Maurice Scheltens and Liesbeth Abbenes have long been preoccupied by perspective. In fact, this year is the 18th that the artist duo – partners in life, as well as in work – have spent creating their painstakingly controlled scenes to capture on camera together. Translating their immaculately constructed three-dimensional sets into technically precise two-dimensional images, they have made a name for themselves with rich, playful and illusory works that toy with spatial dimensions, and which, though aesthetically pleasing, are conceptually rigorous first and foremost. The concept, Abbenes assures us, always precedes the picture.
Their spring exhibition at Amsterdam’s Foam Museum (from 15 March to 05 June) is something like a retrospective, giving the Dutch duo an opportunity to look back over almost two decades of work from a new perspective. And true to form, they are first rearranging the rooms their work will inhabit by uncovering windows that have not been opened in many years. “We will have light and some fresh air, hopefully. We have to give up walls for that, but it’s good to have a bit of the outside world coming in,” they say. Shifting the dimensions and conditions of the space itself will alter the way viewers see the work, and that typifies their approach to the exhibition, rethinking how the works will appear in this new context, and how they relate to each other.
Editorial series that were initially viewed on the printed page will now be displayed on the walls, while a body of work made for a fashion brand (their client list includes Maison Martin Margiela, Hermès and Cos, to name just a few) finds its way into the drawers of a dresser, or is shown via video installation. It’s all about changing formats, says Abbenes, and to some degree it’s an extension of their practice, in which an object is not depicted as such, but rather used as a building block with which to create a new composition. Now, those compositions become building blocks too, in the larger structure that is their world. Every element of the show’s design seeks to decontextualise their oeuvre in this way, she says, allowing it to communicate both with the audience and the works around it anew.
Over the years their reputation has won Scheltens and Abbenes freedom, so that ideas commissioned by brands become freestanding artworks in their own right. But, free from the printed page to which they are so often restricted, the solution-led basis upon which these elusive works are built is more readily available to a viewer. Simply put, the idea becomes more apparent. Here, a concept can overflow its medium, but, “It’s still drawn back as well. It’s controlled, because that’s what our work is about”. You get the sense that there might always have been an exhibition in mind.
The show is accompanied by a book (though it’s more an artist’s book than a simple catalogue, by Japan-based Case Publishing) that pairs seemingly unrelated works to allow new dialogues to form between them. Similarly, in the exhibition “we play with repetition of images”, Abbenes explains, so that “sometimes you’ll see images you saw before, in another room”. Above and beyond creating the experiential equivalent of a game of pairs, this technique is a nod to a digital landscape in which everything seems somewhat familiar, even when it’s brand new. But it is, again, about perspective. “This gets the viewer in the same ‘looking mode’ as we are, examining objects.”
Seeing this extensive body of work, how do Scheltens and Abbenes feel they have evolved over the course of 18 years? “I think we’re more free now, maybe to mess it up a little more,” Abbenes says. It seems an unlikely prognosis, given the degree of perfectionism that has become an underpinning theme throughout, but she continues: “It’s hard to explain, but it’s finding beauty in the accidents, and in getting control over the accidents again. That might be a change that comes with time. You become more yourself.”