I saw you smile yesterday
Solo show at Coalmine, Winterthur, Switzerland
Curated by Alexandra Blättler
Text by Alex Strecker
Photo credit: Hannes Heinzer
Someone leans in for a kiss while your hand is awkwardly extended for a shake. A close friend rubs your arm affectionately and you feel an extra tingle of emotion; more than you should? Waiting in a crowd, someone makes eye contact and offers an honest, encouraging smile that warms you amidst the anonymous jostle.
Artists, above all else, are sensitive people. Line, texture and form are their material building blocks but it is their experiences within the social world that supply their work with its underlying emotions. Swiss/Dutch artist Manon Wertenbroek operates at exactly this nexus: the uneasy space of the unsayable, where inexact but distinct feelings find their necessary outlet through variegated colors, marks and forms.
This exhibition intermixes work from two different series. The first are moments inspired by Wertenbroek’s frequent bus rides through Paris; the second, frozen moments captured from a variety of social gatherings: vernissages, anonymous awards ceremonies, or meetings with old friends. Although these seem like drastically different contexts, each can be equally complex and confused, filled with competing feelings of physical proximity and emotional distance. Given her photographic training, Wertenbroek dubs these images “micro-crops of social body language”— tiny touches and gestures of interpersonal interaction, the small but defining movements you notice out of the corner of your eye that make you feel either safe or uncomfortable in a given moment.
For Wertenbroek, these images form a “memoire emotionelle” of her past few years. But as viewers, we are not asked to plunge into the specifics of each scene; rather, each piece creates a space where we can recollect our own emotionally charged moments of social interaction. Through the works’ colorful, expressionistic pull, our own feelings emerge: times when people unexpectedly touched our intimacy, or conversely, the moments when we failed to reach out to someone who we hoped to get closer with…
In terms of technique, Wertenbroek is fond of mixing mediums and constructing elaborate chains of production that span photography, sculpture, painting and even harness the abstract glow of computer screens. While the exact sequence varies, the end result is the same: photographic images, printed on reflective metal paper whose surface has been worked on by hand. In all the works, the shining, metallic surfaces are key. The resulting objects have depth, texture and three-dimensions while also remaining incredibly flat. Much as the life-like yet ultimately cold digital worlds where we devote so much of our time, these vibrant frames draw our attention but keep us stubbornly on the surface. Still, spend a few moments studying each piece and you will feel compelled to get closer, look from different sides and angles, perhaps even reach out and caress their surface.
Across these varied pieces, Wertenbroek’s fundamental preoccupations are the same; they are questions we all ask ourselves: how do I act in front of others, how do I feel in front of strangers, what does it mean to “be myself?” Appropriately, the Swiss-Germans have a word that perfectly captures this fear of social blunder: fettnäpfchen. Surprisingly, perhaps, we should take comfort in this idiom—its existence makes us realize that our feelings of communal anxiety are universal enough to warrant a tailor-made word. In the same way, we can find solace in Wertenbroek’s work: even when it reminds us of moments of awkwardness, misplaced emotion or disconnection, we would do well to remember that we are never alone in having these feelings. What more can we ask of artwork than to make us feel less alone?