Six twelve-year-olds walk into a Rineke Dijkstra retrospective.
They stood in each room, looking closely at each photograph, waiting for someone to share their observations. Again and again appeared the photograph of a young French man, Olivier, from the day he joined the military and over the next couple years.
The pictures are big, almost life-size. The twelve-year-olds eyeball Olivier, he mutely stares back. They spend a lot of time on the first two pictures of Olivier: one from the chest up as a civilian, a mop of boyish blonde hair on his head; the second in full military uniform, head shaved.
“He looks different,” said one of the twelve-year-olds.
It was not his pose and it was not his clothes, it was his eyes. He looked more serious. Olivier feels his clothes, the twelve-year-olds feel Olivier feeling his clothes. Picture by picture, time goes on and Olivier’s eyes grow smaller and smaller.
Is he brave? Is he patriotic? The twelve-year-olds see something heavy and serious, call it conviction, harden in his eyes. The grown-ups kept asking, “What do you see? What do you see?” in front of Dijkstra’s work. The conversations resembled the one the artist’s camera has with her subjects.
The twelve-year-olds made their way to the three-channel video I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009-2010. In the video, a group of students, facing the twelve-year-olds, though rarely making eye contact with them, discuss an image they were viewing. For twelve minutes, the twelve-year-olds sat in the dim room, watching the students onscreen state their observations and thoughts about the subject of their gaze.
The students in the video were silent, shifting their poses slightly, eyes squinted. They spoke of how sad the woman they saw looked, and then each of their faces sunk slightly as one-by-one this sadness became theirs. “Perhaps her mum has died,” one says. Through each observation, the twelve-year-olds piece together that the students are looking at a Picasso painting, but this is not the point.
Rineke Dijkstra, Amy, The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, December 23, 2008, 2008; chromogenic print; Courtesy of the artist
The brilliance lies in each of their faces on screen, their conversations. Dijkstra’s brilliance as a portraitist. Leaving the installation, the twelve-year-olds are clearly a little more excited about the end than they are about the layers of meta-ness. The grown-ups inquire about what they noticed.
“They sounded Scottish.”
“They were wearing uniforms…”
The gentle peeling of layers of meaning began to unfold all over again, as six twelve-year-olds leave a museum.
(Image on top right: Rineke Dijkstra, Olivier, Quartier Vienot, Marseille, July 21, 2000, C-print, 49-5/8 x 42-1/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist)