Situations and images of ambiguity: Works by Barbara Visser in Athens

Loaded with so many associations of past glamour, Nice is a city that has acquired a mythical aura and a sense of timelessness. Simultaneously, it is a city abused by a corrosive tourist industry and the annual festivities staged by the contemporary entertainment business. It is almost as if Nice’s reputation has turned the city into a spectacle, a place consumed by its own image. Reality buckles under its weight, and real everyday existence has become obscured by the surface gloss, an idealized and packaged visual reproduction – perhaps what makes this city luring and strangely lifeless all at once. And it probably explains why Dutch artist Barbara Visser, whose work repeatedly addresses the line between reality and its representation, chose Nice as the site of her project, «The World Belongs to Early Risers,» currently on show at the Els Hannappe Underground Gallery. Visser hints at the tensions underlying an apparently calm existence. She treads the fine line between truth and appearance and ends up in neither camp, leaving the story lines and meaning of her images open-ended and ambiguous instead. Rather than impose specific ideas on viewers, the works challenge them to look closer and use their own judgment in untangling its strands. Inconclusive and open-ended, the stories that Visser narrates do not build into a climax and seem to extend forever into time, creating an uncanny sense of ennui and free choice at the same time. Visser also builds up her stories gradually and in an almost cinematic manner. For her Nice project, she produced five photographs of a staged scene in which a young man lies on the beach surrounded by a group of standing people taking photographs of him. Each image was then reproduced to resemble an advertisement billboard and was posted on separate bus stops throughout Nice. Beginning with a close-up image of a young man, the photos gradually expand to take in the entire scene. Bordering on documentary photography and images of a fashion shoot, Visser’s work is puzzling. Is the young man, who seems to have fainted on the beach, the corpse of an illegal immigrant, or the body of a male model posing for a fashion shoot? Is this an image of real life in contemporary Nice or the recycling of the city’s myth as an idealized, if not somewhat sterile place? The image seems to be caught up in ambiguity. So does the title, «The World Belongs to Early Risers,» which comes loaded with varying connotations. Are the early risers the decision-makers, people who have a final say, or are they the workers who toil for their daily subsistence? Both groups are early risers but not all own the world, at least not in a pragmatic and non-metaphorical way. The ambiguity both of the image and the title helps draw attention to how reality is never one-sided and that our perception of it is usually subject to our cultural or social stereotypes. The problem is – Visser’s work seems to claim – that reality’s intricacy is replaced with an oversimplified version of it. Like the image, the title contains social and political connotations which in fact underlie most of Visser’s works. Even in ones that at first glance seem more involved with exploring personal identity, the context is always cultural and social. Visser considers how the social and the cultural are grafted on personal identity and shape our perception both of ourselves and the world around us. Cultural values and habits seem especially influential in defining our self-image and are often treated as one of the various layers that color our reality and blur the lines between the real and the artificial. This notion seems particularly pertinent to contemporary times in which the notion of culture has expanded to incorporate almost anything (from art, to popular culture, advertisements and lifestyle) and is used to account for many different aspects of life. Cultural referencing can extend forever in a never-ending cycle that increasingly removes us from reality and the sense of rootedness but also from ideas such as authenticity and original, first-hand experience. This is a contemporary condition that Visser repeatedly uses as the background to her work. Both the film «Philippa» (1998) and the series «A Day in Holland/ Holland in a Day» explore the interface between culture, multiculturalism and our perceived identities. Based on the life of a real woman who lives between Amsterdam, Paris and London, the «Philippa» series unravels how the same person swaps roles and identities according to the city she chooses to live in each time. The English Philippa is different from the French and the Dutch one, but all three roles are experienced by the same woman. In «A Day in Holland/ Holland in a Day» the links between role-playing and culture are even stronger. In this video work and series of photos, Visser shows images of Huis Ten Bosch Stad in Japan, an immense theme park which is a reproduction of a Dutch city. In what is a playful reversal of roles, Visser has a Western couple dressed as Japanese strolling through the location. The exploitation of culture to create artificial situations is brought up once again. What is real and what is artificial and how big is each part with respect to the other? Visser continuously brings aspects of the real and the fictional together. She plucks artificial situations out of real life and reworks them to reintroduce them into our reality. For her site-specific Nice project, for example, she blended her images into the urban landscape and made them look like advertisement posters. She then placed the works in a different urban context by showing them in an Athens gallery. Visser creates new cultural contexts and situations both for her works and her audience. From Japan to the Netherlands, Nice to Athens, she travels the world exploring how cultural difference shapes our understanding of the world and creates new situations each time, adding more layers to our reality. Els Hanappe Underground, 2 Melanthiou, Psyrri, tel 210.325.0364. To January 11.

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