Loss and Longing, by Robbert Ammerlaan, 2017
‘And every time the longing beats the fear’
She is a master of revealing and concealing. Of light and dark. What she shows speaks just as powerfully as what she keeps hidden. Her work is often seductively beautiful, but also disruptive and disturbing.
No matter what or whom she captures with her camera – people, faces, bodies, self-portraits, nudes, still lifes, fashion, landscapes, Africa, Suriname – there is always that mysterious shadow that lends her work its penetrating power.
“An undertone of death,” Viviane says.
Three years ago, she decided to enter into a confrontation with that shadow.
“One way or another it has always been present in my work, and I didn’t know why. When I started making my Umbra series, I wanted to find an answer to that question.”
The answer came.
Umbra, the Latin word for shadow, was the conclusion of a grieving process. Umbra was about her father’s death.
RA: You were twenty-two when you lost your father. What do you remember about that day?
VS: I was in the darkroom, at the Academy in Utrecht. A workshop assistant came to fetch me. “Your brother called,” he said. “You need to phone home.” He left me alone in his office, which I thought was strange. When my brother answered the phone, I heard him say to my mother, “Shall I tell her?” And then he said it: “Dad’s dead.”
I was stunned, of course, in shock. Disbelief, anger, grief – helplessly kicking the table leg. In a kind of daze, I realised what I had to do: go home, pack my things, get to the station. The train was packed. The same questions running through my mind, and all those strangers around me…
I walked home from the station in Zutphen. I stood there wailing – howling like an animal, all the way from my toes, holding onto my mother. She was being so strong, incredible, maybe it was that primal maternal instinct to protect us children, and maybe a mechanism I often see in people of her generation: the tendency to suppress emotions.
RA: How did you say goodbye to your father?
VS: A few days later, my father’s body was laid out in his office. He looked terrible, but it was also incredibly beautiful. At a certain point, I went and sat beside him. I rested my hand on his head, and I started talking to him. Then I made a self-portrait, with the self-timer. You can’t see that much in it, just the casket and the flowers really. And me standing beside it. I wanted to be in a photo with him just one last time. After that, it was okay. That was my goodbye.
RA: Do you want to stop for a moment?
VS: No. It makes me emotional, but I’m just remembering that my actual goodbye to him, the last time I saw him alive, was very beautiful and precious.
One or two days before his death, I was at home in Zutphen. He was in his office. I was leaving and I gave him three kisses and I can still remember thinking: he feels so cold. He said, “Viv, remember that it’s important to enjoy life.” And: “You do know how very much we love you, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes, and you’re the very dearest dad in the whole wide universe.” That’s what I always used to say to him. And then, one morning after that… I really kept beating myself up about this…
I was feeling very down at that time myself. Maybe I got it from my father. But that morning I suddenly felt much better. I thought: I really should phone home and tell them they don’t need to worry about me. That I’m feeling much happier today. But at the same time I thought: then I’ll get my dad on the line and he’s so down that it’ll make me miserable again too.
So I didn’t call, and later of course I thought: if I had called, maybe he wouldn’t have done it.
RA: But he did do it.
VS: My father jumped out of the window. Five years previously, he’d had a very serious operation on his brain. Before that, he’d suffered from terrible headaches for years. As doctors often do, he’d neglected his own symptoms. Until a congenital cyst was discovered in the middle of his head. The operation was partly successful, but he was never the same again. He had chronic pain, couldn’t work any longer, and lost his sense of purpose: helping people.
RA: Chronicle of a death foretold.
VS: Just before his death, he started taking antidepressants that were later linked to suicide. In a way, we still see it as a tragic accident. The strange thing is that, for us, it came as a bolt from the blue. It wasn’t until later that we realised how hard the years between his operation and his death must have been. He was hemmed in on all sides, couldn’t really do anything anymore, and must have been keenly aware of how hopeless his condition was. But he preferred not to share that load with us. He didn’t want to burden us with it. And that just made it all the more painful for us.
RA: The tragedy of the guilt and shame of those who are left behind.
VS: I’ve never felt shame, not about what he did either. But I have felt guilt and regret.
For not showing him enough consideration – too busy with other things. With my own life. Twenty-two years old and it was my first time living in digs, my first boyfriend – that kind of thing. I felt a lot of sadness about that.
But in spite of everything, I have very good memories of his funeral. It was an incredibly intense day. I felt very light, almost hyper, as if I were glowing. As if all of the shutters had opened up, and there was no more protection at all. Just like after a birth, when you’re so open that you can give and receive everything.
