Judith Stenneken’s exhibition, “a mountain is only a slow wave”, whose title is taken from Paul R. Fleischmann’s essay “The Experience of Impermanence” (1994), transcends time and style, displaying a body of work that encompasses photos taken in color and in black-and-white. Captured from 2008 to 2021, the images range from architectural photos to portraits to landscapes to abstract pieces and are accompanied by video and audio components.
Stenneken’s varied visual and audio elements join together to reveal the fluidity and interconnectedness of the world around us. In an interview with Photographic Center Northwest, Stenneken stated the project began as a response first to technology’s impact on our lives, and then later to Covid-19: “We understand that now…we are truly interconnected. My actions can literally influence if you live or die and vice versa. If anything, this moment teaches us about the responsibility we have for each other. If we use this moment right, it can be a chance for us to ask ‘how’ we want to live together, what shape our interconnectedness should take.
Stenneken’s exploration of impermanence can most clearly be seen in her color portraits. The subjects were photographed at a Berlin airport, which had acted in part as a refugee camp between 2015- 2018, and are all asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan. Their bodies are distorted behind obscure glass, faces blurred beyond identification. The strength of these photos could lie in these warped frames. Making the most recognizable thing–us–twisted and ambiguous develops her message about change without question–anything can change, anything will change, even us. Her subjects also speak to this inconstant world. They call upon us to think of our homes, in the land beneath our feet. How certain are we that they will always be there? What would it mean for that stability to disappear? That solid ground to slip away? The portraits remind us that nothing stays, everything is temporary.
Working alongside the color portraits, Stenneken’s patchwork of other photographs display the interconnectedness between all things in her constantly changing world. Her framing is beautiful in these photos, capturing the eroded side of a rock, the white light of the exposed root of a fallen tree, the broken bloody bodies of fish and their bones. Flowing from one to another, there is a sense of unity, of shape-shifting between the images despite the amount of time taken between them. Even the distance doesn’t matter, pieces originating from all over the world. In her architectural photos, where we might expect grand buildings and the feeling of stability, Stenneken instead showcases places in transition: in “Hungerkralle”, a structure bends diagonally across the frame, a blurred figure moves behind a broken wall in “Gestalt”; her architectural images focus on ruins, on beautiful pillars and stones that have begun to decay, change, become something else.
In Stenneken’s work, a rock becomes an embrace, a tree transforms into a shapeshifter, a full moon hovers over water, its fullness impermanent and rippled by the waves beneath it.
The world is temporary, and we are all connected in its fluidity. We can find ourselves in the rock, the tree, the moon–we can see others there as well.
“A mountain is only a slow wave” can be seen partially online and fully in-person at the Marshall Gallery from January 29 to March 12, 2022.