Essay written for the South African Center for photography
by Jenny Altschuler


Barbara Wildenboer’s exhibition, titled Vanitas, created for her Masters of Fine Art studies at the Michaelis School of fine art, UCT in December 2007 and subsequently held at the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) in January 2008, is indeed a treat for serious lovers of photography and the Conceptualist Art genre. Wildenboer is a Conceptualist, using various photographic processes and techniques to bring over ideas of memory held and lost and the imprint of fleeting life recorded.

Most of the pieces in this body of work have grown out of a combination of mixed media with photography as an integral element to the concept, underlining notions of time, as well as the paradoxical relationship between past and present states of being. Photographs are foremost examples of the icons that we keep to refer to what we had, and yet remind us of the loss of that very thing. Because of the historic melancholic iconography of the Vanitas genre of still life, she has found it to be suitable for her own expression of ideas of loss and yearning. Wildenboer considers melancholy and the related experiences of loss and longing as explanatory concepts from which to interpret her own creative endeavors. She emphasizes that mood and personal experience play a formative role in determining the outcome of her work. Interested in the idea of a ‘present absence’ and an ‘absent presence’ (on which the title and content of her thesis dissertation is based) within the items we collect to preserve our memories, Wildenboer recreates the memorabilia of incubation, pregnancy and cocooning which are profound vessels in the process of the creation of life, but which lose the created entities after birth.

Wildenboer states that she experiences melancholy as an emotion that is fed by loss and longing and often consisting of contradicting emotions. “It can be differentiated from mourning in that it is not always necessarily linked to a specific loss but can surface even at the most arbitrary moments. In such a case I see it as expressive of a more general fear experienced when facing existential instability or change.” As profoundly, Wildenboer would like her pieces in Vanitas series to associate the viewer with notions of impermanence and disappearance. She hints that they could be seen as indirectly speaking of the fear of death but in a passive manner characterized by a bittersweet awareness of change, decay, and things coming to an end.

The still life or Vanitas features as a predominant theme in Wildenboer’s work, both in two-dimensional and three-dimensional form. These range from traditional format of still life arrangements (but with non-traditional objects), to flower studies (executed through photography and layered with three dimension pressed flowers and transparent materials), to sculptural installations that echo still life pieces. The still life compositions that make up the body of work are mostly compiled from a variety of collected objects. Groups of empty shells from hatched birds with photographic fossil- like images are delicately tied in soft, porous material so referential of the amniotic female birthing sac, yet the eggs themselves are all broken, post-hatched and past their usefulness. This is a very sad piece, nostalgic for the intimacy of the incubation period yet exquisite in the fragility of the gathering of the delicate broken residues which themselves form this still life after-life.

The exhibition as a whole dissects notions of fragility, disappearance and impermanence. Some of her pieces combine the actual objects of fascination (the subject/object of the lens) with the photographs of the same. After photographing indigenous flowers, Wildenboer has pressed them, both killing and preserving them. These pieces, with pressed flowers and delicate material layered on top of carefully photographed 2 dimensional versions of the same, hold a dichotomy of life and death with the preservation of their beauty and colour through the pressing process yet their obvious lack of life. They seem exactly as in life, yet their life is absent. The layer which is photographic echoes this duality exactly with the idea of photography that captures the lifelike version in all its glory, yet it is no more, it is not alive but only a piece of paper. Pinned with common sewing pins as a layer onto the photographic print, the pieces are also very feminine reminiscent of seamstresses and the delicate patching of garments or embroidered craft pieces.

Wildenboer has enjoyed working with medium format cameras. She owns an old 35mm Pentax as well, but also loves working with Digital photographic techniques. Her Silver Gelatine prints have been exposed onto substrates such as shells, wood, rock and glass to create the suggestion of proof of residue life forces. These imprints or prints accentuate the fossil like effect of archeological finding. Often combining the two dimensional image with 3 dimensional natural and crafted objects, Wildenboer defies the limited perception of the static wall hung photograph. Many of her pieces are installations into which the viewer can walk, or sculptural creations around which the viewer can circle. However even the wall hung framed photographs are layered with each layer leading to another related theme in the concept.

Wildenboer lives in Woodstock, Cape Town with her two sons Lucas and Ivan. Being pregnant and having given birth to both children while doing her Masters degree did not hamper her studies. While in her first pregnancy she traveled to Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan, taking up an artist’s residency for a few months and exhibiting the work she did there. The pregnancies also fed directly into Vanitas as through this period, she experienced the cycle of incubation first hand, being the cocoon, the embryonic host of creation. Her work connects itself directly to this experience of intense intimacy with the created entity and then the separation from and loss of the being to its own life.Barbara Wildenboer is indeed a young contemporary artist to watch. She attained a distinction for her Masters degree and is highly dedicated to the expression of her concepts through the medium of photography.