Glamour of despair 2019
So-called ‘Barbarizsms’, a play on Barbara and zsm (zo snel mogelijk – as soon as possible), are dualistic mixtures of images in which obscurity and contradiction offer a different perspective of popular cultural symbolism. Stimulating, rich in contrasts and clinical. In the sometimes morbid fantasy world of photographer Barbara van Ittersum (Geldrop, 1965), there is clearly no place for the powerless bourgeoisie.
Like virtually every artist or photographer, Barbara van Ittersum has gone through various style periods over the past 30 years. Phases in which her personal life or the trends in society defined her themes, compositions and camera lust. As both prisoner and guard of her own desires, fears and passions, her work is raw, reckless and realistic. Its starting point is always the concept of wanting to explore and absorb herself in a post-modern human existence. And from this, Van Ittersum’s fascination with transience and decay led her to create a huge series of photographs about psychiatry, pregnancy, plastic surgery, and pollution – as exhausting as her endless jumps of thought. Eccentric, idiosyncratic and verbal, and sometimes frankly inimitable. Maybe the reason why she prefers to let her arranged conceptual images speak for themselves; staged and styled with a director’s eye that moves between that of Witkin and Greenaway.
‘Inside’ Van Ittersum photographs performatively: as a post-modern punk, she is part of her own self-investigation. ‘Outside’ she photographs advertorials, editorials and has created staged portraits of Vivienne Westwood, Dennis Hopper, and Pierre et Gilles, amongst others, as well as both national and international musicians and cult icons. The distinctive form, the building up of tension, the choice of material, and the intensity of colour in her work all communicate passion, desire and sexual fixation. The result: an original style of underground collages where good and evil battle for supremacy.
Van Ittersum is all kinds of women in her work, thoughts and emotions. Her charming apartment on a quiet Amsterdam canal seems to be an appropriate reaction to this. Religious icons, knick-knacks from travels, faded yellow photos and trophies all create chaos with each other.
An antique cabinet contains Buddha statues, old prayer sheets, biblical prints on fabric. “Almost everything you see has a special meaning,” says Van Ittersum, explaining she inherited the cabinet from her grandmother. The memorabilia remind her of the genesis of ‘family’ and ‘convictions’, powerful recurring themes in her work. “I was born in a convent. When I was a child, my mother, a performing artist, took me to cemeteries and monasteries. It’s probably the reason I became interested in religion, life, death and ‘decay’. Several years ago, my interest in religion reappeared in my performances; photography, in which I played an active role. I wanted to represent – and misrepresent – all the gestures that belong to meditation or religious acts. Provoke and stimulate people, create debate, and make a difference.”
Van Ittersum’s work has been frequently exhibited over the last few decades. Breakthrough exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Clair Obscure Gallery in Los Angeles (2005) gave her artistic language a multifarious signature. Todd David Schwarts, at the time art critic for CBS Radio in the United States, describes Van Ittersum in those years as one of the most talented avant-garde photographers in the world. “I believe she arrived from a distant galaxy far, far away and – armed with an Earth-created camera – is documenting a hidden, bizarre, often beautiful, sometimes disturbing realm not visible to the naked eyes of average earthly inhabitants. She is daring and fearless in her exploration.” Although her provocative take on reality was praised by international art critics, artists and curators alike, recognition in the Netherlands took a little longer.
In the meantime, she photographed fashion and made portraits for Reload and various other Dutch glossy magazines. But she had difficulty thawing out the Dutch art scene. Even her ravishing multi-media projects, under the name of VJ/DJ Lunachick, where she ‘Ba-rocked’ clubs – in combination with music from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, PJ Harvey, Chicks on Speed, and The Peaches – seem only to exist in the memories of Amsterdam’s avant-gardists. They were dimensions in which Van Ittersum explored her own boundaries. Intimate art manifestations in which she could show – via her imagination – who she was, how she thought, and how she felt. She laid herself bare; through established galleries, and introduced a dualistic view of the world. One in which darkness and light converged in her own surroundings. Excitable and constantly inspired by her desire to reinvent themes and alienate them from reality – this is the essence of Barbarizsm.
Van Ittersum has controlled and collected her own moments of chaos for a long time, with a recognisable analogue camera: Mamiya RZ67. Still her favourite, it has been getting less use over the past few years. For commercial work, she now uses a Canon EOS 5D – the other standard. Yet fumbling with film rolls and the smell of fixer and developer, are irreplaceable heroes. She grew up with them. And ever since she portrayed the homeless and ‘clochards’ under the bridges of the Seine in Paris for her graduation project in ‘Photography and Audiovisual Design’ at HKU (University of the Arts, Utrecht), she swears by the classic 6 x 7 image size. Perfect imperfection; the frame of choice for her photographic eye. When selecting her subjects, Van Ittersum is guided by a well-honed sense of drama and social relevance. It has to grind, twist and bite. In her personal series P-Cell, in which she subjected herself to a psychiatric self-investigation in an isolated cell, she plays with ideas such as ‘provocation’ and ‘imprisonment’. The same as she did in a juvenile institution where she portrayed herself as St. Barbara – the patron saint of all prisoners. “My personal work between 2005 and 2010 can be divided into four series: P-Cell, Private Pollution, Posthuman and Pregnant Power. The body always takes centre stage. What I particularly wanted to show were individuals stripped down to their very essence; their bare shape. Sometimes going against the grain. And within these images, I tried to make the influence of emotions, the surroundings and the circumstances visible. By doing so, my own reality transformed into a symbolic visual language.” The fact that Van Ittersum plays a significant role in her own photography is something that originated in the late 1980s. After graduating from HKU, she became a neo-apostle of the illustrious Beat Generation. She made rough, sometimes morbid 8mm films and performances in which dolls were burned and images mutilated. Following the philosophy of writer Jack Kerouac and other members of the Beat Generation, she made quests into the unknown – and the forbidden. It’s a spontaneous narrative style that tries to record the essence of movement in an endless flow of raw observations and thoughts. “Personal feelings and experiences can be a motive,” she explains. The female model (Van Ittersum herself) in the P-Cell series, gives the masquerade behind closed doors a different identity. “In the images, I hold the camera’s remote control in my hand: I am simultaneously patient and psychiatrist. In order to make the series, I was locked in an isolation cell for four hours. Extreme circumstances form part of my work process. I let the nature of the surroundings and the circumstances affect the way in which I portray my body. The spectator witnesses the various states of mind I endure during the imprisonment as a visual psychological account: the revolution between the obviously vulnerable position and the ongoing movement of discovering and concealing. I share myself with the spectators, provoke them and avert their gaze. The location also plays a significant role and adds extra meaning. The isolation cell in P-Cell and the disabled toilet in Pregnant Power are cold, clinical places. I also always use objects that give the photo a contextual twist: red rope, suggesting blood and camouflaged army apparel in Pregnant Power; a lace petticoat combined with a strait-jacket in P-Cell. Sexy and prudish all at once. Such contrasts are characteristic in my work; they show the glamour of despair. Furthermore, the medical objects communicate my obsession for everything that has to do with modifying the human body.”
