Joanneke Meester Probing metaphors for manipulation and violence After the Amsterdam School of the Arts Joanneke Meester (Purmerend, 1966) worked on major projects on location in an artists’ collective for over ten years. Then she decided to go her own way and went to study at the Sandberg Institute: “Anything but sculpture and painting”. Her installations, statues and videos are the result of a study into the buried violence present in every human being. “I wonder why a person would commit an act of violence against another person and I stage a confrontation between the darker side of human beings and innocence.” The stream of images from near and far reaching us through the media gives rise to the themes that Joanneke Meester expresses so probingly. “This stream of, sometimes horrible, images makes that we become inured to what we see and tend to accept it, distancing ourselves from it as a protection. I realise how easy it is to distance ourselves from things. I notice myself when things come too close, making me feel vulnerable. When Theo van Gogh was killed, violence came very close and I felt fear and panic. I want this awareness to last.’’ The installation ‘Safe/Not Safe’, which she made in a basement in 2005, is characteristic of Joanneke Meester’s work. The viewer descended and entered a kind of laboratory with a huge stock of polystyrene packing material and other attributes. Everywhere there were figurines of oddly shaped children or fragments of children packed in plastic bags or preserved in formalin. Bodily parts were bizarrely sewn onto collages made up of similar figurines. Life, in all its vulnerability, was deformed, stripped of its beauty, even though the maker often seemed to have worked with care and attention. Are these deformations the result of surgery aiming at perfection? “We were dealing with a production company here. This was systematic mutilation, physical and mental. It was about violence, manipulating life. I showed a copy and a magnification of events in society. Descending into a basement is a metaphor for awareness. It is about being an accomplice, being at the ‘crime scene’, being part of the crime unless you intervene. The pistol that Joanneke Meester fashioned from her own skin caused quite a stir: “That was quite hard. People reacted strongly to it, often aggressively. When you think about it, you realise that it was a harmless act. I had a surgeon remove some skin, which I sewed around a mould. It’s a combination of protection and vulnerability. The skin is a form of protection. If people feel threatened, they often convert their need for protection into aggression. With this work I wanted to expose the roots of violence. But there are more aspects to it: I wanted to refer to the fact that it is generally much harder to commit an act of violence against yourself than against another person. I was both wrongdoer and victim. There was a link with the cosmetic surgery industry too. Striving to meet a beauty ideal people actually have surgeons remove parts of their skin.’’ In deWillem3 Joanneke Meester presents the installation titled ‘Need you’. We see an aluminium frame with ‘rooms’ with children’s sized furniture. The rooms are partitioned by transparent plastic panels. Defenceless ‘dolls’ with distorted limbs, sometimes partly swaddled in bandages, are dangling from long hoses, umbilical cords. Even stranger are their faces: old and shrivelled. It is as if they have never grown into development and have died before they were able to detach themselves and follow their own path of life. Neither their own skin nor the place where they live could offer them protection from what someone or something did to them. Joanneke Meester: “Holding a person prisoner can be a form of protection. One should be able to free oneself from manipulation. For these creatures the moment of death may bring the long-awaited freedom’’. However, the light boxes reveal what is happening. We are witnesses. Are we capable of creating room for freedom? Is there hope? Nico Out, February 2007

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