Whether introverted mariners or plus-size women, all the characters in Frieke Janssens’s latest series, which is called Lightness, exude power. Having broken free from earth’s gravitational pull, they hover, dignified, aloof almost – some over calm, smooth seas, and others over clouds. Have they eliminated earthly desires? Abandoned a senseless pursuit? Do they inhabit a poetical universe, a comforting cosmos?
The City of Knokke-Heist commissioned this photo series from Frieke Janssens, asking her to create new photos with the seaside resort as the main theme. She drew her inspiration, amongst others, from an article by the author and washashore Hugo Camps about the city that he has lovingly dubbed ‘Petit Paris’. In his article, Camps paints a picture of the Knokke of yesteryear, where politicians met in the sixties to form the Eyskens-Merlot coalition government and where people liked to sip a J.J. Whisky in one of the large, brown leather armchairs at La Réserve. He also describes the modern-day Knokke, which is ‘cloaked in the silence of winter every evening’. The photographer was intrigued by this tension between grandeur and silence. At the same time, she succeeded in transcending the local sphere by having her characters pose before a universal backdrop: a sea or cloud landscape. Mindful of the title of Milan Kundera’s bestselling novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí in Czech), she has her protagonists embrace the lightness of being, unlike those who fight against it and whose quest for the ultimate meaning in life leads them to lose themselves in excesses or in love.
Frieke Janssens gives the staging of her scenes a lot of thought. A playful, intimate scene can be observed in an oval cut-out that has been affixed to the ceiling. Lovely, voluptuous models set against a pastel-coloured sky make sweeping movements, reaching out to each other in a reference to the lush ambience of rococo ceiling paintings. In most cases, however, the characters are portrayed alone, in isolation, often with an expansive sea landscape as a minimalist backdrop. Our gaze is spontaneously drawn to the human apparitions. For Lightness, Frieke Janssens has chosen to portray them in razor-sharp photos, either full- or half-length, naked or (partly) clothed. Some models gaze at something beyond the frame, seeming lost in their thoughts. Others look straight into the lens, as if seeking to make eye contact with us, the spectators. We, meanwhile, look through the eyes of the photographer or the camera. Perhaps the roles are reversed and we feel gazed at by the image? Frieke Janssens truly excels at capturing this tension between seeing and being seen, the push and pull of power and subjugation.
The models are all actors in the photographer’s story. They have purposefully prepared for it. The slicked-back wavy grey hair. The carefully selected jewellery. The hint of colour on their lips. The fancy bathing suit. Various tattoos can also be seen: from broken chains to words like tristesse (sadness) and troost (consolation). In some cases, they are a sign of silent rebellion by the sitter. In many instances, the model’s personal additions exceed the photographer’s expectations. These are all expressions of a social and cultural scene to which the portrayed belong or want to belong.
Our imagination also reads the models’ body language: the looks, poses and gestures. Can we discern a glimpse of the models’ personality and mood? Does the contrast with the more generic background reveal their unique individuality? Does it show some of their complexity? What can be deduced from transparent, pale skin, a bulging vein, a nail that has been bitten to the quick? To which extent can we ever know or understand the other? Is the other not destined to always be a stranger, an inaccessible being?
HEART OF LIGHTNESS
A photo series on the subject of lightness is always a risky undertaking. A leap into the unknown even, because no artist wants to be accused of ‘lightness’. This did not deter the Belgian photographer Frieke Janssens, however. ‘Lightness does not necessarily have a negative connotation’, she says. ‘I see it as an ambiguous concept that is rich both visually and in terms of content.’ She cites a quote by the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry, who wrote ‘One must be light like a bird, and not like a feather.’ Valéry argues in favour of flying, not of letting ourselves be blown wherever the wind takes us.
In 1985 the Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923–1985) selected ‘lightness’ as one of the literary values for the new millennium. According to Niña Weijers, he was referring to ‘mindful lightness, which makes things less weighty but is anything but superficial’. Lightness is thus a positive force according to Calvino: a survival mechanism that allows us to bear the burden of our existence. He believes that you can transcend weighty matters more easily by living a lighter life. Calvino even discerns parallels between his philosophy and exact science. All life on earth is composed of the smallest particles, light weightless atoms, molecules and even our DNA. They structure even the largest matter. ‘At this point we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking, just because we know the weight of things so well’, Calvino writes. ‘So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.’
