Speaking: Theo Derksen
Theo Derksen (1954) already visited Gallery Pennings when the gallery was still run by Harry Pennings. "Harry had seen photos from my book ‘Ogenblikken’ (Moments, 1993) and was charmed by them. Harry had plans for a presentation of this series at a photo festival. Unfortunately, that never happened. However, ‘Ogenblikken’ was then on show at Het Domein in Sittard. "Theo Derksen always works on projects for a long period of time and then completes them with a photo book and an exhibition. "I worked on the ‘Ogenblikken’ project for ten years."
He studied at the Academy of Art and Design St. Joost in Breda, at the department of photography and audiovisual design. After graduating, he started working as a freelance photojournalist for daily and weekly newspapers. From 1990 he worked for a long time at the Academy of Visual Arts in Maastricht (now Zuyd Hogeschool), first as a teacher, later as coordinator of the photography and audiovisual design department and member of the media design and technology management team. In addition to his assignments, he started to focus on travel photography, but he also started making thematic series and thereby developed in an autonomous direction. He exhibited regularly, in the Netherlands and abroad. "In 1988 I received the Kodak C&I Award, resulting in an exhibition in Houston, together with Carl De Keyzer and Dirk Braeckman."
Recently (on September 8, 2019) his large solo exhibition ‘Disneyfication’ was opened at Pennings Foundation. "I worked on this project for twenty years, not continuously, but in between my regular duties." For this project, he traveled through Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Theo Derksen signaled a striking phenomenon in the streets around the world: making the environment more beautiful by showing wallpapers. Demolition areas, pieces of wasteland, construction pits, ugly residential areas and busy thoroughfares are increasingly being hidden by walls with images of beautiful architecture, beautiful landscapes or with glamour images of actresses and photo models. Ideal images create a fake reality, like a stage in a film set. Theo Derksen therefore speaks of ‘disneyfication’.
Derksen has spent years researching the geographical distribution and various manifestations of the Disneyfication phenomenon in public spaces in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His conclusion is that geographical location is no longer relevant: the same images are popping up all over the world. Globalization is a fact.
“In 2010 I showed a preview at Galerie Pennings. I had been in contact with the new gallery owner Petra Cardinaal for a while. When I started the project, I already had the term ‘disneyfication’ in mind, but that was not a well-established concept at the time. In the meantime it is, but in 2010 I gave my exhibition the title ‘Topotesia’. That name referred to the dreamed world, the dreamed city. At the exhibition, the photos hung loosely in the room. If there were banners then, I would have opted for that."
Derksen did not make use of Photoshop at any time. Derksen has photographed every situation as observed. He zooms in on the wallpapers, but in such a way that you can just see the reality around the pasted photo. It is about the contrast: what is reality, what is fake? With every photo you ask yourself ‘What am I looking at?’
Derksen also shows that the world cannot be disneyfied. With his photos he infringes on the idealized world by showing unevenness: the cracks in the wallpapers, constructions that disturb the images or simply the fact that not all ugliness can be covered with photo walls.
Every photo demands attention; passing by is not an option. Derksen: “The images are complex. Every image has more than one layer. People have to look carefully to understand the situation. Like the way in which women are used in advertising, to seduce, in order to make people buy more things. Or like the swapping of the stereotype male-female patterns.”
It is often a combination of what you see on the wallpaper with what happens in reality in the front. “For long-term projects such as this one, I have carefully selected locations. It is important to be there for a long time - you are not a tourist - and to wait for the right moment. That means waiting for someone to appear in front of the lens. Not the ‘Decisive Moment’ of Cartier-Bresson, but they must be in it."
There is much to see at this solo exhibition. “When I visit an exhibition, I want an experience. There must be a lot to see. That's what I wanted with this exhibition. And it must touch you emotionally, make you think. A book is important for the experience at home.” For his exhibition, Derksen opted for a presentation on long walls and in a long series. “However, the walls are arranged in a way so that not everything is revealed at once. The works are numbered, there is a logical walking route.”
From the thousands of photos, he has made a selection of 66 works, together with Teun van der Heyden. A selection not only for the book, but also for the exhibition. “And then the story turns out to demand something different than your most beautiful photos. Kill your darlings! There must be a kind of rhythm, a cadence in the story, through color similarities or image rhyme or the alternation of calm and busy images.”
Teun van der Heyden had been a guest teacher at the academy in Maastricht. That is how they met. “We looked at five potential publishers for the book. Then the book turned out to be the best fit for Dewi Lewis Publishers and with that we opted for an international market.”
“The Netherlands are known for their photo books. According to Derksen, it was Corinne Noordenbos who always encouraged the importance of making photo books with her students, first when she taught at the HKU and later at the KABK, where she was head of the photography department for years. (In 2018, Corinne Noordenbos gave a lecture at Galerie Pennings about storytelling and the importance of the photo book. IvB)
On Sunday September 8, Corinne Noordenbos opened the exhibition ‘Disneyfication’. Noordenbos and Derksen have known each other for years. “We immediately had a click and agreed on the direction of photography. ‘What do you want to tell, why and how?’ were questions we discussed with the students.” Corinne in Utrecht and later in The Hague, Theo in Maastricht. “A strong image needs strong content to indicate a social issue. That's what it was all about. I told my students that they should not regard the making of art as a trick, but as an applied form of art.”
Derksen liked the idea that his students should present themselves with their portfolio to various people from the professional field and invited reviewers from a newspaper, a company, an advertising agency, a photo festival and a gallery. He regularly invited Petra Cardinaal to assess the work of students. “To my opinion networking was important, as well as making the transition to the professional market. At the time, academies were not at all concerned with that. I think I was a bit ahead of the troops then."
“Petra also realized in an early stage that artists and photographers had to adopt a more cultural commercial attitude. The time when artists and photographers park their work at a gallery is over. However, Petra also realizes that young people need to be guided in that entrepreneurship."
“What I appreciate about Petra is her drive. She had another background than the art world when she took over the gallery from Harry and she knew nothing about photography and nothing about running a gallery. What is special is that Petra not only focused on sales, but also focused on visual culture in its widest sense. Image is something that one must learn to read. Image is often a metaphor for something else. Semiotics is important. That is why it is good that there is a place to show this. A new place in the city to show this, without being too commercially oriented.”
“Petra opted for a different turn: from a one-man gallery to a foundation and the move to a larger building. It shows guts to do that. I hope this platform will stay, both for young and for ‘proven’ talent. With its location in the south, the Pennings Foundation is important for the region, also because photographers in the south have a more poetic approach than the more Calvinist-oriented photographers in the north of the country.
Theo Derksen is regularly invited for portfolio reviews at Pennings Foundation.
He offers workshops Storytelling in his studio in Nederweert.
The exhibition ‘Disneyfication’ is on show at Pennings Foundation until October 12, 2019.
The book ‘Disneyfication’ can be purchased in the exhibition space and via the webshop.