A fascination for cloning and body manipulations imbued her Posthuman series, exhibited in Los Angeles and at Arles Photo Festival 2005, with a ‘plastic fantastic’ look. The photos portrayed another side to the world-famous Barbie dolls, placing an ironic twist on beauty ideals and glorification; also characteristic of her other work. “I swapped the limbs of Barbie and Ken and combined them with other dolls which I then vacuum-packed. I combined suffocating beauty ideals with endless biotechnology that blur the boundaries of one’s own identity. Barbie is mutated into a monster in my photos; a loser in the race for ‘the perfect body’.
With this, Van Ittersum presents the transience within a self-examination process. She is on a journey to the other side of values and norms, formulating responses to mainstream culture like Generation X did in the borgeois 1980s. Her project Pregnant Power, shot days before her daughter Ginger was born, contains a contradictory message.
Being the model in her own photos, she fights the glorifying of the female ideal: motherhood. Her sugar-covered body, with chocolate sauce poured onto it, takes away the purity of the oft-praised pregnant belly. Yet at the same time: it doesn’t. Because the images keep having, despite efforts to desecrate the ideal, a desirable undertone.
"Barbara van Ittersum is one of the most gifted avant-garde photographers working today. With her camera, she has the ability to transform reality in a manner that is startling, unique, provocative and utterly compelling, unlike anything we have seen before. Personally, I don’t think she is from the Planet Earth. I believe she arrived from a distant galaxy far, far away, and - armed with an Earth-created camera - is documenting a hidden, bizarre, often beautiful, sometimes disturbing realm not readily visible to the naked eyes of average Earthly inhabitants. She is daring and fearless in her exploration.”
- Todd David Schwartz, CBS Radio Los Angeles
Intentional or unintentional? The viewer’s own perception is often disarmed by Van Ittersum’s photos. The eye is drawn, played with, and caressed – but without satisfaction. “I want to unnerve the spectator with my work. I try to extort emotions that many people hide under a thin layer of decorum. That’s the contrast I seek. Combining ugliness with lust, beauty with destruction, showing emotions in an environment that seems to exclude emotions. I try to seduce the spectator to step into a world, staged by me, in which they are alternately tested by lust and fear.
The reason Van Ittersum was less active between 2005 and 2010 has to do with what she called ‘the darkest period of her life’.
In the spring of 2010, she was diagnosed with throat cancer. The disease turned her life upside-down. And with it, came a period of insecurity. Now cancer-free, the desire to explore new worlds has once again been stimulated. And her wish to record social meaning in her distinctive way now manifests itself as a photography teacher at a high school, as well as providing visual input in her workshops for companies and schools. The art events in Amsterdam, NYC, London and Los Angeles have evolved into candid fictional sessions in which Van Ittersum confronts students and managers with their own character traits. More down to earth. “But I am still an anarchist. My aim is to stir up emotions by confronting people. Move boundaries, stimulate change. If I have to shock people so they can look at themselves or the world in a different way, I will do so. Identity determines everything. That is my core essence.” In both her photography portaits and personal work, Van Ittersum has entered a new phase.
She calls her multifaceted conceptual images cleaner and reveals her need to create genuine intimacy; to make contact with her subjects. “It’s a kind of new simplicity that I can’t yet put into words. More black backgrounds and super-sharp images. That feels right to me at the moment.” And while she still feels at home with staged photography, she can’t be certain that the performative self-portraits won’t win out in the end from this new simplicity. “I have a warm Indonesian side and a cold Russian one. That conflict within me informs my conceptual message: good is bad, and beauty is ugly. Revealing the essence and capturing a pure reality via my tableaux vivants that is both painful and attractive – that is my story.
How do I do that? Through study, investigation, and looking around. I am inspired by artists like Daniele Buetti, Marina Abramovic and Tracey Emin, as well as portrait photographer Nadav Kander and fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth. “Emin’s collages combine very personal themes and situations in her life. We have irony, decadence and shocking non-political, asocial characteristics in common,” says Van Ittersum, who is busy working on a new series entitled Nobility and Frivolity.
The Dutch nobility is an elitist, closed group that has played a significant role in our history. Yet at the same time, seen by many outsiders as a bunch of pompous twits. And that invigorates me. I want to do something with it. Capture that contrast.”
by Arold Jansen