Interview Rebekka Vanderhaeghen (door Wouter van de koot)
A landscape of white frosted clods of rough soil forms the backdrop for a silent sculpture of naked human bodies. It is arid and cold. Their eyes closed, their faces averted and turned towards the ground. Their hairs are short, or tightly held together and combed backwards. The bodies are draped over each other like garments, carelessly thrown off. The muscular limbs outstretched and cramped in an inevitable yearning for the last remnants of life force. They are young, strong bodies, effortlessly interwoven with each other. Groping hands reaching down to a back, a buttock, a foot. The fleshy colour of their skin is smeared with white smudges, reminiscent of ashes, make-up, or ointment before it is absorbed by the skin. The scene is granted an air of distance by a blue filter of light.
Are we witnessing the last guests of a bacchanal spun out of control? Body and mind so deeply poisoned that the only option left is to crawl on the floor? Are they the narrowly surviving victims of a battle, having been stripped bare by over-enthusiastic vultures? Or are we witness to the rehearsals for a contemporary dance? One thing is for sure, they are not here to have fun.
Today I’m on the road for a meeting with the creator of this work, photographer Rebekka Vanderhaeghen. She warned me in advance that she didn’t like to chat about her work but during our interview I don’t notice any of that, on the contrary. Or appointment takes place in a small coffee bar in Antwerp North and I meet a lively young woman, who chooses her words carefully with a gentle but determined voice. A voice with a pleasant timbre, warm and a tad husky, with sophisticated undertones. When she talks about her work, she has a serious look in her eyes, which just as quickly turns into a twinkle, followed by a bright smile. We’re talking about the inevitability of certain choices, how to create a magical reality and the wondrous power of cold.
Rebekka studied drama and dance at first and she had intended to make a professional career in that field, but a severe muscular injury on her eighteenth threw a spanner in the works. The dream to become a dancer was forever out of reach. As a sign of her character, Rebekka got herself back together again quickly and went to the St. Lucas art school in Brussels in order to study photography instead. As the daughter of fashion designer Kaat Tilley, she was soon drawn to fashion photography, a path that turned out to be almost too obvious. After two years of study the motivation was gone, only to return in full glory several years later to what she calls her essence.
WvdK: I think I can say that the body is central to your work. Is that to be traced back to your dance background?
RV: I love the tension in those bodies. I often work with dancers, in order to obtain an emotion from an image, from the choreography that I make. Dancers control their body in a different way. They have more endurance, and tend to have a faster understanding of what I want. I love to put people in harsh conditions, in which they really feel what they do, such as an icy environment.
WvdK: Can you outline the idea behind your last series ‘ Entre l’ombre et lumiére ‘, and what that ultimately has become?
RV: The original title of the series was ‘ Noi Vivi ’ (we are still alive), which was the title of a documentary I had seen about underground passages in Rome. This sentence was carved in the wall as a sign of life for the relatives, left behind. This struck me as tremendously powerful! This strong urge to survive was something that I also felt at that time in my life. Ultimately, the title became ‘Entre l’ombre et lumiére ‘ because I wanted to make it a bit softer. I wanted to depict the capacity of people to carry themselves and others through a hard time. Like bodies on a battlefield, at the same time supporting and oppressing each other. Another inspiration were the large landscapes of Anselm Kiefer I’ve seen in Paris.
WvdK: Where did you take the pictures?
RV: On a beautiful earthy field of a farmer close to where I live. . It was a very icy period when I took the photos, but snow is not on call, of course, so I decided to use limestone powder to imitate that look. Afterwards I found it disturbing that there were still forests visible behind the fields. I felt it was too restricted to that particular area, and therefore I edited the photos to create an atmosphere reminiscent of volcanic soil, such a sweltering place that is always under high tension. It was important that you couldn’t indicate directly where the bodies were located, but that there was a visible tension between body and nature, in such a way that they almost became one.
WvdK: The places that you create in your work are in fact non-places. Do you decide on the spot what the composition will be, or do you make sketches in advance?
