Alexandra Werlich / Matthijs Rensman

29 Aug - 04 Oct 2009

"Application of the Boon"

August 29 - October 4, 2009
Opening: August 28, 21:00 h

Location:W139 Achterzaal

When I was at the Rietveld Academie, one of my lecturers was Frans Oosterhof. Frans was the first tutor who didn’t ask questions, just talked about what he saw.

He had no interest whatsoever in my intentions behind the work or why I had made it. In one fell swoop he taught me one of the most important lessons about art: the artist’s intentions are totally irrelevant to the viewer. Once he even said: “As an artist you have to do what - for you – is the most ordinary thing in the world which for others will be the most remarkable.”

This ‘most ordinary thing in the world’ is what draws me to the work of Alexandra Werlich and Matthijs Rensman. Of course in this context, ordinary is not the greatest common denominator. It is ordinary because it’s natural to the artists, because their work deals with their personal sphere. The ordinary is the intimate, something you encounter when you go grocery shopping with someone. The story has it that the collaboration between Werlich and Rensman when, babysitting Alexandra’s three younger sisters, they decided to make a film as a holiday project. When they more or less casually showed the film at art college, their tutors asked why, if they could make work like this, they’d been making things so difficult for themselves.

In this first film Chewing Mum zooms in on the character traits of Werlich’s sisters. Seroos, twelve years old when Chewing Mum was made, is pretty cocky. “I’ll save you. You just have to call me and I’ll be there! I’ll help you. I’m great. I’ll save you!” she calls in the opening scene of the film, wearing a home-made inflatable super hero suit, standing on the roof of the shed in her parent’s garden. Sister Terry (15) is insecure and afraid, and likes to imagine she’s in the magic forest that Seroos, of course, doesn’t believe in. Seroos tries to help a handicapped child lose its fear of water and the child (father Werlich) almost drowns in the inflatable paddling pool in the process. A little later and a police officer and a psychiatrist appear on the scene. In another film, Seroos is an old woman on her deathbed, once more the centre of attention, saying farewell to her loved ones and sharing with them her pearls of wisdom. The content is poles apart from the girl’s natural exuberance – she can barely sit still for a minute.

The Werlich family are constants in the artists’ video work. More and more, Werlich and Rensman let their actors’ shape their films. Terry, a key character in recent films, is a big fan of TV shows. So now there are a series of films with her as protagonist – a medical programme, a cooking programme and a police interview session. She plays the roles with a keen eye for detail, a vast array of props to hand and – very audibly and in no uncertain terms – directs her co-actors during filming. In the interrogation video, Terry isn’t happy with the way things are going and turns angrily on the interviewee (her father) and the film makers. Seroos makes her presence felt quite differently. She is far more star struck and loses herself in her part. The actresses were upset by an article in De Volkskrant about Werlich and Rensman’s recent exhibition at MK galerie, Rotterdam. They came over too strongly as slaves or princesses. Which prompts a photo shoot featuring Seroos as a slave, in black body makeup, munching on a human skeleton while Terry acts out the Princess and the Pea on a four-poster bed with ten mattrasses.

The strength of Werlich and Rensman’s work is that play, power and fantasy are both the subject-matter and the means. Paradoxical cliches of child-like innocence and childish cruelty are played out before your eyes. You remember that child’s play is a matter of life and death. By staging childhood fantasies at a later stage of life, the sting is taken out of the game only to be replaced by a sharpened vision that would be impossible to realise filming younger children. At the same time, Werlich and Rensman are well aware that they are always complicit in what they choose to let us see. By constantly pushing ethical boundaries the artists can’t dodge critical bullets. Their still-maturing practice in some ways puts morality to the test, shifting the focus of the debate on values from judgement to experience. Which is quite a feat. For W139 the artists are building a lop-sided ghost house in the rear space onto which they will project their films.