Diana Blok: The Beautiful Imperfect

© Diana Blok ‘Mother and Daughter’ 1987 from the series ‘Blood Ties and Other Bonds’

Nakedness brings them together as their identities take form in a most fundamental way

Se puede leer la versión en español de esta entrevista aquí …

Introduction

In retrospect, the Eighties was a decade of strange contradictions. While the countercultural waves of the Sixties and early Seventies still rippled on, a growing undertow of reaction ran through much of the dominant politics – certainly in the anglophone world. The shift from economic planning to laissez faire market forces saw both industrial globalisation and increasing social fragmentation. It was a time of materialism and surfaces, of Yuppie aspiration and shoulder pads. As the struggle for liberation morphed into the race to consume, collective idealism slid into the self-as-project.

It is against this shifting contradictory context that the work of the artist Diana Blok first came to public attention. Her nudes, initially of herself and later of family, friends and acquaintances, were marked by their simplicity and the naturalness of the bodies they revealed. In popular culture, the body moulded to the ad-man’s canon was fast becoming the impossible benchmark of accepted beauty. The naturalness of those she photographed made her images both poignantly affecting and confronting real. While they spoke to the archetypes of relation – of parent, child, sibling, lover – they eschewed the stereotypes of gender and sexuality that costumed the nudity of commercial culture. Her images maintained an authenticity and autonomy that elevated them by virtue of the very ordinariness of those they depicted – the reality of imperfection that makes us each unique.

Born to a Jewish Dutch-diplomat father and a Catholic Argentinean mother, Diana Blok spent her childhood in various Latin-American countries as her father was posted from one diplomatic mission to another. Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico were strongly patriarchal societies, often in turmoil. But her father carried within him the liberal sensibilities of the Netherlands, insisting that each of his daughters should have a profession in order to be independent in life. Indeed, Diana describes her father as “my first feminist”.

With such an upbringing, she soon learned the world was complex and multi-facetted. She developed a powerful curiosity regarding the things that make us human, as she puts it: “our emotions, our stories, our masks, identities, values, and virtues. My artist’s spirit began to awaken to the intricate diversity and fluidity of things.” In the mid-Seventies, she moved to the Netherlands, settling there while retaining active links with Latin America. It was soon after this that I first became aware of Diana Blok’s photographs. They featured on the kind of black-and-white art postcards that were popular at the time, collected and exchanged the way today we post and repost images on Instagram or Pinterest. Later, I was able to buy her books and see whole collections of her work. Work which has, over the years, continued to evolved, to explore, and to evoke the complex sense of possibility that lies beyond the stereotypes of our time, within each of us.

Alasdair Foster


© Diana Blok ‘Portrait of My Mother and Father’ 1987 from the series ‘Blood Ties and Other Bonds’

Interview

I first became aware of your work through the series ‘Blood Ties and Other Bonds’. How did that series begin?

I had been experimenting with staged self-portraiture for several years, searching for an alternative aesthetics of the nude while exploring my own sexual identity. By the mid-Eighties, I was looking for a change, other realms to explore… and then I experienced a moment of revelation…

It was during a photo session with a couple. I had been loading the camera with my back to them. As I turned around I saw them standing naked, vulnerable and beautiful, with expressions of natural love and care as if the barrier of the camera had fallen away. I was fascinated by the intimacy of this portrait, and ‘Blood Ties’ evolved from there.

Who are the people in these pictures?

I decided to continue to portray people who were close to me, where there was trust and an openness to experiment and explore close relationships of different kinds. Deep down I came to realise that I was exploring my own genealogical background and the myth of the ideal family. Unconsciously, I was creating an expanded familial group.

Then a major newspaper published a full page of the work in progress, and I began receiving letters from strangers requesting a nude family portrait. Some of them I accepted, where I felt there could be a mutual connection.

In one such approach a young women wanted a portrait with her girlfriend. We met to discuss the possibility, and during our conversation she told me she came from a family of six sisters and two brothers. She said that she could imagine a great portrait of them all together, nude, but felt her mother and brothers would never agree. Nonetheless, she put the idea to her mother and sisters. They all agreed: the sisters would be nude while the mother would remain clothed.

How did these poses come about, who decided on them?

In each of these portrait sessions I carefully considered the sitters, the space, the light and the surroundings, which varied but remained fairly neutral. Preparation is important. I feel that when one is technically ready the spirit can take flight and pursue whatever is meaningful in the moment.

For example, I was photographing a mother and her three sons… After experimenting with different arrangements, I asked the sons what they would like to do. They answered: maybe we should carry our mother… she carried us!

Were people anxious about appearing nude?

I think that the reason that they were willing to pose nude for me was because they knew my earlier self-portrait work and trusted my approach and results. It was the beauty of human imperfection that was important in this work. Nude and in a neutral environment, their social status dropped to the background; being unclothed brings them together as their identities take form in a most fundamental way. That said, there is always a threshold to cross between being clothed and being unclothed, and perhaps feeling naked.

