Exhibition titles containing the word “reimagined” are so common these days that the concept has practically become a trope. It’s hard to think of anything that isn’t being reimagined in our tumultuous century, especially when it comes to art, which is arguably always a reimagining. Yet Scandinavia House’s new exhibition Another North: Landscape Reimagined is faithful to its title through the works of six contemporary Nordic artists, who present landscape as a liminal space that defies easy comprehension. Working in photography and video, each artist has presented a vision of landscape that is at once familiar and mystical. These landscapes are superficially recognizable – alpine peaks, wintery deserts – yet remain beyond understanding through their surreal rendering. Awe at the awesome power of nature pervades the exhibition, as do contemporary notions of the sublime.
The show opens with works by the Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti, a nomadic artist whose fable-like images have earned him acclaim across the globe. These photographs are black and white and small in scale, serving as a contrast to the large, color pieces that inhabit the rest of the space.
Visually demarcated from the central body of the exhibition by a temporary wall containing the introductory wall text, Sammallahti’s pieces are a welcome reminder to pay attention to texture. They frequently contain animals – a frog, a single white rabbit, a cat silhouetted in the moonlight – which appear like guides to the ancient north, or alternately operate as powerful symbols of a lost mythology. One particularly striking photograph of waves crashing on moonlit rocks is the most abstract work in the whole show.
The next room is nearly overwhelmed by two monumental photographs by the Norwegian artist Simen Johan. Johan’s uncanny images blend fact and fiction through the artist’s digital manipulation of traditional photographic techniques. The pieces in Another North are from Johan’s series Until the Kingdom Comes and contain plants and animals sewn together in huge natural vistas, to ethereal effect. Untitled #179 (2013) rewards the long look as mountains, birds, and a shepherd and flock emerge behind a cotton candy fog. The haze spread across the picture plane takes the natural landscape out of the known world and into the land of dreams.
The gallery’s central space contains the under water images of Susanna Majuri on one side and the long-exposure pictures of Ole Brodersen on the other. Based in Helsinki, Majuri describes her photographs as “different places for emotions” that “narrate feelings like in novels.” Her protagonists are mainly young women who swim through submerged landscapes. The artist superimposes images of nature found on cereal boxes over her bathing subjects, creating otherworldly panoramas in which her subjects live out elaborate, unknown narratives.
Ole Brodersen images from his series Trespassing use man-made objects to interfere in photographs of the Norwegian landscape. Using a large format camera to take long exposure pictures, Brodersen relinquishes control over the final image, as this set-up makes it impossible to see the entire frame at the moment of exposure. Found materials, in this case string, cloth, and a kite, serve as symbols of the human presence, and create areas of blurred color and light in otherwise sublime natural settings. In String, Cloth, and Kite 05, one of the exhibition’s title images, a green cloud spreads across the sky over a snowy beach. The cloud suggests a paradoxical dual presence: human in the injection of humble objects into the natural landscape, yet superhuman in its visuality, the cloud appearing like a djin rising from the sea.
The exhibition’s show-stopper is Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s 6-channel video Vaakasuora – Horizontal (2011). Each projection, presented like panels across the back wall of the gallery, contains a 6 minute looped video of 1/6th of an enormous spruce tree. In an effort to remain faithful to the tree’s awesome stature, Ahtila’s “moving image portrait” projects each section of the tree horizontally in order to retain its natural size and shape. The tree’s swaying branches are mesmerizing. A single human figure, a woman dressed in blue, is almost unnoticeable in the left-most projection. Dwarfed by the tree, she highlights human inconsequentiality in the face of timeless nature. This living portrait exudes vitality, and presented horizontally, the work suggests humanity’s limited ability to comprehend and capture the natural world.
The final work in Another North: Landscape Reimagined, Sigurdur Gudjonsson’s Veil (2012), returns to the black and white aesthetic of its beginning. The work depicts the black sand plains of Skeioararsandur, Iceland, shot in one 60-minute takes. This beautiful and meditative piece, presented in a curtained room, offers a moment of quiet contemplation. The wind-blown sand moves over the plain like water, reflecting the exhibition’s dominant notion of landscape as multivalent, living but timeless, impermeable despite our best efforts to control it.
See Another North: Landscape Reimagined at Scandinavia House through August 6, 2016.
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