Following his UK debut at the Serpentine Gallery earlier this year, Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland has frequently been the topic of critical interest. His latest show ‘Back in Touch’, which opened at C/O Berlin in December, capitalises on this popularity and presents a different incarnation of his most recent works. Displayed upstairs, with a Joel Meyerowitz exhibit on the ground floor, ‘Back in Touch’ constructs a provocative world, one in which the familiar is destabilized and reality is intersected with disturbing details. Rødland’s work plays with notions of fetish, fear and our unconscious psyche, ultimately distorting the boundary between the foreign and the familiar.
Photographs of oranges covered in hair, tears of honey, and the leather-like torso of an older man with his hand on a young woman’s foot accompany others of disjointed bodies and teeth in pastries. These works depict the uncanny, revealing a surrealist truth and denying the indexicality that typically characterises photography. In its oscillation between attraction and repulsion, his work is reminiscent of early Surrealist photographers such as Jacques-André Boiffard and Hans Bellmer. Like the Surrealists, Rødland’s work expresses psychoanalytic notions, borrowing themes from Freud. Most prominently Rødland relies on the Freudian concept of the Uncanny in his employment of a strange familiarity which confronts his audience with their repressed desires. His work typifies Freud’s extension of the rational mind and can be understood to as a presentation humanity through the inner worlds of sexuality and violence. Like Boiffard, Rødland alienates identifiable stimuli or situations, achieving a rhetoric of the unconscious, and aligning himself with this avant-garde movement.
Photography, as a medium, allows a simulation of flawless uninterrupted reality. Rødland’s photographs, in true Surrealist manner, exploit and subvert this relation to truth through a disruption of the recognisable. He stages scenes which interrupt the everyday and disturb the typical indexical relationship photography possesses to reality. He stages his portraits and still-life images convulsing reality from within rather than through manipulation or editing. This makes them hard to relate to or decode, yet stimulating and intriguing in this mystery.
However, by borrowing—not relying on—the academic idioms of semiotics and psychoanalysis, Rødland collapses the critical distance that typified Surrealism. In interviews, he expresses his desire to remove distance and engage every viewer through tangible reactions. To do this he privileges touch where the Surrealists privileged vision. His images evoke a tactility, which is embodied through the exhibition’s title and through his repeated uses of fluid substances. Every object in his images is touched, often by another completely unexpected and unrelated object. Each element of his photographs remains incredibly visceral, both through his use of colour and the closeness of the camera.
The glossy, almost commercial-like images of this exhibition resist the pleasure of aesthetic experience, fabricating surrealist layers of reality which often repulse the viewer. Rødland’s scenes promote a transgressive space, an anti-aesthetic gaze that challenges any visitor, making this show worth the visit. The viewer is stimulated to experience a myriad of emotional reactions to the photographs, these reactions becoming encoded into the works themselves. The show imposes psychical reality onto the real, constructing a pictorial depiction of the border between our unconscious and conscious psyche. In these representations of mania, distortion and fear we find no clearly defined message or narrative, but this seems to be the very point. Perhaps, ultimately then, all we can do in response to Rødland’s work is embrace the words that he writes in the exhibition’s accompanying text, and accept that “perversion is bliss.”