The Oldest Thing

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One of the most frustrating experiences for a writer is semantic satiation. In fact, you don’t even have to be a writer to experience it; you merely have to be capable of writing: take a word, any word — let’s say “satiation” — and repeat it again and again. Suddenly it loses all meaning. It is as if there were a switch in your head somewhere that was being triggered. Why does this word look so strange? What does it mean?

Visual satiation lies at the heart of Ruth van Beek‘s The Oldest Thing, the fact that the most ordinary things can suddenly appear alien — much like words can lose their meaning. The book is filled with rather simple, at times childlike photographs of completely ordinary items alongside a number of images made by the artist. The latter can probably easiest described as either colour fields painted on top of photographs or swatches of monochromatic paper that are placed on top of other photographs.

All of these images (except the very first one) are paired. Pairing images is one of the main games in the world of photography. People go about them in all kinds of ways. For example, there is the hipsterish visual wit exemplified by Jason Fulford (furiously winking at the in crowd that will take delight at everybody’s shared cleverness). In stark contrast to that, though, Van Beek’s pairings are completely playful and entirely devoid of pretense. At times, the pairings are almost too simple; and yet they work. This really looks like that in the most basic fashion.

How does this work? Or why does it work? And why is the outcome of this game so incredibly delightful? Ever since I received the book in the mail, I have been trying to figure out how to write about it. Every time I thought I had finally figured out how to convey what I thought I had realized, some other form of satiation would strike me; and everything that had just — and finally! — made perfect sense was now dissolving in the strangeness of abstract thought.

Oh well.

I might as well note that strictly speaking, the book contains a lot of photographs that are placed sideways on the pages. As a viewer, you can obviously turn the book in such a fashion that up will be up, and down will be down. But I don’t think that you really want to do that. You want to resist that temptation because while Ruth van Beek is after the visual description of whatever item is being depicted — a table, a pillow, whatever else, it’s the one in the book that she’s interested in.

As a viewer, you always have to submit to the internal logic of a piece of art. As an artist, you have to trust your viewers to be able to do that. If they can’t or don’t want to, then, well, that’s their problem. After all, a small wooden table with plates, cups, and a tea pot on it (all of which might or might not be a miniature set) is only that when viewed “properly”. Seen rotated, all of it becomes something else, even if it’s not clear what exactly that is.

But that’s the game here: visual satiation. Of course, you could look at a photograph for such a long time until everything looks strange to you. However, those near you might start wondering about your sanity or they might suspect a medical problem, neither of which would be particularly pleasant.

Instead, you might as well take The Oldest Thing and have some of the work done for you, which comes with the added bonus that you couldn’t have thought of what you’re about to encounter.

One of the reasons why Van Beek easily manages to stay clear of the hipsterish visual wit I mentioned earlier is because the images all describe such basic, simple objects. Many of them are household items. Some look as if they had been taken from maybe a cookbook. Others might have been found in a mail-order catalogue. To locate such profound visual delight in the most mundane of settings is no mean feat.

On the back of the book, Van Beek gives away the source of her imagery: “My mother left me three binders with carefully copied recipes and pasted pictures. I never made any of these recipes. I kept them for other reasons. […] My mother died when I was fifteen. I never knew her as a woman. This has ensured that she has always remained a mother figure.”

We need to keep in mind that for all art there’s a separation between where a piece of art is coming from and what it is about (even as the two aspects typically overlap to some extent). Knowing about this part of the artist’s biography might be helpful, though, especially for those who are too puzzled by the mundane deadpanness of it all. If you’re one of those: There’s much to be gained from allowing yourself access to Ruth van Beek’s visual logic.

Highly recommended.

The Oldest Thing; images by Ruth van Beek; poems by Basje Boer; 512 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

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