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Juul Kraijer’s Biennale Artwork is a Slithering Experience

In Kochi
January 21, 2019

In her works at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Juul Kraijer has her women bearing calm looks irrespective of the surroundings. Or expressionless: for instance, one where a python winds over the model’s face, even constricting the nose and cheeks.

The Dutch artist does charcoal drawings and sculptures as well, but when it comes to photographs, she uses actual snakes for her models. The reptiles go on to feature in different parts of the female body: face, shoulders and the back.

Broadly put, the 48-year-old’s photographic series and video work merge the human body with animals. Her practice as a photographer draws upon surrealism, using models as vehicles for ideas rather than portraits. “My works do not bear a direct message; nor do they address a particular situation,” says Juul, who was born in Assen of northeast Netherlands. “My subjects are not placed in any historical time or cultural context.”

The artist, who primarily works with drawings and photography as her medium, has her biennale work being shown at Aspinwall House, the main venue of the 108-day festival ending on March 29. She depicts the human body layered with emotional and spiritual states, which only the body and its many positions can express.

Some of Juul’s figures feature awkward contortions: women with an open mouth or in an inverted pose. Even so, her black-and-white photographs and charcoal drawings “uncover how physical existences are bridges to our minds”, says Juul, who is married to Indian artist Aji V N, a native of northern Kerala’s Kalliassery.

Juul, with no background for her highly contoured figures, says she tries to probe the inner lives beneath people’s skin and bones. This, even as the artist derives inspiration from pioneering British photographer Julia Magaret Cameron of the 19th century.

Juul’s fixation with reptiles wasn’t without its share of resistance — most strongly from within the family. “When I shared the idea of working with snakes, especially pythons, for a project, my mother thought I had lost my mind,” she recalls. “Mom did calm down eventually. That too only when she got to know that I work under the supervision of experts.”

Basically, Juul likes to showcase the constructs of horror and beauty as much as they do between the binaries of the real and the imagined. “The experience evoked by the sublime quality of the artwork is also rooted in the sensorial and the physical aspects of the images which are depicted,” adds the artist who graduated in 1994 from the Academy of Fine Arts at Rotterdam in south Holland.

Talking about working with the python, Juul says the model trusted the snake’s trainer completely, but it wasn’t an easy shoot for the artist. “Throughout the shoot, the trainer was standing by just out of the frame, ready to stop the whole thing if it went wrong.”

Likening her works to the multi-headed Greek mythological serpent called Hydra, the artist considers them as “vessels for open interpretation within the imaginations of whoever they encounter”.