For Torbjørn Rødland, observation is a sacred act — and integral to his approach to photography.
The artist was in Austin, Texas last week for the installation of his solo museum show at the Contemporary Austin, “Bible Eye.” The title was inspired by a friendly rejection of the 1970 Iggy Pop single “T.V. Eye,” and serves to challenge 20th-century cliches about photography as straightforward documentation.
“Bible Eye” is The Contemporary Austin’s first solo photography exhibition. The show — the museum’s first solo photography exhibition — features the L.A.-based Norwegian artist’s earlier works alongside a few newer pieces. A few have a direct link to Austin, taken with the museum exhibition in mind during a stretch of time spent in the city last year.
One of those photos is “Brass Pole, Black Boots,” which depicts an inverted male pole dancer from a local training studio. The dancer wears tall lace-up heeled boots and little else, and sports a classic beard — which Rødland associated with a character from a biblical story, in reference to the show’s title.
Rødland is drawn to the tension of opposite ideas coming together within a photograph. His work reaches into the uncanny by marrying art history motifs — candles, the human body — with imagery inspired by advertising — consumption, the human body as stimulus. His work is often surreal and unsettling, creating provocative compositions through pairing opposing aesthetics — rainbow sugared gummies skewered by nails, candles extending from the runny yolk of an egg cracked open.
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“I’m always trying to push things into a more fantastical space,” he says.
Torbjørn Rødland, “Candlestick Pattern No. 1,” 2020. Chromogenic print on Kodak Endura paper. 41 1/5 x 31 1/4 inches. Edition 1 of 3, 1 AP. Artwork © Torbjørn Rødland. Courtesy the artist and NILS STÆRK, Copenhagen.
Torbjørn Rødland, “Candy Skewers,” 2017. Chromogenic print on Kodak Endura paper. 43 3/8 x 55 1/8 inches. Edition 3 of 3, 1 AP. Artwork © Torbjørn Rødland. The Mohn Family Trust. Image courtesy the artist.
His video installation, “Elegy of the Silent,” is a central piece of “Bible Eye,” screened inside a room placed in the middle of the exhibition space. The film features the confident deep voice of an aging man, inspired by the poet and spoken word artist Rod McKuen, a pop icon of the late 1960s. “Elegy of the Silent” is a contrast and sort of companion to Rødland’s previous film, “Between Fork and Ladder,” which features a singing 10-year-old boy. “Elegy of the Silent” will screen for the first three months of the show, and “Between Fork and Ladder” will screen for the remainder of the exhibition. (“Elegy of the Silent” is also being shown in Zurich for his concurrent exhibition “More Than Tongue Can Tell” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber.)
Rødland’s work shares commonality with meme culture, where images are transformed by context and viewer. This idea was on full display last week, when culture’s latest viral meme emerged with great fanfare: Sen. Bernie Sanders seated during the inauguration, an image transposed into countless different images.
“It’s surprising how excited people were about it — the half-grumpy looking, sitting Bernie with his enormous mittens. It can mean different things to different people. I think that is more important than me knowing what it means,” he says. “I think a lot of other memes have that function — that maybe poetry used to have — of bringing these experiences up into shared consciousness that haven’t been totally described before.” The meaning, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
“That’s the idea behind my show,” he adds. “I’m standing next to whoever’s looking at these pictures, saying ‘well, isn’t this interesting.’ I’m not standing somewhere elevated and knowing what they should look for, and knowing what they should find in these photographs. But I’m next to them finding it fascinating, not really knowing myself what it means.”
Torbjørn Rødland, “Artist’s Boots,” 2013. Chromogenic print on Kodak Endura paper. 22 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches. Edition 1 of 3, 1 AP. Artwork © Torbjørn Rødland. Collection of Sarah and David Rothschild, New York. Image courtesy the artist.
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