Marjolijn Dijkman: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Spike Island, Bristol.

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

In Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman offers a fresh and intriguing perspective on the well-trodden but nonetheless relevant and significant subject of the effects that human presence perpetuates on its surroundings. Setting off from starting points as disparate as 18th century exploration, atomic physics and urban decay, Dijkman’s work reveals an intriguing dimension of the (often strained) relationships between human beings and the theatrical stage that is the globe we tread on.

The scale of the eponymous work might at first seem daunting, consisting as it does of a collage of large photographs covering, floor to ceiling, the walls of Spike Island’s largest gallery. There is, however, a semantic key to help you approach and appreciate the work, in the form of a list of words etched on the wall next to the entrance: each of the underlined words – repel, confuse, torture, connect and so on- represent concepts addressed and exemplified by each column of photographs. Dijkman’s ongoing work is an attempt at documenting a visual archive, or map, of the planet, and the pictures presented here strike a note at once playful and melancholy; images depicting urban regeneration as well as deterioration, the hollowness of human triumph, and poignant instances of humanness and friendship all clutter together in a dizzying conglomeration of life on earth. An especially captivating aspect of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is the artist’s ability to expose the pathos inherent in otherwise uneventful details: fragments of a shattered pillar still bearing the sign ‘Avenue du General De Gaulle’, a statuette of an angel covered in spikes to repel birds, the shooting branches of an ivy stiflingly tied together by wires – all snapshots of an urban landscape which nonetheless mirror, with heartbreaking accuracy, facets of the experience of being alive in the world.

Photography is only one of the mediums Dijkman works in: also showcased is Composition of the Universe, an interactive sculpture in the form of rings and disks of various diameters, colours, and thickness which the visitors are invited to rearrange and restructure. The work playfully references the basic building blocks of atomic composition, and the randomness involved in their collisions which in turn precipitate the occurrence of more complex forms. By casting the visitor in the role of the chance element, Dijkman underlines our relation to our surroundings, and qualifies the thirst to explain and understand by filtering it through our potential as a creative/destructive force.

The exhibition also includes several filmic works, Surviving New Land being particularly worth of note – in which a looping image of a sea journey is projected. The journey, however, turns out not to be a journey at all: the vessel is always moving parallel to the shore, never away from it but also never towards it. The landscape remains unchangeable, an empty featureless beach, grey unthreatening sky overhead, and the rocking movement of the surf that is guaranteed to make you a bit queasy after a while. Nothing happens. The beach remains empty of human presence, the sky doesn’t rain. The vessel moves forward, and even though at times it seems on the verge of sailing away (a sea line appears on the other side of the beach, but at the point of convergence with the foreground, it disappears again) or even dock, neither alternative materialises. Is the way to survive new land simply avoiding setting foot on it? Or perhaps avoiding sailing off in search of it? Considering Dijkman’s fascination with exploration, it seems hardly likely. The dramatic soundtrack, so jarringly incongruous with the peacefulness of the image, encapsulates the staggering contradictions inherent in the concept of a ‘New Land’, and points an auditory finger at the potential violence underlying colonisation.

This is further accentuated by the work sharing the side gallery with Surviving. Here Be Dragons, with a title obviously referring to the early cartographers’ practice of signalling the end of chartered territory with a dragon-figure, reiterates the contradictory nature of exploration by taking it to a natural conclusion: an unfortunate consequence of conquering something once feared seems to be that the conqueror becomes the monster. And yet, are such considerations to stand in the way of progress and enlightenment? There is no clear-cut answer, and none is offered.

Considered in light of works such as Wondering Around and even Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Dijkman’s approach certainly carries an element of discomfort with the human drive to explore, concomitant as this is with notions of taming or enslaving; this drive, nonetheless, remains a source of wonder and intrigue for the artist. Far from a condemnation, or even a denunciation, Dijkman’s work is more of a statement of fact; and, at its heart, the painful consciousness of just how great the distance between ourselves and our spheres of influence, how tenuous our relation to them –and ultimately, how enormous, but at the same time infinitesimal, our impact.

Marjolijn Dijkman: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum continues until 26 June.

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Courtesy the artist and Spike Island, photographs by Stuart Whipps