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Safe / Not Safe A closed space can offer protection, but places where people are together are not automatically safe. The tension between shelter and shielding, between strength and defencelessness, is tangible in the work of Joanneke Meester (Purmerend NL, 1966). For Safe, she has made an exhibition in which the performative and vulnerable body and its environment interact with each other. A child, covered from head to toe in a knitted woollen skin-like suit, is crawling through an indefinite space. On all fours, it moves along walls, nestles in a corner, and then crawls on. Faceless creatures slowly and cautiously exploring their surroundings also occur in other video works made by Joanneke Meester over the past few years. Doll-like, beast-like or child-like, sometimes with an artificial appearance, sometimes like characters that are damaged in some way or another, they venture out, somewhere. There is no question of a goal or a clearly defined action. These are groping explorations of deserted places, searches without direction, for traces, openings, possibilities. Back to a simplified state of being, in which the body is seeking a relationship with it surroundings. This calls for movements and questions from this body, in a language that has gradually worn away from our minds. For the exhibition in Safe, Meester shows us a series of dolls. ‘Series’ is not really the right word, there are too many dolls to be able to survey them all; it looks more like a random selection from a continuous production. We see small indefinable, foetus-like creatures that seem to be ‘breathing’ although they are in formalin in sealed, transparent bags. They bring to mind the little floppy rag dolls of small children, but you are soon confronted with the skin: the nipples that form the eyes and the sewn-up mouths keep us compellingly at arm’s length. The habitat of formalin in plastic would seem to refer to the laboratory, to science, to the makability of man and the ‘product foetus’, although there are plenty of signs of an earlier life, referring to anything but a clinical environment. Their postures express innocence and a yearning for security. They are isolated from their surroundings, but are showing their nudity. We can see traces of life, of things that could have happened to them. They appear to be unborn still, but at the same time fully grown, with everything behind them. Perhaps they have been exposed, to both caresses and violence. Not their faces – they are usually faceless – but their forms, their limbs, their skin, express all manner of things. There is an (equally incomplete) series of photo collages in which Meester is literally embroidering the dolls. The sometimes abstract close-ups have been embellished and mutilated by means of holes, colourful threads, rubber stamps, hair, pieces of rope, elastic bands, sticky tape, stickers, etc. Eyes, mouths, breasts and hands have been added to the formless or pluriform bodies that we cannot get a grip on. They have acquired something expressive and provocative, they are cheeky, cruel and touching all at the same time. The sense of wildness and chaos that these images convey is in sharp contrast to the small, still bodies in the water bags, but the collages express an essential aspect of this ‘artificial life’: the resistance to completion, perfection. They make a mockery of beauty, of the controllable. As if the dolls that had initially meekly submitted to their creation in the tender purposeful hands of the maker, were now trying to flee from those same hands, to start a life of their own. Meester sets them free, they can go their own way. The power that we have over a doll, to pick it up, caress it or crush it, and the control that the artist has over the images created, as opposed to the dolls’ and the images’ own lives – these are the boundaries that Meester is exploring. She shows us a process, the process of ‘production’ rather than that of the completed image. Sometimes you see no more than a small lump covered with skin and hair that is braided as finely as possible. A strangely incomplete little ‘thing’, which at the same time betrays the greatest care for such details as a lock of hair. Here, too, it is about the ambiguous question of who is actually responsible for this ‘life’, the maker or the doll. A skin-covered Barbie-doll is spinning round on a turntable. Eventually her skin will perish, the pregnant smell around her is reminiscent of death and decay. The plastic underneath will survive. In a video, we see a model in close-up. The model is revolving before our eyes; we are circling around her. The hideousness of her skin intermingles with the elegance of her posture. In this case, too, we can feel a complex tension between what is transient and what is lasting, between naked vulnerability and strength. The relative defencelessness of the ‘dolls’ with their damaged skin and man-made forms, turns into a chaotic, colourful and dramatic protest against this forming, against the forced perfection, the physical abuse. It ends up in a cultivation of the distortion, in the celebration of uncontrollability. In the installation of Meester’s work, there is no time lapse, no before or after: we are presented with moments within a process, as aspects of identity and form(ing), and all these stratifications are being shown in their simultaneity. The huge quantities suggest mass production, while each individual object is unique. As if we found ourselves in the underground factory of the ‘creator’. SAFE has its origins in an ‘atom-bomb-proof’ underground shelter. A place that evokes all kinds of associations, but in particular refers to a past future time. Cold-war tension has become a memory or fiction; its practice we remember from films. We are thinking about a place where we should be safe, protected from a specific, damaging influence from outside. Meester demonstrates that this sort of isolation reveals or evokes a different sort of defencelessness, and provokes a fighting spirit. These are forces against which there is no protection. Thus, a space that stands for safety almost immediately leads to associations of violence, precisely within a sheltered space. The extremities in the work and the extremity of the space itself adapt to each other; in Safe, the context for the work is immediately there. Joanneke Meester was formerly part of the Amsterdam artists’ collective Patchwork. Thereafter, she studied at the Sandberg Institute, and her work was exhibited at the Arnhem Museum of Modern Art, at W139 in Amsterdam, and at the Kunstvlaai 2004, where she attracted national attention with her ‘pistol’ made of (her own) skin, a work that expresses both concern and powerlessness with regard to violence. esma moukhtar

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