The number one obsession of the moment in every single category of culture is the teenager. As an older and older society worships younger and younger people, we’re knee-deep in images of disaffected youth, pretty young things, awkward adolescents, ugly ducklings, and teen angels. In the art world, this preoccupation has mutated into a photographic convention. Though it has no name, its characteristics are familiar: large-to-medium-scale color pictures of young people. Everywhere you look, there they are.
With wall-to-wall teenagers doing little more than dancing, staring, or standing, Rineke Dijkstra’s 26-minute split-screen video projection, The Buzzclub, Liverpool, UK/Mysteryworld, Zaandam, NL (1996-97), should be generic. It turns out to be one of the best videotapes made by an artist.
When I first saw it, in London three years ago, I couldn’t take my eyes off its rhythmic, left-right, minimalist structure, its lingering looks at club kids as they groove to the sounds of house music and DJs barking out salutations. The form is simple: a juvenile on the left, another on the right; sometimes one screen is blank; occasionally, two kids are in one frame. All are posed in front of the same white backdrop. Buzzclub may peter out at the end, and bog down here and there, but the whole thing’s like a superlong version of that ecstatic split second at a party when your eyes lock onto a stranger’s.
Buzzclub reminds you how great it is to watch other people dance. If you’re of a certain age, it can trigger prelapsarian pangs, the remembrance of things past. The tape, although made over the course of two years in England and in Holland, seems to encapsulate a single night. Starting slowly, it picks up speed, gets going, keeps going, and goes a little further. Anticipation is followed by reverie. Beer gives way to harder drinks, intimations of E and coke, then bleary-eyed spaciness and early hangovers. Things mellow out. It ends with the dual projection of a lone woman trying, one last time, to find the beat. Buzzclub passes over you like a meteorological event.
In the first scene, a fresh-looking girl in a white dress sips a beer, waiting for the party to begin. On the right, another girl dances slowly. Things warm up when a couple starts kissing; it’s fabulous to watch this intricate, intimate dance—the girl firmly yet subtly in control as she guides the boy’s hands from her chest back down to her hips, turning the kiss into something more than copping a feel. Next, a classic type—the sexy, hipless English girl in a satin dress—languidly swivels left and right. All the while, a pent-upness beats beneath the surface.
About 10 minutes into Buzzclub, Dijkstra lights a time bomb. A blond girl, soft of face, wearing a white dress with a diamond cutout midriff, appears. Initially, she looks shy, dopey, enticing but unsure of herself—just another mall rat. She sways slowly. She’s not really moving much, but seems to be going deep into herself. Her eyes are half closed, and a faint smile forms on her lips. Over the course of five extraordinary minutes, she loses consciousness of the camera. Then, just as the music ups its tempo, her hands—which had been clasped behind her back—rise; she lets loose and explodes, and you realize this gosling is part goddess. She’s completely in control of her body, its movements, and its effects.
Watching these ardent adolescents as they try on the masks of sex, seduction, adulthood, and cool, or stare you down with smoldering looks, is like a glimpse into a molten core. For me, Buzzclub was a conversion experience: In 26 minutes, Dijkstra went from being an engaging photographer to an avatar of the exquisite. Seeing it in its New York debut only confirms this feeling.
Unfortunately, the eight new photographs—of youngsters standing in parks—that accompany Buzzclub aren’t as mesmerizing or evocative. They’re flawless but familiar, even enervating taken together. Dijkstra, 41, from Holland, presents a complicated case: Not only is she a subscriber to photography’s convention-of-the-moment, she’s one of its inventors and livelier practitioners. Cool and stately, her best pictures are triumphs of taste. Her virtues are negative ones, her photos, successful for what they are not: not voyeuristic, simplistic, manipulative, or melodramatic.
In the way that Andreas Gursky transforms the act of looking at photographs into the experience of movies, and Thomas Struth enlarges photography to philosophical proportions, Dijkstra attempts to convert the medium that was supposed to overturn painting back into an almost painterly practice. Many of her pictures trigger afterimages of Manet’s Fifer or Cézanne’s Bather (as was seen in MOMA’s recent rehanging of its collection). A formalist at heart, she’s interested in the almost-monochromatic, allover, single-surface background. In her great pictures of young bathers posed at the beach, the sea plays that part; later—in her startling portraits of nearly naked young mothers holding their infants—the hospital corridor stands in for the ocean. In Buzzclub, whiteness was the setting. In these new photographs, she’s gone Barbizon: All the pictures are suffused with this glimmery greenness.
This painterliness allows subtle shifts in plane, slight distortions, and indirect angles to take on consequence. Everything that happens in a Dijkstra happens in the vividly lit, acutely in focus, sunburst center. Her best pictures compress your entire field of vision into this densely packed optical tornado.
As a photographer, Dijkstra is two parts August Sander, one part Diane Arbus, and one part classicist. Like Sander, Dijkstra approaches her subjects in a terse, documentary manner. Like Arbus, she chooses her moments well. The boy in the Benetton shirt, the Lithuanian girl with braids, and the blond who squeezes her hands into fists and curls her toes with tension are all distant cousins of Arbus’s terrifying Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park. Meanwhile, the girl in the black-and-white sweater has the cornea-burning clarity of a van Eyck.
Pop genius Phil Spector once said, “I imagined a sound so strong that if the material wasn’t the greatest, the sound would carry the record.” Even though it remains to be seen if Dijkstra’s teenagers and young people are the strong “sound” or the weak “material” of her art, these photographs can get monotonous. In Buzzclub, however, everything works. Subject, setting, color, and format are in alignment, and Dijkstra touches something bottomless. Maybe it’s that the kids are more comfortable in front of video cameras than still ones; that their “real,” unguarded selves came out; that, for Dijkstra, warm goes further than cool; that in changing her medium she tweaked her approach. Or maybe it’s more primitive: We love watching life.