Rineke Dijkstra, Rembrandt, Night Watching and our pupils in the Rijksmuseum

dijkstra1It is a strange experience to arrive at the iconic façade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and look up and see the faces of pupils you have taught looking out from the huge banner promoting the museum’s newest exhibit. But there we were, just over six months on from the start of this unexpected artistic journey. Dutch photographer and video artist Rineke Dijkstra had completed her work and turned the many hours of film that she and her team had shot after closing time back in the winter, in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, into a finished artwork. The result, a three-screen video work, condensed into around half an hour and is now being displayed in the gallery of honour, next to Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

For the official presentation afternoon our group, made up of art department colleagues, the girls involved in the filming and their parents were joined by various clusters of others who had been filmed. We all crowded into the museum’s auditorium where, after a short introduction, Rineke Dijkstra came to the stage. She thanked all the participants and went on to explain a little about the process and the intentions she had had when constructing the final video arrangement. In truth there was little explanation needed, certainly once the presentation of the artwork itself began.

Anyone who has ever eavesdropped on the conversation of other visitors in front of a famous artwork in a museum will understand the principle. The viewing of such a work unlocks all sorts of opinions and personal narratives. In the artist’s film we see a range of people offering their own lines of thought. These are sometimes very considered or opinionated, others are quite light-hearted or simply funny. It is into these areas of reflection that Rineke Dijkstra’s work, entitled Night Watching takes us. The girls from our school who participated provided the voices and faces of high school age. Other groups included supermarket personnel, art students, university students, Asian businessmen, younger school children and pensioners.

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The visual arrangement of three screens is not overly complex, but allows fascinating combinations to be made, viewing the same speakers from different angles, close-up shots and groups arrangements. All the figures participating were filmed against a stark white background. Our attention is fully focussed on the faces involved as one group fades out and another appears. This reduced format keeps us visually interested but also gives every chance to focus on what is being said. This in turn leaves you adding to your mental picture of Rembrandt’s masterpiece which, in the film, is never actually displayed.

Although the Nightwatch itself is never seen, it is hanging only a few metres away and you leave the video work wanting to check and reflect on these new observations and insights (both the credible ones and the less credible ones!)

As a teacher involved in teaching one of the groups who were filmed it is of course fascinating to see how your pupils are presented. In the case of these teenage girls the image is surprisingly studious and serious. Elsewhere in Dijkstra’s film there is a considerable amount of humour. Often, we are laughing with the subjects, but on odd occasions it feels more like we laugh a little at them too.

It is surprising just how open and forthright Rineke Dijkstra was able to get her subjects to be, but this is the charm of the project. Whilst the visual arrangement was carefully constructed and controlled, the reactions are anything but that. The gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum is generally a busy but also a fairly serious sort of place. It will be interesting to see and if the regular visitors and tourists experience the humour as tangibly as my colleagues and I did.

The story of how we became involved

Rijksmuseum podcast with Rineke Dijkstra talking about the work (in Dutch!)

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