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FRIEZE / Paulien Oltheten and Femmy Otten (EN)

Friday October 05 2012

Review at Frieze weblog, Written by Renske Janssen, 05-10-2012


On the narrow Bloemstraat, where the sun shines on hollyhocks in improvised front gardens, Galerie Fons Welters is hosting two exhibitions by young Dutch artists: Femmy Otten’s ‘If you were coming in the fall’, the title of which is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and Paulien Oltheten’s ‘It’s my imagination, you know’, titled after a quotation in one of her videos. Otten’s practice is full of subtle symbolic layers; it is a personal visual mythology that is hard to grasp. Oltheten, meanwhile, has a documentary approach to the image. Both artists show a similar treatment of the installation, rhythmically scattering objects on the walls like bold musical notes on Baroque sheet paper. Both artists were also born in the early 1980s, an era known for a Postmodern kind of image production that mirrored social fragmentation, disintegration of morals and cultural chaos.

As I entered the gallery through the front room, Otten’s installation revealed a miniature world of wall-based, mythical objects, symbols and figures. There are references to art history – such as to Paul Gauguin’s portraits of Tahitian women in the wood carved sculpture If you were coming in the fall (2012) – but also to immigration and its aesthetics, as in an oil painting of a North African man in Untitled (2012), hung near the entrance to the gallery. The portrait could be associated with the images of protestors in the recent political upheavals like the Arab Spring, a revolution that struggles with tradition. Ottens’s mythological fantasy figure in Untitled reminded me of ’80s mainstream aesthetics, like a clown crying black tears, or perhaps the mythological animalesque figures in Wolfgang Petersen’s children’s movie The Never Ending Story (1984). Here, however, Otten creates a more subtle mix of cultural mythologies and eras in order to fashion new beings, new visions and new narratives. The half woman / half animal is painted directly on the wall. It has the perfectly symmetrical face of an Egyptian princess, with coloured symbols on her cheeks to resemble musical notes.

Paulien Oltheten’s videos, photographs and occasional drawings are based on her travels to Burma, Israel and Russia. At first sight, the images seem rooted in a travelogue-based approach, but she has collapsed the boundaries between documentary and fiction. While travelling, Oltheten captured daily observations that later manifested in her work, such as in Small Roll of Thoughts (2010), a photo collage depicting a young woman on a tram who twists a paper roll of fare tickets around her finger, holding it to the side of her head while daydreaming.

Small, almost invisible, objects and gestures like these fascinate Oltheten, and she translates them in close-ups. In the video Like Romeo and Juliet (2012) she wonders about the ropes that hang outside of Burmese houses to hoist plastic bags, newspapers and other quotidian material. This serves as a departure point for an iconographic study of the ways ropes function in different countries and cities, and of how they show power relations and a loving connection between two people. If I close my eyes and try to remember what I saw after I visited Oltheten’s installation, I can weave together a few details, a few random voices, a camera’s gaze on a rope close to someone’s skin, and an image of an envelope that is about to be opened. Oltheten herself acknowledges these small occurrences in her title ‘It is my imagination, you know.’ So it is not mine.

On my way out I think: What seems documentary in these two shows is in fact fictional; both artists create a literature of images. What is romantic, mythical and symbolic comes across in my imagination as a true story about a man who remembers his movement from the Orient to the West, who has perhaps lost his love, or has become the one who she was waiting for. On the shoulders of both artists, figures of ancient and contemporary mythology travel along a path that seems anthropomorphically transformed through time and geography. The movement of man and images that is stirred here seems to be their motor.