Article that appeared in part in Haarscherp (1977)
Into the background
The work of Ankie Geeneen is strongly influenced by her personal experiences in the art world. After many rejections and negative reactions, she got into a deep depression and didn’t produce any work for a long time. Thereafter, her photography clearly changed. It is remarkable that a young woman has already produced two very different oeuvres. Here, only her newer work is shown.
Although ‘Haarscherp’ does not want to be a gossip magazine, we ought to describe some of Ankie Geeneen’s experiences in the art world, to be able to explain her new approach. Until now. her photographic career hasn’t been very successful. Five years ago, Geeneen graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Her graduation project was a controversial performance in which she moved slowly through an empty room. The movements slowly evolved into more wilder ones, as if she was struck by a slow-motion epileptic attack. The performance was supposed to end by a natural cause, a “knock-out” from hitting her head against the wall and the floor. But the principal of the academy stopped the performance beforehand and it she never again performed it.
Inspired by the photographic records from her performances, she became more interested in photography. She made a series of explicitly sexual self-portraits, in which she posed in provocative positions. This work obviously shows similarities with her performances. Together with the recordings, these works would have been exhibited in the Artmuseum of Groningen, if it wasn’t for the last-minute-canceling of the curator, who suddenly envisioned that Geeneen’s work would cause a scandal. A later series, a sort of far-distance self-portraits, in which she showed herself in unnatural relations to chosen objects, would have been exhibited at a gallery in Amsterdam. However, the owner of the gallery began to make strange demands, ending up in a request for sexual services. This forced her to break all contact with the gallery and she withdrew her work.
Another project was a remarkable series of ‘self-portraits’, for which she used Xerox photocopiers, both color and black and white. She photocopied herself in numerous positions, but also her clothes, objects she bought and other personal belongings were subject of her pictures. For months she lived on and around the copiers. Being one of the first artists to experiment with this technique, she was promised a major exhibition in Haarlem. But, shortly before the opening (the work was already installed!) the mayor of Haarlem banned the work from the museum. The man stated that her work wasn’t art but that it were “vague and offensive pictures” that would only disfigure the city.
Her next work took her over a year. She made countless self-portraits, which she would distort with various tools. She experimented with acids in the dark room, heated substances and the refraction of glass. Also deformed mirrors, filters and presses were used to disform the photographs. Nothing was left unexploited in her efforts to capture herself, to create a complete, true picture. This work would have been published in a book and it would have been exhibited in the Municipal Museum in The Hague and the director of the museum would have writen a critical introduction to her work. But again, this turned out to be a disappointment for Geeneen. The director couldn’t say much about her work, and there were no funds to organize the exhibition, let alone to print the book. This final disappointment was too much for Geeneen, who never came to complete a project and show her work properly; she decided to leave the artworld.
She got into a deep depression and didn’t produce anything for over a year. Finally she silently began to photograph again and returned to her favorite subject: the self-portrait and the examination of the self. Working more introvert than before, she decided to photograph only for private purposes. ‘Haarscherp’ shows for the first time her work of the past two years. Her theme clearly shifted: the earlier work can be regarded as a quest for the self, her recent work, however, shows not the result of a quest, but is the expression of a fragmented identity. It is almost as if she completely deflated during her depression, and is now reborn. She shows multiple identities in her pictures. These identities are not frivolous; her new work is in a sense more in-depth than her previous, more expressive work. The loss of the face, the blending into the background, in nature, contains a lot of symbolic meaning.
In psychoanalytic terms beheading is considered the same as the loss of genitalia, an equivalent of castration. This interpretation is easy to understand given her experience with men in the art world. With her decapitated pictures, a universal fear is depicted: the deprived opportunity to develop, to truly become a real person. For example, the use of a magpie to hide behind is significant: this bird is traditionally associated with thieving. In Freud’s terms kleptomania is a symptom of a deeper conflict, a form of defense, that symbolically reflects imperfections in the structure of the self, caused by an injury. Theft is a reaction and may help to avoid fragmentation of the self. The symbolic use of the magpie shows that Geeneen is aware of her fragmented self and that she is able to reflect on it and apply it in her work.
The use of space/place in her work is both ingenious and eloquent. Her body merges with the space and she uses elements in the space around her to hide behind. Her body is interchangeable with other parts in the picture. This way, her identity overlaps with the photographed space and is depending on it. Her choice for the different locations is very important. She is constantly looking for a suitable background, which could give her the feeling of being absorbed in the space. This search for the right location is just as important as the final result of this quest: the picture itself. Equating women with nature would be a simple explanation for her work, but we do not think that this is the original idea. For Geeneen it is about the fragmentation of identity after a traumatic experience, about erasing one subject for the many subjects that will replace it.
Geeneen said about her pictures: The camera is a device that is seemingly objective, that organizes, produces a result that apparently says something about myself. But the photograph is flat and mute and shows no dreams. I want to disappear into the muteness of the picture. A picture of myself in which I am present and absent, in which I become object and no longer remain subject. The organic impreciseness of the subject should be displaced by the inorganic, the preciseness of the object.
Her work has been interpreted by feminists as an attempt to construct a language of femininity. It could be understood as a rebellious work in an environment of the hostile, male gaze, a camouflage of the female ego against a sexually charged look. This interpretation is plausible because Geeneen, unlike in her earlier work, no longer poses explicitly nor sexual. She shows herself, but at the same time escapes merging in the surroundings. She uses this camouflage technique as a defense mechanism against the male gaze. She is present and absent at the same time, therefore it is impossible for the spectator to identify with the subject. Ultimately, her work consists of very nuanced portraits that altogether show her as she really is. The headless portraits can be seen as a universal portrait of ‘woman’, and simultaneously, as a portrait of a specific woman: Geeneen herself.