Condensation of Éclat
What is it? This pointless banana, its tusk ink-dipped. The fructose rubber peeled back in four thick arcs, pinch pulled wider, an open envelope with a black shaft inside, come outside. This outside is itself by bruising the inside, making the two each other. I want to observe it, to lower into its lacuna of unsure pleasure. Yet, it’s only a slapstick fruit placed on a concrete surface, the blackness following only, its own logic. Its vacillation is not just perverse - there is nothing outright depraved in this image – but strange, on the cusp of a shady eroticism. I enjoy the absurdity of its pervasive instability, the point of pleasure to be lackadaisical and always objective- less. That short glory of Banana Black (2005) - how the charge revolves taciturnity. How the observation suspends.
Suspends like the tenuous tone of his voice, brought together by an accent somehow shimmering, vowels mellowed by Los Angeles languor with consonants gravelled by Norwegian mother tongue. The openness of his vowels, running stream-like into the full flow of any given word; “alienation”, for example. As he tells me over Skype about his native Stavanger, Norway, “I don’t think I’ll ever return. I never felt like I belonged there, I always was a bit alienated from that place.” On photography, he continues, “there’s this paradox of using this medium that in many ways functions with a little bit of alienation, runs on a little bit of alienation, but trying to use that as a way of getting engaged.”
Torbjørn Rødland returned to Stavanger for the purpose of his book, I Want To Live Innocent (2008). The previous book, White Planet Black Heart (2006), compiled “photographs from three different continents that I had chosen to visit. Stavanger was the one place that I had not chosen. Now I wanted to see what happened when I linked all the photographs to that one place, while still maintaining a similar diversity of genre and image types.” I Want To Live Innocent develops “some inner life,” as Rødland says, bringing attention to scenarios as unresolved moments that slip contextual bonds, where narrative remains a permanent sidebar. As Rødland says, “I think with most of my photographs it’s these shared cultural and personal experiences. So your experience is your own but it’s also in connection with everyone else’s.” The images absorb this unspoken incantation, a measured melody much like Rødland’s assured temperament.
A scenario made a vision: tranquil contours of the matt Ducati. Two women, with heads bowed, straddle the smooth motorcycle. Soft sunlight strengthens the body; they are seen in greater though no surer relief. In Black Ducati (2010) she glances behind a curtain of blonde hair; but the subject is twinned. Is her naked partner a shadowed existence? Clad only in a helmet and boots, some alternate doppelgänger? Her fingers gingerly clinch her waist; some anonymous mantle of dominance reduces into the scene. Certitude quelled, the image inspires flummox, with hostile beauty.
Is this an initiation? A boy’s arm tied up with wieners? Someone’s face gazing, smiling, lavished with honey? Rødland’s work invites the use of goopy substances; used slyly they appear fetishistic, salacious. Some include treacle, paint, toothpaste, and spaghetti. Together they imply both saccharine enjoyment and dicey timidity; but it is execution that underscores their alienation. For all their precarious contrasts, there is a feline-like precision to every dissimilitude.
Rødland developed an interest in photography from his father, “showing his slides in the dark at night, he would also do some darkroom work and at some point he made a little darkroom when we added an extra floor to the house when I was in my mid-teens.” The domestic image is easy to fictionalise, but won’t help clarify the sense of Rødland’s own imagery. The manner of which surfaces in Rødland’s disposition, through some insouciant pause, soon compensated by our conversation which surveys his observation from an aerial panorama. Not pinpointing per se, not unstitching for certain. I have the impression his imagery works this ruse, kindling some kind of fresh perception - the image simmering before its method curdles.
For the image, any stake in reality seems reductive from the start, “when I see a photograph which is more documentary and formal, by someone who thinks they can easily just access reality and mediate it, as if for the first time, then I feel much stronger alienation.” Access appears in Rødland’s work as a generative force with a dilatory attitude, a condensation of éclat. Each image seeks an eye without a precise centre, without a defined location, but within that searching a site is maintained, manifesting itself in Rødland’s work with the sense of wandering, drifting.
In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), a text Rødland singles out as a significant influence, Roland Barthes writes, “pleasure can very well take the form of a drift. Drifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole...I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text.” Similarly, Rødland’s own understanding of photography, its lineage, critique and possibility, remains intractable to the frisson that constitutes bliss. Rødland’s commercial, rosy quartz heat affiliates with his perspective of photography’s shift through genre. He tells me, “the genres have already been emptied out, so I see it more as trying to fill up these completely emptied out forms to see if there’s something in there that can still be meaningful, despite the feeling that it’s too late, despite the banality of it.” As with Barthes, “the text destroys utterly, to the point of contradiction, its own discursive category.” The unanchored image compels meandering viewership, “I must seek out this reader (must ‘cruise’ him)” Barthes writes, “without knowing where he is.”
