This text introduces a portfolio of Torbjørn Rødland’s photographs published in Aperture issue 221 (Winter 2015).
“Who poured the paint?” I asked Torbjørn Rødland recently over Skype, referring to Pump (2008–10). “I did,” he replied, adding, “I cannot delegate important tasks like these.” The Los Angeles–based Norwegian artist’s answer, an assertion of control over a situation governed by chance, hints at the tension that characterizes many of his photographs. It is similar to the tension of live performance, in which a structure or script comes to life through people who bring to it their interpretive prejudices and their frailties—and who can’t always control environmental factors. At another moment in our conversation, Rødland elaborates, “I’ve learned to trust that what I’m handed is better than what I could possibly plan for. This is, of course, after having planned certain things, or initiated a situation, or set a stage for invited performers.”
Rødland’s stage sets are often non-descript—a domestic interior, a clearing in the forest, a blank studio wall—and thus allow viewers to concentrate on the action occurring within them. A young woman in a leotard and saddle shoes lies prone on a kitchen countertop, contorting her body as she holds her feet near her ears. Another wears high-top sneakers on her hands, which rest on the ground in a pose that gives her the appearance of an animal standing upright, delicately and awkwardly, for the first time. A colorful heap of marker strokes, made by an unknown hand, cover a preteen boy whose arm is in a cast. These events are so unusual they seem to occur solely for the camera’s gaze; their absurd specificity removes them from the flow of everyday life. Put another way, his photographs are not “decisive moments” but dispatches from another realm, one that exists in parallel to our world. That sense of separateness is heightened by how absorbed Rødland’s subjects are in their inscrutable rituals. They rarely gaze directly into the lens, and therefore seem unwilling or unable to acknowledge us.
The artist’s midcareer survey, presented earlier this year at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo, outlined significant changes in his art over the last twenty years. He no longer appears in his own pictures, as he did during the mid-1990s. He collaborates with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Now he often photographs two or more people, rather than individuals. He no longer works in series. These developments, though seemingly small, tangibly affected his photographic process. “It made me more productive,” he says. By choosing not to place his pictures into predetermined categories, Rødland is free to create whatever “tragically vague inner image” comes to his mind. At any given moment he has dozens of completed photographs waiting for an appropriate context in which to be published or exhibited. (A date like 2011–15 indicates the gap between when the negative was exposed and when the first print was made.) When a batch of Rødland’s photographs is gathered together, then, the connections among them are suggestive, aleatory, wonder inducing.
In our conversation, Rødland used the word weak in several contexts: “There’s no need to do a weaker version of something one has already made.” The language suggests art making as athleticism, and successful pictures as mastery over countervailing forces. Perhaps the greatest forces to overcome are social and pictorial conventions: genre clichés and good manners. When I asked if the camera gives him license to do—and reveal—things that would otherwise seem unacceptably strange, his response neatly summarized the disquieting appeal of his photographs. “Having to convince strangers to give physical shape to ‘unacceptable’ situations is harder than just moving a pencil. But there’s also an enormous reward.”
This exhibition remains on view through March 6, 2016. For more information, click here.
Jochen Lempert is doubly open to the world around him. Early in his life, he trained as a biologist, conducted field work in Europe and Africa, and wrote academic papers on various subjects, including dragonflies. A 35-mm camera aided his research. Then, during the early 1990s, he began using cameras as a tool for more creative pursuits, collaborating on experimental films and making artistic photographs. This hybrid background influences many of Lempert’s artistic decisions today. It also makes him a unique figure among contemporary artists: he is as familiar with the ideas of scientists Carl Linneaus and Charles Darwin as he is the work of photographers Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Bernd & Hilla Becher. The result is a photographer of nature who is not a traditional “nature photographer,” and a Conceptual artist whose subject matter, techniques, and guiding principles distinguish him from nearly all his peers.
Let’s take two examples. Lempert’s diptych Belladonna (2013) pairs a photograph of the plant, otherwise known as deadly nightshade, and a squirrel. A central dark sphere — the plant’s berry, the squirrel’s eye — links the two photographs formally, and many artists would be content with the juxtaposition. But for Lempert, this is also visual proof of an evolutionary concept. The plant’s berry gleams to attract the fruit-eating animals who can disperse its seeds; each species sees a face in the fruit according to its particular capabilities. This juxtaposition asks us to imagine what the squirrel sees. In other works, such as Formation (2005), Lempert encourages viewers to impose human aesthetic order on non-human species. The triptych depicts four geese seen from above as they float on water. In each picture they form a diamond pattern, and the repetition makes the result seem like the birds intended it. But geese don’t understand geometry, and the impression derived from their relationship is entirely a human projection. By suggesting logic in what is derived from chance, Lempert also nods slyly to John Baldessari’s iconic and self-explanatory 1973 artworkThrowing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). In both Belladonna and Formation, the intermingling of scientific and artistic thinking creates a rich set of associations.
Science is a shifting, evolving discipline — it is never complete — and observation is the scientist’s most important skill. These two facts apply equally to art and artists.
