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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Review: Torbjørn Rødland, The Touch That Made You

December 5, 2017
Miranda Cattermole reviews photographer Torbjørn Rødland's The Touch That Made You, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

“I​ ​placed​ ​a​ ​little​ ​door​ ​opening​ ​on​ ​mystery.​ ​I​ ​invented​ ​some​ ​fictions.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​for​ ​them​ ​to​ ​go further.”​ ​-​ ​Odilon​ ​Redon

The​ ​work​ ​of​ ​Norwegian​ ​artist​ ​Torbjørn​ ​Rødland​ ​is​ ​a​ ​challenge​ ​to​ ​many​ ​of​ ​the​ ​accepted ‘trends’​ ​that​ ​we​ ​see​ ​being​ ​absorbed​ ​into​ ​the​ ​contemporary​ ​art​ ​world.​ ​He​ ​might​ ​well​ ​be criticised​ ​for​ ​his​ ​use​ ​of​ ​​ ​aesthetic​ ​beauty,​ ​recurring​ ​symbols​ ​and​ ​eroticism;​ ​techniques​ ​which are​ ​seen​ ​as​ ​a​ ​means​ ​to​ ​make​ ​art​ ​‘easy’​ ​to​ ​look​ ​at.​ ​But​ ​Rødland​ ​is​ ​far​ ​from​ ​a​ ​complacent photographer:​ ​he​ ​evades,​ ​probes,​ ​and​ ​actively​ ​plays​ ​upon​ ​these​ ​conventions.​ ​Metaphysical awareness​ ​of​ ​the​ ​tropes​ ​that​ ​he​ ​employs ​and​ ​the​ ​staged​ ​nature​ ​of​ ​his​ ​images​ ​allow​ ​the audience​ ​to​ ​consider​ ​more​ ​objectively​ ​the​ ​power​ ​of​ ​cultural​ ​symbols.​ ​A​ ​fearlessness​ ​to engage​ ​with​ ​art​ ​historical​ ​modes​ ​that​ ​may​ ​not​ ​conform​ ​to​ ​the​ ​current​ ​art-world​ ​‘sensibility’ sets​ ​Rødland​ ​apart​ ​from​ ​his​ ​contemporaries.

It​ ​seems​ ​that​ ​there​ ​is​ ​a​ ​drive​ ​within​ ​fine​ ​art​ ​to separate​ ​itself​ ​from​ ​the​ ​imagery​ ​of​ ​popular culture.​ ​Indeed,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​either​ ​entirely​ ​rejected​ ​or re-presented​ ​with​ ​an​ ​overtly​ ​critical,​ ​sarcastic tone.​ ​However​ ​Rødland​ ​utilises characteristics​ ​of​ ​commercial​ ​imagery: strong​ ​juxtaposition,​ ​elegance​ ​of composition​ ​and​ ​sumptuous​ ​textures. Aesthetically,​ ​he​ ​does​ ​not​ ​distinguish​ ​himself from​ ​it.​ ​We​ ​might​ ​ask,​ ​is​ ​he​ ​using​ ​the​ ​loaded, capitalistic​ ​potency​ ​of​ ​the​ ​image​ ​for​ ​his​ ​own gain?​ ​Might​ ​this​ ​mean​ ​that​ ​we​ ​are unthinkingly​ ​lured​ ​into​ ​enjoying​ ​his​ ​pictures, in​ ​the​ ​same​ ​way​ ​that​ ​we​ ​are​ ​led​ ​to​ ​buy​ ​a glossy​ ​product?

To​ ​label​ ​Rødland’s​ ​work​ ​so​ ​simplistically would​ ​be​ ​a​ ​disservice​ ​to​ ​its​ ​underlying complexity.​ ​These​ ​images​ ​contain​ ​a measured​ ​consideration​ ​of​ ​their​ ​own​ ​symbolic​ ​value,​ ​and​ ​thus​ ​do​ ​not​ ​lead​ ​us​ ​to​ ​conclusions, but​ ​pose​ ​questions.​ ​The​ ​way​ ​in​ ​which​ ​an​ ​octopus​ ​tentacle​ ​is​ ​so​ ​elegantly​ ​interlocked​ ​with the​ ​human​ ​hand​ ​in​ ​​Arms​plays​ ​on​ ​our​ ​instincts​ ​for​ ​both​ ​aesthetic​ ​beauty​ ​and anthropomorphic​ ​repulsion.​ ​The​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​neither​ ​of​ ​these​ ​flesh-forms​ ​are​ ​abject,​ ​but​ ​equal interactive​ ​partners,​ ​is​ ​both​ ​harmonious​ ​and​ ​disturbing.​ ​That​ ​the​ ​tentacle​ ​might​ ​be​ ​animated in​ ​such​ ​a​ ​way​ ​alludes​ ​to​ ​some​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​fetishistic​ ​fantasy.​ ​This​ ​is​ ​where​ ​the​ ​piece​ ​can​ ​be​ ​read in​ ​light​ ​of​ ​commerciality,​ ​but​ ​separate​ ​from​ ​it:​ ​the​ ​image​ ​does​ ​not​ ​sell​ ​us​ ​a​ ​product,​ ​but​ ​a proposition​ ​of​ ​a​ ​morbid​ ​vision​ ​or​ ​dream.