For Rødland, bliss resonates on the level of precarity, “I was also really taken by that idea of what Barthes says of how meaning is perforated, that also made sense to me. Just these gaping holes where you don’t really know what the hell is going on and that becomes powerful and more meaningful than the parts that you actually understand.” One of the more extravagant symbols of Rødland’s appeal for “these shared cultural forms” comes in a series of portraits of Paris Hilton. With the Pomeranian underneath her arm, her hair flouncing the morning glow of golden Cheerios - magenta velour, be gone - the images appear somnolent. She is remote. Rødland recalls the interest in Hilton, “she seemed like a new representation of something in our culture, of making yourself into an object, which you see more and more people are making a living from - becoming these desirable objects. So it’s not about being objectified by the system, it’s about objectifying yourself as a way to make a living. There’s something linked to photography there and also something linked to the economy of our time.” Fame for fame, is now part of the daily grind. Working with Rødland, Hilton was on guard. But Rødland reassures me, “we had the same interests in mind, we were not looking to pull the rug from under her image.”
Within his approach lies a shifting crux, namely, Rødland’s participation within the strained archetypes of commercial culture, crossed, by the abrasion of that culture. Between the two, dissolve. The result of the image’s ruse is its capacity to be oscillatory, which makes for some lissom erotics. As Barthes suggests, “neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so.” This dissolve can also function as Rødland’s use of fiction, as something to blur, to envision reality beyond the tried practice of genre. “I’ve always been attracted to inner worlds, to fantasy, and frustrated by the regular documentary read of photography. I also got really quickly tired of the so-called staged photography of the 1980s, because it was so blunt and clear about it,” Rødland continues, “as if it were speaking to people in the last row.” Rødland’s fiction exfoliates reality, creating porosity as his works’ deliberate quality, orchestrating ambiance that lulls into the cradle of perversion.
Perversion backhands; diverts, dislocates. As something iridescent in formula - in the way iridescence becomes, on the basis of it being seen - photographic perversion strikes at the experience of bliss as a pervasively discomforting sensation. In this instance, Rødland’s bliss exercises disturbance by troubling the consistencies of one’s tastes, assumptions and predilection for particular outcomes. Any sort of harmony is reinstated through a tangential dimension,greeting the viewer on the surface of each image as perpetual disavowal and accretion. Rødland’s expression elongates itself by shadowing something disclosed and unpalatable. It’s there in Baby (2007), who sits upon a sheepskin rug. Her skin daubed peach-pale, poaching in coddled daylight with her life incubated by her plump bowlegs, the image runs through a temperate calm. Yet, staring into the camera, her right arm covers her chest. Discomfort emerges in observing this child as she gestures self-reflexively to any and every anonymous gaze. How a baby can glow saturnine.
As fetishistic as Rødland’s substances and surfaces appear, his affection for the power of pleasure are an act of reinstatement for the medium. Rødland says, “people look in different directions because of the power, especially with photography because there’s this wide range of commercial images whose only intent is to engage you in a more erotic sense, to make you buy a product. I think that’s also one reason why photography has been pushed in the opposite direction, towards something that engages the mind, tries to stay critical and not fall into those traps of the sensual.” With his lax voice elaborating, Rødland continues, “I’m trying to not stay away from the traps but to go into everything that is problematic about the photographic medium. To use the full vocabulary and use photography for what it can actually do, not only for what we would like it to do.”
In this sense, light and liquid become Rødland’s most eloquent tools, enhancing the particular distinction of his photographic surface. Take one of Rødland’s sentences from his Sentences on Photography, published by Triple Canopy: “A backlit object is a pregnant object.” I mention this for Rødland’s attention to light in relation to surface, fiction and reality. As he tells me, “It’s this back and forth of wanting to be as truthful as to how I actually see the world in these photographs - that’s what I need to do for them to feel right and that I don’t necessarily understand what that is.” The intention is “trying to follow up with finding a language around it, because it doesn’t start with understanding, it starts with an image that tries to do a job, to then analyse it later.”
Rødland’s work demonstrates through surface, substance and light, a precise interior-exterior negotiation that ultimately results in censoring the appearance-reality distinction. From the panoramic realm, to peruse Rødland’s imagery one comes back to the iridescent - the patina and texture as an image becoming - as each image provides the site where vision itself emerges. With Rødland, surfaces catalyse by way of accrual and denial. Strangers effuse diaphanous corona, linear patterns weave loose and strict, eyes appear bankrupt of vision, muscle inflates with baroque turgescence, all the fine hairs, dust and details defrost upon the surface bylooking through. As Rødland says, “there is something that can be comforting with just looking at something in detail in that sense. Just being lost in observing and the pleasure of observing, the details, the structures, the surfaces.” He continues, “for me, that is linked to reflecting around what the photograph can mean and the more symbolic potential of the medium.” The eye assimilates the image’s becoming by the allowance of a surface intimacy.
