“Dream a little dream of me,” sang Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas in my studio in the Fifth Season while I drew and painted the work that I made for the Willem Arntsz Hoeve in Den Dolder. The lyrics seemed written with my situation in mind; I had asked and received of many who lived and worked in the institute for a photograph or a description of a dream place, which could be an image from their past, or the future. I was not concerned with the esthetic beauty of the image, I just asked for pictures that were significant to the person who gave them to me. Most came with pictures that were carried in wallets or on cell phones of (grand) children, for others the place was a city, a camping, the Grand Canyon or tropical islands in the south pacific that were dreamt about. For some the present situation was so agreeable that the place was on the very the grounds of the institute. Finally I brought these images and ideas together in one drawing, in which all dreams seamlessly flowed together in the little dots of white and colored paint on a black surface. That image I photographed and printed large on a transparent medium, which I installed as a triptych against a large window in the reception area of the institute. The dots became transparent and are points of light, like in a landscape painting from the 17th century where you see the sun appear from behind the clouds. Where I usually make a drawing on a photograph, I here did it on the view of the landscape beyond the window through the shared dreams of the inhabitants of the Willem Arntz Hoeve. Thanks to everyone on the Willem Arntsz Hoeve, in particular Peter, Rob, Boudewijn, Bianca, Valery, Mars, Karin, Pelle, Mariecken, Johan, Nicolien, Marius, Ferdi, Wesley, Anton, Jomar, Tobias, Sophie, Andrea and all our friends and family that visited us, without you it we would have had only four seasons. Special thanks to Het Vijfde Seizoen ( The Fifth Season), Marc de Groot and Mart. Warmerdam. Sebastiaan Bremer
By Sheila Pepe
What does is mean to draw on a photograph? Glide a pen across slippery emulsion, ruler in hand, gridding-out in the service of painting. Make markers squeak over that thick slickness of Polaroid, inviting a kind of chemically induced psychedelia. Or push ink in and around the facts of a photogram, playing games with dead Surrealists, channel-surfing abstract shapes into images. In each case the meaning is different, even as all drawings employ the photograph as the physical and conceptual support. And, as the “drawing-on” shifts in kind and degree, so does the object and image that is the photograph. The photograph seems to recede from consciousness while in full view. Other times it jumps to the fore, enveloping obviously drawn accretions as absolute natives. Sebastiaan Bremer is an avid maker of pictures both photographic and drawn, playing the “parts” to the “whole” in a dizzying accumulation of possibilities. Bremer’s is a pursuit of a lasting synergy, revealing the artist as an insatiable collector of memories, styles, narratives, points of view, and means of picturing. The obsessive dots that caress the contours in one photograph defy and interrupt the next. Photographic supports that range from mass media pictures to intimate family snapshots demand no particular program of intervention. That’s not to say there are no patterns of call and response. Meaning is made visible through a dense personal encryption of culture. However, rules of engagement are not the point. Bremer is engaged in what he identifies as a “shamanistic” activity. A notion activated by the body’s trace on the surface of a machine-made object: the drawing on the photograph. Given the idiosyncratic persistence of the artist’s hand, Bremer’s work poses challenges to being meaningfully translated into another medium. How could the rich traction between the multiplicity of the photograph and the singularity of the drawing be retained in an edition of prints? How could the aura of the shamanistic intervention be captured in a process that collapses the distinction of parts into a much subtler register of touch? Bremer’s stunning five-print response to such questions came into being in collaboration with Doug Bennett, the newest Master Printer to join the Lower East Side Printshop. Bennett jumped in just as Bremer was underway. As ever, it’s hard to know what the prints might have been if not the product of this particular collaboration. All of the five prints Bremer produced — Tobias,Tobit, Graciosa’s Reprise, Diamond Tip and Aquarium = Blue — are etchings on Iris prints. Etching seems the logical choice as it echoes the original construction of the artist’s work, keeping the photo image closest to the paper support. The medium supplies a great degree of hand on top, conserving the gestural quantities of fine line that Bremer is known for, while adding those conjured by the printer’s hand wiping the plate. Translating Bremer’s process to the print posed a variety of difficulties. Retaining the photo layer as the referent to multiplicity was the most obvious challenge and the decision was made to produce the photo digitally. As a result, bits and bytes loosen any lingering memories of the snapped shutter. Mid-process the photograph was literally pushed to a state of instability. Having to negotiate this gap in Bremer’s project between computer screen and printing press gave the Printshop good reason to invest in an Iris printer. In this retooled environment, the project was subtly and perfectly disrupted. It was as if a backdoor on the work had been opened to a mysterious digital flow, causing two interesting things to occur. By collapsing old and new technologies, Bremer and Bennett first draw attention to our affection for false dualities. One machine is pushed up again the other: computer and press. Yet to frame this pairing as a battle is to doubt the persistence of the mechanical and deny the ubiquity of the digital. The second relates to the role of the artist. Bremer, once a loving defiler of photography, now bears a strong resemblance to the electronic brain at the other end of the process. The very wisp of unconscious thought that drives Bremer’s rivers of line is met with a support born of similar, albeit electronic, synapses. It is the mind in focus here, not the hand. In end, this mind is delivered by the eye. Carried by the delicate force of graphite ink, Bremer’s particular imagination arrives on each sheet as an optical event. One must stand full face before the print, Aquarium, shifting ever so slightly to see the big fish that kisses a small boy disappear before your eyes. In the same way, you must lock your eyes to separate the red petal-ed ground from darkly rendered fruit in Graciosa’s Reprise. All five prints require similar perceptual maneuvers. For all of the perfect stability of ink to paper, and singular print to edition, nothing here is fixed. Bremer’s prints are streaming like a mind left loose for association, like the web on a quite eddy of surf.
“Snapshots Of The Mind” by Sabine Russ
I Held My Breath For 5 Weeks Afraid She Wouldn’t Come Home (Pool IV) is a recent work by Sebastiaan Bremer that is, frankly, a breathtakingly beautiful 2 by 3 meter large underwater photograph of entrancing blue color, drawn over with a flowing web of white dots which tenderly follow the water’s course or add a gentle counter current. A fragile yet determined looking swimmer of ambiguous age and sex approaches a submerged staircase. The figure floats effortlessly and, like in a dream, appears to be swimming and flying simultaneously – towards the surface or towards some
Interestingly, this work originated in an earlier piece by Bremer that he made when his Brazilian wife, Andrea, was on a transatlantic airplane flight home. On the phone before boarding she had confessed her fear of flying and Bremer, being affected, bridged the time until her arrival by doodling over the same underwater snapshot (slightly smaller then), applying countless dots, perhaps as if they were seconds: I Held My Breath For 13 Hours Afraid She Wouldn’t Come Home (Pool II). Probing real time versus felt time, this is a work about waiting in which the artist and the traveler have merged into one person. Holding his and her breath, both are the swimmer gliding through a liquid sky while the white lattice of Bremer’s sinuous dotted lines serves as a kind of emotional safety net for himself and his beloved.
By “reentering” the Pool several years later – on a larger scale and over ample time – Bremer subjects himself to the experience again, challenging his memory and, also, his creative process. Naturally, compared to the former, this work turned out more luminous and auspicious, even sublime. The two versions of I Held My Breath … Afraid She Wouldn’t Come Home are a good example of how Bremer, through intensely personal and mind-bending inward ventures, arrives at evocative and transporting images that humanly matter in a big way.
Over the last several years Bremer has created a remarkable oeuvre of exquisitely intricate drawings over photographs, which could be divided into landscapes, portraits, interiors, genre scenes, allegories, and still lifes – or psychologically charged hybrids of them. If these categories sound conventional, Bremer’s take on them is idiosyncratic and eccentric. All of his works share a labyrinthine, multilayered, often mystical or delirious sense of reality and a non-linear, meandering approach to time as they engage the past, the present, and figments of imagination.
Typically, he starts out by enlarging unassuming snapshots, the kind that fall out of an overflowing family album or pile up in a drawer. These more or less blurred photographs show family, friends, lovers, homes, and landscapes – mementoes ranging from Bremer’s infancy to recent days. In some cases he manipulates the pictures with photographic dyes before he embarks on an intellectual and emotional voyage that involves his signature process of applying thousands of tiny ink dots, which grow into delicate and fluid webs of rippling and rolling lines.
Most patterns are purely abstract and suggest energy flow, brain waves, or cell structures. Others form images or words culled from Bremer’s private life, for instance a guitar, a clock, shells, limbs, glasses, fish, furniture, numbers, or names – pop-up symbols that only Bremer can ultimately decode. But there are also numerous references to music, movies, books, and paintings that propel his individual experience into a larger cultural and societal context. Bremer’s information-packed networks drawn over documentary photographs are like snapshots of his current mind. These mental pictures are not taken from one angle, but from many, as they imply brainstorming, reminiscing, hallucinating, musing, brooding, dreaming, reflecting, or automatic doodling. Furthermore, by applying dotted rather than solid lines, and by leaving gaps and dead ends, Bremer hints at the fickle nature of memory and at the hypothetical aspect of interpretation.
Bremer’s mental voyage in Bedussy Frelimo Calypso began with a photograph taken from under the piano in his grandmother’s house. Here, his characteristic undulating lines resemble roots, guts, or brains, which eventually lead to pictorial clues such as an airplane, a chair, butterflies, an umbrella, lips, or the title of a Miles Davis song. And, like in other works by Bremer, doors, tunnels, windows, or stairways open into yet another realm. All elements appear to be growing and shrinking ceaselessly, coming forth and receding, pulsing and morphing into something else – just as the brain processes, sorts, neglects, preserves, and transforms information.
In The Chocolate Factory, Bremer’s lines are spilling and dripping over a hazy, purplish interior shot showing an empty table and a bent-over figure at the window. This serene photographic backdrop is encircled by a swirl of fluid texture, words, and imagery, including jugs, spoons, candleholders, faces, a small reclining figure, and a pair of feet tip-toeing through it all. Yet the key to the work is a thick book on the table, titled “The Glass Elevator Dahl.” Here, Bremer charged the domestic scenery of his Dutch childhood home with elements of the children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and perhaps its sequel). Just as the young reader’s imagination back then might have transformed his mother’s kitchen into an exhilarating chocolaty empire, Bremer has now transformed a plain photograph into a warped mirror reflecting his (over time undoubtedly transformed) memory of experiencing the book. Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory has long become a cultural reference point. The Chocolate Factory by Bremer (who is still a “dreamer of dreams”) subtly and through a personal screen evokes an era’s cultural climate, its “scrumdiddlyumptious” tastes and its dissenter spirit.
