One Group Show
We are right here
FOAM photography museum (the Netherlands)
January 2013 - March 2013
In collaboration with curator Kim Knoppers
One Group Show is the first major solo exhibition by the duo WassinkLundgren. This exhibition presents a broad overview of their work, including projects shown for the first time. The work develops from small observations or humorous twists of situations from everyday life. Their starting point is always a social interest in the world around them, but equally interesting to them is how the medium of photography can deform reality. WassinkLundgren playfully subvert some of the unwritten rules of the medium. Like in Tokyo Tokyo, a series of diptychs in which the decisive moment is approached in a lighthearted way. Or Empty Bottles, which catches 24 Chinese people as they scavenge bottles placed by the photographers in various locations.
Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Museum (China)
July 2014 - September 2014
In collaboration with FOAM photography museum artistic director Marcel Feil, curartor Feng Boyi and Liu Gang
Feng Boyi on the exhibition: "WassinkLundgren is indifferent to whether a photograph is good or bad; the duo does not care about the angle at which it was taken, because the photograph is an experiment. Perhaps they believe that, behind systems and norms hide a certain discursive power, and they hope to place this discursive power back in their own hands, as the embodiment of individual speech. The meaning of this experiment is the use of a new visual idea to highlight both the circumstances in which they find themselves and its collision with our habitual modes and lived experiences of viewing images"
Texts by: Sean O'Hagan, Bohm/Kobayashi, Merel Bem, and others
Published by: Fw books, Amsterdam
Edition of 1500 copies
Size: 8,5x12 cm
Softcover, 190 pages
WassinkLundgren: An Accidental Partnership
Essay by Sean O'Hagan
Why collaborate at all?... One big reason is to restrict one’s own freedom... There’s a joy and relief in being limited, restrained. For starters, to let someone else make half the decisions, or some big part of them, absolves one of the need to explore endless possibilities. The result is fewer agonizing decisions ... and sometimes, faster results.
David Byrne: Journal 03.15.10
Published by Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Museum
Texts by Feng Boyi and Liu Gang
Size: 26 x 36 cm
Design by Liu Zhizhi
Edition of 800 copies,
WassinkLundgren is a meeting of two creatively mischievous minds: Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren. As their conjoined name suggests, the pair work as a single, two-headed creative entity, looking at the world around them through the medium of photography, while simultaneously playing around with ideas of creativity and collaboration through that same medium. Each of their projects, to differing degrees, takes them on a tightrope walk of discovery where chance, accident and uncertainty often seem as important as the pursuit of a single governing idea.
Consider, for example, their series Tokyo Tokyo (2010). It is subtitled very matter-of-factly: the same moment, the same subject, a different angle. Here, they play around with the tropes of traditional street photography and, more mischievously, with the nature of collaboration, reducing it to a series of twin split (second) creative decisions. Initially WassinkLundgren just did what every traditional street photographer does: they went out onto the street looking for interesting subjects. But, they did it together. In stereo. One walked several metres apart from the other, but each aimed their camera at the same subject at roughly the same time. Snap! Snap! Two pictures of the same person on the same street. They called it “double moment”. (A double decisive moment?)
It was a deceptively simple conceptual ploy, but one that created a series of diptychs that makes the viewer think (twice) about street photography and about received ideas like the decisive moment, composition, point of view. In doing this, they also drew our attention to their creative relationship and to the mechanics of photographic collaboration. (Which, interestingly, was their original brief for the project, a Dutch magazine having commissioned them to make work about the nature of their creative partnership.)
One of the things I like about the nature of the WassinkLundgren creative partnership is their shared instinct for often freeform exploration: their willingness to follow an idea, not in order to exhaust it, but to simply see where it leads. Sometimes, they seem to be applying Paul Klee's assertion that “Drawing is taking a line for a walk” to conceptual photography. They take an idea for a walk. Often, they end up in a whole other place where, in a photograph or a short film, the familiar becomes not so familiar. Sometimes, they even end up back where they started. “If you don't do something that could possibly fail, you are doing something that you’re sure of will work. Which means you are learning nothing new.”
Like many of WassinkLundgren's projects, Tokyo Tokyo is an almost accidental success. (The word “almost” is important here.) “We don't go out with a big idea that governs a project”, says Lundgren, “In fact, we tend to like ideas that could fail. Or, we often start off jokingly and become serious. It's about following an idea to see where it leads. Sometimes you actually find out what the project is by doing it.”
Consider another WassinkLundgren series, Empty Bottles, which actually began with a beautiful accident. While setting up a large format plate camera to photograph a street scene in Beijing, they placed an empty plastic water bottle on the ground to give themselves something bright and shiny to focus on. As they were about to take the photograph, a woman walked into the frame and picked up the bottle. Snap! Another idea was born. An accidental idea that then grew and took on a life of its own.
