Artist: Torbjørn Rødland.
Years ago I encountered an image of a caged child online. A pair of jeans lay crumpled on the top of the cage, which was flanked by a discarded tube of moisturiser and a single yellow earplug. The sweet, shirtless boy peered out gleefully from his wire enclosure, his cherubic face illuminated by a bright, unidentified light. The child was so perfect and the image so unusual that I wondered if it was even real and not some slightly perverse, photoshopped composition. It was so odd that I saved it. It has sat anonymously in a folder on my desktop ever since.
It turns out that this image, entitled The Measure (2010), was in fact created by LA-based Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland. I came across it again by chance in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied the artist’s current survey exhibition Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You at the Serpentine Sackler in London. The exhibition, Rødland’s first in England, contains photographs spanning the last twenty years of his practice.
Rødland’s work generally falls into the familiar categories of portrait, landscape and still life. Within these groupings are recurring subjects – body parts, children, hair, fruit, an array of gooey substances. Often these fetishes intersect. There are inexplicably wet businessmen, women tugging off strands of facial peel and girls crying tears of honey. What unifies Rødland’s body of work is his unique ability to create photographs that are at once normal and profoundly strange.
Rødland’s use of slick highly-stylised commercial photography techniques lend his images a particular synthetic sheen; when viewed en masse they begin to bleed into one another. Even when Paris Hilton materialises open mouthed beneath an umbrella (bearing an uncannily similar expression to her toy dog) I had to do a double take to ensure it was actually her. Stripped of her title, Hilton is presented only as Heiress with Dogs (2014). Famous simply for being famous, the vacuous heiress is the perfect embodiment of Rødland’s interest in the surface of things.
Rødland’s work also fragments the human form, further depersonalising his subjects. He has a particular predilection for feet and hands. In Stockings, Jeans and Carpeted Stairs (2013-17) a man’s tanned and muscular arm grasps a stockinged foot perched delicately upon his leg. There is a tension here between strength and fragility that recurs often in his work. In Bathroom Tiles (2010-13) glistening wet feet tiptoe across tiles but there’s something amiss. The toes appear slightly webbed, almost gluey; they are encased in damp ‘barely there’ nude stockings. Are they covered in water, ice, slime? Rødland loves a bit of wetness.
The artist’s still lifes are equally unnerving. In some cases it’s as if little tangles of hair have become detached from the halo-filtered heads in works like The Measure or Heiress with Dogs, and entered autonomously into new, independent scenarios. Blond strands lie clumped around bent forks and spoons in The Geller Effect (2014), referencing the Israeli psychic Uri Geller who could supposedly bend spoons with his mind. In Trichotillomania (2010-11), a close-up of sliced oranges reveals sinewy hairs across the fruit’s damp surface – like a stray hair stuck on your tongue. The sensory impact of the work is heightened when considering the title, which refers to a condition where people feel compelled to pull out their own locks.
The recurrence of teeth - another of Rødland’s fetishes – further pushes the visceral strain of his practice. Rødland teamed up with a local dentist as part of the 2016 Manifesta exhibition in Zurich where he photographed various invasive dental procedures. Rødland also took a particular interest in model teeth and dental implants. In Plate and Spoon (2015) an assortment of teeth lie amidst soft, crumbled cupcake and a single cashew nut. It’s like all your worst teeth nightmares rolled into one. I’m not sure I’ve encountered an exhibition – let alone one that focuses exclusively on two-dimensional works – where I have thought about texture so closely.
The pleasure in viewing Rødland’s exhibition lies in identifying the formal and thematic vibrations that recur across the artist’s practice and the sometimes-surprising ways that they intersect. Indeed, this amalgamation of recurring interests lends even the most disparate of works a sense of cohesion. Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You reveals an oddly seductive world where the repellent and the attractive naturally co-exist and ambiguity reigns supreme.
Serena Bentley is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne based curator and writer.