Is there anyone who, in their childhood, wasn't told not to stare by an embarrassed parent? It's the kind of telling-off that still resonates deep into adulthood. Maybe it's the ubiquity of this minor, everyday repression that accounts for the popularity of portrait galleries and portrait photography. And perhaps this is one of the reasons I like Rineke Dijkstra's photographic portraits so much. She doesn't mind you staring.
The portrait is an art of surface predicated on a paradox - that the rendering of someone's features will somehow ultimately reveal more than just their outward appearance. It reminds me of the twist at the core of Tarkovsky's film Solaris, (one of the greatest films about identity and representation) where the sceptical psychologist is finally forced to conclude, despite his rationalism, that 'we need secrets to preserve simple human truths'. But how can the secretive preserve the truthful? It's a question that Dijkstra, in her portraits, attempts to answer, albeit enigmatically and allusively. A withholding of information and obsession with surface makes her portraits feel recognisably human. They're so riddled with secrets they practically breathe.
Perhaps it's to do with the scale of the images, which are large and impossible to overlook, and her palette, which is almost as subtle and perfect as her 17th- and 18th-century precursors. If the Dutch and Flemish portrait painters looked at the world with eyes that anticipated photography, it could be said that Dijkstra continues the cycle by looking at photography through the lens of historical painting. In her beach series, taken between 1992 and 1996 in Poland, the Ukraine, Belgium, Croatia, England and North America, she positions teenagers in the middle of the composition in the most classically formulaic, symmetrical way possible. But although ostensibly a simple, repetitive format, it emphasises difference, not uniformity. The more you look, the more the metaphors pile up.
Adolescence, that terrible transitional time, is emphasised by the isolation, the semi-nudity, by the literally shifting ground these young people stand on, between the earth, the sea and the sky. What could so easily be overlooked - the slight clenching of a young girl's fist, an awkward hip bone, oily pores, a tiny scar, a strand of hair - is blown up and dignified, but never exaggerated. Cultural differences are subsumed by the tiny, unavoidable signifiers of individual experience - it is impossible to tell where any of these beaches are, or where any of these kids come from.
Dijkstra's portraits of three young mothers (Julia, Saskia and Tecla, all 1994) holding their new born babies to their chests with absolute, exhausted tenderness, exemplifies the restraint and deceptive simplicity of her approach towards representing people whose lives have been touched by commonplace but monumental change. Replace the sand with a floor and the sky with a hospital wall and the only thing that separates these images from the beach series is the nature of the transition that these people are experiencing. Our culture's puritanical fear of the body, so beautifully reflected for hundreds of years in scores of paintings of bloodless, saintly motherhood, is countered in these truthful, unflinching images. One mother stands in her underwear, her sanitary pad bulgingly visible. The other two women stand naked, swollen, scarred and bloody. They all, as well they might, look faintly triumphant.
I can't remember a show where the audience stood for so long in front of a series of images of ordinary people. The same can be said of Dijkstra's video in which she isolated teenagers against a white background in two night-clubs (The Buzz Club in Liverpool, England and Mystery World in Zaandam, Netherlands) and videoed them dancing, mainly alone, to the camera. Each of them, of course, responded differently to the absence of those clubbing staples, dim lights and crowds - they danced self-consciously and smoked defiantly. Some flirted with the camera, others looked almost annoyed. Most of them, despite trying very hard not to be, looked very young, rather forlorn, sweet even. The audience watched, riveted. The film was long and repetitive, but mysteriously and compulsively viewable. At moments it was hilarious, but never in a cruel or ironic way. It was touching and hilarious because people, especially in clubs, where their posturing and vanity and shyness and lack of confidence are exaggerrated, often look silly. A lot of people laughed.
Dijkstra works hard to make photographs and videos that look effortless. At first it seems she has a real talent for finding interesting people, but then, given this much attention, anyone could look fascinating. Her concentration, however, is never sentimental, effusive or patronising, and it's this quality that makes her such a deeply compassionate artist. She validates and exalts people's natural curiosity about each other, stripping away layers of artifice until all that is left is the artifice of photography itself.