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Acclaimed Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra debuts two videos at Milwaukee Art Museum this week.

Dijkstra visits Milwaukee to kick off two new exhibitions at MAM

Typically, Milwaukee Art Museum invites the media to a press preview of each new exhibition, and usually a MAM curator, perhaps joined by an out-of-town curator or scholar who also worked on the show, walks the media through the show and explains it in depth.

These are really great ways to get a first look at a new exhibition, and I love going to them. Once in a while, the artist featured in an exhibition is on hand, making them something extra special. Yesterday, influential and respected Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra was here to talk about two new shows that feature her work.

The main focus was on "Rehearsals," a pair of roughly 15-minute videos that open Friday, Sept. 9 and run through Jan. 1. The works make their museum debuts here.

Dijkstra filmed young girls rehearsing ballet and rhythmic gymnastics during a visit to St. Petersburg. They were produced for Manifesta, the European contemporary art biennial that was held in that city in 2014.

More than anything, the videos capture the girls' determination and hard work – and the accompanying results. These works – "Marianna (The Fairy Doll)," in which a young ballerina is seen perfecting a routine she's planning to use as an audition for entrance into a prestigious ballet academy, and "The Gymschool" (pictured below) – capture the emotional and physical labor these girls pour into their work.

Here are excerpts of a conversation with Dijkstra and MAM curator of photography and media arts Lisa J. Sutcliffe, who curated the show:

Lisa Sutcliffe: Essentially, what you see in these videos are the subject of rehearsal itself. So, Marianna is a ballerina who is practicing for a try-out in a prestigious ballet academy.

Rineke Dijkstra: Yes, she's at an audition. She wants to go to Vaganova Ballet School, which is one of the best ballet schools in Russia. She's doing rehearsals and practicing.

Sutcliffe: She repeats the same passages over and over, and you can see that at first, she's always plastering a smile on her face, and I want you to watch and sort of see how that changes as rehearsal moves along. I think that also paying attention to the setting in "Marianna" is very important, because it's almost as if it's set in a fairy-tale in this confection of a pink room, which is really lovely.

Dijkstra: Yes, actually, it was like that during rehearsals. It was a classroom that I filmed almost real-time. It's about forgetting the pose, forgetting about yourself and just you can see her rehearsing, getting annoyed that she has to do it again and again and again and again. The piece that she's rehearsing is called "The Fairy Doll," and the dancers always have to smile. I think it's a nice balancing thing – her character, and her person.

Sutcliffe: ("The Gymschool") is a three-channel video of rhythmic gymnasts. I think you'll see that it's quite different in setting. There's a studio built into the practice area, so there's a very minimal backdrop, and the figures become sculptural and really almost inhuman. You'll see that they twist their bodies into almost pretzel-like shapes, that I'm sure that none of us could replicate if we wanted to. They go from youngest to oldest, so most inexperienced to most experienced.

In each of the videos, you'll see that one of the strongest characteristics is this kind of determination and really fierce focus, because in order to perfect these routines, the girls have to be focused. In that way, they aren't able to think about their pose, and you're able to kind of catch them. Every once and a while, one will appear perhaps proud, or you'll hear them grunting with exertion.


Rineke Dijkstra speaking at Milwaukee Art Museum on Wednesday afternoon.

Dijkstra: "Marianna" is more about emotions, and her character that's displayed, that it's representing, and her own personality, her own work, herself. "The Gymschool" is a different approach. It was about girls who doing all those exercises, and my idea was that they become almost like sculptures. A sculpture is from every side ... becomes a different form.
From three different angles, you can see it's exactly the same pose, but different. I wanted to work with the sculptural idea.

Sutcliffe: There's a kind of narrative versus an abstract: "Marianna" versus "The Gymschool." Rineke has been influenced or is interested in the history of painting, as well, and so you can see Marianna sort of becoming (a) Degas figure, enacting the role of the real street girl who also becomes a ballerina.

The Lives of Others

In order to reach the gallery to see the videos, you pass through the photography gallery, which also opens "The Lives of Others: Portraits from the Photography Collection" on Friday, Sept. 9.

Included in this larger, multi-artist show of works from MAM's own collection is Dijkstra's "Almerisa," an 11-photograph series tracing the life and transitions of a young Bosnian refugee who arrives in western Europe and grows into a mother herself.

Sutcliffe: This is an important new acquisition to the museum purchased for us last year by Christine Symchych and James McNulty. We're delighted to be able to showcase it and also to show it in context with Rineke's videos so you can see how she works both in photography and video.

Dijkstra: I photographed Almerisa in the first picture when she was 6 years old. I photographed her in the asylum seekers center in the Netherlands, and she came from Bosnia. She fled from the war with her parents, and they were going to stay. I photographed her every two years since then, and as you can see in the pictures, how she slowly adjusted to the Dutch culture and how she's changing, not only in her clothes and her appearance ... but you can also see her growing up. So, it's also a series (showing) a child growing up to adulthood: You see her slowly change from a child to an adolescent and to young adulthood.

Sutcliffe: It's an important thing to talk about how Rineke works through time. She's interested in the passage of time, and how that plays a part in transformation, and the fact that she made work like this and then started working in video. She works both in the passage of time, and still photography, and in duration of time in video.

Dijsktra and Sutcliffe will host a public conversation on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 3 p.m. in the museum's Lubar Auditorium. Complete details on that event and on the Dijkstra exhibitions can be found at MAM.org.


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