Review published in “Kunstbeeld” in May 2007,
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by Hanne Hagenaars

Marianne Theunissen; an extraordinary character who seems to live in a different era. Her genuine preference for the 1970s and earlier decades is highly personal and gives rise to a tremendous interest in all things unfashionable: her own parents, street people, the elderly and drawn-out stories. Her living space is a kind of Marianne Museum, a place to feast your eyes on references to Tyrol, the macramé club and, again, the 1970s. I am here to talk to her about the work she will be showing in the upcoming exhibition at The Halls in Haarlem. The atmosphere of the past impinging on the present also defines the photos Theunissen takes on location, in places like her parental home. I see an interior without people. Sentences made up of wooden or paper letters have been hung up or draped over a chair like an item of discarded clothing: “imposing constraints on my behaviour”. That sounds rather peremptory. The lonely slogans cry out in the empty rooms. Orders shouted at someone who is not there. In many of the photos, furniture or wallpaper seem to be the main characters rather than the background. The objects seem to have stood here for so long that the residents take them for granted, not even seeing them anymore. Life proceeds day to day without too many wishes or desires – at least that’s the impression. The furniture is simply present, nothing is happening.
In her studio apartment, Theunissen shows me her latest film, which will be given pride of place in the exhibition. I watch it on a TV so tiny you almost expect it to be black and white as well. But colours appear. “Yellow Fever’” is the title of the film and it is a sinister piece of work. Pale yellow dominates a room, which is crammed with baubles and kitsch – a fireplace with golden curlicues, mirrors, drapes – the kind of surroundings that ram the word “cosy” down your throat. Slowly the camera pans left and two small women appear: prominent chins in the air and thin legs clad in black stockings. In the overfull room they revolve around each other like two animated barrels, confronting each other in a showdown, pushing and threatening, bumping into furniture. They begrudge each other everything, each foot of space, every breath they take. Their movements are neither flowing nor self-evident and their faces twist with the effort of the struggle. Everything seems larger than life, with the exaggeration reinforced by the baroque interior and the sounds of the furniture, as if the objects too are participating in the conflict. The women struggle to make something clear to each other, but their wordless communication is inadequate in every imaginable way. Then, in the background, we suddenly hear, “YES YES YES.” The words escape in a deep sigh, “YES YES YES,” almost vomited out. “Yes yes yes, I know, all right…”

Now and then pieces of flesh-coloured material roll out from between their clothes. The writing on the fabric is sometimes visible, sometimes not.

Another short film, which Theunissen made together with Chris Baaten, also focuses on this inability to communicate. It is set in a room with wooden panels, a cuckoo clock and two armchairs on either side of a coffee table. Sitting across from each other in these chairs are two people, a man and a woman. Slowly they rise, with their foreheads touching. The movements of the two characters in “Interview Room” are like representations of the letters of the alphabet. The bodies assume stiff, rigid shapes as they follow each other’s movements while maintaining contact.

All these works revolve around the different ways in which people communicate. Power is evenly distributed but no real conversation takes place. The dramatic impossibility of real contact is the core, manifested in different attempts to communicate. The works are about what should have been said and what has been left unsaid. About the drama implicit in the furniture, because the menace of the interior lies in the visible traces of the life that has been lead there. In every situation the interior plays a crucial role. Rooms like the one in “Yellow Fever” impose ways of sitting and walking, even dictating where one can relax. The surroundings are ominous because there is an inevitable stage at which they will take charge, deciding the lives of those within them, forcing them to submit to house rules.

Despite the more optimistic tone of the drawings, the surroundings dominate here too. The freedom inherent in the act of drawing generates infinite possibilities, making the harmony between person and surroundings blissful rather than ominous. The figures are all happy parts of the whole. Within the drawings, simple figures take up impossible positions to occupy space. They adhere to the edge of a bed or perform impossible splits in the entrance of an undefined room. Although arms and legs sprout from unusual places, everything is presented with a pleasing self-evidence. The body in space forms the start of an adventure in which the mind leaps along with the action. That is not to say the movements are rapid or grandiose, on the contrary, the slower the better. Objects and people become accessories to each other. The world is an enormous jar of honey in which everything has been stuck together in unprecedented ways. Bodies sit, crawl, dangle or cavort, but never predictably.

Marianne Theunissen explains that she always draws at night: when there is more sense of unlimited possibility. At night it’s possible to be become one with the space around you, there is room for the unknown. The flow of the drawing and her total surrender to the activity streams through the work itself.

Theunissen’s work seems to dwell on the disturbing ordinariness hidden in the cracks and chinks of the normal world, where lives are lived in silence, without consideration, with the most important thoughts remaining unexpressed. And because the world is a noisy place and everyone is constantly talking, you sometimes fail to notice that life is passing you by without a word to mark its passing. Unless, of course, you act.

Translation: David Colmer