Bemmel/Nijmegen – Bleak art in a hospital. It may not be the most likely combination, but the St. Maarten’s Clinic in Nijmegen didn’t see it as a problem. In De Rondeel, the restaurant section of the hospital, there is currently an exhibition of the Bemmel photographer, Rob Sweebe’s, sometimes downright depressing photos.

A photo of a highly-polished sports car in front of a rundown building, for example, hangs beside an image of a decrepit body in a squat, or photos of walls covered in graffiti. “It is the aesthetics of decay,” explains Sweebe. “Ugliness can sometimes be very beautiful, but also melancholic.” Sweebe doesn’t photograph ugliness purely for its aesthetic value. “I’m a socially engaged photographer with a leaning in my exhibitions towards the documentary. In my photos, I not only record the economic deterioration, but also the mental decline; the neglect of our surroundings, for example, and damage to the environment.”

A fine example of this can be seen in the Caroline series of photos of an attractive young woman in a rundown squat. The contrast is very poetic, yet at the same time the model’s beauty makes the building’s dereliction all the more poignant.

And according to Sweebe it isn’t easy finding picturesque buildings that can be used as the setting for a photo reportage.
“Often you can’t get in, or artistically the place isn’t that interesting. The building in my series Helpless, for example, about a Rubenesque nude in a demolished building, I came across in Huissen, on the corner opposite the De Gulle Goedzak restaurant.”

Melancholy isn’t the only prevalent emotion in the exhibition in the St. Maarten’s Clinic. Sweebe is also an enthusiastic nature photographer. In Bemmel, as the cycling photographer, he is a familiar sight. “When you cycle, you’re close to nature. I always have my gear with me and when I see something beautiful, I can immediately stop and take a picture.” In particular, it’s riverbanks that fascinate the photographer in Sweebe. “Riverbanks vary so much; they all have their own distinct atmosphere.”

The exhibition in Nijmegen is the first showing of Sweebe’s work in his home region. Sweebe has exhibited in various places, from Paris to Munich and Amsterdam to Antwerp, but never in his own back yard, and that was something that bothered the artist. “I often hear people say they always have to travel so far to see my work; that it’s never shown nearby, while that wouldn’t be difficult. An important exhibition space like the Nijmegen City Theatre, for example, has never exhibited anything by me. Other institutions in the area have till now also let artists down, and not only me but more regional artists, too.”

Sweebe hopes the Nijmegen exhibition will lead to a higher profile for the artist in the region. First reactions to the exhibition have been very positive. Sweebe: “I got a much bigger response than I’d expected, especially given my earlier attempts to exhibit. And I have taken the public into account for the exhibition. There’s more possible in a gallery than in a restaurant, and you can show edgier, more challenging photos and a more rugged, rawer technique. The photos from the Helpless series, for example, are typical gallery photos.”

Sweebe will be exhibiting in the St. Maarten’s Clinic until 24 June. The opening times are daily from 10am to 9pm, sat. & sun from 1pm.

Ruud Vermaas

9 June 2004

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