Summoning memories from childhood or adolescence, and viewing them in light of the present, is an endeavor both daunting and engrossing that forever occupies visual artists and writers. Bremer’s works, no matter how private or subjective their themes, are reminders of the reciprocity of personal and universal experience, and of how we all – despite our individualism and our different pasts, presents, customs, and beliefs – share certain ways of the human brain.
In Bremer’s exhibitions one can frequently hear astounded viewers whispering to each other “Are these works done by computer?” or “He can’t possibly have made all those dots individually by hand!” There is good reason for such notions. The thousands of needlepoint-size ink marks on large C-prints are reminiscent of pixels in a digitized image (and, in our high-tech days, the manual labor of placing these dots one by one with a pen appears as an almost inconceivable effort). But even more important, the way Bremer links and layers the most diverse types of information within one picture frame reflects an approach that comes naturally only to the Internet generation. His technique echoes the fragmented qualities of the information age and of our relentlessly mediated reality. At the same time – and this makes Bremer’s works so intriguing – they are deeply tied to the past as they engage individual and collective memory, cultural history, and, most obviously in his latest works, draw on our heritage of Western painting.
The psychic automatism and free association Bremer employs in his drawings relate his work to Surrealism, but one can find a host of other references to art history, among them to Northern European Renaissance, Dutch Golden Age, Romanticism, and Symbolism. While his dark portraits of intense teenagers’ faces (such as in Rebel or A Frayed Knot) recall pastels or Noirs by Odilon Redon, Bremer’s forest landscapes bring to mind Albrecht Altdorfer’s mysterious, hairy woods; Caspar David Friedrich’s knotty, venerable loners; or the fantastical concoctions of Hieronymus Bosch.
Photographed trees wrapped into densely drawn cords of dots or infested by clusters of dots make up a significant part of Bremer’s oeuvre. As a Dutch artist, Bremer is certainly familiar with the forest’s powerful and mystical role in Northern European painting and literature, especially of the Renaissance and of Romanticism. But as a child of the seventies, Bremer is equally familiar with otherwise induced visions of the woods. Introducing a kind of psychedelic Romanticism, with Pointless Forest Bremer has turned a straight-on black and white photograph of tall trees and thick underbrush into a phantasmagoric maze of bubbling and oozing nature. You start seeing things that might be there or might not be there – troll-like figures, fairies, grimacing faces, body parts and more. In Flatbush Twigs the backdrop is almost entirely obscured by a compulsively intricate drawing that twists and turns into every nook of the tree branches in the underlying photograph. As if invaded by a force of microorganisms – or by a poltergeist, for that matter – the entire picture plane becomes alive with orifices opening and closing, breathing here and suffocating there. In Taxus Tree tangled branches seem to double as nerve cells, replete with axons and dendrites, and the drawn lines themselves appear to carry signals and channel information.
Ilha Das Cobras Revisited – one of several works so important to Bremer that he made them twice – is a kind of “Madonna of the Jungle” that also serves as an allegory of the artist’s creative process. The photograph, taken on an island in Brazil, shows his pregnant wife with her back to the camera amidst tousled trees and lavish hanging vines. After coloring the large print with dyes, Bremer covered the scene with an extraordinary and delicate mess of curling and bulging lines, spiderweb marks, honeycomb patterns, and mirage-like pools of larger dots. It’s a swampy, sweaty, and slippery vision of nature, rife with blisters and bubbles of secret fluid just about to burst. A ferocious Jungle of Eden, Ilha Das Cobras is a spectacularly beautiful and moving work. Bremer has lovingly made the woman’s hair slink over her shoulders like eels and into her lower body he has, equally lovingly, inserted profiles and limbs of his two children. The image is divided into a dark, mysterious underworld (to which the unborn children still belong) and a promising, brightly colored sky. As the woman looks into the Technicolor firmament, Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholically idyllic scenes of sky and moon gazers might come to mind. Bremer’s Romanticism, however, is edgy, expectant, rampant, and unrestrained. Wild growth and mad decay occur around the composed figure, paying tribute to fertility but also honoring death. There is a harp symbolizing the muse and while Bremer celebrates his wife and children as part of lush and thriving nature, he also alludes to his brainchildren and to conceiving and giving birth to artistic ideas.
Given Bremer’s interest in tackling such large life matters as birth, love, beauty, impermanence, and death, it’s not surprising that he turned to his Dutch heritage of still life painting. In the tradition of the Memento Mori in antiquity (literally “reminders of mortality”), the Dutch vanitas were to illustrate the vanity of worldly things and the brevity of life. Bremer’s work certainly connects to the theme of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” – a saying based on a biblical verse which, in our precarious days, seems once again particularly justified. But what also attracts Bremer to these paintings is their implicit transcendence of natural order and their negation of time and locality. What is depicted in 17th-century still life, in real life would never exist side by side – vases chockfull of flowers and copious displays of game, vegetables, and fruit combine the harvests of different seasons and distant regions. Bremer – who is embracing a hodgepodge approach from the start – collapses time and space even further by borrowing parts from paintings of different artists and periods and by propelling them into the “reality” of a photograph.