Arms 2008 Private Collection, Copenhagen

It​ ​is​ ​this​ ​‘instinctive’​ ​mode​ ​of​ ​seeing​ ​that​ ​Rødland​ ​wants​ ​to​ ​play​ ​with.​ ​We​ ​are​ ​simultaneously drawn​ ​by​ ​visual​ ​recognition​ ​in​ ​and​ ​pushed​ ​away​ ​by​ ​absurdity​ ​or​ ​shock,​ ​the​ ​overall​ ​effect striking​ ​us​ ​with​ ​the​ ​pang​ ​of​ ​the​ ​uncanny.​ ​His​ ​symbolistic​ ​visual​ ​code​ ​is​ ​both​ ​universal​ ​and timeless;​ ​he​ ​sees​ ​his​ ​work​ ​as​ ​a​ ​re-invigoration​ ​of​ ​“dead​ ​tropes”.​ ​Such​ ​objects​ ​(insects,​ ​fruit, hair,​ ​ice,​ ​flame)​ ​would​ ​find​ ​resonance​ ​in​ ​a​ ​​memento​ ​mori​ ​​or​ ​still​ ​life​ ​painting.​ ​Steeped​ ​in​ ​rich spiritual​ ​meaning,​ ​approached​ ​with​ ​a​ ​cool​ ​distance,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​the​ ​work​ ​of​ ​the​ ​viewer​ ​to​ ​decide​ ​if and​ ​how​ ​they​ ​are​ ​moved:​ ​they​ ​must​ ​“activate​ ​their​ ​own​ ​inner​ ​selves”.​ ​His​ ​isolated compositions​ ​focus​ ​on​ ​the​ ​relationships​ ​of​ ​a​ ​small​ ​number​ ​of​ ​objects​ ​or​ ​figures,​ ​as​ ​opposed to​ ​the​ ​interactions​ ​of​ ​an​ ​entire​ ​scene.

A​ ​removal​ ​of​ ​contexts,​ ​of​ ​course,​ ​leaves​ ​potential​ ​for​ ​negative​ ​interpretations.​ ​Many​ ​of Rødland’s​ ​works​ ​contain​ ​an​ ​erotic​ ​violence​ ​which​ ​plays​ ​upon​ ​archetypal​ ​sexual​ ​roles.​ ​To alter​ ​the​ ​state​ ​of​ ​the​ ​body,​ ​in​ ​particular​ ​the​ ​female​ ​body,​ ​is​ ​a​ ​far​ ​more​ ​precarious​ ​action​ ​than the​ ​transformation​ ​of​ ​inanimate​ ​objects.​ ​​ ​Has​ ​the​ ​subject’s​ ​autonomy​ ​been​ ​sacrificed?​ ​A photograph​​ such​​ as​ ​This ​​Is ​​My ​​Body ​i​​s​​ an ​​exposition​​ of​​ such ​​a ​​problem.​​ We​​ might ​​feel​​ a strange​ ​nausea​ ​here,​ ​a​ ​sense​ ​of​ ​immoral​ ​sickness,​ ​as​ ​the​ ​young​ ​female’s​ ​face​ ​seems​ ​wholly framed​ ​by​ ​the​ ​male.​ ​The​ ​tactile​ ​space​ ​between​ ​thumb​ ​and​ ​lip​ ​possesses​ ​a​ ​magnetism,​ ​but this​ ​pull​ ​belongs​ ​to​ ​the​ ​male​ ​figure. Despite​ ​this​ ​immediate,​ ​somewhat​ ​disturbing​ ​reading, Rødland​ ​manages​ ​to​ ​balance​ ​various​ ​subtleties​ ​and​ ​avoid​ ​didacticism.​ ​We​ ​might​ ​ask,​ ​is​ ​her gaze​ ​one​ ​of​ ​adoration,​ ​resentment,​ ​willfulness,​ ​protest?

This is My Body 2013–15 Courtesy of the artist and STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo

The​ ​story,​ ​theatre,​ ​fiction,​ ​is​ ​the​ ​driving​ ​force​ ​of Rødland’s​ ​images.​ ​These​ ​narratives​ ​are​ ​open​ ​and contain​ ​as​ ​many​ ​omissions​ ​as​ ​they​ ​do inclusions.​ ​The​ ​subjects​ ​are​ ​poised​ ​for​ ​potential drama,​ ​but​ ​past​ ​the​ ​photograph​ ​these​ ​events​ ​will never​ ​be​ ​enacted.​ ​Rødland’s​ ​tropes​ ​exist​ ​only within,​ ​and​ ​are​ ​defined​ ​by,​ ​their​ ​image.​ ​In​ ​this sense,​ ​the​ ​exhibition​ ​title​ ​encompasses​ ​the artist’s​ ​entire​ ​practice:​ ​the​ ​superficial​ ​photons that​ ​hit​ ​the​ ​lens​ ​are​ ​indeed​ ​The​ ​Touch​ ​That​ ​Made You,​ ​the​ ​surface​ ​on​ ​which​ ​such​ ​identities​ ​are staged.

Words, Miranda Cattermole