Through the looking glass: women and art at MeCollectors Berlin

Permanence and transience. Can art represent both of these simultaneously? These questions of time and history are just what “The Moment is Eternity”, an exhibition starting September 26th at meCollectors Room, aims to explore. 

Comprised of some 300 images from over 60 artists, “The Moment is Eternity” illuminates the photographic works of the Ollbricht Collection, and shows them in conjunction with a range of weird and wonderful historic artefacts from the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”. 

Considered to be one of the most extensive private collections in Europe, the Olbricht collection is filled with artwork ranging from the 16th century to the most recent contemporary work of artists and photographers.

Through an interplay of art forms, the “Moment is Eternity” looks at the theme of transience in a series of single fleeting moments – the only “perceptible slice[s] of eternity” – as captured through the lens of a camera. As meCollectors suggest in their accompanying press release, “Lending duration to the moment is inscribed into the very medium [of photography] itself.”

“The Moment is Eternity” is diverse in terms of medium and epoch. This is a collection of harmony and incongruity: where images of defining moments in history are placed next to erotic scenes of young lovers, where bodies meet with objects, colour meets with negative, and the passing of time persists despite all human effort to prevent it. 

It is this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the conventional and the absurd, that gives us a peripheral view of identity across the ages. 

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When taking my first steps into “The Moment is Eternity”, I was aware that this was an exhibition with a clear purpose. With the many sheets of information I’d been given in hand, I began looking at these images with preconceived ideas.

These works were about timelessness and eternity and about collecting and preserving, interrogating and reporting, the moment. 

These images were a tangible memento mori, a symbol of transience, mortality, life and death, mapped, at least for the first half of the exhibition, onto visceral representations of the body. 

I glanced from image to image of the human frame. Next to the exposed, elegant physique of the model Kristen McMenamy was an anatomical print of a dissected frog, a quirky reminder from the Wunderkammer of our long standing, human interest in anatomy. 

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Helmut Newton, Nude of Kristen McMenamy, 1995

It seemed odd to have a sexualised portrayal of a woman next to an obscure, even grotesque, image of a dead frog. But perhaps this was the aim: presenting incongruity to inspire new ways of seeing. 

Around the room were shameless depictions of the female body. Women were clothed, or not, arranged in a variety of positions, shamelessly projecting their identity and reflecting the aesthetics of the age from which they were captured.

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I thought of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum of the ‘decisive moment’ that meCollector’s had referred to in their accompanying press release.

To capture the ‘decisive moment’ is to capture the essence of a transitory moment and the “form that corresponds to that essence” simultaneously. 

But as I looked from image to image of women stood gazing either in the mirror at themselves, or outwards towards their viewer, I thought that these weren’t, perhaps, what was meant by ‘decisive moment.’

These didn’t appear to be fleeting moments, caught in time, but moments captured, pinned down and perfectly contrived for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Russ Meyer’s ‘Eve in front of Fireplace’ seemed to confirm my view. A woman lies partially clad on a fluffy carpet, looking seductively out at the camera. The fire glows in the background as a glass of wine sits within reach of her hand – all the indications of cosy lovemaking. The artist calls her ‘Eve’, the first woman who deceived Adam and the biblical figure who has been identified for centuries as a wily seductress. 

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Russ Meyer, Eve in front of Fireplace, 1955

A person’s history is always brought to bear on an image they see before them. Mine was informed by the readings of John Berger in his essay, “Ways of seeing”, which takes a critical look at the way we perceive art. 

Berger discusses the disparity between nudity and nakedness and the rhetoric surrounding it in a chapter of his book. He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” 

In an an examination of the European oil painting tradition, he says that only twenty or thirty nudes in the entire collection depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. After reading “Ways of seeing”, I could no longer look at the naked female frame and not question whether it was indeed nakedness, or nudity, that I saw before me.

These images of women didn’t appear to be caught in time, but purposefully arranged for artistic consumption. Was the ‘decisive moment’ here, one that had been artfully put together, rather than spontaneously captured?

The images represented female identity, their roles and rituals, throughout time. But was it their own self, or one created by another, that was being presented in these images? Was Russ Meyer’s Eve naked or nude? Did she arrange herself this way, or was she arranged? I looked to the next image. 

In a black and white photograph, Cindy Sherman is captured looking into a mirror. She poses, clutching a towel around her and looking over her shoulder with a provocative gaze, as if decidedly arranged this way, perhaps even by a male photographer. The moment here was certainly ‘decisive’, yet not spontaneous. 

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 

Through this image her identity is obscured. We see her face, but only through a secondary source – her reflection. Here, the woman doesn’t show us her real identity, but an assumed one. Her body does not relax into its natural shape, but stands perfectly poised for a photograph.

Women, mirrors, make up, masks, are historically tied up with issues of identity, authenticity, beauty and vanity. Paul Outerbridge’s ‘Nude at a dressing table’, not only depicts a woman gazing into a mirror,  but presents her applying makeup – an action seen by the Elizabethan stage as a concealing of the self. Does the woman portrayed looking into the mirror mask her identity, or accentuate it? And if so, then who for? And why?

Andre Gelpke’s ‘Christine mit Spiegel’ presents a woman behind a handheld looking glass, her face completely hidden by the mirror – her arm raised as if applying makeup to the visage she hides from view. And then there is Gerhard Richter’s, ‘Betty’, a woman captured, but looking away. Her identity unable to reach the viewer at all.

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Andre Gelpke, Christine mit Spiegel

The identity of these women, as represented by these images, reveal something about how they are, and have been, perceived, and how they perceive themselves. They are a double image, with a double purpose. A reflection in a mirror. 

I stood looking at a courtly handheld mirror, dated back to 1650, encased in a glass box near these images. Staring at this tangible emblem of “womanhood”, I wondered how many women had looked into this glass through the ages and had truly seen themselves.

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Questions of time and history returned as I wandered through the rest of the exhibition. Historically charged pictures of the first test of an Atom Bomb in New Mexico, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and a static image of the KKK juxtaposed naked lovers on a back seat of a car and Ed va der Elksen’s photograph of a passionate, cinematic kiss. 

The ‘decisive moment’, one momentarily suspended in time and hastily captured by the lens of a camera, was here, urgent and unrelenting. Whether nude, naked, premeditated, spontaneous, for the self or for someone else, these images have something in common: they are moments in history that cannot be replicated. 

Photographs can capture, as well as distort, reality. They can confirm and conceal the self, but the ‘decisive moment’ remains the same: one that can only be captured by the swift click a shutter. 

‘The Moment is Eternity” is open until the 1st April 2019 at the MeCollectors Room Berlin. The gallery is open every Wednesday to Monday, from 12-6pm.

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