Elisabeth, I want to eat - Limited edition book 2009
The Dutch artist Mariken Wessels has created a new book of found material. This is the second printing limited to 150 copies, and I don't have the first edition so I can't say if there is any difference. I am usually a bit hesitant when it comes to works using found footage. Mainly for 2 reasons: Either I feel quite the voyeur, glimpsing at something that is not mine to see, or feeling uninspired not knowing anything about the subject nor its context and seldom find the photography itself very fascinating. Im reminded of a time in Vienna when a friend showed me a photo album she just bought at the flea market of dozens of not-so-flattering erotic self-portraits made by a woman to send along with her husband who was a long-haul truck driver. It really felt odd to look at them, and even stranger to wonder how they ended up in a flea market stand.
In this case, Mariken takes the concept one step farther in giving "Elisabeth", the protagonist in the series, a voice. Not just any voice, but her own, told through post-cards and letters which Mariken found along with the photographs in a shop in Amsterdam. Even though we aren't really sure how much is fact or fiction; in Mariken's own words in an email to me;
- I construct my own story with found material. Their past receives a fresh layer. I borrow their memories. This work is also about communication, or the lack of it, time, and the effort of people to get a grip on life and hold on to time.- Mariken Wessels.
we are given the story of Elisabeth, a young girl in Holland in the 70's who is in post-card and letter contact to her aunt Hans, and one letter to a friend, during what seems to be a convalescence while being treated for a mental illness. It takes awhile to get at the details. Stories of "treatments" and "therapy" slip through the cracks of conversations about daily lives and missed relatives and small talk which seems to dance lightly around a constantly looming elephant in the room.
Although aunt Hans, suffering from epilepsy herself, writes an amazing letter of hope and faith on March 1, 1977:
"..you must also feel spring is on its way in a touch of blue, in the sounds of birds, swelling buds, on the balcony, on the quay, in the gardens round about..."
the language mostly reminds me of the language we used to use 20 years ago when my grandfather had cancer; whispering whenever we used the "C" word. A time when my uncle Larry would cuff his whiskey glass behind his wrist when a family picture was being taken. Aunt Hans' language and voice is one of a loved-one not wanting to see or know the truth and finds escape in religion.
The pictures themselves are nothing new; family scenes, possibly holiday snap-shots, and a teenage girl flirting with her sexuality with a photographer who is possibly her first lover.
The highlight for me is the way the letters and texts are treated. They are translated onto tipped-in light-weight blue paper, simply overlapping the original postcards and letters. A nice way to help us get at texts which are not only in foreign language (to some of us anyway) but are often written with a handwriting almost impossible to decipher.
We don't know what came of Elisabeth, but the fact that these images ended up for sale, she probably fell victim to her ailments. Mariken helps us say it out loud.