When the casket went into the ground, we all shovelled earth onto it. Not those symbolic little scoops – no, everything. We stamped and pressed it down, and then all the flowers went on top. My muscles ached for days after that. But then, of course, I was hit by the realisation that it was Dad I’d buried. That it was him, lying there in that casket.
Not long after his death, I became furious with him. I can still remember: I was lying in bed and I was so insanely angry that I practically tore up all my sheets. Cursing away. “Damn it, you bastard.” That sort of stuff. Furious at what he’d done to us. And to himself. I needed that so I could forgive him again and admit how kind and caring he’d always been. I was crazy about him. A very sweet, calm man, with twinkling eyes, always concerned about what was going on in other people’s lives. A man who knew how to enjoy life, too.
RA: And then you decided to investigate the shadow in your work. That happened in Umbra.
VS: For Umbra I had immersed myself in Jung’s theory of the shadow, the essence of which is that the shadow represents everything that is stored in our subconscious. The things we don’t want to show. The things we’re ashamed of. Afraid of. Where all our hidden anxieties and fantasies lie.
In my game with light and dark, I’ve been able to see behind my own shadow. In Umbra I relived my father’s death and was able to process it. I said goodbye to him once again, forever and in peace. He’d had a difficult childhood, but I know for certain that he was happy together with us.
RA: Was that a defining moment in your career as an artist?
VS: My father’s death shaped me incredibly. I wouldn’t be the same person if it hadn’t happened. It took me at least ten years to get over it. It often felt like survival. It overshadowed my time as a student and greatly influenced my work. After I finished Umbra I had the idea: okay, now I can die, now I’ve said what I wanted to say.
RA: You robbed death of its sting?
VS: I still have times when I think a lot about death, often at unexpected moments, when I completely shut myself off from the outside world. When I go to the toilet, for example. That’s all very Freudian, of course. It’s a kind of Pavlovian response. As soon as the door is closed: death, death, death, death. And after that I can go on with my life.
These are the recurring themes in my work: death, the fear of the unknown and at the same time the longing to merge completely with someone else, in a kind of embrace. To not be alone.
RA: Is that how you would describe the essence of your work?
VS: Fear and longing, ha!
RA: For your longing, we need to go back to Africa, where you spent part of your childhood.
VS: I was two when we left as a family for a village in Kenya, where my father was working at a hospital. We lived there for three years. My memories of those childhood years in Africa are indelible: the light, the shadow, the colours, the people, the inky black nights, the starry sky, the deformed bodies of the local children with polio. We lived right next to a polio clinic. Some of the children had very severe deformities, but I obviously had no clue that it was the result of a serious illness. They were simply my friends. I remember us sitting on a climbing frame, comparing our arms and legs. “Look how different we are, but we’re both beautiful.” Those distorted and damaged bodies – I thought they were magnificent. That must be where my fascination with the body began.
RA: The entangled bodies that we know so well from your work.
VS: I was always a sensitive and creative child. Always making something, drawing something. That first time in Africa I experienced as my years of “magical thinking”; fantasies, images I invented stories for, which formed the genesis of a great deal of my later work.
After three years, we returned to the Netherlands. It was night when we arrived at Schiphol. I saw the lights of the airport and thought all the stars from the heavens had fallen to earth. For a long time, I felt like I was stuck in a parallel universe that was not my own, and I really longed for Kenya.
RA: You’ve often been back to Kenya.
VS: My life is unimaginable without Africa. The light and the dark. The colours, the people. The first time I went back there was with my parents, ten years after we’d left. It was night. I lay in bed and heard the peacocks calling, and I cried in confusion.
In 2000, I met Hugo, my husband. He grew up in Africa too, not far from where I lived. And his father took his own life as well. We decided to revisit the places of our childhoods. It turned out to be a crucial journey for me. Back in my village, the memories of the past were revived. Vivid dreams. Images in my head. Ideas for photos. It was a eureka moment for me, as if my childhood in the past and my adulthood as a photographer suddenly came together. As if I suddenly knew what to do: that I didn’t necessarily have to photograph in a documentary style, but that I could also make something, something that’s mine.
RA: Besides your father’s death, you’ve had another traumatic experience – a near-death experience on a backpacking trip with a friend in India.
