During the 33 days Aram Tanis worked as Artist in Residence at Vrouw Muskens, he immersed himself in his direct surroundings. Every day he walked along the same path, from his sleeping place at the GGz, to the old tannery where Vrouw Muskens' guest studio is located. As a photographer Aram Tanis sees it as an important part of his work getting to know new places and showing how these places reflect a specific sense of community. To do this, he needs a starting point; an environment in which his photography can be created. For him this means travelling, to different locations and capturing his surroundings, or the people he encounters.
Wandering through the community
During his work period at Vrouw Muskens, Aram Tanis stayed in a former isolation cell at the GGz Breburg building and ate and lived together with the residents. GGz Breburg houses mentally vulnerable people who undergo intensive therapies and receive help here. Previously, Tanis worked for a three month period at a psychiatric institution, named The Fifth Season in Den Dolder. Here, he worked on a project about obsessive compulsive disorders, but was unable to connect with residents at the time. Yet it did pique his interest: "it is an environment you are removed from in everyday life". It is precisely this distance, the isolation, but also the communal feeling that exists within the group, that Tanis wanted to capture in his work.
He soon became part of the community: "you are taken in and you become part of the group. So everything you see also becomes very normal to you. Where before I might have been surprised if someone somewhere on the street shows strange behaviour, I notice that now I look at it in a different way". Tanis became a witness to the everyday life within the GGZ Breburg community and he started hearing more and more stories: "without me asking, they started telling about their personal experiences, which was incredibly special". Of all these stories, Tanis wrote down fragments, like a diary in which he kept track of everything he heard and experienced. These stories were also the starting point for him to consider the environment and record it in a way that reflected the state of mind of these individuals.
Yet Aram Tanis’ work is not personally focused on the people he met. He does not share names or specific stories. Even the portraits he took of a few residents, he ultimately decided not to use. Rather, in the series, he looks for a commonality in the stories he heard, and the universal human feelings reflected in them.
Between hope and hopelessness
Even in our one-to-one conversation, Aram Tanis is reluctant to share the many stories he heard; he does not want to violate the trust of those with whom he has formed a bond in a short period of time. But this does not take away from the fact that the stories they tell are worth sharing. Tanis does this by using his work to shape the contradictions and stories in the environment. There seems to be a universal sense of hope captured in some of the works in the series, while others seem to emphasise hopelessness. By playing with light and shadow, he manages to capture the highs and lows of living with a mental vulnerability: "you have days when things are going very well and days when things are not going as well, these peaks and valleys I like to show in my work."
To emphasise this contradiction, he deliberately chose to make all his pictures square. A square stands for honesty, integrity, safety, balance and rational order. In fact, everything that stands in direct opposition to the associations you have with a mental health institution. By using this square as a starting point, Tanis shows the complicated position of those dealing with mental vulnerability.
The result of Aram Tanis’ working period is a series of 31 photos, except for his day of arrival and departure, one photo for each day he stayed at GGz Breburg. In this series, he immerses himself in his surroundings, the things he sees that others may not see and the people he meets. His work therefore gives a glimpse of what the world looks like from a different perspective, while also highlighting those elements that are universal.
In Search for Shadows of Things Lost has been exhibited at Vrouw Muskens (Dongen / NL).