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Text Michael van Hoogenhuyze - Seaside Visitors

"Seaside Visitors", an Olympus in the 'Zeehelden' neighborhood of The Hague,

Sharon van den Berg, artist of the beauty in absurdity.



On November 18th, 2011 I was onboard a local tram in The Hague on my way to Ockenburgh, an estate on the outskirts of the city. The tram was filled with people, most of them seniors. Yet they looked like rock n’ rollers, with leather jackets, and black pants. Most were couples who had somber expressions on their faces. It was only later that I heard what was going on. They were on their way to the funeral of Andy Tielman (lead singer of the Tielman Brothers). A The Hague rock legend had passed away. You can really only experience a funeral with this kind of crowd in The Hague, the city that cradled Dutch pop history. Even though the Tielman Brothers started in Breda, they made The Hague their home, and lead singer-guitarist Andy Tielman lived in the city.


Music, especially pop music in all its forms, is an important tool to create a fantasy world and escape from the pressures of everyday life. Without a degree, young people can gain fame and create genius music. With that music, they can invent their own culture and evoke a new world through their lyrics. Besides the obvious musical talent, the most important trait to have is courage. It is no surprise that we have the story of the blues singer who meets the devil at a crossroads when he tunes his guitar. After this, his music was irresistible, but he had sold his soul. It happened to Robert Johnson, as well as Jimi Hendrix. 


The Hague is a city with its own unique pop history. Legendary bands originated and played here. Musicians knew each other and performed together in various combinations. From an outsider’s perspective, it was a special world full of thrills and excitement. The long-gone Greek gods as role models had been replaced by the promise that pop stars represented. The Hague houses people who have connections to the world of fame, but even more do they feel the magic of music. That music can be dangerous. After all, you can sell your soul to the devil for the sound of the blues – at least then you belong to the Olympus of Rock and Roll.


Sharon van den Berg is a painter. She manages to process anything she interacts with into her artistic statement. The ambiguity of painting plays a large role in this. Painting allows one to express everything, yet it’s as simple as adding a few layers of paint to a canvas. If it’s really that easy any material could express anything. And if one knows this then everything can express anything. To a good painter, the world is double, expresses something, or stands for something other than what it really is. That world offers motives for a painting all the time. And so, thanks to that ambiguity of the world, Sharon van den Berg is able to work from the absurdity of existence. From that many different images originate, images that she has actually seen or received through someone else. This makes her a reporter of this time or this world, but especially of a world that produces images and therefore ambiguities.


Many of her paintings show places in cities that no one has yet noticed. The buildings she paints are rarely seen in their entirety on the canvas. Usually, they are corners and fragments. Actually, the scale of the shapes that are shown is often not clear either. Is it a building or a plastic container? The architecture of Sharon's paintings comes from a time when everything was modern design, whether it is a lighter, a pencil sharpener, or a skyscraper. But even though it is modern architecture, the motives suggest old age and decay. Nothing is as melancholic as remnants of design that were once made to express progress but now shrivel prematurely into ruins. As such, many of Sharon van den Berg's drawings express a sense of irony and a tendency to relativize the exalted in art. It gives to everything a slightly mocking, but also a sad character.


To express the absurdity of a modern world of strange objects and devices, Lautréamont, in his 1869 "Les Chants de Maldoror," described beauty as "the meeting of an umbrella with a sewing machine on an operating table." It is the absurdity of a collection of things that generates new meanings, a process that cannot stop from that moment on, because of the missing logic; there is no explanation for that absurdity, so you keep returning to it, literally or in thought. If you allow the enigma of such a situation to overtake you, you eventually see such paradoxes occurring everywhere. This is the effect of Sharon van den Berg's oeuvre. In a series of paintings and drawings, she calls us to see the absurdity of the world and enjoy it. Enjoy, because Sharon van den Berg makes sure that all her work looks carefully realized and beautiful.


Melancholic remnants of a failed modernity, this is also how her father's collection of Polaroids can be seen. A photograph is in itself always a melancholic thing. A photograph expresses a situation that will never literally return. In fact, immortalizing something emphasizes that that situation is gone forever. That nostalgic element is reinforced by the fact that it is a Polaroid photograph. It is a technique that when it appeared seemed like the promise of a new age as pure magic for the new user. Yet by now, the Polaroid has long been an obsolete innovation, like the transistor radio, the Walkman, or the portable telephone.


Sharon has set out to attach a painterly commentary to this recovered collection. That commentary is down-to-earth and direct. She has recreated the Polaroids in pencil. More than 250 little drawings of events from the 1970s. Or are they not simply events?