In his works of the last few years Bremer has incorporated (and superbly rendered in dots) elements culled directly from still lifes by Rembrandt, Hendrick Goltzius, Jan Vonck, Gerrit Dou and others. While paying genuine tribute to these painters’ mastery, Bremer quotes them with playfulness and ease, gleefully lifting a rabbit here, a swan there, a goblet from one, a skull or flowers from another. Adopting these symbols into his own compositions of glorious disorder, Bremer often deposits them at the edge of the picture, leaving them poised, along with everything else in his drawings, between harmony and catastrophe.
In Day for Night, one of Bremer’s latest, large-scale works, beauty and abundance intertwine with looming darkness. The piece originated with an almost entirely black Polaroid snapshot of his wife taken in a botanical garden. Her blurred features with eyes closed are hardly discernable at the center as she is surrounded by a haze of flowers recalling a celebration or perhaps a funeral. An array of still life is distributed over the image like offerings – hung-up pheasants, a gorgeous dead swan, and a rabbit (all of them drawn life size), pottery, the ominous skull, and a book, among others. Making Day for Night was of special personal significance to Bremer, a consoling gesture to his wife who at the time was facing illness in her family. Transforming raw emotions into fervent drawing, Day for Night embraces both light and darkness, life’s riches and losses, its splendor and transitoriness.
Each of Bremer’s works has its own motivation and purpose – large or small. They can be love song, homage, or tribute – to people, nature, culture, and history. But they are always self-portraits as well, offering glimpses into the subliminal workings of the artist’s mind. Bremer’s drawings are driven by the urge to understand, by the desire to disentangle and uncover the secrets of thought, thus honoring the Freudian idea that human behavior is motivated by the unconscious. In this context it is interesting to know that the artist’s mother worked as a psychotherapist. By drawing over documentary photographs rather than on blank grounds, Bremer practices a kind of psychoanalysis with himself, undoubtedly with a self-teasing edge. Perhaps alluding to the phenomenon of transference, the snapshots of significant people from his life frequently serve as mere hosts to be drawn over as Bremer redirects emotions originating with someone else. The make-over drawing a photograph of an old friend might receive could refer to a person Bremer acquainted yesterday. Similarly, snapshots of himself as a child are interchangeable with pictures of his four-year old son. While traditional self-portraiture depicts the likeness of the artist at the time, Bremer never outlines his actual face. Instead he enters into a dialogue with his younger self, letting the self-portraits emerge through the superimposed screen of his current psyche in the form of drawn patterns and symbols.
In his most recent work, Self-Portrait in Studio, a blurry figure with a dark, wide-brimmed hat (Bremer at age ten, clutching a teddy bear) is surrounded by a magnificent swirl of Dutch still life elements, again, exquisitely rendered in dots – game, hunting gear, plants, household objects, including a pitcher on an oriental rug that seems to come straight out of a Vermeer composition. Beyond their original meaning these elements turn into Bremer’s own symbols of lineage and growth – both in a personal and in an artistic sense. The photograph (which doesn’t reveal whether Bremer is holding a toy or a brush) has the yellowed luster of an old painting. Rembrandt’s or Dou’s self-portraits come to mind as does Vermeer’s depiction of himself with an easel in The Allegory of Painting. Bremer’s work could be seen (with tongue in cheek for modesty) as his own “Allegory of Drawing over Photographs,” summing up his current artistic ambitions and reflecting his mind – a mind that is as playful as it is inquisitive, a mind that is passionate, uninhibited, and vast.
“Through a Glass Darkly: The Art of Sebastiaan Bremer” by Jordan Kantor
Sebastiaan Bremer’s art pictures a world as seen through a screen. Fields of innumerable hand-drawn ink-dots blanket his large-scale glossy photographs, thwarting a clear or immanent apprehension of the image beneath and evoking the sleepy twilight of half-conscious thought. Referencing visions by turns dreamy and druggy, Bremer’s dot-screens speak of our inevitably mediated relationship to the “real.” Through the clash of the drawn and the photographic, Bremer presents a world that can never be experienced directly, a world that resists complete description through any single method or mode. These dual registers of representation literalize the argument that our experiences are always only known piecemeal through contingent matrices. Compelling his viewers to look at – and through – the surface of his images, Bremer creates a visual disruption that makes us attend to the simultaneous (and sometimes contradictory) filters that necessarily mediate any experience, or attempt at expression. Neither the dots nor the photographic images ever fully describe, demonstrating Bremer’s central philosophical observation that all apprehension is necessarily subjective and incomplete.
