Foam Magazine # 32 Talent Issue 2012
Interview by Anne-Celine Jaeger
Born in 1980 in Enschede, the Netherlands, Marleen Sleeuwits did a BA at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, followed by an MA in Photography at the Art Academy of Breda (2003-2005). She currently lives and works in The Hague and is represented by Liefhertje and de Grote Witte Reus. In her work, Marleen Sleeuwits investigates the state of disconnection that arises from the spaces she has sought out, such as dead corners of office buildings, waiting rooms or empty corridors in hotels. More recently, Sleeuwits has also started constructing new environments within such spaces, using materials she finds there, such as laminate flooring, tape, sticking tiles etc.
You did an M.A. in photography at the Art Academy in Breda, following on from your BA in art. What did the M.A. course add to your photographic practice?
My Bachelor education in The Hague was mainly focused on commercial photography. I learned a lot about photography technique and presentation. After graduation I worked two years as a commercial photographer but this didn't feel like it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started the MA in Breda to find out about my own fascinations and how to work on my own projects. The best thing about Breda was the discussion. Every week some students presented their latest work to a group of students, teachers and guest teachers. With so much expertise and opinions I learned how to communicate about my work and to trust my ideas and defend them.
What first attracted you to interiors and the feelings they elicit in you?
I started to take photos of interiors when I was doing a series about airports. I began work on this series after watching a documentary about a businessman, who travelled the world for his job. He spent most of his time in convention centres and around airports. One day he woke up in his hotel and had totally forgotten where he was. Looking out of the window didn't give him any clues. He had to check his diary to find out. I thought this experience was quite surreal. It related to a feeling I sometimes have in airports or suburban areas myself. I visualized this by starting to take photos at different airports and ended up with the underground areas, such as endless labyrinths of moving staircases, hallways and waiting rooms. They almost seem to be designed to purposely disorientate. You loose all sense of direction, and usually, there is no daylight so you have no idea what time of day it is.
Interiors are common subjects, or much photographed places. How did impose your way of seeing on those spaces?
Sometimes I search for months before I even get my camera out of my suitcase. The first important element for me is that it's not instantly clear how the space is put together, such as a hallway that seems to lead nowhere or a fake wall suddenly dividing the room. Also, structures and colours are important to me. The places I photograph are mostly typically sick buildings. But my pictures are not about how horrible these places are. They are about not being able to connect with the place you are in. I need you to feel attracted to the space as well, so you don't really know whether to hate or love it. I try to achieve that by choosing spaces with attractive bright colours, interesting structures and exciting light.
Is there any manipulation done at all in your First series (e.g. layering, Photoshop to add or remove pieces) or are they as you find them, with your specific framing?
I work with an analogue camera, an 8 x 10 inch technical camera. This is not for romantic reasons; it's (still) the best way to get the sharpest image possible. When the film is developed I scan it and use Photoshop to alter whatever I feel is necessary to make the image work. Sometimes changing complete ceilings and floors and sometimes just a small detail like a spot on the floor.
My work isn't a document about certain existing places so for me this is not an issue. Another reason for me to use Photoshop is to create a certain suspense whether the place in the photo is real. By choosing carefully which traces and details I want to keep, I end up with the perfect tension. These and other technical choices like print size, sharpness in the details and structures give my photography a physical quality. I want the viewer to step inside and be able to relate physically to the portrayed space.
For your second series, where you deform or alter spaces in vacant office buildings yourself, do you know immediately what the space needs? What is your working process in deciding what the installation will be?
For this new series I don't know exactly what I want to do with a certain space before I start. I don't make sketches but experiment with the space itself and with materials already present in the building such as insulation-material, ceiling system, TL light boxes, carpet, etc. Sometimes I add things that I buy at the hardware store. This is a big turnaround in my way of working. Building the spaces myself enables me to work in a more intuitive way and to be less dependent on what I actually encounter. I am able to research a lot in a relatively short period of time, by making compositions of various materials and photographing it with a small snapshot camera and seeing if it will work in a 2D composition. Rather than existing architecture, this way of working enables me to create more psychological spaces that translate this feeling of disconnection in a more personal way.
There seem to be a number of talented young photographers emerging from the Netherlands. What do you think it is about the country and its teaching system, that's ensuring this talent is born?
I agree with you that there are many young talented photographers from The Netherlands. A lot of them make great work and experiment with the medium, combining photography with video, sculpture and installations. They come from different Art Academies from The Hague, Breda, Amsterdam and Utrecht. It seems that talents inspire and encourage each other.
Another important element is that the cultural climate for emerging artist in The Netherlands used to be very good. There were several subsidies and grants that enabled young artist to develop their work. I think this is very important because it takes time to find your own way and grow as an artist. Unfortunately due to enormous cuts on culture in The Netherlands these financial arrangements are rapidly disappearing. I fear that in the near future this fertile cultural landscape will disappear and it will be very difficult for art academy graduates to flourish.
You have taught photography at Fotogram in Amsterdam and at Beeldfabriek Rotterdam. If you were to dilute your lectures into a single message, what is the message you were most trying to get across to your students?
Finding a balance between concept and intuition. Ideally they work on both simultaneously. Students can be very vulnerable so encouraging them to make lots of work, experiment and not to think in dogmas for me is the most important.
What are you currently working on?
I've been changing and constructing spaces for over a year now. I'm definitely not finished with that. This new method made me more aware of the fact that textures and surfaces play an increasingly important role in my work. At this moment I'm very interested in working with cheap, fake, non-durable materials, such as laminate flooring, slab tiles or ceiling systems.
For me it’s conceptually interesting because they immediately refer to the places in my previous work.
At the moment I'm also working on a plan to exhibit my work in a spatial presentation. The installations I build for my photos are sometimes very interesting in themselves. I want to experiment with presenting them in combination with the photo works.