Sharon's father played a role in The Hague's pop scene. As Rudy Bennett, he was the lead singer of the pop group The Motions, a band formed in 1964, which became a national success soon thereafter. The home of the Van den Berg family was an important place for all kinds of friends, relatives, and people from the pop scene to visit. Her mother spoke somewhat mockingly of "Badgasten" (which translates to Seaside Visitors), the designation for spoiled tourists in the seaside resort of Scheveningen. She was a hairdresser and kept on despite Bennett's totally different life as a pop star. As the pop scene of The Hague was frequenting their house, Sharon's mother was always busy taking care of someone's hair. This was their household. People were constantly coming over, drinking, smoking, and using other things, sitting and waiting for what was to come or who else might visit. This whole set-up of people simply sitting, waiting, and talking, all while in need of an exciting life, was the essence of these seaside visitors. Amid the crowd, Bennett walked around and took Polaroids of the guests which were all carefully preserved. These Polaroids show everyone involved in mostly casual but also somewhat awkward poses. It’s paradoxical for us nowadays, as we know how people seemingly easily ‘act’ on life’s everyday stage. With the development of social media, which allows you to take pictures and post instant results on Facebook, that ability has grown greatly. We thought that unaccustomedness in front of the camera was especially noticeable in the nineteenth century. But now we see that even as late as the 1970s, people didn't know how to turn their lives into engaging plays – they were simply living in the moment.

Sharon makes drawings of those awkward photos taken of moments when people wait in vain for real life. At first glance, those drawings look like bits like we know from the post-war "School of The Hague”. By this I mean the style of The Hague figurative painters of the 1970s, usually graduates of the Royal Academy, instructed by artists like Co Westerik or Herman Berserik. Usually they are everyday, not exactly exalted, situations. The figures often have proportionately slightly oversized heads. But a close look reveals that Sharon's drawings have another layer. They are made with a great deal of care and attention to detail, and especially to the subtleties of facial expression. This attention has made them a tribute to a particular time and a circle of people.


And so, an ironic pile of intrigue emerges. Rudy Bennett, friendly and hospitable, enjoys photographing all visitors to his home, family members, friends, and fellow musicians. His wife sees the relativity of it, mockingly calling the company seaside visitors and not allowing herself to be distracted in her pursuits as a hairdresser. Meanwhile, Sharon walked among them as a little girl. Now, many years later, she comments on those events. The characters are all more or less the same: They are ordinary people in domestic situations, a little shy, yet posing for a picture, even if it is not really an important situation. Her commentary is, again slightly ironically, a game. The rule of the game is that all pictures are given attention, studied, and drawn, all in the same format, and shown in series. This creates uniformity and massiveness. At the same time, it is a work of art that can be viewed as an installation, or up close, as a large series of small drawings. 


It has become a report of the 1970s, of her youth. But the story also works as a metaphor. The gods of the pop scene sit together on the couch, waiting for the great miracle. A bit like the bored Greek gods on Olympus. They lead a life full of intrigue. They are immortal, with the result that there is no longer a hierarchy of values. In a chaotic gathering, all sorts of affairs, quarrels, loves, and family events develop. The chaos of that group of persons is the chaos of life as defined by the Ancient Greeks. We can now "clandestinely" get a picture of the causes of that chaos, a picture of what it was like on the Olympus of The Hague, a past that will never return.


At the same time, it is a comprehensive study of the quality of Polaroid recording. The photos’ subjects are posing, but the photographer is not a professional. Nor were the pictures ever intended to be. They are awkward and static at the same time. As soon as an artist starts using images in situations for which those images were never intended, an element of "illegality" or "theft" seems to occur. When it comes to photographs from the private sphere, one can even speak of a disturbed intimacy. Sharon, as an attendee, had every right to give a place to the images from her past. But this collection gives us the opportunity to act as voyeurs. Looking at her collection of seaside visitors, you can always find the names of those photographed. You tend to "check out" those names. It makes you feel like a voyeur. But in the end, that information provides nothing to the outsider looking in.


Sharon uses these images to create a new collection of meaningless, almost forgotten objects. Through her attention and the display through a series, meaning grows unexpectedly anyway. Still, the images also form a series of objects, more than a visual record. There is no movement in the images. In this sense, they occupy the middle ground between "snapshots" and stately portraits. It is an honorary gallery of a bygone era, but also of Sharon van den Berg's youth. She used to look up to these people, literally, and as a child tolerated in this colorful company, now she is "lord and master," and allows these people into her world. In that world, Sharon sees the beauty in absurdity, the unexpected combination of things and fragments, the melancholy of the promise of renewal coming to an untimely end, and nonsensical combinations of language and imagery. She makes this absurd world convincing and shows its poetic beauty through great aptitude and a strong ability to put things into perspective. The images she finds are thus merged into a strictly personal world.


Michael van Hoogenhuyze


Leiden, February 2013

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