Bremer is an artist who follows the logical conclusions of his own work. If the separate layers of his technique bespeak the utter contingency of perception and knowledge, he knows the best thing to do is just to run with it. Rather than presenting a meta-critique of the problems of representation, Bremer exploits the expressive potentials of the unapologetically personal. Family pictures comprise the raw material upon which most of Bremer’s work is built. Images of himself, his wife, their children, or snapshots that bear some special family meaning are re-photographed, blown up to large scale, and lovingly worked by hand (the adverb is not chosen lightly). Beyond a specifically personal iconography, however, the types of scenes Bremer chooses to depict bespeak the utterly personal ways in which outer and inner worlds collide in his work. Perhaps nowhere are these themes developed more pointedly than in a suite of works collected under the title Nocturnes (pages 40-44). Dark, moody images, the photographs with which the artist begins in this series are unabashedly intimate; they depict a nude woman on a bed seen through the sfumato of an out-of-focus camera lens. The privacy – and its implied eroticism – is underscored by the voluptuous veils of hyper-saturated colored tint which pool on the surface of Nocturne III (p. 43). In the context of the image in which the woman lies supine on the bed with legs spread, these ink pools infer a surplus of spent body fluids, as if the intimacy of the encounter has engendered the very material of the work. Nocturne III is more than just an intimate photograph, however, and the screen of ink-dots on the image’s surface soon places the viewer at a physical and psychological remove typical of work done in this manner. The spindly white lines created by the profusion of white dots cover the image like spider webs, a stark juxtaposition to the visual “access” supplied by the photo and implied by its tinted inks. These lines, which resist resolving into legible motifs (though bits and pieces emerge in places), not only separate the viewer from the scene physically, but also temporally. The immediacy of the initial photograph dissipates, as the woman, the bed, and the room fall away from us in both time and space, as if slipping from our fingers and receding into memory. Whatever
intimacies the photo promised (or pictured) are held in check by this screen of dots.
The idea of blocked interiority runs throughout Bremer’s oeuvre, which begins with private worlds that the drawn elements render inaccessible. In Swimming with the fishes
(p. 96-97) and Day for Night (p. 14-15) for example, Bremer works with images of people completely absorbed in thought. Averting their gaze as to avoid the camera (and a conversation with us), these people seem lost in their own mental worlds. Here the dots on the photo’s surface appear almost to gel into thoughts, or the neuron maps of the free-associative meandering of their wistful dreaming. Unlike in Nocturne III, where the invitation of the photograph was rescinded by the drawing, in works like Swimming with the fishes, the two modes cooperate, thought the result is no more immediate to us. These dots show a reality co-existent and parallel to our own, but this reality remains inscrutable and inaccessible.
In some of these works, the artist himself seems held “back” by these dot screens. Indeed, in many recent pieces – Self-portrait in Studio (p. 4) perhaps being the most indicative – Bremer’s own access to the image seems loaded with mediation. The dot-screens here resolve into specific images, borrowed from Old Master paintings from Bremer’s native Holland. These images, generally taken from still lifes meant to serve as reminders of the fragility of life and the nearness of death, comprise an art historical screen through which the artist sees his own practice. These works picture the “tissue of quotations” (to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes), that necessarily emanate from any visual or verbal expression. Like looking back at time through an etched glass window, these images bespeak the inescapability of previous representations in any attempt to know or picture our world.
In other images, Bremer has the dots function in a different, though related way. Rather than physically presenting the screen that keeps us at bay, in these works, the dots serve as indexes of the struggle to know and understand. This strategy, which is closely related to the previous two, is most apparent in Bremer’s images of natural motifs, such
as trees, mountains, or water. In works like Taxus Tree (p. 64) or Diamondhead (p. 74-75) or I held my breath for 13 hours afraid she wouldn’t come home (p. 34-35), Bremer’s dots do not depart from the photograph to coalesce into a separate reality, but rather follow the contours delimited in the photograph as a means of amplifying the motif beneath. Like trails left by tiny sea creatures meandering across the ocean floor groping to make sense of the topography beneath them, these lines record both the order and sprawl of trying to know the world. Here Bremer’s screen creates a hyper-real surplus that does not so much as block, but rather simply destabilize, our access to the photographic motif. Even when ostensibly mapping, these screens act as models and records of the futility of our attempts to reach out and touch the real.
Though our attempts to unpack our surroundings may be futile, Bremer does not ultimately offer that they must necessarily be alienating. Rather, these may just be the facts of life. As the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes in a passage from Kafka on the Shore near to Bremer’s heart:
“A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.” Bremer’s art pictures the sometimes unsettling notion that we can no longer rest our hats on the idea of unified and transparent world-view, and his work shows how our own perceptions are inevitably refracted through innumerable contingencies. In the end, however, no matter how imperfect, these contingencies, or screens, can accumulate limitlessly, ultimately converging on a perfect truth as they proceed asymptotically to infinity, out to the horizon of what we can know.
“Smells like Teen Spirit: Remarks on the work of Sebastiaan Bremer” by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
It is the signification of the enigma to live always with the ambiguous, with doubled and tripled perspectives, with surmised aspects (pictures in pictures), with forms that arise or shall arise out of the viewer’s inner condition. All things become more suggestive, the more visible they become.
Odilon Redon, diary, 1902
The truth is I don’t know what it is.
