Pictures that slither
by Arve Rød
In the nineteen-nineties, art photography went straight. It established two of the clearest markers by which art historians now recognise that decade:
it consolidated the technical and formalistic possibilities of the digital revolution, and it turned ideological, in terms of a realist-leaning aesthetic that sought to bring art closer to life and the everyday world. Painting looked like it was going to the dogs in the wake of the eighties’ impetuous expressionism – that noisy visual opera that served as the perfect contrast to the more institutionally critical, linguistically conscious and network savvy practice of so many nineties artists. If you had to paint in the nineties, you had two options: either to undertake some urgent deskilling, renouncing all interest in tradition and craftsmanship and outing yourself as a slacker or bad-painter, or to accept the inversion of the art-media hierarchy, acknowledge photography as the primary medium of visual art and start honing the skills needed to compete with photographic realism – evidently the more daunting prospect. Consequently, art in the nineties fostered a plethora of painters who in one way or another sought to mimic the optics and mechanical-magical arcana of photography: its quality of visual truth and its capacity to document reality from the spectacular to the trivial – to capture a moment’s transience on a scrap of film or a microchip.
Nineties photographic painting had less to do with the genre commonly referred to as photorealism, as we know it from the sixties and seventies, than it did with the idea that there resides within the apparatus of the camera, whether of the chemical-mechanical or the bytes-and-pixels type, a ghost in the machine capable of transforming our subjective, visual experience – as evinced by everything from the faded snapshots in a family photo album through to images distorted by signal errors and false exposures on a digital camcorder.
Artistically speaking, Hedevig Anker is a child of the nineties, meaning she has been able to handle photography as visual art’s “primary medium”. Even so, the photographs she has been creating for almost twenty years now draw heavily on the legacy of European painting; a visual expertise that finds expression in compositional balance, colouristic harmony, and an eye for details that tell a story. Reviews of Anker’s work typically have headings like “Paintings created with the camera”. As a photographer, she is both straight and non-straight. The pictures she has become known for, and which make up a large part of this book, are unmanipulated, non-arranged, unstaged and undramatic studies of architecture and architectural details. They are a kind of poetic-objective note-taking done through the lens of a camera, where the visual tension is apparent on the level of what one could call “painterly aestheticisation”: colour harmonies, the contrast between sharp and blurred focus, light and shade, or subtle distinctions between the main subject and its reflection.
Anker’s architectural photographs are location-sensitive and context-aware (e.g. in the series from Bjerkebæk), yet at the same time composed in the most classic sense of the word. This is how we recognise Anker’s project: a bold, intimate, but nevertheless cool and controlled artistic approach. Then there comes a series of pictures that are so dark, gestural and seemingly corporeal that for a moment one has a sense of being transported back to a painter’s studio in the eighties, or into the viewing room of a radiology department. Anker’s “analogue negative paintings”, as she calls them, depict indistinct organic forms; sweeping strokes of bluish grey and russet yellow against a background of profound darkness; traces of tools creating vertical and horizontal movements; blotches and irregular mottles from an evidently intense and intuitive process. A painter’s eye instantly recognises the aesthetic and reflexively begins to rummage through the brain’s store of memories in search of appropriate references: from James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (1874) and Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures painted with squeegee and spatula through to painters closer to Anker’s own generation, painters with a documented interest in the material and procedural aspects of the overlap between painting and photography (Mari Slaattelid and Geir Harald Samuelsen are two local examples). Anker’s pictures look like paintings, which is precisely what they are, technically speaking. In a way, Anker inverts the point made at the opening of the current text. She is a photographer who creates pictures that are paintings in terms of their materials, and which distance themselves from the camera to get closer to the brushstroke, to the surface and substances; abstract expressionist miniatures that use photo emulsion and C-type prints.
The pictures in this series were produced by applying watercolours to photographic film using a brush and the blade of a Stanley knife, often in several stages, building up multiple layers of paint and leaving traces of the knife blade in the form of scratches and marks on the film. Subsequently, the film was illuminated using standard darkroom methods, creating a copy of the design on photo paper. Thus technically speaking the pictures are also photographs, or painted photographs – with one foot in each camp, as it were.
One imagines that what Anker is seeking to do here is problematise the conception of photography as a “window on the world” and to point out that every photographic image is to some extent a construct and an illusion of reality. But rather than contribute left, right and centre to a discourse about the capacity of photography to witness truth or its medium-specificity as a form of visual expression, Anker’s series establishes a space for us to reflect on the intuitive and unpredictable aspect of every creative process. Anker’s painted photographs explore the field where the mechanics of the camera overlap with abstract and materially exploratory painting, where spontaneity and only partially controllable processes are of vital importance to the aesthetic outcome. We can imagine this field as an essential locus, a kind of outer limit of stability, or tipping point, where unexpected results are produced.
