Backlit Rainbow - Torbjørn Rødland
An evident trend among great artists – whether they are writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians, or photographers – is that they are entirely themselves. They each dare to be themselves. And in a culture which requires art to appeal to a target audience in relentless pursuit of profit, asserting your identity and refusing to capitulate to the demands of others is the most daring thing you can do as an artist. It is a swearing by this principle that defines the work of Torbjørn Rødland, the Danish photographer whose compulsively daring artistic vision fractures reality in a subtle and wholly unique way. Rødland’s most recent display of work, which was the Backlit Rainbow exhibition in the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, is a monument to his daring artistic approach.
It becomes clear instantly upon observing any one of Rødland’s pieces that he subverts the directness of the photographic medium by making his photographs more elusive and less discernible, while retaining the stark immediacy inherent in the art form. Rødland uses the ability of photography to capture a slice of reality – what we may find normal and mundane – and then adds an ingredient of the abnormal and the bizarre in order to create images that exist in a realm just beyond the ordinary. But since his work is photographic, it remains rooted in a familiar sense of realism – we can still recognise what is going on.
Rødland’s personal aesthetic is present throughout his Backlit Rainbow exhibition. For example, in a photograph called “Voodoo Shoe”, a white high-heeled shoe – seemingly a wedding shoe – is pierced by four long black nails, which sharply intrude the otherwise mundane scene, and distort the photograph into something uncanny. The nails feel obtrusive and out of place in the photograph, and they immediately divert your attention away from the purity of the surface image and towards the violent impalement of the shoe, which also hints at a supernatural influence by portraying the shoe as a voodoo doll. This glimpse of witchcraft and voodoo magic creeps into the scene to create a sinister tone that seduces you into formulating disturbing hypotheses about what happened to the bride who owns the shoe: perhaps she has been forced into marriage, or perhaps she is being controlled and hypnotised into wedlock by the paranormal possessor of her voodoo doll.
The meaning of the photograph is unclear, yet it is clear that Rødland is able to combine everyday objects, like shoes and nails, in such an alien and visceral and unsettling way that your eyes rebel against what you see, but you also feel compelled to search for meaning in this broth of realism and the fantastical. You want to understand how something so ordinary could be warped to seem so preternatural. One look at the photograph challenges you to decipher it, like a puzzle, and find in it some level of meaning – as if Rødland is imploring you to make the surreal real again.
The same effect is created by Rødland’s gripping and chilling photograph “No Climax”, in which a fatally lacerated man, whose body is infested by what look like knife cuts and puncture wounds, is lying cold on the floor, embracing death, yet with eyes full of life that stare intensely at the camera. It seems that the photograph either acts to preserve the man’s frightening last moment before death, just before the light escapes his eyes, or it depicts an immortal man who should be dead but whose body denies him peaceful oblivion. Either way, Rødland portrays something wholly unnatural in that death itself is being repelled. And it is this conflict between unnatural life and natural death, enacted on the body of the fallen man, that makes the piece so alluring.
The perverse and haunting tone of the photograph is so captivating because you know that this man who courts both life and death should not exist – it is nauseating to see a mostly-dead man’s aberrant eyes refuse to accept the deadly fate of his body. And yet it is oddly inviting, because Rødland does not shatter reality. Instead, he suspends reality and captures it on the edge of collapse, whereby the sense of the photograph is just about clinging on to reality in the same way that the man in the image is clinging on to life. You are incited to wonder what will happen next: will the man die or will there be no climax to his life? It is this feeling of uncertainty aroused by the piece that inspires a search for its subtle meaning, which is hidden somewhere in between the realism and the fantasy that Rødland employs as a co-dependent dichotomy to underpin the photograph.
Ultimately, if you were to take the time to peruse most of his work, you could reasonably conclude that Rødland is an artist who is discontented with realism. However, Rødland does not deal in absolute fantasy, as he prefers to crack open reality gently and expose it briefly to the supernatural. He hints at the impossible. He flirts with the irrational. Reality has not quite broken down in his images. It is in the act of breaking down. But one thing that has not broken down is Rødland’s daring approach to his artistic endeavours. As is required of exceptional artists, his work is uniquely a product of his own mind. His photographs are complex and layered in mystery, waiting for someone to excavate meaning from them. However, the greatest satisfaction derived from observing his images does not come from finding meaning in them. Rather, what is most thrilling about Rødland’s photographs is how the pursuit of their illusive meanings will energise you both to engage in deeper thought about his work and to interact closely with his reality-warping images. Just as Rødland dares to be original in creating his art, he dares you to think originally and interface with his work in your own unique way.