Entry in Heather Donahue’s dairy, The Blair Witch Project, 1999
Shadows of the past
Every teenager knows of places better left unvisited, of secret wishes that bring mothers to tears, and of paths down which no one can follow. The tremors of initial sexual encounters and longings, coupled with the secret forces of the unconscious, can never set greater energies free than in puberty. Poltergeisting precedes the smell of aromatized tea, hashish, and Hubba Bubba. Knowledge of the visions and rites of adolescence continues to be passed from generation to generation, finding expression in carefully guarded diaries and notes, manifesting itself unnoticed in water colors and drawings in the corridors outside the teacher’s lounge, or lingering quietly in photographs of class celebrations and family trips. Hardly any novel of the past few years has more hauntingly described the mysteries and miracles of growing up in the white middle class than does Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Its narration about five youthful sisters in the midst of a 1970s American suburban idyll who take their own lives one after the other and are revered as saints by the boys from their neighborhood, ends with a hymn to dreams and memories that appear to be lost for ever:
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up there in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of the rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
In Sebastiaan Bremer’s picture Underneath the basement from 2003, the dark hole that can be made out on the blurry photo of some masonry seems to lead directly into one of these inaccessible spaces – a netherworld realm, where the ghosts of missing children and of daydreaming youths echo. The forbidden space manifests itself as a shadow or blackish outline, which leaves a trace like on a badly printed newspaper photo. Rampantly overgrown by a luminescent web of innumerable, microscopically fine points, which drape themselves across the grainy surface like silvery-white veils, a ghostly void opens up between the laid-on retouching paint and the underlying photographic surface. Here, the indescribable or the undescribed must be supplemented by the viewer’s imagination. The photograph that records the allegedly authentic scene from life or scene of the crime, seems itself like a fragile found object from a distant time, a fleeting memory that could disintegrate before our very eyes if exposed to the light. As if shaken by surges of hormones and longings for death, Bremer’s pictures seem to be in a state of continuous transformation. They breathe, proliferate, oxidize, vibrate, and simultaneously conceal magical moments within themselves, in which the invisible becomes visible.
A young girl lies stretched out on the ground: With half-opened mouth in swooning motionlessness, eddies of materialized energy radiate around her. They emerge in waves out of the darkness, stream out of her hair, and sheath her body in billowing clouds. The aura of the paranormal, of remoteness, and of reverie which can be almost physically felt in Bremer’s work Con neblina bota luz baxio (2003), are characteristic for the work of this Dutchman who lives and works in New York. The artist, born in 1970, develops surreal picture compositions based on his own snapshots and Polaroids of friends, places, and family members. These photos are enlarged as C-prints and then defamiliarized through the application of India ink and retouching paint.
Demons of the 70s
The psychedelic effect Bremer obtains with his ornamentation of flimmering dots overrunning everything is developed without digital manipulation. On the contrary, he uses manual reworking of the photographic image to very directly investigate the influence of subconscious forces on artistic production. The patterns gliding across the picture plane resemble the markings of a seismograph, similarly following the contours of the motif in a flow of individual and collective thoughts and conceptions. References to alchemy, art history, occult, and magic practices are included just as much as are his own sensitivities or connections to mass media, fashion, and rock music. Even if the persons and places depicted on his photographic source material might have some meaning for him, its origins play only a subordinate role in the work’s final appearance. In the interpretation of Bremer’s work, his autobiographical dealings with his own past are frequently placed in the foreground. His use of authentic photos taken from the family album is thereby supposed to serve to reflect exemplarily on the transitory and fleeting nature of encounters, moments, and relationships. Just how doubtful this approach can be is shown by Bremer’s Selfportrait (2003). Hidden beneath the “portrait”, reduced to a mask by the use of retouching paint on eye sockets and oral cavity, is not the artist, but the snapshot of a friend of his youth. ‘I’ here is somebody else: Through reworking, enlargement, and defamiliarization, private photographs transform into amorphous visions, anonymous face and bodyscapes, which at the same time could serve as a screen upon which to project images of mass culture and the culture of youth. Bremer’s citations of archetypal characters from popular teen-anxiety and horror films are not without irony. If the title Spetters (2003) already refers to Paul Verhoeven’s 80s film of the same name about a gang of teenagers in Amsterdam, the attitude of the boy wrapped in a parka in A Frayed Knot (2003) is reminiscent of the young Elijah Wood in Ang Lee’s melancholic, overcool Ice storm (1997). Many of Bremer’s works show parallels to the lighting and coloration of a series of Hollywood horror films of the 70s, in which obsession, magic, and supernatural forces penetrate the everyday lives of American youths and small families – like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976); or Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in which a mask made of human skin is used – which the hints at a skull in Bremer’s You’ve made your mother cry (2003) can certainly measure up to.
The unsentimental distance with which the psychothriller and horror films of that time made inter-human relations, gender questions, and premature sexuality into a sober subject for breaking taboos, has now long since become a retrospective source of inspiration for the current generation of artists, photographers, and designers. Thus the campaign motif that Sebastiaan Bremer created in the spring of 2001 in cooperation with Ines Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for the fashion house Callaghan, exhibits a cool icon from the genre. Appearing in Bremer’s ornamentally worked advertising motif as a psychic super creature is no less than Sigourney Weaver, who as commander Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sent extraterrestrial monsters and existing female clichés to hell. The motif unites Fin de Siècle ideals with those of High Fashion at the start of the 21st century.