It’s a wonder that more artists, and more photographers in particular, don’t come from scientific backgrounds. Science is a shifting, evolving discipline — it is never complete — and observation is the scientist’s most important skill. These two facts apply equally to art and artists. Jochen Lempert’s art demonstrates this congruity with quietly spellbinding results.
IN THE DARKROOM, IN THE GALLERY
Lempert is an analogue man in a digital world. The first thing one notices about his photographs is their peculiar physical presence. In an art world dominated by on-screen JPEGs and the smooth color gradations of inkjet prints, Lempert always works in black-and-white and prints his photographs using analogue techniques. He often manipulates them as he processes them in his studio’s darkroom, and a picture may be printed in four different sizes before the artist settles on which works best.
After a rigorous editing process, during which photographs may sit in his studio for several years, Lempert hangs the finished artworks in a gallery un-matted and unframed. They are taped to the gallery wall in such a way that their rippling edges sometimes lift off its surface. The paper he uses has a relatively loose weave, giving each picture a softer effect; even his most sharply focused images seem, upon first glance, like charcoal drawings or finely detailed pencil sketches. In a world of color prints the size of billboards, the material properties of Lempert’s artworks reveal a sensibility rooted in timeless concerns.
Lempert recombines old and new photographs for each presentation of his work. He worked with the staff of the Cincinnati Art Museum to arrange and mount Field Guide the week before the exhibition opened. As with all his exhibitions, pictures from the 1990s bump up against phenomena he observed recently. This includes pictures made last spring during a visit to the East Coast of the United States and to Cincinnati. Several local organizations — the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Museum of Natural History and Science at Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Lloyd Library and Museum — generously allowed Lempert behind-the-scenes access, where he made photographs of specimens living and dead, the pages of books in their collections, and the environs.
But Lempert can also work in simpler settings. Glowworm (movements on 35-mm film) (2010), was made in a darkened bathroom. He placed a strip of unexposed film on the counter and set the glowworm on it; the insect’s own bioluminescence exposed the film. The line you see, which appears to be an entirely abstract composition, is a direct trace of the worm’s path across four frames of film.
SEEING WHAT CAN’T BE SEEN
Our ability to observe what surrounds us is remarkable: we peer deeply into outer space and scrutinize sub-atomic particles. These powers are enhanced by technologies that grow more potent with each passing year. Lempert, working with nothing more than a 35-mm camera, cannot capture the heavens or the building blocks of matter. Nonetheless he often tries to photograph phenomena that elude our visual grasp — great spans of time, the complexity of interacting natural systems, invisible biological processes.
Consider Airplane in a Gymnosperm Forest (2013–15), in which tree branches frame a patch of blue sky and a passing airplane. The plane points toward the upper-right corner of the picture, and its implied path connotes the passage of time. But time is marked not only by this left-to-right movement. Scientifically minded viewers will recognize that gymnosperms are among the most ancient seed-producing plants on Earth, believed to have originated more than 300 million years ago. This is, then, a picture of both ancient and modern subjects, and the arrow of time also moves from foreground to background. The photographic instant becomes elastic, stretching across eons.
Other photographs create visual and philosophical puzzles. Even when looking closely at Lempert’s Untitled (shadow on stairs) (2014), it can be challenging to discern whether the stairs rise toward the camera lens or descend away from it. Their sharply delineated geometry is camouflaged by the shadows of leaves that dance across them. Again, Lempert mixes two kinds of order — man-made and natural — to dizzying and visually arresting effect.
Lempert frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding.
Lempert has also photographed the patterns created by raindrops splashing on the surface of a body of water — two impossible-to-visualize systems interfering with one another. He has made pictures of wind and photosynthesis, concepts we understand but can only see through indirect measures. Lempert frequently tests the camera’s vision against the natural world, then encourages us to dwell upon how the natural world trumps human perception and understanding. A sense of wonder at the world’s mysteries rushes into the gap between the artist’s grand intentions and the humble means by which he expresses them.
WHAT IS NATURE?
It’s commonly acknowledged today that no natural environment is entirely pristine, separate from human incursion. Jochen Lempert’s art makes the opposite fact equally apparent: no human environment can be divorced from nature. He finds the subjects of his photographs in an admirably broad range of places. They are not only encountered in the forest or on the open sea, but are also found in dense urban environments. Several of the photographs in this exhibition were taken in Hamburg, Germany, Lempert’s home and a city of nearly two million people. What do these photographs imply about our relationship with nature?
Hamburg has many parks and is situated along the River Elbe, places where one might look for specific plants and animals. But Lempert’s art goes further still. Consider the photograph Vanessa atalanta migration (2014). A street scene taken from the window of a building, its could be from any city: cars parallel parked on each side of the street, a row of residential buildings, some fencing that blocks off a construction project. At the center of the image, however, the camera picks out a tiny butterfly in sharp relief. The photograph, taken from Lempert’s Hamburg studio window, captures the Red Admiral as it passes through town. It took one observational skill to notice the butterfly, and another to identify it and recognize it was migrating — all in the midst of the artist’s average workday.