VS: It was when I was a student. Even when I arrived in Madras, I was weak and vulnerable because of an attack of tonsillitis. We took the train inland and went up into the mountains. I’d probably eaten something that had been washed with contaminated water; it emptied me out and I became seriously ill. At a certain point I could feel that it was getting really bad, and I was scared that I would become completely dehydrated. There was no one at the YMCA, where we were staying, that night. So we just started walking, looking for help. All I could do was stagger, leaning on my friend. Everything went hazy. We banged on doors and finally found some people who took us to a small, primitive hospital. Three, four rooms. I lay in a stuffy little room with a partition, behind which was a hole in the ground as a loo. There was a corner with a fire in it, and a pan to boil the needles in. I’d lost so much fluid that I kept drifting in and out of consciousness.
RA: And came face to face with death?
VS: That was exactly what I was resisting. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Within two days, I’d lost seven kilos and, at 1.82 metres tall, I weighed just 45 kilos. The doctors later told me that a serious loss of fluid in a short time can affect your brain. You become delirious. That’s what happened. At that moment I was certain I was going to die there. I pictured myself being carried down the mountain in a coffin. It was a trauma for me. I was left with extreme anxiety attacks that have plagued me for years and severely disrupted my life. Pure mortal fear – for no reason at all.
RA: Have you tamed the monster now?
VS: Fortunately, yes. Every now and then it still raises its head. What mainly troubles me is that, in my work, I focus so emphatically on controlling life and the fear of death that I sometimes pay too little attention to real life.
But I’ve been able to integrate that fear. It’s also been a catalyst for my work, and that’s why I’d like to make a correction to what I said earlier about the essence of my work. It’s not fear and longing. It’s loss and longing.
RA: We’ve spoken a lot about loss. What does the longing consist of?
VS: I think it’s primarily about overcoming my shyness, the longing to truly connect with people. Without masks. To be able to give myself completely, and to receive the same in return from other people. That sometimes happens, of course, but I often have the feeling that it’s not enough.
RA: Does that apply to your personal life as well as your work?
VS: Mainly to my personal life. But in my work, too, when I photograph people, there’s a kind of reserve. It never becomes really raw with me. There’s always a soothing undertone in there, which stems from a certain shyness, timidity. They’re all self-portraits, in fact. You’ll rarely look someone straight in the face. Take my last series, Roxane II. Those are very physical photographs. You see the body, bold and exposed, but you rarely feel as if you can truly see into her soul.
RA: Is that the same control that you were brought up with?
VS: Maybe, yes. My parents had a very loving marriage, never any rows; I had to learn how to argue. But they didn’t find it very easy to show negative emotions like sadness, aggression. I’m much better at it now, I think. But, whether you like it or not, it’s almost second nature – a deep-rooted shame of showing yourself in your true form.
RA: Which naturally prompts the question: What do you have to hide?
VS: I don’t know, and if I did know, I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you. I really do want to key into deep inner feelings, as I’m doing in this conversation, but I also want to be discreet with regards to myself. I’m fascinated by what is hidden, but I think it’s fine for it to stay hidden. I don’t need to investigate everything, and that includes inside myself. So, there’s that discrepancy between revealing and concealing again.
RA: The camera between you and your subject also offers a kind of protection. Maybe you like that.
VS: That could be true. But the camera gives me an excuse to meet people too, and it’s also a weapon for penetrating, exposing.
My reserve also stems from the fear that it’ll become too sentimental if I put too much emotion into it. That’s why I prefer to conceal and go in search of an undercurrent, which people will just have to guess at for themselves. In a subdued, understated way, I show a great deal, and my work is certainly dramatic too, but I remain an aesthete.
When I was a model, I used to call myself a shy exhibitionist. That’s probably what I am as an artist too.
RA: You did the modelling work when you were studying fashion in Arnhem and photography in Utrecht. What did you get from that?
VS: I’ve actually always been very prim and proper. You could count my boyfriends on the fingers of one hand. I was 18, 19 when I kissed someone for the first time. I’ve never had a one-night stand. For me, that’s not so much to do with the sexual aspect as, once again, with the fear of allowing yourself to be seen.
The funny thing is that I entered the fashion academy in Arnhem as a kind of shy duckling, but within two weeks I was walking around the classrooms in my underwear. I was tall and thin and people liked to use me as a fitting model. And in no time at all it was a complete turnaround. That modelling work allowed me to lose my shame about my own body.
RA: How long did you do that work for?
VS: From the age of eighteen to twenty-three. So about four years. I was obsessed for a while – not so much with sex, but more with eroticism and the sexual. I made a great many self-portraits in that period, including lots of nudes.
RA: What did it teach you?
VS: I got to know myself. My body and my sexuality too. It helped me to overcome my prudishness and gave me the celebration and the joy of the physical.
RA: But after four years you stopped working as a model.
