Torbjørn Rødland Turns the Inside Out

The Artist on Why the Meme
is the New Church

Interview: Robert Grunenberg
Images: Courtesy of Torbjørn Rødland

Los Angeles, spring 2017. There is a little wooden door that gives access to one of California’s sweetest hideaways: the garden of the Château Marmont, the legendary hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. I am meeting artist Torbjørn Rødland for an interview. We walk along the garden pathway, which is flanked with straggling, lush plants that are in full blossom after a month of heavy rain in California. Torbjørn, originally from Norway, moved here six years ago. “L.A. is a good place to work, you can shut the door. There are more distractions in Berlin or New York,” shares the artist, who spent the past decades between the US, Europe and Japan, developing his distinct position within photographic imagery. Torbjørn and I sit down at the vintage garden seating, and I ask him about an unrealized project, a longer movie he wanted to make before moving to Hollywood, a place where everything is so tuned into moving images. “There is less immature enthusiasm around doing something as art, because there is so much available that is from the entertainment industry. Everything is professionalized and everything involves money. Art-production is more of an outsider position,” says Torbjørn, who himself aligns popular photography and artistic image-making, combined with an interest in philosophy—a dialogue I am curious to discover more about.

Robert Grunenberg: You once said you see yourself as more of a poet than a commercial photographer. Do you make a distinction between photography and art?

Torbjørn Rødland: Photography is an open medium. Sometimes it’s used for art. Most of the time it’s not. One distinction within art is between photographers and “artists who use photography.” I’m a photographer. My project grows from the images I happen to make. I think a photographer is someone who understands and is comfortable with the limitations of the medium. My work has always been about what a photograph can do, and what I can do with the medium of photography.

Which other photographic positions influenced you?

As a student, I realized that I understood postmodern American and German art—The Pictures Generation, Jeff Wall, Hans-Peter Feldmann. I understood why that was made. My challenge was to move on from there and reintroduce certain qualities that had been rejected by my artistic parents, by these postmodern artists, without ignoring their project and taking a dip into nostalgia. I wanted to build on and deepen the postmodern by adding interiority to this gloriously outside-oriented art. This confuses people. Strangely enough there is still enthusiasm for the shift from modern to postmodern, though we may not use those words anymore.

This reminds me of metamodernism, a recent movement in philosophy that can be seen as a synthesis of modernism and postmodernism. It builds on the modernistic idea from the early 20th century, that believes in utopia and cultural progression. After World War II, postmodernism claimed that the modernistic idea failed, and it presented this cynical view of the world, where everything is relative. Metamodernism is a new proposal, that is conscious about the hope and sincerity of modernism, and yet reflects the irony and relativism of postmodern thought.

Yes, synthesis is the way to move forward at this point. Not sampling and mash-up. We know now that everything has a language. I can’t just go out into the world with a camera and easily capture a part of unmediated reality. Everything is somehow linked to an aesthetic and a type or tradition of photography. Nothing is fully innocent but it’s still our job to look for something that has the power of newness. My solution in the 1990s was to acknowledge that someone has seen all of this before. But maybe there’s something you haven’t seen in what you’re convinced we have seen. I was thirsty for an inside, but not exactly the inside that postmodernity rejected.

So it is the emotional element that you’re interested in.

The emotional, the psychological, the erotic, the spiritual. This adds to the linguistic inside of conceptual art, where different layers of meaning and language are allowed to mingle and create interesting content. I saw the limitations in these projects, but I also knew I couldn’t return to the more simple-minded art that preceded it. The continuous struggle is to develop a new platform.

“I think it’s more interesting to taste the dirt a little bit—to go into a riskier dialogue with problematic aspects of popular photography. I relate to the sensibilities of Instagram culture. Sometimes I feel that it validates my artistic output.“

Do you think about creating an image that is contemporary?

Yes. But it’s contemporary partly because it’s linked to what came before, it acknowledges mythical structures and magic intuitions. When a new focus on empathy and interiority builds on and follows a period of critical language play, a dialogue opens up to something more symbolic.

Do you consider the vast production of imagery that flows to us today on digital screens, imagery from your newsfeed or snap photography on Instagram? What is the role of artists in this, do they have to offer “other” images?

The art world can seem stuck in the idea that the role of art-as-photography is to stand on the outside like a critical commentator. From the outsider position, artists can reposition, mirror and satirize the popular. This is an important job, don’t get me wrong, but these days there’s a rich meme-culture making sure there’s an ironic spin on everything. We don’t need hundreds of artists for this anymore.

I think it’s more interesting to taste the dirt a little bit—to go into a riskier dialogue with problematic aspects of popular photography. I relate to the sensibilities of Instagram culture. Sometimes I feel that it validates my artistic output. I sense this new move from third person to second person to first person relationships. Third person being “here’s a photograph, an object in the world,” second person being “I am in dialogue with this object,” and first person being “this has become a part of me, this is now who I am!”

Do you have an example of that?

The old LOLcats were postmodern memes—random, distant, and ridiculous. The misspelled captions forced language-consciousness onto everyone. It was funny and cute, but it wasn’t personal. This has changed completely. You see this on Instagram with hashtags like “goals” and “mood.” Viewers now see their past, present, or future selves in the popular randomness that memes grow out of. This movement, from Lolcats to @fuckjerry, is parallel to a movement from The Pictures Generation to a new art photography.

