WITNESS, DETECTIVE & IMPOSTER
Jenny Nordquist is a Copenhagen based artist, working with original glass magic lantern slides - Hyalotypes - in her own darkroom experiments to explore layers of time and entropy, and how our understanding of technology constructs our expectations of perception beyond what the naked eye can see.
Tracing patterns made by the eroded silver emulsion on old damaged Hyalotype glass plates, Nordquist enlarges and captures the plate’s contemporary condition of dissolving into gradual chemical decay. The circular lens-like framing of these prints suggests connections between micro and macro, near and far. The act of looking through the lens of a microscope is similar to that of a telescope, each moves the viewer’s enhanced field of perception in extreme opposite directions. In this way Nordquist draws connections between the lunar quality of the moon and patterns of gems and atoms, neither of which are visible to the naked eye.
Inspired by nineteenth century photomicrography and astronomical photography, Nordquist reflects on James Nasmyth’s 1870’s richly textured photographs of plaster lunar sculptural models, and Richard Adams Locke’s 1835 Great Moon Hoax about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon. In Witness, detective and imposter, Nordquist conjures these historical events through her textured abstract imagery and further develops her own interplaying layers between imagination, perception and reinterpretation. The tactile patterns in Nordquist’s processes and photographs convey the ancient Greek Neo-Platonic schema of seeing the same configurations reproduced in all levels of the cosmos, from the large-scale macrocosm down to the small-scale microcosm.
“These works explore photography’s ability to serve as an index of the moment of its exposure, and a record of how the representational capacity of a photograph can change over time. I have used damaged images from my found archive originally depicting scenery of alpine landscape and enlarged and printed only the areas where the emulsion has eroded. This process of altering and reconceptualising my found Hyalotypes provokes new perspectives about the history of photography, it’s fragility and relation to nature. The emulsion on the old glass plates is dissolving, like a stream of soot slowly eroding a glacial landscape, exposing layers of time. The initial surface of emulsion was exposed onto the glass plate some 100 years ago, and since then layers of dust have collected on top, and now another layer has been added with my process of printing these images in the darkroom onto found foggy vintage Japanese Fiber-based paper, that had been accidently exposed to light “.
Witness, detective and imposter features a salon installation of prints made in the darkroom from Hyalotypes. Along with a rewired original lantern projector magnifying elements of Nordquist’s decaying glass plates combined with paint and a soundscape appropriated from a recording of the Moon Hoax. This creates an environmental installation that transports the viewer from reality to a dreamlike place of visual abstraction suspended in time.
By Kath Fries
LEAVING NO SHADOW IN THE MIRROR
…the power to give physical form
to the insubstantial image
one which vanishes as soon as it is perceived
leaving no shadow in the mirror (Nadar)
A place that is far, but only before getting there…
When Nadar experimented with aerial photography from the heights of his aerostat,
photography itself was still the subject of great controversy. The acceptance of the new medium
was often hindered by fantastic theories combined with superstition against the camera – not so
for Nadar. His innate curiosity and speculative spirit, the essence of the scientific outlook, were
stronger than any inchoate fears or beliefs. Nadar embodied the figure of the explorer, the
pioneer who investigates the unknown and charts fascinating new territories. We can see this
same attitude in Distant Land: the same energy and the same impulse that characterized
Nadar's experiments permeate these images of travelers from the beginning of the 19th century.
The travelers are shown framed by a harsh environment: glaciers, mountain peaks, desolate
landscapes and unexplored heights. In this environment, the natural elements prevail over what
little there is of the human, where man's mastery is visible and nature has been dominated. But
man has not been defeated -- his will is to explore nature and to seize it. The series also
connotes a Romantic element, echoing with stories of other times – a train, a ship approaching
the shore, a solitary explorer.
All these elements convey the spirit of discovery; the camera becomes the preferred medium of
exploration – the very witness to men's endeavors. But even as the camera explores human
nature, it explores its own nature as a medium, as the indexer of fleeting realities.
More than a pure representation of a specific place and time, these images are the portrait of an
idea. As the early shoots required a long exposure time, the travelers could not be
photographed in a natural attitude or position. Their portraits, with their unearthly formality, thus
become the symbol for something else: they evoke the instinct of men to explore, to discover
and to extend our perspective to new horizons. These portraits embody the same impulse that
pushed Nadar to expand the boundaries of the photographic practice and of human knowledge
– to force a change of perspective that is, metaphorically speaking, as different as the view from
Distant Land also tells a story of desire – a love for exploration that pushes us further and the
determination to leave a trace in history.
Photography plays a fundamental role in this narration; on the most basic level, the medium is in
the presence of nature and of the traveler, but this momentary mark in time and space becomes
charged with psychological connotations. The images of this series are a poetic witness of
willpower, of curiosity and of scientific speculation.
A Glass Plate and a Mirror
The amazement of the traveler, his hunger for seeing, can be compared to the fascination felt
by the pioneers of photography. Distant Land speaks of progress but also takes us back at the
very beginning of the history of photography. The photographs are printed from found glass
plates from the 19th century. These early negatives are very precious and fragile objects.
The plates were usually kept in beautifully crafted wooden boxes in order to preserve the
engrained image and prevent its fast decay.
Nordquist works almost as a curator and a visual anthropologist – there is no intervention in the
photographs – as she selects the plates and animates a direct relationship with a distant land.
The distance is a temporal or geographical one, but it is also a metaphorical distance, that
between the anonymous author of the original plates to the artist today. The artist distances
herself from photography as a practice, for in this series she works on photography instead of
working with photography. Nordquist is writing a new history of the glass plates, evoked through
modern printing processes which paradoxically emphasize the marks of the passing of time.
