Hellen van Meene’s Levitating Bodies

Hellen van Meene, untitled

A consistent theme running through Hellen van Meene’s photographs is gravity, or, as it appears, its lack thereof. In one particular image by the Dutch art photographer, a young girl appears to levitate as it leans against a wall. The harsh sunlight coming through the windows falls on the girl’s white gown, resulting in the photograph being overexposed at her feet touching the ground. The visual effect of levitation is caused by the lack of visual information in the overexposure, but also, because the girl appears taller than her childish facial features might first suggest. Yet van Meene quickly debunks the perception that this is a girl in a woman’s body by also depicting the edge of a door frame to the side of the image as a reference point. It is within this framework that the viewer gets an understanding of the child in relation to the rather decrepit surroundings of an attic. In the photograph van Meene appears to tap into the visual iconography of the classic horror film ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), where, in a key scene, a girl possessed by the devil is floating above her bed. The levitating body in the attic, despite the bright warm light shining through the window, ads a haunted aura to van Meene’s photograph.

The Exorcist, 1973

Hellen van Meene, untitled

The seemingly dated and unkept interiors in many of van Meene’s photographs of the body also establishes a binary opposition between the ‘old’ surroundings and the ‘young’ age of her female models. It is in relation to the surroundings that the juvenility of the subjects is further emphasized. The raw interiors and the dramatic light falling through the windows also creates a form of visual realism similar to that by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Many photographers make use of such a visual device: the British photographer Tom Hunter amongst others uses a Vermeeresque style of lighting in his photographs. It appears, that van Meene is alluding to a type of ‘Dutchness’ established in art and visual culture.

Tom Hunter, Woman Reading Possession Order, 1998 and Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an open Window, 1657–1659

The lighting in van Meene’s photographs, also with a reference to the double meaning of the word ‘light’, further underlines the central trope of levitation and defiance of gravity. Here, gravity and the lack of gravity helps to situate the young models in the context of teenage identification and a coming-of-age. Levitation in van Meene’s work further signifies the condition of the bodies that she photographs: developing, awkward, growing, not yet complete.

Hellen van Meene, untitled

Anna Gaskell

An inevitable comparison can be made with the American photographer Anna Gaskell who also appears to play with gravity as a visual allegory for the ambiguous stages of growing up. While Gaskell’s photographs are situated in the dreamlike condition of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’, van Meene’s photographs are situated in a more realistic circumstance of the everyday. A number of van Meene’s photographs thus allude to (real) bodily sensations: a girl holds her head under a hand dryer, another girl lets her hair float in a bucket of water.

Hellen van Meene, untitled

These photographs of the body and of a corporeal experience have the uncanny effect of grounding van Meene’s levitating bodies in the realm of the real. This relationship between a humanly impossible condition of floating in midair, and, at the same time, bodily sensations of the everyday, creates a tension that runs throughout van Meene’s body of work. On one hand, her subjects appear to defy the logics of gravity, and on the other, they are engulfed in the seemingly most banal earthly sensations – sensations that equally tap into our very own childhood memories.

Hellen Van Meene: Tout Va Disparaitre is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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