Torbjørn Rødland (born 3 April 1970) is a Los Angeles-based photographer known for portraits, still lives and landscapes that transcend their often banal settings and motifs and move into the otherworldly. Since the late 1990s, his work has been exhibited widely. It was included in the main exhibition of the 1999 Venice Biennale. The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo arranged a retrospective exhibition of Rødland’s work in 2003.
Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You
Public collections also include Fonds national d’art contemporain (Paris), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (Chicago), The Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City). After years of short stays in Tokyo, Beijing, Melbourne, Paris, Berlin, Oslo, Tallinn and New York City, Torbjørn Rødland has lived and worked in Los Angeles since 2010.
Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You
Rødland is currently represented by Air de Paris, Paris; Greenspon, New York; Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels; David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Nils Stærk, Copenhagen; STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo.
Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You
Background and Education
Rødland was born in 1970 in Stavanger, Norway. He studied Photography at the National College of Art and Design in Bergen, Norway and cultural studies at the Rogaland University Centre in Stavanger, Norway.
Hands and Eyes Torbjørn Rødland
Rødland’s photography moves from genre to genre; portrait, landscape, still life can all be found in his constructed imagery of the everyday, whether in his Scandinavian hometown or in visual translations and explorations of Japanese Moé aesthetics or Americana. Wanting to push forward the artistic boundaries of his medium, Rødland has reconceptualized and integrated aesthetic qualities dismissed in postmodern art.
Yellow Spring, 2012
Building on the work by The Pictures Generation and Jeff Wall, Rødland’s photography represents a surprising revaluation of lyricism and what he calls the sensuality of the photographic moment. Originally known for his images of young beauties, Rødland transcended this potential trope by consistently inventing new lures for viewers of his photographs. An example of these lures is the subtle co-existence of the twisted with the warm normalcy of his figures;
Wordless no. 5, 2010-2017
as seen in his photograph of a woman’s hand with an octopus tentacle creeping through her sleeve and wrapped around her fingers. Also a subtle symbol of nonduality, this image is characteristic of Rødland’s work. His matter of factness, even in stylized imagery and multiple exposures, is what allows Rødland to straddle both the commonplace and the otherworldly.
Wordless no. 4, 2010-2017
Or, as curator Bennett Simpson put it in an essay on Rødland, published in 2000: “His images are subjunctive; they operate under the yoke of a doubt, an impacted desire, the possibility of an impossibility.”
Between 2004 and 2007 Rødland produced six video works. One of these, titled 132 BPM, was exhibited solo at MoMA PS1 (Long Island City) and at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Hiroshima).
Goldene Tränen 2002
Chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper mounted on aluminium, ed. 1/3
Snare / Christiansen Collection, Oslo
Christina Catherine Martinez CNN
The photographs of Torbjørn Rødland never quite resolve, but they are arresting in their uncertainty. The Los Angeles-based Norwegian artist uses analogue photography and (mostly) staged scenes to construct images that don’t provide any straightforward information about the world depicted, yet also evade the neatness of metaphor.
Rødland is deeply attuned to the conventions of human myth — from biblical stories to the body language of pop and advertising. His visual concoctions are challenging and provocative — it’s easy to see how they could leave audiences feeling uncomfortable, or worse.
“Bathroom Tiles” (2010-13) by Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Collection Antonia Josten
The gesture of a man’s hand at the cusp of a girl’s lips in “This is My Body” (2013-2015) can, depending on the viewer, conjure overtones that are religious or sinister or both. “Bathroom Toes” (2010-2013) is sharp photograph of wet feet on the bathroom floor, could be the opening shot to a body wash commercial, but, on closer inspection, the wetness is in fact unidentifiable slime. Suddenly the picture takes on the tension of a sci-fi horror.
“Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You,” on view at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, is Rødland’s first institutional show in the UK, a prolific introduction covering nearly two decades of photographic work, as well as his 2005 video “132BPM.” He spoke to CNN about the process and poetry of his work.
“Five Berries” (2014) Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Private Collection
CNN: People often comment on the queasy or perverse nature of your photographs. Where do you think these feelings come from, and is that effect intentional?
Torbjørn Rødland: Yes, the struggle is to make the image active and relatable; clear but complex. Like our new reality, it has to be layered and open to paranoid interpretation.
Where does an image start for you? In your mind, or from observation?
It can be either. But it’s really about the in-between states. A mental image is vague and un-photographic. It needs physical bodies to be seen and expressed. On the other hand, the observed object already awakens an archetype. I’m not interested if it doesn’t.
“This is My Body” (2013-2015) by Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Torbjørn Rødland/STANDARD (OSLO)
How do your pictures skirt their photographic duty? I’m thinking about some of the qualities your photographs share with commercial photography, how they play with the visual language of advertising.
Instead of this continuous disappointment over our culture’s meaningless iconography, which typically leads to heartbreak and satire, I take the route of acceptance. Maybe the best way to express authenticity is through a personal and desperate investment in the broken language of popular photography.
“Trichotillomania” (2010-11) by Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Collection Antonia Josten
Do you consider your photographs impersonal?
I don’t know how helpful these dichotomies are. The images shouldn’t need me to make sense, they shouldn’t depend on an author. At the same time, they are deeply personal — I don’t want them to only arise from or cast a critical eye on a culture — and they don’t work if viewers cannot invest their own experiences, dreams, memories or phobias in them.
I’ve inherited a strong sense of surface from postmodern photography, but the movement is inwards, towards an emerging spirituality. This can be easy to miss and I’m not forcing it on anyone.
“Apple” (2006) by Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Collection Frac Grand Large — Hauts-de-France
How does context factor into the images you make?
In many ways, the project builds on critical appropriation, a form of art where context is everything. But gradually I’ve become conscious of the independent nature of my pictures. Or maybe they’ve grown more independent. I’m now more confident letting them appear outside of a fine art context than I was twenty years ago. But they are still very sensitive to the context of each other.
“Candles and Cubes” (2016) by Torbjørn Rødland Credit: Courtesy Torbjørn Rødland/David Kordansky Gallery
How has living in LA — the capital of image management — affected your work, or process?
Should I be able to tell how Los Angeles has affected me? I already knew to pretend that everything is alright.
I was never interested in revealing how an image is constructed. That is the old postmodern art. But the awareness of construction is always there. The challenge is to let a picture’s self-awareness make it a more, not less, effective image or vehicle.
Young Head by Torbjørn Rødland
The art discourse is naturally elitist, but it doesn’t have to center around itself. My photographs are for people who are stimulated by but ultimately unsatisfied with the photographic images they’re taking in through more predictable channels. Photography is ultimately too important to leave to amateurs and advertisers.
“Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You” is on at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until Nov. 19, 2017.