Within the culture of digital imagery, there are artists who show a pronounced interest in this kind of instability and the shortcomings of machinery. “Glitch” is a term that denotes a fault in the smooth working of an algorithm, a potential source of both frustration and fascination. A glitch is a manifestation of chance, the ghost in the machine that reveals the underbelly of data – a kind of involuntary beauty, as the Surrealists might have called it, a reminder of the potentially illusory nature of any representation or structuring principle. There is of course no obvious correlation between Anker’s painted photographs and so-called “glitch art”. Anker’s pictures are rooted primarily in analogue photography. They are not dependent on any form of malfunction or weakness in a system or on the corruption of data. But acknowledging the deeper etymology of the term “glitch” – the word probably comes from Yiddish glitsh, meaning a smooth/slippery place, or gletshn, meaning to slither or slide – allows us to make a further point about Anker’s material process, which, in its spontaneity, relies on the principle of chance in much the same way as the glitch aesthetic. Watercolour is applied to film, leaving a thin layer of soft emulsion, to all intents and purposes a glitsh that is vulnerable to tools and the scratches and marks they inflict. The process of working on the six-centimetre wide film on a light table is in many ways blind. Every action performed on the smooth surface has to be conceptualised as a negative and in “reverse”, making it all the more difficult to calculate the result; it is a process that evades the control of the hand and the eye and which keeps the outcome largely hidden until the film has been copied onto photographic paper.
One also imagines that this “fluid”, intuitive approach could be conducive to the cultivation of automaticity, the experience of working in a half-waking, half-dreaming state, something which for the Surrealists was fundamental for avoiding the control of reason. The result is not just more or less methodical, more or less automated brushstrokes, but also more or less accidental “wounds” in the surface, where paint accumulates and the emulsion takes on the appearance of red scars, like congealed blood. Perhaps this is why my first associations on seeing this series included X-rays and macro photographs of the body’s interior. Anker’s pictures close the window on the world and withdraw into the body of photography, into the physical film, showing its raw entrails. Anker clears the way for what André Breton might have called the “savageness of vision” that looks straight at photography’s manipulative qualities, giving a non-straight poke with the blade of a knife to its privileged connection to reality.
An encounter with Hedevig Anker’s photos immediately engenders a sense of silence and stillness. The pictures depict the apparently unchangeable; objects and architectural elements affected only by the changing light of the seasons.
The motifs in Hedevig Anker’s latest photographs are located in two small dwelling houses in the remote island of Leka on the North-Western coast of Norway. The houses are vacated. Only the traces of a life lived remain. Unlike previous projects, where the artist’s private memories have taken centre stage, the memories from the houses in Leka belong to women that the artist never knew. The houses are full of secrets that are barely perceptible. Anker attempts to probe the hidden stories through her pictures, while she is exploring the frontiers of narrative power and the significance of the photographic medium. How much can a picture reveal and how much does it conceal?
A similar interest in the qualities of a place and the house as a mental universe is also found in Gaston Bachelard’s important work The Poetics of Space – a phenomenological study of architectural structures. In his book of 1958 Bachelard focuses on how we perceive intimate rooms. According to him, the existential perception of the room’s character impresses on our memory – the memories are thus associated with physical experience in definite, spatial contexts: “…the house is one of the greatest powers of imagination for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”
Anker always works with series, usually associated with definite locations or building structures. The selection process is deliberate, and the place should preferably be of special significance to the artist. Her childhood home and her paternal grandmother’s apartment have been central to previous projects. This time too, Anker’s affiliation to the place is important, even if it originates later in her life. The pictures appear as immediate results of her physical and mental experience of the houses in Leka. To Anker, the camera is an extension of her body – it records her subjective perception of the room.
The photographic medium was not an obvious choice for Hedevig Anker. The artist also works systematically to transgress the characteristics of the photographic picture. In the first place, this applies to the way the camera records space; the artist is constantly attempting to transgress the perspective so that the focus in the picture lies in the face rather than in depth. The comparison is close with abstract painters such as Mark Rothko. Like Rothko, Anker lets colour dominate the pictures, while the subject is secondary.
The transgression of genres is also apparent from Anker’s treatment of time. The apparently eternal states in the artist’s pictures are in conflict with that quality of recording the moment. One of the core values of photography is the temporary quality. In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes how the finished act constitute the essence of photography: ”that has been […] it has been there, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.”
Anker’s treatment of time thus appears like an intentional contradiction in terms. She never manipulates – the pictures are indeed the result of one single exposure – consequently one single moment. At the same time they are characterised by a predilection for the eternal qualities of the painting. In a painting the permanence is built into the creative process – it is an inevitable part of the finished product. Hedevig Anker therefore moves along the border between the two media. She transgresses the differences between the photograph and the painting while showing how they often meet in a common exploration of the problem.
