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Exhibitions & curriculum

Fien Muller (°1978,Lokeren,Belgium) is a photographer who lives and works in Gent, Belgium. She's represented by HOET-BEKAERT.
Since May 2011 she also makes furniture together with her partner, Hannes Van Severen. That project is called Muller Van Severen and represented by Valerie Traan, Antwerp.

White spaces full of viewing pleasure: the still lifes of Fien Muller

Fien Muller (°1978) tells stories in still lifes. As a photographer she uses a pictorial genre to create striking “tableaux” with carefully arranged compositions. Diverse objects are lying, hanging, leaning or forming a pile in the white space of the photograph. Green beans become lively coloured shreds in a still life that takes further shape through a yellow thread, a piece of brown paper and a drip of pink paint. In other photographs, jet-black charcoal blocks are contrasted with pieces of salmon, green textile enhances the red of ham, or bent plastic pipes and a black coat hanger dance in a decor with yellow and blue accents. With minimal resources and a restrained rhetoric, playful and even baroque still lifes are created. “I come from a family of antique dealers, which influenced my view of things. Hence you can call my photographs a contemporary view of the still life. Sometimes they are a little absurd, sometimes humorous. The story almost writes itself from the design of the still life, through the search for form and colour. I am then looking for something red that is not too big, and which for example can be a plastic funnel.” Objects and colours find one another in an unexpected way and resemble an abstract variant of what was once a motto of surrealism: the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a cutting table. For Fien Muller it can be a tennis racket and a ham off the bone on a chopping board, or a sponge, a plastic ring, a lettuce leaf, a balloon, a red ribbon. Together they form a still life that is called “classical” by photography. Between the objects and the papers or plastic strips, an interesting formal play arises: the objects flatten into two-dimensional forms in pronounced colours and repeated contours and rhythms of flat visual elements. These surfaces are sometimes slightly curved, and together with the barely visible separation between base, wall and corner, they are small hints at the spatiality of the composition. “Pictorial still lifes in a photographic frame are sculptures involontaires of charcoal with salmon, collages as cast dies, and yet sifted, with almost nothing. This is composition in the classical sense, such as with Matisse, Miró or, closer to home, Lili Dujourie and Guy Mees,” so wrote Inge Henneman in a discussion of young photography in Belgium.

Despite the choice of still lifes, many photographs suggest movement. Strings of material and paper float in the focal plane. A slice of bread seems to be carried by the wind, cubes change places. Even with an eel that is suspended and lying down, it is unclear whether or not it is also crawling at the same time. Fien Muller deliberately works with this tension in her pictures. “In my studio I find the moment of creation very important. I want to make this tension palpable in my work, and involve the audience in the time of taking the photograph, in the process.” That process is clearly perceptible when she films the still life and shows it to the public as a video. It is no coincidence that such a work is given the title Moving Still Life (as for example seen at Le Fabuleux destin du quotidien exhibition at MAC’s in Grand-Hornu, 2010). “The videos rather came about by looking at how the two-dimensional could be made spatial,” says the photographer. “In video I can also work with a number of dimensions: sound and time for example. And in my video work you feel me thinking.” In the videos the viewer follows a director from a fixed camera position, who almost literally pulls the strings and constructs and dismantles the presentation. Barely perceptible (but then again not) traces of a previous photograph can sometimes be seen, for example when the charcoal draws lines on the white of the light box or when the photographer’s hand can be seen in the frame. There is no hierarchy between the successive photographs. There are no moments that are more relevant than others. The logic is primarily one of placing, piling and taking away again, with elements that are interchangeable. Time becomes visible as a sum of shots, in a process that can continue endlessly. The video still lifes form a series in which each image can also be read independently, like a film simultaneously consists of fragments.

A compact world arises in the small compositions, a toy theatre in a box. The size of the space in which the still lifes are composed is not clear, however. And without warning, in her work Fien Muller switches between the small “light box” and a production in a real room. This conversion to the format of the everyday environment is also interesting for commercial campaigns. It enables a similar story to be told about objects that should be functional in the first instance. She is given carte blanche by customers such as Bulo or Designed in Brussels. “People from the commercial world come to me as an artist. So it is only logical that the results of these commissions have much to do with my own work. I think that’s fine. It is a move back to the world.” In these series too, Fien Muller creates poetic relationships between diverse objects and she tells a story that can be separate from what the customer himself wanted to tell about his products. In a campaign for Bulo, for example, she photographed different collections of the office furniture producer.

Lut Pil

Het ligt voor de hand om, bij een eerste oogopslag, het werk van Fien Muller te catalogiseren binnen het genre van het Stilleven of Nature Morte. De composities waarin ze een visueel spel ontwikkelt door bepaalde objecten tegenover elkaar te plaatsen in een neutrale setting lijken op actuele interpretaties van de typische zeventiende-eeuwse geschilderde stillevens. Tegelijk doen haar foto’s ook denken aan koele productshots voor één of andere commerciële verkoopscatalogus. Door te spelen met zowel kunsthistorische als marketinggerichte wetmatigheden, ontwikkelt Fien Muller een visueel subtiel en humoristisch spel. Haar composities met bevroren blokjes vis en groenten kunnen bijvoorbeeld geïnterpreteerd worden als een ironische toespeling op de vele schilderijen van oude meesters die een weelderige en smakelijke visvangst voorstellen. Tegelijk zijn deze werken ook een kipoog naar de hedendaagse strategieën binnen de marketing om alles te esthetiseren: een eenvoudig stuk bevroren vis kan zo de precieuze uitstraling krijgen van het mooiste marmer.

Toch doorbreekt Fien Muller ook continu de limieten die zo typerend zijn voor het genre van het Stilleven. Het kenmerkend minutieus uitzoeken en tegenover elkaar plaatsen van objecten zal ze counteren door de compositie ook te laten meebepalen door intuïtie en toeval. De compositie kan zelfs volledig bepaald worden door een proces die ze niet of slechts gedeeltelijk in handen heeft. Ook beweging, wat uiteindelijk volledig in contradictie is met het principe van stil-leven, kan deel uitmaken van het creatieproces. Door haar manier van werken ontlaadt Fien Muller zo objecten van hun reële of symbolische betekenis en laat ze hen deel worden van een heerlijk en verrassend spel van kleuren, vormen en texturen.

Tanguy Eeckhout

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