoon twin, sketched onto a dim sidewalk. Human and animal frailty dominates this series, leaping between the industrial and the intimately sensual.

The concern for identity remains in ‘Roots’, in which Benhelima displays photographs of wild plants from around the world. The overexposure, coupled with the often man-made surroundings, makes the plants unnatural – fluorescent fairy lights are even tightly wrapped around one tree. When not man-made, the surroundings are often abstract, as if the plants are emerging from Benhelima’s mental recesses.

The blown-up Polaroid dominating the hallway – Occupancy III (2006) – features bleached green vines floating against cobalt tiles. As with the ‘Black-Out’ series, our relationship with memory is evoked. At a corner room, both the images and lighting contribute to an underwater feel that is even vaguely tropical. The vines return here in miniature, with more detail. Memory becomes comparatively more intimate when considered within a certain distance, both in time and space.

Benhelima’s final section, ‘Semites’, expresses his own confrontation with his Jewish origins. In his characteristic style, rather than the portraits commenting upon Benhelima’s own identity, viewers are confronted with the limits to their own subjective experience. The portraits are never simply straight-on, one side of the face always remains slightly overexposed and thus hidden.

Charif Benhelima rails against grandiose political statement: his Polaroids beseech viewers to form their own response and question their own alterity. Rather than simply acknowledging the limits imposed by our own subjectivity, Benhelima’s collection forces us to confront these limits and bear witness to the encounter. The overexposure of the images literally impairs our vision, manifesting less ‘real’ though more truthful, more intimate, scenes.

Snap happy Elisabeth Ouni’s Polaroid tales

We caught up with photographer, digital media consultant, and whopper-tune aficionado Elisabeth Ouni at the opening of her first exhibition, A Polaroid Story.

How did you decide which images made it into the exhibition?

A lot of tough decisions needed to be made in the coordination of the exhibition. As there was no sponsor, the show is a complete love project, making everything very limited budget-wise. I decided to keep the exhibition very tight (only 21 or 22 pieces) by putting together a series of portraits that I was 100% happy with. I made one huge blow-up of Pharrell Williams, I think it’s something like one-metre-and-a-half by one metre 80cm. He’s a very important figure for me as he was the first Polaroid I took.

The Polaroid is a very evocative form. How did you get into it?

I bought a Polaroid camera for €1 in 2009, the last year that they brought out film. I experimented with it, taking pictures of friends and a series of kites. The blog is always a bit of a struggle. To take a Polaroid you need an intimate moment. It’s not made for moving objects, or else it gets blurry. It’s difficult getting artists alone and then to sit still. It takes three to four minutes to stand for a Polaroid. When an artist passes by you need to have a prepared pitch to grab their attention. That’s the skill: grabbing their attention without being too pushy. As well as two different poses, I have to get an exhibit, so, someone else taking a picture of me taking the Polaroid. It all has to happen very quickly. I always prepare what I’m going to say. Some photographers have all the right elements; an appointment, a stylist, and the right lighting, but I have to work with what’s given to me, which often isn’t much. I try to premeditate what I think the artist might think is fun. There’s a certain vibe you need to transcend. My blog is about that A to Z experience. A real fan loves that. My vocabulary can often be a bit limited, because I try to tell it how it is, and so it’s not high-brow, it’s for everybody. I just tell stories. I don’t want dirt, I just want to tell my readers what happened and how it was possible or how it failed. The Polaroid is, for me, the proof of a moment that I have with an artist. And that’s golden.

Do you see yourself as an artist?

I see myself as a creative content producer. My day job is as a digital media consultant, creating content for brands in fashion and music. The blog is my first digital project that came out really big. I see it as an expression of pop culture and of different moments I’ve had, rather than ‘art’. And, of course, a lot of hard work. The blog gets bigger and richer because of the number of artists it features. Though I don’t control light or make HD images, I do think the concept is original. I haven’t seen it done in this type of way. The journey is what makes it interesting. I’m just a storyteller who’s good at creating original content. The blog has helped me get lots of other jobs – people now ask me about creating other collections because they like my Polaroids and stories.

Were you more of a perfectionist when it came to the exhibition?

I’m a huge perfectionist, making the blog quite difficult. For the exhibition I had control over the environment so I decided to keep it very clean and not too busy. I have lots of content – lots of Polaroids and stuff I’ve been collecting – but I couldn’t display the Polaroids without glass and framing, and having them all there would have made the space too busy. I decided to have a display table for the little Polaroids, so that they’re still there.

What’s next?

Depending on whether other countries are interested, I’m working towards a much bigger project – perhaps doing a mini road-tour of London, Paris, and Berlin. I want to get a broader audience and take the blog to a more international level. I want to do it Tim Burton-style – put together all my video material, all the Polaroids, all the exhibits. I’ve been thinking of getting a guest curator to do each exhibition in each city.