It is remarkable that Bremer identifies none other than two of the main representatives of European symbolism, Rainer Maria Rilke and Odilon Redon, as influential for his work. He thereby alludes to an artistic stance which permeated the entire 19th Century, whose mystically spiritual content and preoccupation with Eros, dreams, and death stood in sharp contrast to the materialism of the industrial revolution. The interplay of authenticity and deception, the character of staged surrealism, and the echoes of magic and occultism – all characteristic of Bremer’s work – have aesthetic parallels with the experiments with spirit photography; the fluidal and aural photography of the late 19th Century. This is terrain that was initially occupied by the symbolists, and which later opened new horizons for the surrealists and avant-garde of the 20th century. Right from the beginning the discovery of photography was connected with the question of whether the photographic plate could register more reality than the human eye could. Just a few years after Daguerre invented the new medium, Honoré de Balzac honored it with a remark in which he attributed to photography the characteristic that it not only illustrated a thing, but fixed an already existing image like a spiritual apparition on the silver-salt coated plate. In his novel Vetter Pons published in 1848 he writes: “If someone had come to Napoleon and told him that a building and a human throw an image at all times and incessantly into air; that all existing objects repeat themselves in this way as intangible ghosts, he would have locked this man up in Charenton … But Daguerre had proved exactly that through his discovery.” The idea that bodies radiate into space and that their volatile image may be forced to remain in place through the medium of photography goes back to an ancient idea of Demokrit’s. According to this idea all bodies send out images of themselves which stick, like immaterial little skins, in infinitely thin layers and in infinite numbers upon their surface. At every viewing and for every photograph, image emanations are detached from the body. These emanations leave an imprint on the eyes or on the photographic plate, and thus create a visible impression. In Sebastiaan Bremer’s works, innumerable of these immaterial little skins seem to overlay each other and condense. His affinity for Daguerre’s invention is clearly recognizable on works such as the silvery shining I’m too sad to tell you (2003). Here, however, the photograph upon which the work of art is based does not only appear as the means for holding the invisible images in place, but also as a force field that it sends out, and that “casts images into the air”; images that can only be held spellbound through the act of drawing and painting. The artist and his work function as resonating bodies, which absorb and give off oscillations. Thus, I held my breath for 13 hours afraid she wouldn’t come home (2000) was created while Bremer’s wife was on a flight from Brazil to New York. The artist, who just then had been working on a photograph of a girl swimming underwater in a pool, was overcome while drawing by the irrational fear that his wife could meet with misfortune. To fight this feeling, he concentrated completely on the traveler while he was working, in order to maintain his spiritual connection to her. To a certain extent this meditative condition resembles that of the swimming girl who glides below the water’s surface holding her breath. Like energetic spider’s webs, Bremer’s pointillist patterns and waves attach themselves to furnishings and fashions from various decades, settling on girl’s bodies and in New York apartments, touching teenagers and windowpanes, weaving in and out of space and time. Thereby they combine again and again into new forms and arrangements, which emerge from the photographic ground and crystallize out of the ornamentation: candles, monkeys, wells, text, limbs, tendrils, and furniture. The demand of the symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) to create the indefinite out of the definite and call forth the ambiguous from the unambiguous, finds contemporary expansion in Bremer’s work. The supernatural and insubstantial manifests itself in his pictures by making the medial self visible. This probing of his own memories and relationships is accompanied by a flood of visual quotations from art and cultural history. It is accompanied by a psychedelic trip, which knows no difference between personal and general experiences. The excursion into the unconscious leads precisely to those collective conceptions that we create for ourselves from the unconscious; to media images reproduced a thousand times, which we steadily absorb and emit. They unite in the prolific astral bodies and phantoms that populate Sebastiaan Bremer’s work. What is uncanny about these prototypes is that we can discover ourselves in them; in the shadowy family, in the medium in reverie, in the incarnation of dead models and obsessed teenagers – or even in Bremer’s faceless self portrait, which could very well be our own.
“The more you look, the more you see” by Gregory Volk
Frank Stella was really onto something, with his famous declaration about Minimalism, What you see is what you see. Among other things, he highlighted the importance of direct visual encounters with works of visual art, and although times have certainly changed, it’s still worth recalling his declaration, especially when one considers the great host of current works that are fundamentally about some pressing topic, frequently an admirable socio-political topic, but often at the expense of the concentrated pleasures (and corresponding mental excursions) of looking. However, what about those artists now (and Sebastiaan Bremer is certainly one of them) who deal in intricate, frequently bedazzling combinations of visual information and who are oftentimes interested in, and even obsessed by, micro-details, or rather a multitude of micro-details in a single work? With the work of such artists, what one sees initially is important, but what’s perhaps even more important is what one only gradually perceives and discovers, even wayward or semi-hidden events that are hardly obvious at first glance. Maybe a new declaration is in order for these works: the more you look, the more you see. That certainly seems to be the case with Bremer, for I know of few other artists now whose work more rewards sustained and patient viewing. Bremer’s technique is novel, and utterly hybrid. Using various inks, he draws directly on slightly blurry C-print enlargements of photographs, and often adds splotches and streaks of photographic dye. Almost always, the underlying photographic images have much to do with personal and family history: a best friend from Bremer’s teenage years, a shot of himself as a kid, a view of a room taken from under his grandmother’s piano, his family on vacation, a