Intimacy implies a proximal, spatial realm. Though with Rødland’s surface handling, they are not just making contact - not just pampering the stuff of any commercial enterprise - but contracting the integument of reality. Whereas cosmetic, commercial surfaces consist of superficial layers, the intimacy in Rødland’s work wiggles inside these layers like a vacuum-pressed liquid. Even so, the substances themselves become camouflage, they pronounce and regress, they falter into their reality, in the becoming of their own image. Rødland develops a stereoscopic sense of the mergence of fiction and reality, collapsing the real and unreal realms in the manner of becoming itself, a cleavage.
For Rødland’s exhibition, The Face I Found I Will Find Again (2015) at Standard/Oslo, the aforementioned intimacy emerges in the gesture of peeling latex skin. This artificial peeling comes to the image surface as perennial accretion, where intimacy becomes a viable form of recognition. For Rødland, the inclusion of several portraits in the show also returns to the medium, “the faces are challenged but it’s also the portrait itself that’s being pulled, marked andstepped on.” As some sort of heterotopic hinterland, simultaneously visceral and mental, the portraits operate on one surface with the image in silence.
Silence comes from much of Rødland’s work through a kind of visual tmesis, as interruptive cutting of words. Theatrics are stymied by the lack, the silence of any narrative elsewhere. As he tells me, “I do think about whether it’s possible to silence the mind, because on one level I like to think of the photograph as a medium that relates to the world almost before language, it’s so close to just seeing. But on the other hand, I do see perception itself as being culturally coded and in that sense language comes, or at least these shared cultural forms, come back in.” For Barthes, “a dramatic story, which is one whose outcome is unknown, there is here an effacement of pleasure and a progression of bliss,” he adds, “today, in mass culture, there is an enormous consumption of ‘dramatics’ and little bliss.”
These forms of visuality, along with silence and narrative subtraction, align with Rødland’s fondness for boredom. Domesticated, pubescent ennui summons the fancy for some purgatorial redemption, or general motivation, in his association with all that bores. “Boredom is not far from bliss” Barthes writes, “it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.” Rødland acknowledges the drift of boredom by suggesting some incentive within it, as a strategic mode of attention. In response to the sense of perpetual distraction, Rødland explains, “I’m also trying to see if you can bring back content in ways that is more linked to psychology, spirituality and these qualities from classical art photography, after pluralism.” All this languor and spiritual flavour are synchronous with an early concern of his of the melancholic. He tells me, “in the way that it’s described by Pierre Janet, the French psychologist that studied melancholia, he talks about how the patient has no impulse to act, so the world is seen in detail, but that impulse to act on what you are seeing is lost,” he continues, “you can study everything in detail but it doesn’t seem relevant to your life.”
Melancholy follows in this instance, objective distance, “you can see that there is something monstrous in this cold lens that just sees everything. I think that’s something I’m trying to counterbalance by the backlighting and by trying to have a more emotional approach to what’s in front of the camera.” More recently, Rødland’s work appears to tranquillise the melancholic appetite by this introduction of emotion, as Rødland’s 15th sentence reads, “One challenge in photography is to outdistance distance. Immersion is key.” Gesturing towards such immersion is Rødland’s film work, characterised as an extension of still photography. “The practical issue is the same but it’s another way for me to explore photography just by having another set of limitations. Some of the things that are based on direct observation that I would like to take on, others are things that cannot be dealt with in stills in the same way.” Rødland continues, “all of my films have moving water, that’s an example of something which is tricky to deal with in the still photograph because it gets this really strange frozen look. Or, it takes on this problematic, poetic flow, this out of focus flow from a long exposure movement of water, and neither of those are satisfying.”
“Ducks’ opinions of me,” her eyes low, the glitter ball rotating that exhausted neon rainbow, “are very much influenced by,” her cheek flushed by the honeyed disco, “whether or not I have bread.” The ski-lodge lace curtain, left at-bay, alone, in the yawning fluoro. Non-Progress (2006), upholds consciousness suspended with elaborate passivity. The film works into the problem of an emptied joke, a genre once more a crater, where a punch-line dislodges from its context, questioning whether any “juice”, as Rødland says, is worth savouring. The film’s looping recurs the advocacy for reality expansion, “it’s interesting just to see what happens when you can decide how much time the viewer should spend with each image. It’s more inspired by those types of programme that are used to show off television sets in stores. I’m fascinated by these images one after another without really trying to tell a narrative because, very often, they are seen without any sound.” He continues, “I was also looking at this cheap Japanese animation where there isn’t this budget to create a lot of different figures and movement within the frame.” Non-Progress also has a dreamy enfold that allows for foreign registers to be made apparent. Rødland’s films manifest dilemma through his attention to uncivil the civil with a curious mille feuille layering of light, artifice, substance and surface.
With Rødland, the issue of naming retracts to relentless un-naming, making Rødland’s work refined precisely for its uncertainties. Rødland extracts scenes dripping with anomalous significations, uncertain matter from where, for what? A Barthesian breakage surfacing in “a matter of effecting, by transmutation (and no longer only transformation), a new philosophic state of the language-substance; this extraordinary state, this incandescent metal, outside of origin and outside communication, then becomes language, not a language.” And so to Rødland who includes “the contrasts to make it what it is,” I return to the question: what is it?