The simple and irresistible power behind this exhibition is the knowledge that these girls are yet to be told, they can’t achieve their dreams. Right now they can be a princess, or wish for world peace or even, design the next Empire State Building.
For Being InBetween currently at Artlink Hull, the Saltaire artist Carolyn Mendelsohn has taken an oft overlooked stage in female development, and created a work that is much more than just an exercise in portraiture. ‘It’s that stage when you are not quite a child, not yet a teen,’ she explains, ‘A time when you are just beginning to form your impressions of the world and the world in turn is being imprinted on you.’
The subject of the work – girls aged between ten and twelve years old – look out from from the full colour matt images, quietly confident. Each portrait is captioned responding to a simple series of prompts: I like… I wish… I want… My dream is… The responses are in turn, playful, poignant and often completely unexpected.
My immediate thought is the strong sense of mortality some of the subjects have at such a young age, responses such as: ‘I want to save lives, I wish my family never dies, I wish my grandparents would come back,’ are almost heartbreaking. The pervasive influence and exposure to global events, perhaps prompt more solemn responses such as, ‘I fear the world will end, I wish for peace and to stop wars.’
There are also the endearing moments where all that other stuff isn’t present, there we find the girl who still dreams of being a princess, the thoughtful girl who doesn’t like spiders suggesting that, ‘their legs shouldn’t move that way‘ and another who strangely, doesn’t like strawberries.
The images, printed on Fine Art Photorag – the matt quality suggesting texture and depth, drawing you in – work in tandem with a soundscape by Graham Coatman, incorporating recorded clips from each girl as they respond to the questions.
Interestingly there’s not a trace of falseness or staging, each girl is represented how ‘they‘ see themselves. This sense of autonomy, was very important to Carolyn, when communicating with the potential subjects and their parents, she was very clear that the girls were to have full control over how they looked.
Speaking with Carolyn I asked her about all these deep thoughts and introspective ideas, that some of the girls were sharing. She suggested that at that age, she had all these crazy notions whirling around and then, as an adult we begin to compartmentalise our wild ideas. We put our dreams away; we rationalise; something else gets in the way; somebody else criticises us, says we can’t have them: we forget.
One response in particular chimed with the younger me, ‘I’d like to see my work in a gallery and have a book published‘.
That is the underlying power of Being InBetween the sense of unbridled potential and possibility radiating from each image. It is interesting to note that both younger and older visitors to the show, were curious to know whether there would be a follow up. Would it become a longitudinal study such as the long-running 7 Up documentary series?
That you feel so invested in their stories, is credit to the artist and her approach, you want to know what happens in the future: you care about these young lives now. Does she get to become a doctor and save lives, will she design the next Empire State Building and will she ever overcome her dislike of spiders?
I was pleased and somewhat relieved, that this work looked beyond the constant debate over appearance and body image, the pressure to conform to media stereotypes. Being InBetween by Carolyn Mendelsohn, has something far more hopeful and compelling to say, about the next generation of young women.
Being In Between by Carolyn Mendelsohn is supported by Arts Council England and runs at Artlink Hull until 19 March (All images used copyright and courtesy of Carolyn Mendelsohn)