“I want people to think differently about photography”: ex-ECAL artist Manon Wertenbroek

10 March 2017

Since graduating from ECAL in 2014, artist Manon Wertenbroek has been elbowing her way into gallery spaces from Netherlands to Belgium, Italy to France, among them appearances at Art Basel and Amsterdam’s Foam Gallery.

Manon’s potency lies in her ability to take both abstract and representational, and unite the two beneath a neon colour palette which pulsates so hard it threatens to jump off gallery walls. The images may appear digitally generated at first glance, but as Manon tells us, they are “handcrafted and photographed with a high resolution camera.” With work featured in a pile of publications including Tank, British Journal of Photography, Foam, i-D, Wonderland, The Guardian, Novembre and LensCulture and awards and residencies including Foam Talent 2015 and Pro Helvetia, Promotion des Arts Visuels Swiss Design Award, Manon is well on her way to even greater things. Over to Manon.

The title of your current solo show at Coalmine in Winterthur, Switzerland is I Saw You Smile Yesterday. What does it mean?

As a very sensitive person, I feel and analyse a lot of things happening around me. This makes it sometimes hard to interact with other people. Most of my works are about memories of complex and confused social interactions between people. These awkward interactions as different they can be, are equally filled with competing feelings of physical proximity and emotional distance. The title I saw you smile yesterday is meant to confuse our feelings. At first, it feels like a compliment, but by adding the term “yesterday” it suggests you were happy (or trying to look happy) the day before and that you’re obviously not smiling anymore today. Mentioning it in the present makes it almost feel like a reproach. The phrase also has a nostalgic sound, suggesting a sentimentality for the past, which is a recurrent team in my work.

We hear you’re “fond of mixing mediums”. Tell about the process behind your work.

I have a very unconventional way of working with the medium of photography: while studying at ECAL, I always tried to do things differently. I used to create everything that would appear in my photographs and I still work this way today. I want people to think differently about photography and how images are made. You have to concentrate and look at the details to understand that my work isn’t a painting or a digital illustration. All the images are instead handcrafted and photographed with an high resolution camera. I like to flirt with the borders of mediums and see how people react to it.

In my latest series, I’m working with a reflective material called silver chromolux paper. I engrave the paper with carving tools and sometimes cut it out with tiny scissors to shape what will be my image later. After creating a mirrored flat sculpture out of reflective paper, I put this in front of my computer screen in order to shape several reflections in it, as well as light the piece thanks to the glow of the computer screen. Photographing this process enables me to capture the final result, bringing form and colour together.


Manon Wertenbroek: Face Through Window


Manon Wertenbroek: Man Looking at Me


Manon Wertenbroek: Hair Behind Sleeve


Manon Wertenbroek: Hair Behind Sleeve detail

What was the most important thing you learnt while studying at ECAL?

I learnt so many things at ECAL! It’s an amazing school that gives you so many tools and skills for the future. If I had to choose only one thing, I would say I learnt to stand up for my ideas and be confident about what I was doing. This enabled me to find my own artistic process and develop it further and more. They really push you in a good way and have incredible teachers that are artists themselves to give you precious advice.

How do you think that generally, art can address issues of loneliness and anxiety?

I think art can be so powerful in so many ways and contexts. On a personal level, it really helps me expressing feelings I can’t always put words to. Turning anxiety into something people find beautiful and can maybe relate to is the best gift against loneliness. Reaching out to others through my art works, even if it’s not the most common way, makes me feel happy and complete.

With such a focus on the self-reflective, what does it mean to be “you” at this moment in time?

It means working hard to push my limits as far as possible to find the best form to express my feelings. It means putting a lot of confidence into my instinct, which is very helpful but makes me also put a lot of pressure on myself. And finally, it especially means being very happy and thankful to be able to work as an artist today. Thanks to the big support of many people around me.

Finally, who is inspiring you today?

Kerstin Brätsch for power, Santiago Tacetti for shapes and Helen Frankenthaler for colour.

I saw you smile yesterday_, Manon Wertenbroek’s solo show curated by Alexandra Blaettler runs at Coalmine Winterthur, Switzerland, 19.01 — 18.03


Manon Wertenbroek: I Saw You Smile Yesterday


Manon Wertenbroek: Shaking Hands


Manon Wertenbroek: The Cool Guy


Manon Wertenbroek: The Cool Guy detail


Manon Wertenbroek: Having Tea


Manon Wertenbroek: Having Tea detail


Manon Wertenbroek detail

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About the Author

Bryony Stone

Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.

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