Friday, April 06, 2007

Bert Sissingh

The Cornerstone of Society

Like many of his generation, Bert Sissingh (1956, Rotterdam) grew up in an era when one didn't talk about the past. In post-war Dutch society, everyone was trying to pick up their lives again and contribute to the country's reconstruction. Sissingh's parents were about forty years old when their children were born. As if the age difference wasn't enough of a gap, the fact that the older generation was fearfully silent about the war made this gap nearly unbridgeable.

Sissingh works in series. His first series - The End of History - dates from 1996-99. He took the first photo for that project while a photography student at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. We see Bert in his parent's living room. His father is reading the paper, his mother a book. No one is talking. Young Sissingh has a pile of books jammed between his hands and chin. They are nineteen volumes of The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War, a series of 29 books. Those nearly 15.000 pages make the gap between him and his parents even more palpable. The message is clear: Bert is going to have to find out about the past himself. In the next series - The Family of Man (2002-03) - that Sissingh produces following the death of his mother, we see the father posing for his son while the latter works on a sculpture. The sculpture is Ossip Zadkine's City without a Heart, a memorial to the bombardment of the Rotterdam city centre by the Germans in 1940. The memorial depicts an agonized, mutilated giant whose abstracted limbs bend and quake, suggesting the extremes of inner torment and physical pain. In the last series - Living in the Past (2006) - Bert is a father himself. He is reading to his son from one of the volumes of The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War while his wife sews Stars of David on clothing.

Apparently the war is a burden that must be passed on to the children, even for a generation that didn't experience the war itself. The photographed situations and events always have a socio-historical context. Beneath that, Sissingh's work contains layers of psychology, mythology and biblical connotations. In the first series, made while Bert's mother was still alive, we see references to the Oedipus complex: while doing the dishes, the son teasingly pulls his mother's apron strings loose. Moreover, father and son are constantly competing for the mother's favour.

When mother passed away, the father moved to a service flat in Groningen. The furniture makes the journey too, so that the fifties atmosphere that characterized the first series remains intact. The mother is sorely missed. Father and son spend most of their time in pyjamas and seem rarely leave the house anymore. Bert Sissingh's girlfriend, Sjoukje Boersma is no longer involved, apart from one exception (Zadkine's sculpture), in order to leave the intimacy between father and son undisturbed. The intimacy is tangible.

The most recent series is suffused with the spirit of the fifties: the family as cornerstone of society. They are family photos in black and white with Bert playing the leading part. Meticulously staged tableaux vivants. The woman is played by Katja Payens; Sjoukje Boersma is co-author and the photos are partly taken by Awoiska van der Molen. The mother is dead and the father is no longer participating, moving Bert a generation forward. Earnestness and irony compete for a place in the spotlight in the sometimes hilarious photos. The viewer is once again actively involved in the reconstruction of a both personal and universal life story.

© Pim Milo, 2007

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