‘There’s more to generic spaces than meets the eye,’ says photographer Marleen Sleeuwits
With curiously reconstituted photographic spaces, Sleeuwits eradicates the border between 2D and 3D.
While studying photography in The Hague, Marleen Sleeuwits started making studies of impersonal environments when they were empty and unoccupied. From photographing found settings in airports, hotels and offices, she graduated to shaping temporary interiors, and sometimes objects, that embody her preoccupations. Large-scale and intensely detailed, her photographs – devoid of people, furniture, and even doors – draw the viewer into places that are simultaneously alien and familiar. In her work, she tests the boundaries between 2D and 3D realities. By using her photographs to make installations, she adds to their immersive power, thus completing the circle.
So you’re a photographer who spends more time creating spaces than shooting pictures . . .
MARLEEN SLEEUWITS: I might spend a month, or maybe three, working on a space. Then I’ll take a single picture with my 8x10 camera. Lots of people tell me that for a photographer, I don’t take many photos. But my work is very photographic in character.
You mean because your interiors are partly composed of photographs?
That’s part of it. As you can see in my site-specific installation in Toronto, where photos of the floor become the wall and vice versa, you always have to ask yourself: what’s the photo, and what’s the installation? It’s completely blurred. I like that.
You’re giving us a puzzle to solve – but why?
It’s my personal translation of how I experience these spaces. I’m asking what it is that surrounds us. How do we relate to our environment? I play with those ideas. It’s my own interpretation of space.
How do you convey your interpretation to the audience?
I use an 8x10 camera, which gives enormous detail. You can see specks of dust, flecks of paint. It’s very tactile. I present each photo on a monumental scale, as if it were a window. Lately, I’ve made the photos freestanding – like a wall, they make a kind of 3D space. The viewer enters into it.
You started with a fascination for found spaces that are pretty much non-spaces.
I’d rather call them generic spaces: airports, hotels, offices – it doesn’t matter. I started off photographing spaces with a specific theme, places like Batavia Stad, a shopping mall in the Netherlands. I’ve always liked places that don’t seem real, where you feel like you’re in a fictional environment. I like exploring how you get a grip on such an environment and connect with it.
The last two years I’ve mainly worked with empty office spaces, as they’re cheap to rent.
There are no people in your work. Why?
I like to play with scale, without using giveaways – no people, no furniture, no doors. I might include a few small clues, like wall sockets.
Lately, your photos of places feature photos of those same places. What’s going on?
I’m putting photos of the ceiling on the floor, photos of floors on walls. Currently, I’m working on a solo exhibition for a Berlin gallery. I asked the gallery to make photos of the floor, which I’m now gluing to triangles I’ve made. Then I’ll make an object out of them, so that the floor dissolves in triangles. By photographing existing areas and rearranging them, I’m eradicating the border between 2D and 3D.
What effect are you looking for?
The right amount of disorientation. I’m looking for the point at which, when you look at my work, you don’t know whether you love it or hate it. You have to ask: what is it actually?
I’ve always liked places that don’t seem real, where you feel like you’re in a fictional environment
When it all comes together, the result can be magical. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes longer, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.
What’s your goal as an artist?
It’s not like I want to change the world, but I want to translate that feeling I have in lots of places – that ‘where am I?’ feeling. There’s something Alice in Wonderland about it. It’s not all negative. I want to remind people that there’s more to generic spaces than meets the eye. They can be playful, too.
You also photograph interiors for Volkskrant Magazine. What , if anything, do those shots have in common with your other work?
I’d say my style comes through in everything I do. It’s clean and static. It feels natural. What you see is what you get.
You work with an analogue camera. How do you feel about digital photography?
A digital photo has no specific size or medium. That’s why I call my pieces photo works. They are very much objects. A photo work is realized in a particular way: it has a specific size, frame, and position. It’s important that it’s experienced in a more physical way.
What inspires you?
Among many other things, DIY stores, architects’ models, and the work of people like Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. She influenced my ideas about photos as objects.
Do you study the audience’s reaction to your work?
As my recent project in Toronto was in a public space, I was able to hang around a lot and observe people. They took lots of selfies with my piece. I like that; there’s a certain irony to it.
I think there’s more than one way into my work, and that’s a good thing. People can enjoy it on a visual or a conceptual level.
You recently made a book about your work, The Soft Edge of Space. It doesn’t look quite like the average monograph.
Normally in a photographic catalogue you lose all sense of scale, and I wanted to avoid that. So I made a 3D model of a gallery space about 40 or 50 cm high, made my works very small – on a scale of 1:20 – and put them into the model. Then I photographed everything. The book is a walk through the model. The funny thing is, most people don’t see it, so now I’ve added a ‘model’ sticker to the book cover.
This interview was originally featured in our March/April 2019 issue Frame 127. Get your copy here.