I remember with the portrait of my dear Uruguayan friend Jose and his mother Marta… It was he who took on the task of convincing his mother to pose nude. She liked a nip of whisky, so he brought a bottle with him and little by little she dared to pose nude: a single mother with her only son. I feel this image resonates with the archetype of the Pieta. Sadly, they have both passed on, Jose too early for sure. His friends asked to use this image in his obituary. I could not have received a more beautiful compliment…

Human relationships are as complex as they are shared. Portraiture for me is an intense experience of exchanging energy, of being vulnerable… it takes patience and time to create a comfortable space of minimal talk, of feeling at ease. To witness a situation together not previously experienced, and to preserve it.

© Diana Blok ‘Brothers’ 1988 from the series ‘Blood Ties and Other Bonds’

How did audiences and critics respond to these works.

The exhibition and book were well received with plenty of praise, but also some criticism. It was very much an oeuvre reflecting a time of change and opening up to the diversity of cultures and identities. They were “nudes brought into the daylight” as a Dutch critic put it; a little confronting, but empathic.

I later learned (to my surprise) that the book had been smuggled into the art department of the University of Teheran and secretly shown to the students; it was used in courses in the department of sociology in the University of Dusseldorf and in the humanities department of a Texan University.

The critic William Messer has described your work as ‘post-feminist’. What do you think he meant by that?

I think he meant that my feminist approach was not in the forefront of my work, but integral to it. I would call myself an intuitive feminist. I felt a deep need to challenge the dominant belief systems of patriarchal society; values which can cause much unnecessary suffering. There was a group of radical Dutch and French feminists that criticised and rejected my work, but then other feminists of that generation understood and praised it.

In 1991, you were commissioned to create images for the Netherlands’ pavilion at EXPO 92 in Seville. How did that commission come about?

For this commission it had been decided to invite a photographer to portray ‘the Dutch’ in a series of portraits. I was selected. While on the train going to the meeting with the architect, curator and organisers, I came upon the idea that the portraits should be set against a background of either water or a clouded sky, the two elements which characterise the landscape of the Netherlands. So, I made a quick sketch and presented it in the meeting. The architect loved it because his building was to be constructed along the same concept: sky and water. We were on the same page.

I did some tests and the sky definitely worked better. My idea was to represent Dutch archetypes as seen through the eyes of a half-Dutch person like myself, a slightly foreign perspective with some distance.

Who did you select to represent the Dutch?

Again, I worked with friends, and friends of friends. Nobody was a professional model.

I had a man from the Dutch colony of Suriname blowing a little windmill placed in his hand. A woman in a costume of the municipality of Zwolle with her son in army uniform, because 1992 was the year the Dutch government resolved to end conscription. The ‘Holy Family’, where the father is sharing the childcare responsibilities. A tall white jeweller with his lover, a black dancer.

Fourteen portraits in all, each 2.40 meters high. It was a daring body of work, challenging for viewers in a Catholic city like Seville.

Do you think these images reflect particularly Dutch characteristics?

I do. I wanted to show the diversity in values and behaviour which are attributed to the Netherlands. Of course, a lot has changed since then, here and worldwide. Racial and cultural conflicts have grown in the past thirty years. If I were to choose fourteen archetypes today, I think half would have to be rethought.

What was the concept for ‘Adventures in Cross-Casting’?

From the very beginning, my work has explored gender fluidity. I was interested in how we might live with both our masculine and feminine sides. Back in 1975, I had made a small sequence of self-portraits where I dressed up as a male together with my girlfriend, who posed nude… a critique of the archetypal ‘ideal’ of a male–female relationship.

In 1996, I was commissioned to create a concept for a new exhibition space in what was then the Theatre Museum of Amsterdam. The director was familiar with my work, and I was given carte-blanche. The only requirement was that the portraits should feature people from the theatre world, not only actors, but dramaturges, composers, dancers, costume and wig designers and so on.

Brainstorming the commission together with a friend, the novelist Don Bloch, we came up with a concept drawing on the way that, because women were not permitted to be actors in the Elizabethan theatre, female roles were performed by men.

We selected thirty well-known theatre people and asked them which role they would like to play on stage had they been born the opposite sex. It is actually quite a challenging question and most had to really sit down and think about it. It took quite some organisation, with a small team of costume and make-up artists. The whole project was analogue, no Photoshop.

The project was a success in the Netherlands, and I was invited to continue the series in Buenos Aires and later in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, all with local actors from the theatre, films and television.

Were those involved already interested in questions of gender identity and sexuality?

The project was beyond transvestism or being gay. In fact the more hetero actors that joined the project the clearer the message became. Every actor I have worked with so far in the different countries has had an activist spirit. They want to see changes in the historical and cultural understanding of gender stereotypes and were prepared to put themselves and their talent out there in order to make a difference.