former girlfriend. These are the unpretentious snapshot images, the family album images, the photographic mementoes of a life that Bremer meticulously and obsessively draws onso meticulously, in fact, and with such fine, tiny lines that you figure he either uses a magnifying glass or is in a trance (neither is the case.). In some of Bremer’s works, the underlying image is quite clear, while in others it’s almost totally obscured, but in any event one sees it through a scrim or a veil of intense surface activity, which can be at once elaborately ornamental, psychedelic, playful ( replete with suggestions of doodling) , turbulent, and downright magical. Always, Bremer’s found photographs become dreamlike and fantastical, and two opposite impulses are fused: documentation and hallucination. Moreover, while Bremer admits to a high level of automatism in devising his drawings, you also sense that this atomatism involves a great deal of complex human feeling, ranging from harrowing fears and losses to whimsy and blissful repose. What’s also peculiar is how Bremer’s ink drawings seem to be in a condition of permanent flux, and indeed the more one looks at them, the more one sees and discovers. Look at a section one way and it seems purely abstract – a cluster or swirl of horizontal, vertical, and curving lines replete with doses of Op-Art, Psychedelic Art, and circa 1970s album covers and black light posters. Keep looking at it, however, and recognizable shapes begin to appear, elephants, for instance; hints of erotica; snippets of architecture; cartoonish airplanes; eyeballs; owls; a child’s crib; household objects that have an almost talismanic power; and bizarre, mutant creatures that may be part fish and part machine, or part bird and part human. Among many, many others. Whatever the sources for this teeming imagery – and Bremer’s sources are vast, ranging from around-the-house experiences, to brooding memories, fantasies, past art, travels, and encounters with other people they really pull one into their oddball poetics, in which the tiniest of touches suggests multiple, oftentimes ambiguous, meanings. One thing always leads to another, or rather to myriad other things, in these endlessly morphing designs, yielding fascinating, non-hierarchical fields in which anything occurring anywhere is of as much importance as anything else. A hallmark of Sebastiaan Bremer’s work is that, in the midst of its sheer visual dazzle, it also scrambles the viewer’s perspective or orientation, to the point where one is not really sure how to begin viewing altogether, including where to start and what to look at next. With Bremer’s works, if one looks at them deeply, one is always losing and finding one’s way; which fits with his investigation of the constantly shifting, fundamentally elusive quality of memory itself. As the images in Bremer’s photographs come in and out of view, they seem sunken and half-hidden in the picture plane and by extension in some remote chamber of the brain. At the same time, Bremer’s drawings respond to those images, spreading across them like some proliferating informational code; pulling them (or parts of them) in surprising directions; reconsidering, qualifying, and transforming indications of the past in light of the present, really in light of just how Bremer is thinking now. Among their many other connotations, Bremer’s drawings suggest brain waves, and they function as visible renditions of synaptical networks conveying a vast trove of information simultaneously – not so much networks out there, for instance on the web, but right here, in the mysterious precincts of an individual brain, where big ideas, random tangents, fleeting associations, buried memories, and all sorts of miscellaneous data and surprises are completely intertwined. Indeed, Bremer’s works very much seem like in-process consciousness altogether -consciousness as it is, with all its exhilaration and gaps, meandering and breakthroughs, banalities and exultations, and not consciousness as we would idealize it or want it to be. It is sometimes helpful, but never essential, to know what Bremer’s references are, in both the found photographs and the drawings, for instance to know that the pensive, hooded figure in A Frayed Knot (2003) is Bremer himself as a teenager, or that the miniaturized renditions of windows and walls in the same work refer to a basement hangout once used by Bremer and his friends, or that a stone well at the bottom refers to a book by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami which once engrossed Bremer for a season. Even if one knows such things, however, it’s pointless to decode Bremer’s works for autobiographical information, precisely because he so thoroughly melds personal references, social allusions, purely imaginary forms, and abstract patterns, and precisely because this welter of stuff allows for multiple interpretations and responses. One thing is clear: photographs that were never intended to be anything other than mementoes become enormously evocative and visually complex. What’s also clear is that Bremer is able to generate a tremendous variety with his idiosyncratic techniques. Vanitas (2003) features a fuzzy color photograph of Bremer as a child. Traces of a drawn skull on the face and an ominous, robed figure on the right surround the image with intimations of mortality, and those are just two of the many frightening moments one finds in Bremer’s work. Com Neblina Bota Luz Baixa (In Fog Turn Your Headlights Low) (2003), takes it title from a Brazilian traffic sign. A stark black and white portrait of a woman shows half of her face illuminated and the other half shrouded in darkness. She’s got wild hair, and Bremer’s overdrawing extends this hair into his kind of combinatory wonderland. A network of abstract patterns morphs into tree branches, a breast like shape that could also be a swimming angelfish, a tangled pipe emitting smoke, and streaking meteors⎯the image (and presumably Bremer’s memories) elicit a jet of associations and emotions. Rebel (2003), on the other hand, is one of Bremer’s most colorful works, with blue and crimson splotches, and with purple, magenta, blue and green inks. Here, an extraordinarily intricate design of interlacing abstract forms morphs into various nature-based forms , including denuded trees, one-celled organisms, and cobwebs. Meanwhile, twanging, occasionally dripping, free-flowing shapes suggest burgeoning growth and constant mutation, and that’s Bremer’s forte: found, static photographs are activated, both visually and mentally, and a cathartic adventure is set in motion. Photographing photographs, and then using his whole bag of tricks to transform already mediated images puts Sebastiaan Bremer squarely in postmodern territory. What’s particularly unusual is how this territory becomes so idiosyncratic, so filled with a vital sense of quest and discovery, and ultimately so intricately human.