Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Marenka Gabeler is a Dutch artist who has a special connection with the topic of memory and its loss. Today she invites us into her studio and tells us the secrets of her art.

The first thing you notice when you arrive is the luminosity of the space and also the noisy activity of the building site next to the studio. Marenka opens the door with a big smile on her face. She’s normally a person who is exquisite in the way she dresses, but today she’s wearing blue work overalls covered in white paint, which clashes amusingly with her pregnant figure.

She invites us for a delicious cup of camomile and spicy apple tea to help us recover from the December cold and starts showing us her latest work. She directs our attention to the wall at the bottom of the room, which shows a series of small portraits of little children who look at you with open eyes. They look a bit like cartoon characters, but each one has a personality of their own. When we ask her about their identity, she says they are Barnardo’s children. 

Barnardo's is a British charity founded in 1866 to care for vulnerable children and young people. Its founder, Dr Thomas John Barnardo, opened a school in the East End of London to care for and educate children of the area. Short afterwards, he founded a boys' orphanage and later opened a girls' home. By the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo's institutions cared for over 8,500 children in 96 locations.

Eighty of these portraits were exhibited at Lloyd’s club until 5th December 2013. The pictures were displayed around a fireplace, an object that has special significance in Marenka’s work, as we’ll see later on.

I went to Barnardo’s archive to do some research and found the images of the children. There were thousands of faces looking at you from the past, and you didn’t know their stories. 

We also noticed that the portraits on the wall had been painted on pieces of board.

I like to experiment with different techniques; I started using canvas and then moved on to plywood covered in two or three layers of plaster, which is then sanded down, so the effect is smooth. I use different strategies because I want to show how the paintbrush can maybe symbolise what happens to memory when you try to access it, how we remember, how we forget. 

But now her bigger project is about her grandmother, who lives with Alzheimer’s. At this moment she is working on a series of paintings inspired by an old photo that shows her mother, her aunt, her uncle, her grandmother, and her grandfather. You can see this photo at Marenka’s blog: http://beppeproject.tumblr.com

The last time I visited my grandmother, which was last summer, we did different activities like sewing, cooking, playing games, and then we looked at a photo album to reminisce. But I think that, for her, looking at photos is not a good thing, as she does not recognise herself or know who is in the photo. And when she came to one photo in particular she said ‘Who’s this beautiful lady?’ That was the first time she did not recognize herself. It was another step into deterioration. It’s so sad, but she did not get depressed or anything, I just said ‘But grandma, it’s you, you were so beautiful...’ and she said ‘Oh, it’s just me’ and that was it. She is happy when my sister and I are there because we are her grandchildren and this makes her feel secure.

My mother has taken some photos from the album to make copies and I think that the gaps in the album represent what happens in your mind when you have Alzheimer’s. Then I got to this photo. As you can see, the album has onion skin paper sheets to protect the photos and with the time the sheets have become wrinkled, the pattern is similar to a spider web, but more chaotic. So, if you cover the photo with the sheet, you see the image through a veil, which may very well symbolise the confusion experimented by the person with Alzheimer’s.

Marenka shows us another wall covered with small pictures that represent the fragments of this photo. They are displayed with no order. One of the paintings represents a face, another one a hand, another part of a jumper...

I decided to cut the photograph into pieces and paint the different parts, as if it were a puzzle. I didn’t want to copy it exactly as it was, but much more simplified and childlike, reducing the detail, mimicking how the memory works, remembering only the generalities, and then sometimes going into detail. Also, as you can see, I didn’t use the fragmentation of the spider web in all of them. I started painting just the photos and then I thought that I could use it. Then I started experimenting and, for example, in this piece, which is a hand, you can also see a landscape or in this other one, which is part of the jumper of the boy, you can see the sea, the horizon or the sand. And the latest ones are almost like sketches. So, as you can see, slowly, a lot of things are happening in my painting.

Also the way I displayed the different pictures on the wall has changed. At first they formed a straight line, like a cinema screen and then, this morning, I thought I could show it like a puzzle, so I rearranged them.

At the bottom on the right, there is a piece that is just red paint. We ask her if it has symbolic value.

I am not sure yet. I would like to research the role colour plays in dementia, because they suffer blackouts, but there are also periods of aggression.

Maybe I need to paint the same topic over and over again, because one of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on my grandmother is that she tends to tell the same story all the time; she asks a question, you answer it, and she asks the same question again, you answer it, and it goes on and on and on and it’s really difficult. She does not realize she’s asking the same question, which is ok, but for us it’s really tiring: you try to give her a slightly different answer each time, or you try to divert the conversation, but she keeps on repeating the same question. So this is why I think I should repeat the same image instead of doing different images. For example, I paint the same face, but I paint it differently, because this is how the memory works: you remember, but you remember it slightly differently every time.

I started working with memory in 2011, coinciding with my grandmother’s illness and the passing away of my other grandmother, who I was really closed to. She was Indonesian, and I started to remember the stories she had told me from when she was little in Indonesia, and I made a book.

But this relationship with memory had already started a few years before, when she did a project about masks for her MA at Royal College: http://www.marenkagabeler.com/the-mask-project.htm

I was interested in facial identity and I decided to make a cast of my face in plaster and make a mask. I just left holes for the eyes and the mouth and I wore it for two weeks to experiment what it was like not to have any facial expression, how it affects communication and how it makes you feel. I kept a diary. From then I started painting the experiences of the performance. And the final piece for the degree show was paintings inspired on masters like Velazquez, Goya, Vermeer, but transforming them somehow and I placed them surrounding a fireplace. That was the first time I used the fireplace as a motif in my work. And I think using the fireplace linked to the memory because it is the place where we reminisce. I think it’s Bachelard who writes about the person who sits in front of the fire and the memories come out and come back, like a star shape. Also, it’s common to find photographs of your family on the mantelpiece, which are also memories of the past.

At the moment I am also participating in a group exhibition at the Cello Factory. I am showing one of the pictures of the masks. As for my next exhibition in Amsterdam at the beginning of January, which is a solo exhibition, I am going to show the installation of the eighty faces, but it’s quite a big space, so I am thinking of showing some of the paintings I am working on now.

I always feel curious about the working routine of writers and artists, how they manage to shape their inspiration, so I cannot help asking Marenka about it.

I don’t have a very strict working routine, I have to work to earn money, then I am doing the RYCT course with Pam Schweitzer, and of course, as I am pregnant, sometimes I am just too tired. I am also decorating the house... so I come here when I can, basically. I prefer working in the morning, when I feel fresh. When I was younger, I used to paint all night and sleep during the day, but now I am more traditional.

Now that I am pregnant, I feel more relaxed. I used to be anxious, but now I accept t inspiration as it comes. I don’t know if it has something to do with the baby, but now I know that the baby is coming and I only have a few months left to paint. Then I will have to look after the baby and later on, maybe in four or five months, I will be able to paint again. Maybe I’ve become less ambitious.

Some people have asked me if I have painted about my pregnancy. Actually, in the group exhibition I am taking part in at the moment, which shows the work of women artists, there is a beautiful painting of a belly containing another person. But no, I haven’t. At the moment, even if, of course, I am thinking about my baby, I am focused on my grandmother and the topic of memories.

Marenka is intelligent and beautiful but, above other things, has a magic aura about her that makes people relaxed and happy. I notice this every Monday when we go to the RYCT training. Her art will probably be one of the most interesting outcomes of this project.

Photos: Lorenzohernandez                              www.photolorenzohernandez.com

No comments:

Post a Comment