VS: I wanted to regain power over my own body. With a man behind the camera, a sort of tension always develops, which is often about eroticism, but usually about power. Power play between man and woman. I found that intriguing for a while, and I even sought it out. But I always found it uncomfortable too. It was never straightforward.
RA: Was it unpleasant?
Yes, that too. It often involves a certain aggression that I find hard to handle. The tendency of many male fashion photographers to want to dominate.
RA: Do you photograph women in a different way than men do?
VS: The absence of that power factor creates a more equal relationship and allows more room for intimacy.
RA: But doesn’t wielding the camera, by definition, give power?
VS: I’ve also been on the other side of the camera, so I understand their feelings better. That’s why I think women find it easier to give themselves to me and prefer to open themselves up to me. And I’m straight, so it’s not about a sexual attraction between us. I can create very erotic photographs, but I try to tap into a different kind of sexuality than you see through the male gaze.
RA: Would you rather photograph women than men?
VS: I often find women more interesting than men. More layered. I’d almost say: maybe their bodies are also more beautiful. But that’s nonsense. At the academy, though, where we had to draw a lot of nude portraits, it was men I really liked. Less rounded, more angular muscles. And, funnily enough, when I got feedback on my work, they said I often drew the genitals too large. There’s Freud again. But, anyway, when I photograph women, there’s a completely different tension than the tension I experienced when I was still a model. It’s more conspiratorial.
RA: Is that also what gives your fashion photographs their own signature?
VS: In fashion, I can express my extroverted side; in my more personal work, the introverted side. Fashion is all about concealing and revealing, showing and hiding. Perhaps that’s why it suits me so well. It’s a sort of game that you play together, experiencing some very intense moments with each other within a very short space of time. They’re rituals that result in a particular kind of intimacy. It’s a bizarre world, governed by codes and conventions that are not normal, but which can prove very addictive. Fashion gives me a lot of energy and I can use it as an outlet for my exuberance.
RA: What point have you reached in the development of your art?
VS: I have the feeling that I’m halfway. For me, Umbra signified the conclusion of the first half. I had no idea what I was starting, but it became a kind of soul-searching journey. As a person, I may have become a little calmer, but also much happier. More settled in myself.
RA: After Umbra, has that feeling of liberation also entered your work?
VS: There is now an unexplored landscape, in which everything is possible. Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I’ve already made my best work, but that thought challenges me rather than paralysing me. I don’t make any work for the sake of the work. I make work in an attempt to understand life itself.
RA: And without shadows now?
VS: Olivia, my agent, recently said, “I wonder if you haven’t cast too much light on your shadow.” I thought she put it beautifully, but the conclusion of Umbra is precisely that the shadow is also full of light and colour.
When I look at my new work now – all that stuff that I photograph, and all that lovely messing about with paint and shaving foam – it’s anything but careful.
RA: What can we expect from your second half?
VS: I have a huge desire and drive to create, to make something. Like many artists, I make my work not for others, but primarily for myself. I can be genuinely happy when I make new work, when I think that it’s turned out well, when I think it’s beautiful.
It has nothing to do with giving myself a pat on the back. Every photograph is its own creation. It’s only partly mine. I made it. But it belongs to itself. Like a child. You made it, but it isn’t yours.
RA: And how can we recognise your unique contribution?
VS: The way I compose, how I look for the right angle and the right moment, for a sort of sculptural form. I try to introduce structure into the chaos – I’m crazy about chaos – of all the things I see. To find the essence. A universal or archetypal image, I love that. I feel very connected to the Surrealists of the last century, Man Ray, Magritte… to painters like Gauguin and Matisse, but also to more geometric and abstract painters like Mondrian and the Russian Suprematists. More modernist than postmodernist.
RA: You like to call yourself an intuitive artist.
VS: Conceptual art often produces art that refers to itself. That’s a long way from my emotional being. And yet my favourite work of art is a very conceptual one: Malevich’s black square. In that small square everything is compressed and reduced to a human scale: creation, life, death. We can project all of our fears and longings onto the abstraction of that work. It’s philosophical and spiritual.
Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation: in Namibia I tried to make the photographic version of Malevich’s square.
RA: You have engaged with the confrontation between art and photography.
VS: And my conclusion is: in photography, the magic does not lie with the maker. The magic is the medium itself. The fact that you can stop time. That you can keep a photograph of someone you love who is long gone. Breath-taking. Magical.
That’s why I do feel like a magician in a certain sense, but I always need something outside myself in order to make something. I need the world. And every time the longing beats the fear.