WassinkLundgren went out onto the streets of Beijing and placed empty plastic water bottles in strategic locations – on a pavement, a wall, a fence, a hedge. At each location, they set up their large format cameras on a tripod nearby, then waited to photograph a bottle being picked for recycling up by a dutiful passer-by. Sometimes they had to wait twenty or thirty minutes. Sometimes, they barely made it back to the camera in time to record the pick-up. Once or twice, the bottle had already disappeared by the time they looked through the lens. Sometimes people saw what they were up to and played a game of cat and mouse with the camera. (For the record, they each had a camera, and, though they stayed close, each camera pointed towards a different setting, a different bottle. Not that this really matters much. )
After a while, WassinkLundgren began to think of the person picking up a bottle as the person who was really taking the photograph insofar as their action was the conceptual trigger that activated the shutter release. When you look closely at the images that make up the Empty Bottles series, though, you realise that there is much more going on than the capturing of a pre-programmed moment. The accidental idea that they playfully followed led them to a much bigger picture: about China, its economy, its rapidly changing urban and social landscape, and its ordinary citizens, who are often captured against a backdrop of advertising billboards, new high rises, towering office blocks, the myriad new signifiers of China's unprecedented rise to global economic domination.
Within six months of its publication in book form, Empty Bottles, somewhat controversially, won the Best Contemporary Photobook of the Year at the 2007 Rencontres d'Arles photography festival. (The 5B4 Photoblog joked: “How many photographers does it take to make mediocre photographs of Chinese people picking up empty plastic bottles? In this case it would be two.”) Suddenly a lot more people were interested in WassinkLundgren and, to their bemusement, often tended to be more interested in the mechanics of their collaboration than the end result. Suddenly, the most frequently asked interview question was: “If you work together, who presses the button?” (The correct answer to which is, who cares?)
WassinkLundgren are uninterested in answering questions about who does what, perhaps because they both do whatever it takes to make a project work. The long distance nature of their creative partnership is intriguing, though, because it is so long distant. Having met at the Utrecht School of Arts in 2005, Thijs now lives in London, while Ruben lives in Beijing. The distance between the two cities is about 8,151 kilometres. That's an eleven hour plus flight and a time difference of eight hours. This must surely impact on how they work together? “It keeps it more interesting. Every time we now meet we have loads of things to share, and long to-do lists to finish! The periods that we are together become super intensive energy bursts in which we do a lot, after which we both go back home and contemplate. And, we do Skype a lot, which is a funny way to talk because you see the person you work with as an image all the time. I'm sure this is influencing our work in some sort of way, but I'm not quite sure how. Yet.“
Conceptually-driven photography is not usually associated with humour, but WassinkLundgren are playful in every sense of the word, once memorably describing themselves as being “allergic to pretentiousness”. When I asked them to name their influences, the names Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan came up before the names John Baldesarri and Erwin Wurm. (Though, of course, Baldesarri is the funniest - and the smartest - of the four by far.) For Don't Smile Now...Save It For Later, WassinkLundgren manipulated the public photo booth ritual to photograph not themselves but the areas around the booths using a mirror. (They have also made a strange little film about dogs tied up outside shops waiting for their owners to return. I think this is because Thijs has spent too much time in England and may have caught the widespread and infectious English virus that causes one to anthropomorphise pets.)
Their project, Lu Xiaoben (2010), is funnier and smarter. It was produced in book form with the subtitle “a photo book exploring cultural differences by using Ruben's height as a tool.” Ruben is exactly two metres tall, which makes him a giant on the streets of Beijing and, as he told Martin Parr in a recent interview, “being tall and white sometimes gives me the feeling that I am famous...even though I did not do anything.” The book is a life size fold-out that, as well as being a record of a not-altogether serious project, also manages to explore cultural difference and the odd self-fulfilling nature of celebrity – even conceptual celebrity.
For the more recent series, This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land (2012), the pair dressed up as businessmen in smart suits in order to gain entrance to an enclosed site which contained the most expensive area of undeveloped real estate in the Netherlands. Their newly purchased business suits became a kind of camouflage that allowed them to pass relatively unnoticed by private security even when they began digging up chunks of soil to smuggle out of the site. The resulting photographs of squares of earth sprouting wild flowers and grasses are oddly beautiful in themselves, and could even be read as a witty subversion of the esteemed Dutch still life tradition. Another work that began by accident, progressed though play and humour, and, in completion, became imbued with unintended resonances. “If the work turns out to be good,” says Thijs, “it means it is much smarter than we are.”
This exhibition, then, is more a playful - that word again! - appraisal of an ongoing creative adventure than a retrospective. (Thijs: “This is something everyone says out of a fear of declaring themselves dead.”) You may be surprised, on walking through the gallery, to find images that appear to have fallen from the walls to the ground, but they have simply been edited on a daily basis. It is a continuation of an idea explored in their book, Is Still Searching, which was edited by them after publication, with different pages being ripped out of each individual copy (making each one collectable). A whim or a subversion? Or, both? The sense of play - or provocation - continues when you were given a book - or turn away in bemusement. The journey continues with this exhibition...
The best description to date of what WassinkLundgren are up to comes from Greg Hobson, curator of photographs at Britain's National Media Museum in Bradford, who noted that they "shift mundane, often unnoticeable, everyday occurrences into visually compelling and gently amusing observations of the world around us". WassinkLundgren are conceptual mischief makers with a serious underlying intent. They make us look again at the familiar by subtlety teasing out its often overlooked otherness, whether political, social or just absurd. They are proof that, as David Byrne noted, “there's a joy and relief in being limited, restrained” by another like-minded individual and that there is endless creative fun to be had in the (chance) meeting of two mischievous minds.