Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor
Dutch artist Mariken Wessels has made it her business to tell the semi-plausible story of a real-life husband and wife, their failed marriage, sexual frustration and voyeurism via an extraordinary archive of found photographs, collage and sculpture.
Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor allows us to enter into the lives of Henry and Martha, who embarked on a collaborative photographer-muse project together at their home in New Jersey, from 1981 to 1983. Stiffly offering herself to the camera, the result is a corpus of 5,500 intimate photographs, unsettlingly catalogued, labelled, notated and cross-indexed by Henry. His unremitting attention and obsessive behaviour on the one hand allowed him to develop a voice that gave birth to a complex and challenging body of work but in the process led to the break up of their relationship and his eventual self-imposed exile.
At the point Martha mustered up the courage to leave Henry, he diced and sliced her images to make surrealist collages of fragmented body parts used as sketches for clay models he in turn sculpted. Their clean, white finish is at odds with such prior violent treatment. Eventually Henry withdrew from art and life altogether, disappearing into the forest regions of Northwestern New Jersey never to be seen again.
Wessels has referred to the way she reengages with these lost stories and incomplete narratives as “containing constructed elements, since no collection of facts can ever be a story in itself.” As viewers we can never fully comprehend the truth of the matter since it is filtered through Wessels’ artistic vision and thus forms an interpretative history. Similarly, the open ended plot intends to leave us hanging, creating a sense of uncertainty since both sides of this tragic love story are treated with equal dispassion.
Edited and arranged with scrupulous care, the collection is not simply a biography or catalogue raisonne of quasi-erotic art but something more compelling and altogether unsettling. It resolves into a complex portrait of obsession and the evocation of those private secrets of this seemingly ordinary, middle-aged couple living next door, those who seemed perfectly normal on the surface but who were actually leading double lives. As constructed through Wessels’ unique brand of storytelling, it is as much an objectification of Martha as it is a reflection of Henry’s own inner turmoil.
This installation at Photo Oxford 2017 draws exclusively on Wessels’ contact sheets to describe an obsessive taxonomy with minor variation between pictorial arrangement, setting or film roll, multiplying the wife’s image into endless rows and columns of small prints. Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor – named as the recipient of the prestigious Author Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016 – marks the first UK exhibition by Mariken Wessels, who has previously presented the series at FOMU Antwerp, Fotomuseum Den Haag and Art Rotterdam.
Curated by Tim Clark and Greg Hobson
Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor
9 – 24 September
Thursday – Sunday 12-6pm
14a Osney Lane