“Strangely enough there is still enthusiasm for the shift from modern to postmodern, though we may not use those words anymore.”

Memes have become a powerful format within social media. There is a poetic element to the meme, how they work in terms of their combination of language, image, and humor. It has also become a communicational tool that is being co-opted by mainstream media and brands—Gucci just released a meme ad-campaign.

Memes communicate to us on a deeper level than a regular ad campaign, because we see them as something positive and humorous, something to identify with, like poetry for the post-poetic mind. The poet’s first rule is that if you can reveal something personal about yourself that you haven’t read in any book, then thousands of others will relate and connect. This principle seems to be the driving force behind a lot of these memes—observations from everyday life about interactions with other people, with technology, and with images. And then there’s an emotional reaction to it all, one that feels fresh, surprising but real. The church isn’t defining our humanity anymore, so who is? Scientists aren’t really trying to, they’re focused on what’s possible and factual.

Corporate brands are a new form of religion…

It seems now that while it’s still embarrassing to be connected to the wrong brand, it’s cool to be connected with the right brand. For me it was never cool to be connected to any brand. I don’t know if it is generational or personal or if it has to do with my background from Scandinavia.

Can you identify in your work a Nordic gaze, a way of seeing and feeling?

It’s pretty complex, but there is kind of melancholia running through a lot of Norwegian art. Like early Cashmere Cat, Jan Garbarek or the 80s band A-ha, they had lyrics about standing on a mountain top crying in the rain. There’s an emotional content and a sense of longing that is linked to a relationship to nature, to the landscape. A lot of Norwegians are not raised in a purely urban environment. Maybe, like me, they had to walk through a patch of forest on their way to school every day. We can argue that Norwegian black metal grows out of the experience of walking through a silent dark forest after snowfall. It doesn’t explain everything, but I always felt that to understand what I’m doing, I first needed to understand the Scandinavian mindset.

Besides the Nordic countries, you spent time in America and Japan. Can you point out the American and Japanese elements that have influenced you?

Americans taught me to take kitsch seriously and to over-read it. America is also about breaking free and pushing towards a new frontier. The Japanese have developed an advanced discourse around images that don’t grow from humanism. Japanese imagery doesn’t come out of a culture where the world is what we would like it to be. This is eye-opening.

Could you give me an example?

The German fairy tales that the Grimm brothers collected were originally full of sexuality and violence. Through the ages, culminating with the Disney-animations, they are gradually cleaned up. The characters turn cute, and everything is tailored for children of conservative parents. During the American occupation of Japan, the Japanese were particularly taken by Disney. This led to modern manga, where the cuteness is pushed further with even bigger eyes etcetera, but gradually they also reintroduced violence, sexuality and ambiguity. There’s something beautiful about that cycle, but something very confusing and upsetting as well for a Westerner, because you cannot immediately tell what’s made for children and what’s made for adults. It’s all so cute! Until it isn’t.

There is an element of violence, power-play, and physical energy in your images. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m dealing with forms that come from popular photography, but I don’t want to hold them up for ironic exposure. I realized that if I was going to photograph a beautiful, romantic couple while acknowledging widespread mediation, it would be very difficult to get the balance right. My picture would either seem ironic or it would read like commercial photography.

One way of getting around that is making the couples asymmetrical?

Yes. Some couples are not the same age, they’re maybe not the same size, the same ethnicity, or they don’t have equal power in the picture. There is a silent need for non-dual states running through my project. I’m interested in basic symbols of good and evil, white and black, but the forces play off each other in harmony. Black metal is a one-sided embrace of black and a declaration of war on white, but I’m pushed towards the Eastern idea of intertwined opposites needing each other. You see this in Japan with Pokemon characters or in an anime like Spirited Away. There’s a good and evil version of every character.

The shift to more complex and ambiguous characters has become a defining element of a new generation of American TV, with series’ like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Homeland.

It’s interesting how certain changes in American culture in the last 20 years are trailing Japanese pop culture. Another example of this is how the young American mainstream is more comfortable with extreme sex and pornography.

Is ambiguity something you look for in the people you photograph?

I do look for characters, people who can represent something bigger than themselves, something more than themselves, to take some focus away from the individual. This is of course what models do. Their job is to not be too specific so that you can project onto them whatever you want.

Looking at your images, especially the still life images, you combine things that don’t necessarily make sense together, or don’t belong together in regards to texture, materiality, and function, yet you combine them in a way that creates sense on a different level.

I want it to make sense. I don’t want random combinations of objects. The randomness was freeing when we were moving into the postmodern but it’s not needed now. I think it’s a generational thing. I’m drawn to juxtapositions that make sense on a deeper level or that keep you looking because you sense that they could be meaningful.

Is making art a way to create sense in the chaos of life? Is it a freeing and existential experience?

I am trying to figure things out and some of them are linked to questions around freedom. I’ve made photographs of bodies tied up or in cages, which you can read in different ways, either more direct or metaphorical. Being caged is for me also linked to the experience of being a child and waiting for life to start. This is a meaningful image to me. I easily become an observer isolated from action. I learn from my photographs the way you’re supposed to learn from dreams.

Interview: Robert Grunenberg
Images: Courtesy of Torbjørn Rødland