TORBJORN RØDLAND | If It Wasn’t for These Photos, We’d Not Rest So Easy at Night
I’m walking alone down a leafy alley in burbank, looking for an address and generally feeling conspicuous. Suddenly, a man wearing a cast appears behind me, seemingly from out of nowhere. I flinch, surprised and also a bit worried that I’ll have to explain why I’m skulking around the neighborhood like a private eye, but it doesn’t take long to recognize him. Torbjørn Rødland is unmistakable, with long, slightly wispy hair framing an angular face punctuated by a devilish goatee and searching blue eyes.
He welcomes me with a nod and lets me into his studio through the back door. His demeanor is surprising, given the nature of his work—he’s quiet, kind, polite. He takes his time when thinking and speaking, intent on not being misunderstood. Of course, I have to ask about the cast. “I was back in Norway and I forgot that ice existed,” he tells me softly, by way of explanation. A small smile curls his lip.
Born in Norway and now based in Los Angeles, Rødland makes work like no one else. His specialty is imagery that is masterfully calibrated to strike the subconscious, eliciting a visceral reaction. There’s no neutral response to one of his photographs—they shock, arouse, infuriate, disgust, and provoke outbursts of laughter, often simultaneously. He takes the lexicon of contemporary commercial image culture, in particular product and fashion photography, and turns it against itself to explore taboos and to unsettle our expectations.
But Rødland takes care to distinguish himself from the postmodern response to the cultural saturation of commercial photography that dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s, and which lead to a sort of artistic dead-end where pastiche, appropriation, and satire seemed like the only moves left.
He instead treats imagery and stories from pop and commercial culture as a valid artistic platform, drawing from them the way that previous artists might have drawn from the renaissance or from natural and religious imagery.“I think a lot of people who gravitate toward fine art do so because they’re uncomfortable with a lot of the visuals from popular culture, and they don’t want to encounter it in their world unless it’s being a filtered through a very clear critical position,” he tells me. “And because I don’t offer that clear criticality, a lot of people are left uncomfortable. And even though it’s not pushed very far, that’s still problematic to a lot of people.”
The product of all this is a distinctive, somewhat menacing visual universe where all sorts of unexpected collisions occur, and where the quotidian is warped in ways that disturb and perplex. Dentures appear, disgustingly, wedged in a cinnamon roll. A box-cutter is positioned troublingly close to a belly swollen with child. The very old and the very young are paired together in darkly ambiguous situations. People touch in ways that signal either closeness or, possibly, exploitation. Power dynamics are flipped. An uncertain sensuality permeates the scenes, but they are photographed with an almost clinical or commercial neutrality that denies the viewer an easy narrative.
What is refreshing about Rødland is that he’s not just a lurid provocateur—his pictures, through their lingering ambiguity and thoughtful, often subtle compositions, linger in the memory because they are so close to “normal.” His vision remains shocking in a world where the most gratuitous imagery you could ever wish to see is available at the click of a button. I have a theory for why: a Rødland picture poses a question, and then he relies on the viewer to do the rest of the work, incorporating them into the process so that they become a kind of accomplice.
The result is somehow far more unsettling then if he had simply presented something overtly shocking, because as a viewer you’ve colluded with him to creating meaning. In this way every reaction to his work is highly personal, dependent on the pool of associations particular to each viewer. “There’s seldom something graphic or directly provocative in my photographs,” he tells me. “Still, I’m trying to push it out of the zone of the normal while leaving an ambiguity that opens it up to a lot of different associations.”
A recent exhibition of his Wordless series in Copenhagen, in which a variety of unusually paired subjects intimately touch one another with unknown intent, demonstrated how polarizing his work can be: “Different people have extremely different reactions,” he says. “I experienced this very clearly in Copenhagen with the Wordless series. Some people found the photographs to be touching and beautiful, while others found them to be disturbing, extremely disturbing, to the point where they were questioning, “Are you even allowed to be showing this? There should be a warning at the door!”
Take “Baby” for instance, one of (to me, at least) Rødland’s most hilarious images. On one level it’s just a picture of a baby, sitting in the sunlight. Something you might see on the Facebook page of a proud parent, or an Anne Geddes calendar. Yet there’s something deeply ‘off’ about the image. The baby is posed—how else to say it?—coquettishly, covering his or her chest like a demure starlet. Its smile is somehow too knowing, too suggestive. The collision of what looks like decidedly adult behavior with the innocence of the baby is almost outrageously taboo, shocking in a way in which my only response is laughter. But why? The image itself is unimpeachable—it’s my own associations that imbue it with its disturbing subtext. I’m the pervert. I’m complicit. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and I’m not surprised when Rødland tells me that some people respond to his photographs with outrage. They’re upset at what he’s shown them about their own minds.
But the pictures are also simply beautiful in a way that belies their content: lush with texture, warmly backlit. The portraits and still-lifes are both masterful versions of their respective genres while also defying conventions of the form. “I’m interested in this in-between position, giving life and interiority to the objects while maybe the people are objectified, treated more like things,” he explains. He shows me his first photograph, taken when he was only four years old: a haunting, blurry snapshot of his father and sister posing in a forest. It’s a miracle that it survived, and in it you can see (or at least imagine) the beginnings of a style present in his current work. Accompanying the photograph is a touching, melancholic little reflection he wrote that condenses his visual philosophy:
1974: My father and older sister. Photographed in front of naked winter trees, close to home, in Hafrsfjord, Norway.Years passed before I was allowed to make another exposure. Father probably concluded I was too young to support a camera for 1/30th of a second. I was four years old.
Obstructing twigs / Cool grass / A hand on a vertical trunk / An introverted girl / Her white head / A man making himself photographable / Warm low light and long shadows
Refute your parents’ project and forget your childhood; they are still who you are. The shock of my first photograph is a shock of continuity. I would spend ten years as an artist unpacking and reworking these motifs, these modes of representation.
Rødland never really stops working. Having just finished a showing at Serpentine Gallery in London, he’s now preparing for a solo exhibition at Bergen Kunsthalle, opening in May, quickly followed by another exhibition at LA’s David Kordansky Gallery in June. As I prepare to leave the interview, he kindly offers me a Perrier to go. I ask him what the rest of his day will hold. “I think I will make some pictures,” he says. My intrusion into his quiet, focused life is over, and he is ready to get back to his life’s project: constantly experimenting in his Burbank studio, playing with light and object arrangements and composition to keep investigating and troubling our perceptions.
Written by Sid Feddema