You cannot discuss lightness without referencing Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story of the main characters Tereza, Thomas, Franz and Sabina – set against the backdrop of Prague Spring – is of secondary importance in this philosophical bestseller from 1983. Instead, Kundera uses their characters for a philosophical reflection on free will, love, sexuality, freedom and lightness. In his opinion, lightness is a negative term, a way to escape from responsibility or the unbearable reality of our existence.
‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’ he writes in the prologue to his novel. The quote is crucial to the book, but it also sets the stage for the motives that underpin Janssens’s most recent work: lightness, weightlessness, gravity, escapism, superficiality and the search for meaning.
Like Kundera’s book (title), Janssens’s new photo series Lightness is teeming with contradictions, dualities and ambiguities. Her photos are both unbearably light and unbearably heavy. On the surface, her compo-sitions zoom in on the visual contradiction between weightlessness and gravity. But they also deal with the underlying, much deeper tensions between perfection and imperfection, life and death, earth and heaven, reality and the surreal. Janssens’s images appear to be ‘suspended’ between two worlds which are often also each other’s opposites. Her photos do not convey a uniform ‘light-hearted’ message. Her free work does not try to pitch anything. Instead, it opens the door to a series of new ideas on our desire to escape, our lack of a sense of reality, and our superficiality.
BETWEEN BIRD’S EYE PERSPECTIVE AND FEINT
The fact that Frieke Janssens chooses the perspective of a suspended human is significant. She makes her models levitate above reality and the landscape. Her perspective of the world becomes more detached from this bird’s eye perspective. Lightness is her way of transcending the superficiality of our world. Her models hover, freeing themselves from their earthly context. And in most of her photos this context is the sea. Even though the sea serves as the basso continuo of this new series, Frieke Janssens’s photos have nothing in common with the traditional seascape. Instead, they ‘transcend’ this classical art genre, primarily because her photo series was created in a studio setting. Janssens does not go out of her way to conceal that her photos are ‘unreal’ and ‘detached’. This surreal aspect is vital if you want to comprehend them, however elusive they may seem.
This strategy is reminiscent of Yves Klein’s legendary experiment with photo montage, lightness and gravity. In Leap into the Void (1960), Klein flings himself from a Parisian roof. In an Icarian attempt to fly, the artist falls to earth, or rather into the void. The photo appears to document the decisive instant – in the vein of Henri Cartier-Bresson – in which the artist hovers between heaven and earth. The photo is an illusion, however. Klein created a montage of the Parisian backdrop and of his leap into a tarpaulin held up by his artist friends. Even though the image is not real and Klein did not fall to his death, his work is both a feint and a leap into the unknown. By eluding gravity with ‘lightness’, he manipulated the objectivity of photography as a documentary medium. The result was the equivalent of a quantum leap in the history of photography as an art form.
Frieke Janssens’s new photo series Lightness was commissioned by the Scharpoord Cultural Centre in Knokke-Heist. Although her photos convey her ideas about the Belgian seaside resort, none of them were made at the seaside. In that sense, they are the opposite of the photos that British Magnum photographer Martin Parr made in Knokke-Heist twenty years ago. Parr purposefully set out to capture the preconceptions about the Belgian seaside resort in his documentary photos. He then magnified them, creating a visual essay full of hyperbole. Snobbism, greed, surrealism, mass tourism, escapism, the mundane: his photos are saturated, with eye-popping bold colours. At the same time, there are clichés everywhere you look.
Frieke Janssens, meanwhile, takes a much less satirical, in-your-face approach to these typical Knokke-Heist themes than Parr. Her photo series transcends the visual clichés about Belgium’s most sophisticated seaside resort. Frieke distances herself from Knokke-Heist and the sea – in every sense of the word. She avoids the unbearably light platitudes and the prevailing stereotypes as much as possible. In other words, in her series Knokke-Heist is conspicuous by its absence. Janssens prefers to train her lens on other subjects, using a roundabout approach to share her perspective on the seaside town.
