Passing poplar trees and weeping willows, herons and woodpeckers, Andrés Wertheim steers his motorboat down creeks crisscrossing through the lush green of the Paraná River Delta. Here, an hour north of Buenos Aires, its skyline on the horizon, he finds something he can’t anywhere else.
“Water is very relaxing for me. It makes me humble to be a part of nature. Being out here I don’t have to care about anything but the tide and the elements. It’s a real release,” Wertheim, 55, tells me over FaceTime from his home in Buenos Aires. “But it’s very difficult for me to put my wild horses in the stable in my mind. So, photographically speaking, I’m always alert, looking for changes in the light.”
If Wertheim isn’t photographing, he’s thinking about photography. He was doing just that while at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2012, when he saw how everyone was standing in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” not giving any attention to other huge and great paintings in the room. “I wanted to force the visitors to look at them,” he says.
So he took a picture of the knights depicted in one of the ignored paintings and made an in-camera double exposure with a shot of the museumgoers. On the camera monitor, a dog from the painting sat at the feet of the visitors, and on one of them, the head of a knight fit right above the neck. “When I saw this, I thought, ‘Wow. This is something I want to continue working on’,” says Wertheim, who has photographed in museums in India, Russia, Turkey, Holland, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Germany, France, Austria, Spain and the United States. He calls the series “The Museum’s Ghosts.” “When the opacity and transparency work in the merging of both exposures, and characters get along harmoniously, I feel that the ‘spirits’ of the museum helped me make the photograph.”
Wertheim’s large-scale color prints “make a statement about how we consume art,” he says. “Many people go to museums only to take pictures of the paintings and selfies in front of them, quickly going from one to the next. I don’t understand doing that, because being at the museum is a whole experience. Sometimes you’re in a building that’s 400 years old and maybe the paintings are, too, and you’re there with them as something to cherish.” He wonders: “What if the people and animals portrayed on canvases gazed upon visitors while they’re looking at other paintings, taking pictures of something else, talking to each other or checking their cell phones?”
Wertheim blends together the art on the walls with museumgoers in a dialogue that speaks of past and present, presence and absence, and seeing and being seen. Fusing two different images of visible reality in, as he says, “an oneiric way,” creates a third meaning, much like the last line of a haiku.
Zemie Barr is cofounder and co-owner of Wolff Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and exhibitions manager at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, which showed The Museum’s Ghosts in May 2016 and published the exhibited photos as part of its Blue Sky Books series. She tells me, “I’m drawn to the playful aspect of the work. It brings me back to when I was a kid and I’d think about my stuffed animals having secret lives. In these photographs, the characters are coming out of these static paintings that we usually look at with reverence, and now we do with a playfulness. They let you get lost outside of yourself and think about how art surrounds you, everywhere. They also make me think about how other people are experiencing the space around me in a gallery or museum. As a curator especially, I like to know how people interact with the work on the wall, how it engages them.”