Taking Off. Henry my neighbor

With a disquieting picture story, Mariken Wessels sheds light on Martha and Henry’s dysfunctional marriage which was permeated by perversity.

“To photograph people is to violate them,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. “It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” This troubling idea spreads like a pungent odor throughout Taking Off. Henry my neighbor, the latest artist’s book by Mariken Wessels. With this book she tells the story about Martha, who had been thoroughly objectified by her husband Henry, in a series of about 5,500 apathic looking nude photographs.

Friends of the couple gave Wessels unrestricted access to the archive as well as the study of Henry, who happened to have been Wessels’ former neighbor. Furthermore, she gained permission for the free reuse of the materials, among which she also found forty cut-up and twisted (in every sense of the word) collages made by Henry after Martha had teared up many of the pictures and thrown them out the window, before disappearing from his life. Reshaping his wife’s image even more to his own perverse taste, Henry made seventeen distorted clay figurines before he moved on, living in the woods for good.

Wessels calls the book “a true picture story about a failed marriage, sexual frustration and voyeurism.” The latter in particular raises questions, because it’s not just Henry being guilty of that, but Wessels and ultimately the audience too. Then why release it? Paradoxically it was done for Martha, because Taking Off doesn’t refer only to the uncountable times Martha took off her clothes, but could also be understood as the courageous act of leaving Henry behind. It takes up barely four images within an ocean of madness, but they’re notable through their dramatic quality. Wessels uses them as a small catharsis, the white peacock being the apogee, symbol for a redeemed dignity. Even though Taking Off may tell an alarming story, it’s a damn well-made book.

Translated by Taco Hidde Bakker.
This article was published in Knack Focus, 3 June 2015.