Everywhere you look, the North Sea, rather than Knokke-Heist, looms up in the new photo series. While it is never the subject of her photos, it serves as a backdrop for her ‘supernatural’ compositions, similar to magical realism. Janssens uses the North Sea as an abstract motif rather than a theme. She has her models hover in the air against this backdrop. They do not seem to feel the pull of gravity despite their weight. It’s as if they seek to transcend the humdrum routine of daily life. Have achieved a state of higher consciousness. Have undergone a complete transformation.
Much of the ambiguity in Frieke Janssens’s photos is inherent to the sea. ‘It attracts and it repels. Many people think the sea has a meditative quality to it because of the endless flow of ebb and tide. At the same time, it also inspires a sense of restlessness: this immense mass of water can swallow you whole and spit you out again. When you are near the sea, you feel the power of nature. The characters in my photos escape from it. The sea enables them to rise above themselves’, she says. The sea is associated with very diverse connotations, which Janssens has incorporated in her photos in a layered way. Some people head to the sea to give their darkest thoughts free rein. Others find solace in the eternal sequence of the tides: a symbol that reminds us that life is fleeting and that everything passes, even the most turbulent waves of life. Still others like to publicly flaunt themselves on the promenade, as if on the catwalk. For some, the sea is an opportunity to gaze at unknown horizons, the open end of life, the black hole of existence. The Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader (1942–1975) also used the sea as an escape from his unbearably light being. At the age of 33, Ader, who was an experienced skipper, attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat. His final performance also marked the end of his life: his sloop was recovered, but his body was never found. In his work, Bas Jan Ader sought to rise above the unavoidable force of gravity through lightness. In his video Fall 2 (1970), he rides his bike into Reguliersgracht canal in Amsterdam. In Broken Fall (1971), he spends minutes dangling from a branch above a pond until he eventually falls in. At first glance, his oeuvre is similar to the staged levity and slapstick of Buster Keaton. But under the surface, his works are a tragic ode to life, about falling down and getting up again, going under and rising to the surface. Until the ocean finally swallowed him up.
The starting premise for Janssens’s new series for the Scharpoord Cultural Centre was a ‘drowning man’. More specifically, a staged photo that she made of a crouching young man wrapped in a gold-coloured rescue blanket. While this material looks glamorous, it conceals the much less glamorous excesses of the refugee crisis: people who seek to cross the sea, at the end of their tether, in search of a promised country where the streets are paved with gold. The photo has a political connotation. At the same time – and from an artistic perspective – it is also a poignant reminder of Bas Jan Ader’s fatal boat trip, of Ai Weiwei’s installations with rescue blankets, Géricault’s survivors on The Raft of the Medusa or James Lee Byars’s gilded mystical works. The photo of the young man in gold foil prompted Janssens to create a completely new series during the pandemic, a series in which she moved away from gold as a theme. Instead, she chose to focus on the sea as a universal metaphor for death, reincarnation, endlessness, escapism, transformation and stillness.
Frieke Janssens’s photos inevitably also evoke the famous beach portraits of Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959). From 1992 to 1994, the Dutch photographer took photos of young adults on the beach, highlighting their physical transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She depicted them like modern-day ‘Botticelli Venuses’, hovering between childlike innocence and adulthood, between self-consciousness and unease. Dijkstra’s full-length photo portraits are classical compositions that use the sea as a background. Frieke Janssens takes a different approach: she has her models hover above the sea. Her characters appear to have miraculously thrown off the shackles of gravity. They rise above the water, like in a biblical vision. Both Dijkstra’s and Janssens’s images question the prevailing beauty ideals. While Dijkstra did this by portraying adolescents, whose bodies were still in transition, Janssens elected to work with models who do not fit in with the canon of beauty. She asked an older model to slip on a red bathing suit, like Pamela Anderson in Baywatch, to create the illusion of eternal youth. A full-figured nude woman escapes gravity and the lightness of being. Some of the silhouettes in Janssens’s work are reminiscent of prehistoric fertility sculptures, others of baroque women or the fleshy putti in Rubenesque paintings. Or the voluptuous models that sat for Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville. Janssens’s photo series thus becomes a contemporary manifestation of a long art-historical tradition.