The early plates were usually hand-colored, probably in an effort to get closer to reality but also
anticipating the future of the history of the medium. Technology and handcraft mingle in a
fascinating, and still unique, alchemy. Today, as we observe these delicate colors, we feel
suspended in time; the plates become a poetic witness of a form of creative energy, an abstract
representation of the fears and successes of photography's early experimenters. The allegory
grows in intensity as we penetrate the surface of the image revealing a world vast and
unexplored as human existence.
How do we connect to those crackled surfaces? Why are we so fascinated by the glass plates?
Nordquist is not being merely academic in evoking photography's past with the use of these old
fashioned techniques and materials but in fact is evoking a whole other level of meaning. The
hand-colored glass plates speak of transiency, of ephemerality, and thus become a powerful
meditation on the very fragility and boundednesss of human existence.
We feel both a physical and a psychological attraction for this ancient theme. On the one hand
we recognize ourselves vicariously in the narrative of discovery and exploration told by the
images – their desire becomes our desire. But we also recognize the power of a fragile medium
– subject to the same process of decay as the human body – to preserve memories and convey
the message of an immortal ideal.
The images and colors will disappear, but the power of the idea conveyed will last, echoing in
the territories of Distant Land. The translucent glass plate becomes a mirror of human existence
in which everyone can see their own desires reflected, though leaving no shadow in the mirror.
Essay by Alessandra Prandin, curator and specialist in history of photography
“There is a modern type of beauty and heroism: and the nude, this subject so dear to artists,
is still an indispensable element of success – whether in bed, in the bath, or in the medical theatre…
One of the privileges of art is that what is horrible, if artistically rendered, becomes beautiful.”
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Of The Heroism of Modern Life’
As Naomi Wolf has remarked bluntly:“we live in a surgical age”. Jenny Nordquist’s series of life-size
portraits of sitters undergoing cosmetic surgery bring a radically new approach to the tradition of emphatetic,
humanist documentary photography exemplified by Rineke Dijkstra and Walker Evans.And yet these are
almost anti-portraits, undermining every aspect of the expected relationship between the sitters’identity and
appearance, between their body and self,and between self-presentation and social status. Rather than a
conventional ‘portrayal’ of an individual’s stable identity, fixed for posterity through a record of their
appearance,Nordquist examines her sitters’quests to re-imagine themselves, through a process of bloody
and painful metamorphosis.
Our attempts to ‘know’ the identities of her sitters are also frustrated by the concealment of their faces
by folds of fabric: we confront fragments of a body, rather than their ‘person’. Nordquist notes that her
photographs depict a moment of irreversible change in the sitter’s identity: “the physical metamorphosis
only represents one side of the act. The metaphysical element of the operation is just as important.
Bigger breasts do not make the physical body healthier. With plastic surgery, you are operating on
a healthy body and technically making it less healthy.”
Seen at life-size, Nordquist’s images elide the lushly painterly and the intrusively graphic.
She accentuates the vivid colours of the operating theatre, and the play of natural light across them,
which creates an almost religious atmosphere. The sharp foreshortening with which we approach the
unconscious body also recalls Rembrandt’s life-size studies of dissections, such as ‘The Anatomy
Lesson of Dr Tulp’’,to which Baudelaire refers. This perspective makes us confront the patients’
recumbent bodies from an unsettlingly intimate angle. These are images that might best be seen as
an updated form of Dutch ‘vanitas’ painting. When the dominant culture of images positively excludes
anyone not possessed of youth and beauty, Nordquist’s evocation of an older pictorial tradition directs
us to the ethos underpinning ‘vanitas’ paintings: “For all flesh is as grass. The grass withereth.”
[Peter, 1.24-1.25]. She provides us with a salutary reminder of the sheer novelty of our belief in
the perfectability, rather than the fallibility of the body.
The depiction of aspects of ourselves we never normally see, recalls Voltaire’s dictum that “we enjoy bodies,
without knowing what they are composed of”. Confronting these images, we are jolted into a shocking recognition
of the sheer ‘otherness’ of our physical selves. Nordquist’s intimate, keyhole views reveal how strange we now
find the pulsating interiors of our bodies. More importantly they provide a dual orientation for our imagination.
As the artist notes, “the viewer is confronted with the nauseating processes that people have to go through in order
to become idealised objects of attraction”. We’re caught between the imaginative anticipation of beauty – the ‘rewards’
of the operation – and the ‘repellent’ means to this end, “where breasts become bare lumps of meat”.
Jean Baudrillard also advocates adopting a position of strangeness to our ‘selves’ in ‘Plastic Surgery for the Other’:
“In facial traits, in illnesses, in death, identity is constantly ‘altered’. But it is precisely that which must be exorcised…
If the body is no longer a place of ‘otherness’, of a dual relationship, but is rather a locus of identification then we must
perfect it, make it an ideal object.”The commodification of our bodies, Baudrillard suggests, has fundamentally
transformed our relationship to the idea of ‘self’.
Nordquist’s sitters are stormtroopers of a new generation adopting ever more extreme measures to transform themselves
into objects of desire, and whose expectations of the umbilical link between body and self are different to those of
earlier times. Whilst we now have ever-extended possibilities of self-transformation at our disposal, we may be
persuaded of Geraldine Bedell’s analysis that “cosmetic surgery is kind of political defeatism: a recognition
that it’s easier to change oneself than to change the world.”
Text by Alistair Robinson, programme director, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. Sunderland, UK