Haunting Nude Photographs Evading Time and Space

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Julie van der Vaart, Untitled, from the series Beyond Time, 2016-2017Courtesy of the artist and Ingrid Deuss Gallery, Antwerp

The work of Dutch artist Julie van der Vaart combines film photography of the nude body with chemical techniques to create an ethereal aesthetic

Yesterday, today, tomorrow. It is an inherent part of the human condition to think in timelines: where we’ve been, where we are, where we are going. But for Dutch artist Julie van der Vaart, this is a limited perspective. “When I was a child I looked at the stars and I could really imagine space going on forever. I had panic attacks because it wasn’t just above, but also below, and left, and right,” she explains. “I could envision space that went beyond the boundaries of my mind. When you close your eyes you see ‘an image’. What I was imagining went beyond that.

“Then I found out about the theory of imaginary time, in which time is not linear, you can move around in it. Then I knew that however things happen, everything was going to be fine; I’m already there, it’s already happening.”

Van der Vaart was a student of science and mathematics, forever absorbing information. When it came to her Masters, however, she strongly felt she needed to create, to put something out into the world. She looked first to fashion photography, but found it didn’t fit, so she turned her lens instead to portraiture. “I struggled a lot at the beginning because I didn’t know anything about photography or images or how to make a good image,” she says. “Everything was really bad.”

Her professors at the Media, Arts and Design Faculty in Genk, Belgium, thought differently. They pushed her towards the medium and in 2011, she won the golden lens award at the 33rd International Photo-Festival in Knokke-Heist with an image depicting a boy on a bed, staring into nothing.

It would take leaving her studies to begin the process of developing a style. She revelled in the freedom to experiment, to take pictures unrestrained by both the boundaries of education and the weight of expectation. Unlike many of her contemporaries who were fixated on technology, Van der Vaart looked for images that evoked feeling. She found a muse in her boyfriend – though not the person himself, his body.

Bodies became a recurrent theme, employed as a means to express an idea. Intuitively too, the photographer leaned towards landscapes. “In nature you can find beauty and also the opposite – horror,” she says. “When you’re quiet you let yourself become one with nature, you have all the answers. It’s not meditative, but true, honest and real.”

Her oeuvre now encapsulates both bodies and landscapes, shot in analogue and black and white. “If you have colour you have this extra layer of information,” she explains. “You get more of the essential, central things if you get rid of that.” Romantic, sombre, ethereal, eerie; Van der Vaart’s work is both conceptual and “poetical”. She likes the balance between her own ideas and the viewer’s interpretation – that they can feel something while knowing nothing.

Beyond Time combines the artist’s fascination with the concept of time and her longstanding muse, the human body. Inspired by quantam mechanics – and in particular, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time – she wanted to create timeless photographs, images that do not exist within the confines of the here and now. To do so, she experimented with chemicals to craft a cosmic effect within the images. The bodies on show look as though they could be dissolving into space, or emerging from it – or perhaps doing both simultaneously.

In a departure from her usual approach the collection includes a small number of prints in blue, to break the flow. The results are haunting and hypnotic; a series of intangible figures, floating in a world beyond our imagination.

Julie van der Vaart: Beyond Time runs at Ingrid Deuss Gallery, Antwerp until March 24, 2018.