Anker’s compositions are understated. All the elements are given equal value and the photos are taken at a time of day when the light is sparse and less intense. The pictures are restrained and cautious.
At the same time, Anker is able to activate the spectator; where others might adopt a more intense approach, she provokes a reaction by calling attention to the insignificant and the immobile. Through her photography Anker guides the spectator in remembering what belongs in the past, but which also exists in the rooms where we live in and the objects with which we interact every day.
Bachelard, Gaston ( 1994)The poetics of space, Boston: Beacon Press, s. 6
Barthes, Roland ( 1981)Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang s.77
Nora Ceciliedatter Nerdrum
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The Remembrance of Things Past
Hedevig Anker's artistic language is enriched through the visual vocabulary of both photography and painting. Her approach to photography is built on a painterly sensibility; in fact her most abstract photographs resemble paintings. It is as though Hedevig Anker brings the whole history of painting into her photographs. We find the influence of some of the greatest names in art in her work: Vermeer’s treatment of light, Mondrian’s division of the grid, and Robert Ryman’s mastery of white on white compositions. Subtle nuances in color and a clear understanding of form and composition, along with unusual perspectives and attention to detail, contribute to Hedevig Anker’s serene and balanced photographs.
While Hedevig Anker’s photographs do, in the most traditional sense of photography, capture reality, they do not convey a specific narrative. Her photographic reality involves a visual transference of the artist’s psyche. While she strips down compositions to the essentials, sometimes involving no more than the crack on a wall or raindrops on a windowpane, she manages to express deep emotions in her cold, minimal photographs. Seemingly insignificant details take on monumental proportions, even though we cannot always make out what she captures. Like the play of memory in the mind, the photographs are somewhat blurred and vague; at other times crystal clear, with slight cracks and gaps, all techniques reflecting how memory works. The events in Hedevig Anker’s life come together in a thought provoking "less-is-more" aesthetic.
Fascinating similarities between Hedevig Anker’s photographs and the realist paintings of the Norwegian artist Ida Lorentzen emerge, which help shed light on the essence of Hedevig Anker’s work. Both artists chose to face the challenge of conveying a loss by depicting personal spaces. For Ida Lorentzen this involves creating a fictional, painted space based on the remembrance of interiors from past and present. In contrast, Hedevig Anker crafts her photographs directly from reality. Nevertheless, her photographs capture the mood in a way that results in an abstraction of that reality. She zooms in and edits, changes perspectives and focus -- sometimes beyond recognition. She captures the framework of the space in which her childhood unfolded. One has a clear sense that Hedevig Anker attempts to fill a void by concentrating on the void, just as Ida Lorentzen began painting interiors to create a psychological support structure as a result of the traumatic experience of her mother’s death many years ago.
The most recent series Slemdal #1-5, 2001 were taken in Hedevig Anker's childhood home, and bears most emotional resonance for the artist. The last photograph in this series is completely abstract and blurry. Such an extreme photographic style is an exception within her work; everything but color, form, and composition have been eliminated. This is how she remembers big chunks of her childhood - as a big blur (as many of us do). The Slemdal series marks a turning point in Hedevig Anker’s artistic development. In earlier series, she could approach the images with the analytical mind of an emotionally detached photographer fascinated with the issues of form and composition. With this series, she had no emotional distance from the subject matter. The Slemdal series is all about saying goodbye. She captures her personal loss with these barren unfurnished rooms, and we can sense what Hedevig Anker must feel as she tries to make sense of the past, hold on to what was, and define it before it slips away into eternity. Although Hedevig Anker maintains an underlying interest in geometric forms, composition and balance throughout her work, she conveys in these recent photographs a compelling lesson in how to let go of the past by looking at it from an entirely different perspective.
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These images are fragments of real space and time from which we can deduce the larger picture. Graininess in a photograph is not the result of photography pushed to its limit. Here it reveals itself to be the close detail of grainy wallpaper. Illusory pictorial depth is real. One is looking into a room through a crack in a doorway and this recognition makes the viewer a voyeur.
To whom do these rooms belong? What has happened in them? Hedevig Anker´s desire to create illusions with photography, whether it is the illusion of three dimensional space on the flat surface of the photograph, or a narrative without illustration, led her to photographing the rooms in her student flat. It was the space she knew best that revealed and concealed most about her world. Later she did the same to the rooms in her grandmother‚s and her parents‚ houses. These were rooms filled with their memories and those of her childhood. They offer a glimpse into another life, another time and place. But one‚s expectation is never fully satisfied. The photographs slip from reality into abstract art and back again, leaving one suspended in the middle of their incomplete narrative.
Publisert i katalogen for utstillingen BOVSIA, Milano/Europa 2000.