Run, don’t walk up the Guggenheim's spiraling ramp to get to their retrospective of works by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. The exhibition takes you up the floors of the museum through her 20+-year career, built on series of intimate, frank portraits of young people around the world. She chooses her subjects from larger, somewhat self-selecting groups of people, such as bullfighters, soldiers, recently-postpartum mothers, and, best of all, patrons of a nightclub.
At the top of the museum’s rotunda you’ll find the show’s crowning jewel, so to speak: The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, UK (Simon, Megan, Nicky, Philip, Dee). The Krazyouse is a four-channel installation of 5 sequential videos, each portraying a teenager decked out in his or her finest club attire, dancing solo against a blank white backdrop. Dijkstra observed them at the piece's namesake nightclub and invited them individually to bring their favorite music and perform for the camera in a studio she constructed in the club during its inoperative hours. One by one the private dancers shake, strut, and sway to their own music while you, the viewer, watch from the safety of a darkened viewing room.
Megan, a petite, doe-eyed blond, smiles bashfully and shyly sways to “The Rhythm of the Night”. Simon, a pale, lanky boy with long, greasy hair that covers his face half the time, executes elaborate choreography and expressive gestures to System of a Down’s aggressive tune, “Chop Suey”. At the end he dramatically falls to his knees while miming slitting his own throat at the song’s climactic "self righteous suicide".
Nicky, a sultry young nymphet in a tight minidress sleepily bobs and sways to an electro-trance-esque song. While she mostly seems fixated on herself, she occasionally adjusts her dress or glances toward the camera, as if to make sure we are still watching.
Philip is the most energetic and unabashed of the bunch, an athletic, almost acrobatic young man with an eyebrow piercing and a neck tattoo. He makes frequent eye contact as he jumps, turns, sways, bounces, pops and gets low to a reggae-techno DJ remix of “Rock to the Rhythm” by Cutback featuring Federal. Although he gets quite sweaty, he never loses his beat or intensity.
Finally, a mild, willowy Dee performs to to a medley of “When Love Takes Over” by David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland, and Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine”. At first she moves with demure self-restraint, but as the lyrics pick up she evolves into vibrant, undulating two-step, sometimes gesturing to match the lyrics as she lip-synchs.
The brilliance and joy of the piece lies in that dark room, which allows for the voyeuristic gratification of gawking openly without being seen doing so. It’s similar to the furtive thrill of Facebook stalking, reading tabloids, or watching terrible reality TV, where someone else is visible and vulnerable to your consideration, but you are totally shielded from their reactions or return gaze.
These conditions, like in a movie theater or your computer room, make it easy to evaluate the dancers and their performances, which oscillate between amusing awkward, extraordinary, sweet, scandalous, and pitiful. The energy and excitement of the music and dancing is captivating is tempered by the visible strain of adolescent self-consciousness.
But even if there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from their affectations and discomfort, it's not a case of pure Schadenfreude. In certain moments, it becomes apparent that they can "see" you too; that they volunteered to be filmed; that they are having fun; that they are styled, rehearsed, and prepared for an audience. They acknowledge these facts by adjusting themselves or glancing up into the camera, as if they might suddenly remember that we're there, or maybe proving that they knew we were there all along. We watch them-watch us-watch them, and suddenly feel that we, not they, are the ones out of the loop. You are forced to remember that you are sitting there watching teenagers dance, you creep; that you had an awkward teenage phase; and that you too, dance like an idiot sometimes and don't even care. And as long as you're in this dim room, full of strangers, music blaring, you might just feel like getting up and shaking it a little.
When the 32-minute loop is over, when you leave the viewing room and step into the light, you might feel a little exhilarated, a little embarrassed, and pretty well entertained.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum until October 8, 2012.