By Eilís Doolan
Born on May 9th 1941, in Weert, Holland, Jan Dibbets is an Amsterdam-based conceptual artist who investigates the possibilities of photography. Dibbet’s oeuvre largely deals with the natural world, and draws on the Dutch tradition of landscape painting. Though he works almost exclusively with photography, it would be somewhat misleading to call Dibbits a photographer. Instead, Dibbits uses photography as a transformative medium, working at the intersection of photography, conceptual art, and minimalism.
After training as an art teacher at the Tilburg Academy, Dibbets studied painting in Eindhoven from 1961 to 1963. However, after experimenting with painting on abstract shaped canvases, Dibbits gave up on painting entirely in 1967. That year, he travelled to London on a British Council scholarship, where he enrolled at the Saint Martin’s School of Art and studied alongside British artists including Richard Long. In London, Dibbits embarked on a dialogue with the language of the Land art movement, which sought to document interventions in landscape and the use of mechanical earth-moving equipment to make artworks. Upon his return to Holland, Dibbits applied what he had learned from Land art, and began to experiment with fragmenting exposure times and multiple viewpoints, transforming images of nature into abstract propositions. His exhibition in the Dutch pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale established his international reputation.
A feature which marks much of Dibbits’ work is the horizon. A hallmark of Dutch landscape painting, Dibbits’ preoccupation with the horizon reveals how the artist draws on Dutch traditions. In many of his works, Dibbits creates unusual depictions of nature by merging earth and ocean in the horizon. In Land – Sea(2007), a work which forms part of the New Horizon series, two views of the same landscape are juxtaposed, allowing the viewer to see what exists both in front and behind.
Dibbits’ interest in light can similarly be traced to Dutch painting traditions. In fact, Dibbits stresses that Dutch paintings would not have been what they were if the light had been different. Like Joseph Beuys, Dibbits holds that though Dutch painters depicted real landscapes, their depictions were based on personal observation, and thus, Dutch light was ‘invented’ by its painters. Shortest Day at My House in Amsterdam (1970) is a work which celebrates the triumph of light. The work consists of an eight-by-ten grid of eighty rectangular photographs of the artist’s room. Taken at regular intervals throughout the shortest day of the year, the photographs capture how the room is first engulfed by darkness, then becomes lighter throughout the day, and eventually fades back into darkness in the bottom right. Dibbits focuses on the moments of light, and seems to emphasise that light triumphs against the dark, even on a day in which light is compressed into just a few hours.
Dibbits’ work also includes considerations of architectural details like floors, ceilings, and windows. Spoleto Floor (1981), consists of a semi-circular arrangement of photographs of the floor of the Spoleto cathedral. The square photographs are superimposed on one another, each photograph making visible a portion of the floor which is hidden in other photographs. Mounted onto a painted board, the arrangement of photographs contradicts the physicality of the cathedral’s floor. Instead of being flat and concrete, the floor becomes an abstract semi-circular form. Windows are particularly important to Dibbits’ work. None of his photographs of windows are taken face on. Instead, Dibbits photographs them from various angles, transforming them into trapezoid shapes and lending movement to the composition. Most often, the only thing that can be seen through these windows is the sky. Tollebeek Spring II (2000) is a photograph taken from a viewpoint below a round window, inside a dark interior space. The window allows viewers to catch a glimpse of the nature outside. Though originally round, the angle at which Dibbits has taken the photograph distorts the window, giving it an elliptical shape.
Dibbits denies photography’s claim to objectivity, and instead, uses the camera as a philosophical transformative tool with which to question how we see. Among the pioneers of conceptual art, Dibbets was one of the first to use photography as a thinking tool. Today, bodies of work by the artist are housed in major collections around the work. Jan Dibbets continues to live and work in Amsterdam.
“Jan Dibbets.” Alan Cristea Gallery. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.alancristea.com/artists/62-jan-dibbets/
“Jan Dibbets.” Dutch Light. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.dutchlight.nl/jan-dibbets/.
Goddard, Daniel. “Jan Dibbets: Early Works.” New York Art World. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.newyorkartworld.com/reviews/dibbets.html.
Beccaria, Marcella. “Jan Dibbets: Another Photography.” Catello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.castellodirivoli.org/en/mostra/jan-dibbets-unaltra-fotografia-another-photography/.
“Jan Dibbets.” Artsy. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.artsy.net/artist/jan-dibbets.
“Jan Dibbets.” Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art. Accessed 5 May 2019. https://www.castellodirivoli.org/en/artista/jan-dibbets/.