Photos: Marc Asekhame
Text: Alec Coiro
Sebastiaan Bremer is a New York-based Dutch artist who you’ll recognize from his work creating spectral, psychedelic alterations of photographs. A catalogue of some of the most significant of his pieces forms the basis of the book To Joy. In addition to the images, the book includes Bremer’s own meditations on his work. Sebastiaan tells me, “The idea of the book was to show my work in great detail and emphasize the surface of the works, and clarify the process of making it through image and text. I wrote down what I say when I have studio visit or give a lecture on my work, and tried to create a narrative, and the images follow this thread. So the images are to some extent an illustration of the text.”
One of Sebastiaan’s main projects in the book is to remedy a real problem in contemporary art: the lack of work about joy. Poets love to wallow away with their Odes on Melancholy, but the works devoted to Joy are pretty limited. “I thought to embrace the pure beauty and joy in the images, and researched the subject of ‘joy’ in art—of which there is less than you’d think. Drama is all over, but joy is a hard nut to crack it seems. But two works really stand out: the symphony of Beethoven and the poem by Schiller”
Sebastiaan cued up Beethoven’s awe-inspiring Ode to Joy, cranked it up, and started working on new large prints of Kodak negatives from 1972/3 showing his family in their joyful prime. “I played the music loud and made the works with no reservation or compunction. I wanted to show my siblings and parents enraptured, in the moment, surrounded by balls and globules. They seem to see the marks I made on the surface of the photographs. Encapsulated at this moment, free, open.”
The pictures themselves were very personal to Sebastiaan and inherently joyful on their own. “In 2010 I found a box of large format negatives in my father’s home, and when I printed them I saw images of my parents and siblings on the most gorgeous mountaintops in the early seventies. My parents healthy, strong, young and well dressed for a wonderful climb, and my brother and sister were younger than I ever remember them. Everybody was in their prime in these images, and the snowcapped Alps were glorious in the summer sun: picture perfect.”
Creating work out of photographs that he found in a box in his father’s house is typical of Sebastiaan’s process. As an artist, he both takes his own original photographs and works with images that he has found. The most important criterion being that he can make a connection with the image. “I take my own pictures, and I use other imagery too, when needed. The common thread is that I have a strong personal connection with the image and this bond makes it possible for me to engage with the image deeply and commit the time it takes to make my work with it. The relationship between mark making and underlying image is complex and hard to decipher for me—a bit of a chicken and egg issue. I do have hopes and dreams about works, but time usually intervenes to such an extent that I end up in a place that I could not have imagined beforehand.”
The connection between artist and photograph helps lend the image a narrative quality. Indeed an early title for the book was, “Graphic Novel,” and Sebastiaan does indeed weave a narrative in the book: both the story behind the process of creating each work and also a more personal story. One might imagine his illustrations on the photographs to be a manifestation of the outpouring of emotion one experiences when confronted with a photograph that resonates with you on a personal level.