This picture, and many others like it, suggest that nature is not defined by a place, or even by particular environmental characteristics. Instead, nature is a quality of attention. Look closely, anywhere, and you can find nature. Be patient, be reverent, and its wonders will disclose themselves to you.
For nearly a decade, Swedish artist Mårten Lange has recorded such mysteries, whether working in places best described as natural or man-made. (Today the two are always intermingled.) Lange’s 2007 series Machina explored scientific laboratories—perhaps the ultimate man-made territory. Focusing upon machines at Gothenburg University, his close-up views depict, in great detail, tubes, wires, bolts and canisters. These devices extend our ability to comprehend the natural world, so it is appropriate that everything is brightly lit and in sharp focus. What is left unrecorded by Lange’s lens, though, is the purpose of these machines. What are they for? The viewer’s imagination must step in and guess what the tangle of wires allow scientists to see.
So, too, must the imagination aide understanding of Another Language, the most succinct and compelling expression of Lange’s aesthetic to date. The fifty- nine black-and-white images in this diminutive 2012 book have simple compositions. He has placed the subjects of the pictures in the centre of each frame. Yet those subjects range widely, and the scale of what is depicted shifts from macroscopic to microscopic. This often happens from one image to the next; a frozen lake, seen from an airplane, appears opposite a small fossil. Every image in the book is the same size, and a lack of contextualising information—such as horizon lines—further flattens hierarchies. Animal, mineral, vegetable: all appear within Another World’s pages without sharp distinctions. A viewer must rely on previous experience, on the mind’s catalogue of imagery, to disentangle these subjects and find their proper relationships.
Links among images are important to Lange. “Books are my primary interest and influence,” the artist has said. “I prefer intimately scaled printed matter, and I make my exhibition prints to match. If you want to see detail, you must look closely. It’s how I learned about photography in a small town in Sweden.” Lange’s clear vision descends in part from Scandinavian predecessors. His photographs recall the combination of specificity and mystery that characterizes the late Norwegian artist Tom Sandberg’s best work. And though people rarely appear in Lange’s pictures, as they do in Swedish photographer J.H. Engstrom’s work, Engstrom led a workshop that opened the younger artist’s mind to the expressive possibilities of the medium. (“I had never met anyone who thought about photography like he did,” Lange says.) His work is not as diaristic Engstrom’s, or for that matter Anders Petersen’s. Instead, Lange is closer in spirit to the Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson, whose pictures depict human culture through the traces it leaves on the landscape. Lange and his peers also rely more upon strategies derived from Conceptual art: categorization, systematization, emotional expressiveness nestled within a restrained style. Such impulses might also have come from Lange’s family history and education. His forebears were architects, engineers and chemists, and Lange studied natural sciences and engineering until discovering photography while attending high school.
Lange likewise feels an affinity to German photographer Jochen Lempert’s studies of the natural world. Like Lempert, who frequently organizes his photographs into associative “chapters,” visual motifs weave through Lange’s work. For example, spirals appear several times in Another Language. Near the beginning of the book, a spit of land juts out into water and then curls into itself. Later in the sequence, a solitary leaf, isolated against a seamless white backdrop, bends to form a circle. Toward the end one finds a whirlpool of large but indeterminate scale. Seen from above, the concentric rings of disturbed water call to mind satellite imagery of hurricanes.
The image of a whirlpool implies recursion, and Lange circles back to his favourite subjects. While in Tokyo in 2009 he created a series of flash-lit photographs of crows in trees, later publishing them as a book through his imprint Farewell. He revisited the subject on a later trip to the Japanese capital, and in summer 2015 published Citizen, a book of photographs depicting pigeons on the streets of London. Unlike his earlier crows, specks of black in a tangle of branches, Lange photographed the pigeons from behind with an estranging level of detail. The images offer a proximity and stillness we don’t often get in busy urban environments.
Lange’s techniques and preferred methods of distribution are likewise consistent. He uses a flash more often than most photographers working today, and the light gives his pictures a crispness and flatness that one rarely finds outside of party photography—a genre that could not be further removed from Lange’s tone and preferred subjects. And, despite the success of Another Language, published by MACK, Lange continues to self-publish. “My vision doesn’t end with the images themselves,” he insists. “I like to be in control of the packaging, the web presence … all aspects of the way I communicate.”
One of Lange’s current projects is a genre-crossing study of urban environments, from Tokyo to London to New York. It is tempting to think of this endeavor, after several smaller-scale series, as an urban update to Another Language. A stylized whirlpool, simpler than the one described earlier, appears on the cover of that book. In fantasy literature, a whirlpool pulls you beneath the surface and discloses to you a separate reality. It is an alternate realm to visit, explore, and—once transformed—leave behind. Lange’s talent is to discover that separate reality in the surfaces of our world—even the impenetrable, glass-and-concrete facades of our cities. Like all great photographers, he scrutinizes those surfaces, excising images that offer a truer, if indelibly stranger, version of what the rest of us see.