There is also one person who is not from the theatre…

When he was told that the Embassy was supporting the realisation of the project, the Dutch Ambassador to Brazil, Kees Rade, asked if he might also be part of the project, selecting Virginia Wolfe as his female role. How could I refuse!

How did this develop into the video installation ‘Gender Monologues’?

It was during a session for ‘Adventures in Cross-Casting’ where the actress Frida Pitors was performing Shylock for my camera. She had memorised some of Shakespeare’s lines to help her get into the role. She was so fascinating and convincing that I then thought: this needs to be filmed! That thought remained with me until, in 2016, when I had the opportunity to develop an idea for Tempo, an international festival of performing arts of Rio de Janeiro. This was my chance, and so we took it from there.

I work with a small group of excellent artists: Brazilian dramaturge Glauber Coradesqui, interactive media designer and theorist Pawel Pokutycki, and makeup artist Karin van Dijk, who really understands how to create the nuanced effect we want. Based on the character that each actor had chosen, Glauber wrote a six-minute monologue adapting texts associated with the character to address current ideas. The essence of Hamlet, Madame Lubov, Martin Luther King Jr., Cinderella, James Baldwin, Marilyn Monroe… all speak in contemporary terms about human emotions, feminism, migration, and discrimination.

What do visitors to the installation experience?

In a darken space, six life-size video portraits present theatre people who each impersonate the character they would most liked to have played on stage, had they been born the opposite sex. Each performer delivers their monologue in turn while the others sit quietly and listen. When they have all spoken, six new characters appear on the screens so that the full cycle involves twelve interactions.

In this collaboration between theatre and film, literature and language, silence and the spoken word, lies the potential to create a global dialogue. In each new city where it is presented we add two new works made with local actors. For the viewer, the experience has an immediacy and intimacy – it feels like a very personal confrontation with the speaker, each of whom speaks in the language of their country of origin.


What are you working on now?

I was in Brazil during the most recent wave of Covid-19 and, unexpectedly, had to extend my visit for five months. During this time of isolation I was living very close to nature and took to photographing fallen leaves that caught my eye. I discovered I was making portraits of plants – exploring their many faces, mirroring my emotions, and somehow, by extending their lives through photography, exploring a sense of resilience.

Was this a new departure?

No, I had made similar work with leaves in 2018 during an artist in residency at the Sacatar Foundation on the Baía de Todos os Santos [Bay of All Saints] in the State of Bahia, Brazil. I was recovering from appendicitis and found working with plants and natural light was a very meditative space to be in. As I learned more about their healing properties I could journey through them into the history and mythology of this magical bay.

Continuing this work three years later, I was now in an area of high desert. In the bay area the elements had been air and water, here it was earth.

How did that affect your work?

I feel there is a deeper quality to this more recent work. It surprises me, I never thought I would be so fascinated by this kind of picture-making. It does not replace portraying humans. But I have come to understand that our lives depend on the oxygen that leaves provide. They are essential beings that have not been adequately respected, a human folly that now threatens our very existence.

Over the past five decades, what have you learned about yourself that you did not know before. What has making photographs taught you?

My spontaneous reply would be Everything! Artmaking is a never-ending path of discovery; it has led me to amazingly diverse people and places. For me, photography is a two-way mirror, looking within to see without. It has helped me to make sense of my inner puzzle, to better understand myself, my identities, and find ways to express them.

© Diana Blok ‘My Mother / Matheus Nachergaele’ [detail] 2018 from the series ‘Gender Monologues’

Biographical Notes

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1952, Diana Blok grew up in Uruguay, Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia. From 1969 to 1973 she studied sociology at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, before moving to Amsterdam in 1974. In 1998, she undertook a post-graduate course at the Maurits Binger Film Instituut in Amsterdam. She went on to teach photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KABK) in The Hague (2004–2012), and gave master classes and workshops in the Netherlands, France, Finland, Greece, and Sweden. She currently teaches in the photography masters at the  Universidad Politecnica of Valencia. Her photographs and videos have been shown on numerous occasions in group and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally in Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Singapore, Spain, Suriname, Turkey, and USA.

Her work is held in many major collections worldwide, including: Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Buenos Aires), the Photography Museum (Charleroi, Belgium), the Bibliothèque National and Centre Pompidou (Paris), and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. Diana Blok has published ten books including ‘Invisible Forces’ with Marlo Broekmans [Uitgeverij Bert Bakker 1983], ‘Blood Ties and Other Bonds’ [Contact Press 1990], ‘Adventures in Cross-Casting’ [H. Veenman & Zonen 1997], ‘Ay Dios, Curaçao’ [Paradox 2001], ‘See Through Us: Portraits and Stories of Gay Women, Men and Transsexuals in Turkey’ [Blok 2007], and ‘Time Tells / El Tiempo lo dira’ [Witteveen Visual Arts 2012]. She lives and works in Amsterdam.

Photo [detail]: Glauber Coradesqui


This interview is a Talking Pictures original.