Ruby’s Room: Photographic Miniatures by Bettina von Zwehl
Reviewed by Sophy Rickett
Bettina von Zwehl’s latest project, Ruby’s Room, on show at The Holburne Museum in Bath until the 1st of September, is a newly commissioned body of work made in response to a miniature eye portrait from 1810, currently on display there. The centre-piece of von Zwehl’s elegant installation is a beautifully illuminated glass cabinet that contains two specially-produced eye portraits, one of her daughter Ruby’s eye, the other of her husband David’s, each set into its own unique piece of jewellery created by jeweller Laura Lee. As well as these exquisite works, the exhibition consists of just three small photographs; depictions of the artist or her daughter, their miniature presence magnified by crisp pools of spotlight picking them out of the darkened space.
Von Zwehl has described Ruby’s Room as a continuation of her 2011 residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she began to experiment much more than she had previously with different ways of building up a body of work, both technically and also from a methodological point of view. During this period, some of the strategies and motifs that had previously defined her approach lent her work its strict formal continuity began to give way to something more fluid and spontaneous. The most obvious observations are technical, such as replacing studio lighting with much softer natural light. Underlying this immediately noticeable shift however are other more subtle, yet fundamental changes, where von Zwehl seems to be allowing her work to unfold more according to process; at least, in this new way of working, process is emphasised in a way that she might not have considered in her earlier works. Similarly, in relation to subject matter, she has talked about her growing instinct to work, not with randomly encountered strangers to whom she has no emotional connection, but instead with people close to her; her family, and in another eye portrait project she has been working on in parallel to this one, a small group of close friends.
At first, the jewellery pieces in Ruby’s Room seem to represent a kind of idealisation of the love object; exquisitely beautiful, diamond encrusted works of art, polished and lovely, gleaming seductively, there to be coveted and admired, but ultimately they are out of reach, absolutely unattainable. And this is where some of the sheen begins to wear thin, where something a bit darker emerges. There is something oddly anachronistic about them, as if their very creation is based upon a misapprehension about photography, which holds that an image of an eye could stand in for a real eye. In this way, photography represents a kind of loss because a photograph can never ‘be’ what it is ‘of’; representation will always, in that respect, fail. The pieces of jewellery are also, in their own way always going to be threatened by loss. While they are in the museum, encased in glass, they are ‘safe’, but von Zwehl has spoken about their significance as objects; ‘Holding them is important…’, she says, ‘… owning them even more so’. When they are out of the safety of their museum display cases, they will always be threatened by loss; loss in the literal sense shadowed by something far more symbolic.
A note written by Ruby to her mum, on the scrap of a post-it, left out of the exhibition at Ruby’s request, beautifully conveys some of the tensions that can arise in any type of relationship, whether between artist and sitter, or here, in an extension of that, mother and daughter. ‘The more I wanted, the more she resisted’ Bettina has said, on remembering back to the negotiations with Ruby when asking her to sit for yet another portrait. In this way, Ruby’s Room represents a playing out of that relationship, an acknowledgment of the intense focus placed onto the subject of a photograph, exacerbated by the fact that here, the subject is the artist’s own daughter.
Ruby (with Diamond) shows Ruby, in profile, her face turned towards the light, her eyes closed, slightly tense, her shoulders almost imperceptibly hunched. The box she has seems a little too big, or maybe too heavy for her hands; holding it has become an effort – you can just feel the strain. The apparently benign image of a child holding a box gives way for something else, something a bit more unsettling; something maybe not quite right.
So back to that note, written in haste, and left by Ruby for her mum to find in a little box (that box?) they share, a beautiful and poignant reminder of the deep ambiguities and complexities that run through many familial relationships; ‘To Mum’ the note reads, ‘I hate you, from Ruby’.
22.05.13 - 01.09.13
Holburne Museum / Bath / England