A GARDEN REVISIONED: INGE MEIJER
Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories
Dutch visual artist Inge Meijer has a knack for studying sites and tracing archives – excavating the memories of a chosen location with a rich range of research tools. During an artist’s residency in Gwangju, South Korea, Meijer delved into the past life of a soon-to-be-demolished building, unraveling a range of private histories that required gentle handling.
Inge Meijer’s arrival in South Korea, where she traveled for a 3-month residency in August 2019, might best be described as a whirlwind: A grueling flight from Amsterdam to Seoul preceded a lengthy bus journey on to Gwangju – where the programme would be hosted – before a final ride by taxi to her accommodation: a compact studio in a downtown apartment block, complete with miniature bathroom, and accessible by a key code provided prior to her departure. Jet-lagged, and in an unfamiliar environment – the streets below stirring with new sights, smells, and sounds – Meijer faced the daunting task of seeking out an anchor for her research.
Indeed, she also faced the somewhat unspoken expectation to get to work: the model of the residency has, after all, become so deeply ingrained in today’s economy of artistic production. Strange as this notion is, Meijer is no stranger to this way of working. A number of her past projects have emerged under similar parameters, her investigations helped along by the residency’s characteristic combination of happenstance and time pressure. In contexts such as these, “you really have to be a magnet,” she suggests.
Scanning her surroundings from the vantage point of her studio, a garden on the roof of an adjacent building became an early source of intrigue. Overgrown with unkempt foliage and chirping with crickets, it was an incongruous sight amidst the drab urban sprawl – “a capsule in the middle of the city”. After gaining access to the building, the artist learned it was soon to be demolished. It once housed a wedding hall, catering to marriage en masse: one of the city’s largest at its height, where dozens of ceremonies could have taken place on any given day.
The garden, as well as the building’s interior, where glitzy chandeliers and gilded furniture once evoked a sense of grandeur, was an ideal stage for photographing newlyweds. As Meijer scoured the space, she found and recovered a host of negatives strewn across the floor, presumably abandoned by an in-house photographer, and trampled over in the years since its closure. Supplemented by further existing images that had appeared on the wedding hall’s website – that Meijer imagines were produced to promote a tired venue long after its heyday – these negatives offered the foundation for her project. A parallel video work following the building’s gradual demolition, shot from Meijer’s nearby apartment, provides another layer for thinking through the trajectory of the site.
Despite the excitement that came with uncovering this body of images, Meijer’s approach was – and remains – notably cautious. She regards herself as its temporary caretaker, consciously resisting the colonial impulse to classify and categorise its contents, and acutely aware of her position as a cultural outsider. Equally, the negatives themselves, showing countless strangers’ first moments of marriage, were never conceived for wide circulation, but instead to serve as cherished keepsakes for the families of those depicted.
“Dealing with portraits of people I’ve never met is something I treat as a very delicate matter,” Meijer explains. “And I’m not interested in exposing people’s identities. But the beautiful thing about this archive is that there’s a certain rhythm that everyone follows. It’s not about individual identity, its maybe more about the photographer: what I see when I look at the images is a very clear plan behind the photography, and the people photographed seem very submissive to the instructions they are given.”
Here, Meijer points to the precise visual choreography to which each couple was subjected over the course of their wedding day, evidenced by clear similarities between the found images. A cycle of near identical gestures – the consistent placement of the groom’s feet, the careful positioning of the bride’s hands, or the deliberately draped folds of her dress – offers a portal into the wedding hall experience, conjuring the motions of an experienced stylist’s imposing touch, or of the photographer’s own rigid sensibilities for how things should and shouldn’t look.
What we don’t see in this process, however, is any real room for self-expression. The images portray a highly normative environment: where conventions are paramount, and where traditional gender roles are assumed like garments – then crystallised in imagery. “No one looks very comfortable in the photographs,” Meijer reflects. “Maybe because everything is so forced. It’s that idea of how to look, how to present oneself, how to be…that’s what I’m drawn to.”
In the context of a global pandemic, with scant opportunities to return to Korea, Meijer’s A Garden Revisioned project remains in a relatively embryonic phase. Multiple fascinating questions that emerge from the story of the site are yet to find answers, such as the fate of the building itself, where a slightly dystopian office-cum-hotel complex is planned – not unlike, Meijer later learned, the accommodation where she had stayed during her own stint in Gwangju.
But an opportunity to show her work in progress – as part of the exhibition Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories at Utrecht’s FOTODOK – offered a fruitful means with which to speculate further on the material she’d amassed. Here, the presentation featured framed prints of the wedding hall’s promotional photographs; cropped details from the staged portraits arranged on large rolls of coiled paper, with similar gestures grouped together per sheet; the corresponding negatives themselves, set out on a lightbox, the faces of the subjects obscured; and a video work, tracing Meijer’s ongoing digitisation of the negatives.
In its totality, the presentation was designed to evoke a studio setting – the feeling of entering the artist’s workspace. In so doing, visitors are reminded that in this early stage, a host of Meijer’s ideas and investigations are still in flux. And any expectations that an exhibited work constitutes a finished one – and that the creative process should somehow be hidden from view – are challenged. “I feel vulnerable as an artist to show a work that isn’t finished, or that hasn’t yet materialised in its final form,” she explains. “But in this case, my empowerment is in choosing to take time.”
For many artists, archives offer boundless opportunities and a valuable departure point for their own creative ventures. They’re treated as reservoirs from which to extract, repurpose, reframe and reimagine. But Meijer’s approach, with an awareness of her position, and the inevitable blindspots that come with it, is deliberately slower. In her mind, the site itself is the reservoir, and the archive is an endpoint: it is a destination she is working towards. In the meantime, the images she has come to possess “are just material”, and the great, many stories that fed into their creation – both public and private – must be probed with gentle sensitivity.
A Garden Revisioned is included in the upcoming publication Pass It On. Private Stories, Public Histories to be launched in July 2021. You can preview it here.