“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 is 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