RV: I’m much indebted to painting in that respect. I look at it to see how to build up a composition, or to determine a certain angle. For ‘Entre l’ombre et lumiére’ for example, ‘the raft of Medusa’ by Géricault was my point of reference. Those influences multiply over the course of months, and then I’m going to make small sketches, just little doodles without any aesthetic value. They help me to see how I’m going to make the image I have in mind. I also make mood boards to determine the atmosphere of the picture, and also to show the models the direction it might go, what kind of tension I’m looking for. I often put music on to bring them into a particular mindset. I love sultry dramatic music, especially classical music.
WvdK: So, You have a picture that took shape on the basis of existing works from art history and is inspired by personal experiences and feelings. Your models, who are people of flesh and blood, each with their own story, are being pulled inside your fantasy during this process. You bring those individuals together and create a bubble in which they fit into your world and do what you tell them to do. You’re asking your models to be very intimate and intense with each other while they pose. How do you do that?
RV: In my series ‘ Imaginary Rooms ‘ I put the models in a cold barn on an old grain mill, which was soaked with water. I rubbed their bodies in with in with ashes from the hearth. I love this part of the process, it is very intimate. I spend about two hours with someone, putting ashes, paints, clay on their naked body. This creates a bond which makes it easier afterwards to ask for certain poses. I talk with them to put them at ease, to break through the forced nature of the situation. Once we are at the location itself we have to act very quickly, which is a huge adrenaline rush. I use everything in my power to pull those people into my world so that they can translate my feelings. My panacea is actually the cold. I usually work on freezing sets, which makes the models feel disconnected from reality. Because it’s so cold you move differently, and start to think less clearly. That use of uncomfortable sets is a very conscious choice to make the experience primary. The cold brings the models in some kind of capsule in which they get in touch with their feelings on a very deep level. I actually have a great relationship with all my models, which is very nice. And I use some people more often, because I know that their body can translate my meaning well.
WvdK: Do you u use your own body sometimes as well?
RV: I have already done so, yes, but more as an intermediate process, as a study. Never as an end result. Sometimes I wish that I could, because right now I always depend on others to be able to carry out a spontaneous idea, and it takes a lot of organization. But I’m not Cindy Sherman. I like it very much to dress up and crawl in to another character but when I see the final image, I always conclude it is not strong enough. It seems too airy and I can’t really sculpt it the way I want.
WvdK: Could it be that the unease with which you confront your models is a way of retroactively taking revenge on the failure of your own body as a dancer?
RV: No, at least not consciously…I want those bodies to suffer, to go to their limits, but not the people as such.
WvdK: Do you still see them as people at the time of shooting?
RV: Not really… And sometimes I don’t want to listen when they say they cannot take it any longer. I just think: “come on, give it some more!” As the body begins to falter it becomes interesting! I really do see the beauty of decay. Transience is a theme that concerns me greatly, although the aesthetics are also very important, in order to maintain the feeling of a dream. I want to tread where Eros and Thanatos meet.
WvdK: Your work does have a great aesthetic power. How does that relate to the subject matter you want to adress? Impermanence, death…?
RV: I don’t choose my subjects, they choose me.
WvdK: You use the body as an object, but they are not just objects, are they? You consciously use aesthetic, beautiful bodies.
RV: The muscular toning is very important to me, yes. I’d like to use a different kind of model sometimes, but a body often has a certain evidence in itself. My work is already pretty Baroque, almost Rubenesque. To use Rubenesque models as well would be too much. It would be as if I want to make a statement about that, and I don’t. For example, in the series ‘ Pur Sang ‘ I perceived the body as a sculpture for the first time. It is not yet completely mature as a work, but it has something naive and pure. The photos were taken at five o’clock in the morning in the summer in a pond on a white background. In the series of twelve images you can see the background change from bluer tones to more yellow ones, as time passes by and the sun comes up. My first concern was to create something poetic in the space between delicacy and confrontation. My models were all underage girls, and in my eyes they were all very innocent.