A Chance Encounter.
Bieke Depoorter
C/O Berlin

Exhibition Review

Published by Photomonitor
May 2022.

To my girlfriend Becky ©  Bieke Depoorter, Magnum Photos and C/O Berlin.

Gallery walls adorned with life-sized images of peculiar, half-familiar American landscapes, sit next door to a galaxy of arranged ephemera— photographs, notes and magazine cut-outs in their hundreds, like the walls of an overworked detective trying to solve a perplexing case. Looped moving-image pieces play beside exhibited personal artefacts, while slideshows present images, beyond a modified series of CCTV cameras, streaming life in a faraway land. If nothing else, Dutch photographer Bieke Depoorter’s A Chance Encounter is an exercise in not only how far an artist can and will go to chronicle a subject as accurately and humanly as possible, but also how much of themselves an artist can invest into a series of work.

Existing as a two-part exhibition under the title A Chance Encounter, the exhibition presents the lives of two subjects, Agata and Michael, who both happen to live outside of society's so-called norms— Michael, an ageing bipolar sufferer, whom she met in Portland, Oregon, and Agata, a young sex-worker, met in Paris, France, while visiting a strip club. With each subject being given two large rooms each within Berlin’s C/O gallery, the enormity of each one's place within the life of Depoorter can be felt with a magnitude, sometimes overwhelming. Images, although not the dominant force within Michael’s sections, retain a mighty presence— large-scale, framed photos of the landscapes visited in search of Michael are exhibited, many of which behold metaphorical significance to the artist’s search: an eerie, rural UFO sighting in the dead of the night, a graveyard of dried trees across a riverbed, and a mysterious lake, famously draining and refilling each year without any known reason. Each moving-image piece tells a different side of the artist's dedication to understanding and finding this person, interviewing, photographing and meeting with people who either knew Michael himself, had met him in passing or happened to be living in a home years after he had, even in one case hiring a voice actor to perform with the likeness of the man himself. Although Michael himself features seldom within the exhibition, his struggles— with society, social skills, romance, religion, identity and mental health are palpable and inescapable. For a series so expansive, intricate and still ongoing, one can easily wonder if it was the actual desire to tell a story, or the years of pitfalls in trying to do so, which served as the underlying impetus in dedicating so many years to a project so colossal.

Beirut, Lebanon (2018) ©  Bieke Depoorter, Magnum Photos and C/O Berlin.

It is with Agata’s story where images begin to take the centre stage: framed photographs of every conceivable size are presented, solitarily, in couplets and neatly curated rows. Contrary to the fairly neutral, advertised exhibition images, it quickly becomes apparent that the eponymous figure within this part of the exhibition is more than a passing muse, but someone whose allure and intrigue is owed largely to her vocation and lifestyle as a hedonist, as well as someone who the artist had developed a deep, highly complex relationship with, its weight and presence permeating nearly every corner of the room. Whether it is the two dancing together on a side road in Lebanon, being naked in one another’s presence in Athens, or having the details of their private conversations shared as transcripts in audio or text, their omni-faceted relationship is constantly stretched, tested and tried, begging ultimately the questions: what is its true nature? To what extent can one between artist and subject ever be fair, symbiotic or balanced? How much of a role does the camera play within the success of their dynamic? Who is really in control— the subject or the artist? By way of various mediums, we see the full spectrum of a partnership that has lasted many years, often marred by pain, disappointment and a longing for both parties to be truly understood. Yet, there is an authenticity and a vulnerability within many of the images; innocent snapshots and egoless camaraderie, across a range of European cities that show a side of Agata that humanises, romanticizes and in some ways ‘normalises’ away from her profession, often curiously making use of the night and of darkness — an obscuring yet visually empowering characteristic, unclear as to whether mere coincidence; a subconscious tool perhaps, to soften the backdrop of vice, seduction and isolation that hovers over their collaboration.

What the exhibition lacks in curational concision, it makes up for with impressive and creative devotion, invoking awe in a way that few exhibitions can or do, going beyond photographs alone to tell the stories of these people who undoubtedly changed Depoorter’s life. With both subjects yearning to have their respective stories told, the weight of responsibility, gladly taken on by the artist herself, was one executed with a boundless imagination and tenacious dedication, gripping, arresting and ultimately humanising in its liberation of personal trauma and of societal non-conformity, along the way.