THE ESCAPISM OF RELIGION
The sea – and by extension, water – also has a healing, religious connotation. Many cultures associate water with catharsis and spiritual purification. In many of her photos, Janssens has succeeded in making this moment of transition very palpable. She depicts a transitional ritual, an instant in which her models appear to literally hover between two conditions: life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and fiction, dream and action. Free from gravity, Janssens freezes humans on their journey to this transcendental condition. This concept is reminiscent of the work of Bill Viola (1951), the American artist who portrays these moments of catharsis in his immersive videos. In Martyrs and The Crossing, we see people who are enveloped in almost mythical torrents of water, albeit in a studio setting. Like martyrs, they are confronted with the incommensurable power of elements such as fire and nature. In his work, Bill Viola – much like Frieke Janssens – likes to refer to biblical scenes or symbols. At the same time, nothing of the artists’ oeuvre deals with religion per se, touching upon deeply human feelings and doubts instead.
‘In the past, people looked to the Bible and their faith for answers about the meaning of life. But now that traditional religion is losing ground, people are looking for other ways to add meaning to the “unbearable lightness of being”. They find refuge in earthly delights like love, wealth, eternal youth and family, but also alcohol, drugs, the rage of fetishism. My photos also zoom in on this’, says Frieke Janssens. This escapism is especially apparent in her series of portraits of stout mariners as they experience the intoxication of life at sea. They rise from the sea, robust yet vulnerable, like a divine amalgam of Poseidon, Jesus Christ and Bas Jan Ader. These character studies of her models draw on old photos of fishing families, which she saw in Sincfala, the heritage museum of the Zwin Region in Knokke. ‘There I also discovered that fishermen sometimes used skate liver oil, a foul-smelling panacea for all manner of ailments like rheumatism or joint pain. This centuries-old product inspired me to cover the models in tar: another extremely symbolic product. In Zeeland, people used to tar their barns to prevent stripping of the paint by the sea salt and the wind.’
‘Bird of Prey
In the summer sky
Gently pass on by
Am I going to die
Take me on your flight.’
(Jim Morrison, ‘Bird of Prey’, An American Prayer, 1978)
Like Bill Viola before him, Jim Morrison – the lead vocalist of The Doors – links lightness to religion on his album An American Prayer, which was released after his death. It contains the spoken word poem ‘Bird of Prey’, in which he expresses this concept in an extremely visual way, repeating verses about a bird of prey that flies high in the sky, patiently and without a care in the world, like a meditative mantra, until it snatches up its prey in a swift, deadly attack. Like Janssens, Morrison combines the carefree lightness of life with heavy-hitting themes such as death, the transitory nature of our human existence, and escapism. The title An American Prayer has a religious connotation. Interestingly enough, the Dutch verb ‘bidden’ (to pray) also has a double meaning. In relation to humans, it means ‘seeking contact with a divine being’, but when used in the context of birds of prey it refers to ‘hovering in place in the air’ or preying. Both definitions are equally applicable to Frieke Janssens’s work: her hovering figures are both ‘praying’ and ‘preying’.
The weightless ‘prayer’ makes for powerful images, in particular in her compositions with full-figured nude models. More than any other series, these photos have a more surrealist feel to them. They are reminiscent of René Magritte’s Golconda (1953), the famous painting in the Menil Collection that features a scene of raining men who, in their dark overcoats, appear to be falling from the sky like raindrops. Like René Magritte, Frieke Janssens reels in the observer with attractive images which, at first glance, seem credible and recognisable. Look again, however, and you will realise that her photos are representations of an impossible reality. While they seem light-hearted, just like Magritte’s works they are top-heavy when you examine their meaning.
In that sense, and on a final note, it would be wrong to say that Frieke Janssens is a classic photo-grapher. Her photos do not start from reality; they are born of her imagination. Unlike documentary photographers, she chooses not to reframe reality. She uses her studio – she says – like a painter uses his canvas. It is a place where she can keep all the photographic parameters (light, composition, models, settings, background) under control. Here she is free to create the ideal image that she has envisaged. To paraphrase Paul Valéry, her studio is a place to fly, rather than to flutter aimlessly like a feather.