Artist Talk at The Wapping Project Bankside Elina Brotherus was born in 1972 in Finland. She studied science (analytic chemistry) before turning to photography and completing an MA. Her early work was very autobiographical, whilst based in the documentary tradition as she photographed actual events in her life such as her marriage, divorce, feelings about sex, focussing on the presence or absence of love. I have read about and looked at her work several times over the past two years so I went to the Talk with certain views and responses that I’ll summarise first. It might seem jumbled, so apologies if so, but it’s taken some time for me to sort out how her work affects me.
What I took with me to the Talk, i.e. the context of my response to her work
I first became aware of her work of in July 2012 when I went to the Out of Focus Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and saw her image Femme a sa toilette (2001) from her series The New Painting where she was leaving behind the more autobiographical aspect of her work and referencing artists such as Degas and Cezanne. Femme a sa toilette shows her naked and yet, somehow not exposed, as it is the pale shape of her body (and hair) that draw the eye. As William Ewing writes in his commentary, “Brotherus isn’t really giving us a nude at all, but rather a self-portrait, a confession and admission of vulnerability rather than an image of titillation. It is best appreciated within her larger series of melancholic self-portraits”. The shutter release cable is also plain to see as it dangles over the edge of the ‘sink’. I have to confess that, despite the quality of the print, the pose looked awkward to me as she crouches in the ‘sink’ that is only just large enough for her to squeeze into.
A November 2012 WeAreOCA blog post by Sharon Boothroyd focussed on Model Study 5 (2004). Again a nude self-portrait where Elina is crouching on the floor with her back to us. To me, she invites us to look at the shape of her body, almost as if in a life class where the artist captures shape and form. Amongst other comments I wrote
Elina seems so unselfconscious in her nudity, and workwomanlike. Maybe that’s what happens when you have allowed yourself to be gazed upon for some length of time so dispassionately. And the urge/fascination to gaze upon and explore someone’s body with your eyes, without sexual intent, judgment or comparison. If that’s allowed, again for sufficient length of time, does the fascination disappear? Does the person beneath the skin reveal him/herself more clearly? The visible cable of the remote release – like an umbilical cord in a quest to constantly re-invent/re-visit herself.
I was left with the question as to whether she was revealing herself to us at all – hiding in plain sight as it were. I gained that same sense of ‘workman-like’ /‘dispassionate’ on looking at the video of her, working in collaboration with two artists, at a point were Elina wanted to further develop the notion of the artist’s gaze, the model and the self-portrait. In Artists at Work Part 1 she asks “Who is watching whom? Who is the artist? Who is the model? Who gets ‘the last gaze’” as we see the two painters gazing at her intently as they capture her body in paint on their easels and her using her remote cable to video the session.
There is another video on Vimeo here (an interview in 2012) where she does explain how her work, “ is a kind of game of hide and seek, showing and not showing”. Also talked about in this video is Annunciation (2009) the work of self-exploration Elina continued during years when she was attempting to become pregnant and some of this was shown in the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity Exhibition that I visited in October 2013.
Background to 12 Ans Aprés
There was another interview, with Sharon Boothroyd, recorded in Photoparley blog where Elina talked about Suite Francaises 2 (1999) which she said tells about “outsiderness”, the incoherence between the person and his environment and the simple small means with which one tries to take his place in society. She travelled to Chalon-sur-Saône, France to take up a residency, with little knowledge of French, and used post-it notes as a method of language learning. After beginning by photographing interiors she realised the notes could be used outdoors as well and make an unfamiliar landscape accessible.
Elina maintained links and returned to Chalon-sur-Saône at a point when she had turned 40. This was officially for a job but she thinks it was a pretext. It seemed logical to return to an autobiographical approach to meet a felt need to make a position statement at this turning point in her life. She walked with her 4×5 camera, looking serendipitously, very early or in so-called bad weather and did some new versions of 1999 places, utilising an interaction of styles to create wider narratives and a full picture from different points of view. I won’t write more about the interview here as it can be read on Photoparley but, as I read the interview I also recollected that experience of going back to reconnect with areas from my childhood and that sensation of being accompanied by an earlier version of myself yet knowing I’m another person now.
So, before going to the Talk I had this image of a talented photographer who often uses herself as her own model, clothed and unclothed, to create self-portraits, often during unhappy events in her life. Alongside this she has also referenced classical artists and developed the notion of the artist’s gaze. I imagine that she uses her nakedness as a metaphor for vulnerability. That it is self-portraiture is made clear by the inclusion of the shutter remote release cable. There is such a depth of self-exposure in her work and, yet, I did not experience this as emotive/emotional. To me it was as that very real pain had been transmuted into something more like an object; had been conquered “This is me looking at myself as I am experiencing pain, sorrow, anguish”. I’ll return to this later.
This was organised by OCA and many thanks to Gareth and Sharon for this. It was held at the (prestigious and glamorous) Wapping Project Bankside in London, and concerned the Exhibition 12 Ans Aprés, currently showing there. What follows is based on extracts from my notes taken at the time. I know there are things I missed, but there is now a video of the Talk on the OCA student site so I can keep going back to discover more. Elina was generous with her time and with herself in the way she invited us in to explore her photography with her .
She explained her desire to confront herself with younger self; to stay in the same room; conduct a human experiment on herself. Elina pointed out how the yellow stickers had changed. Previously simple words, labelling objects and emotions; changing to longer, more fluent sentences. Her French is considerably improved (she speaks several languages) she has a home in France as well as Finland. Elina talked about her editing process and book creation in terms of her plan to produce a book on the Annunciation series and editing help from a friend. –She said she needs to detach herself from her work, for 6 months say, so that she can see clearly what works together and what doesn’t.
Here are some of her responses during the following question and answer session: John asked if any of her work could be done with someone else in the frame, especially a work like Annunciation. Her response was “That, of course not”, although she has used other people as subjects, as in her series Études d’après modèle, danseurs. It was the same thing as she was doing with herself except wonderful models of course, who just happened to be classical dancers. Elina believes that when the work is personal it’s hard to have anybody else there because she can’t really guarantee that what is shown is genuine unless it’s her when talking about emotions or that sort of thing. With a study of a human figure – shadows, light, composition, how to frame, how to flatten the three dimensional into the two dimensional – it can be anyone else and it’s easier when you don’t have to keep running backwards and forwards to check the pose, composition etc to see what’s wrong (has wasted much film). There is less waste with digital but still a lot of running back and forth. Elina very much likes the large format analogue because it’s so slow and you “kind of stay calm when you’re doing it”. Very often when she goes out to work she tends to do so on her own. She doesn’t like the presence of anyone else there on the scene, it disturbs her. She starts to rush and would be concerned about another person getting cold and tired etc.
Asked if she goes out with a plan she responded that very often she might not have an idea of what she’s looking for but recognises it when she sees it. She has realised that she can trust her eye. It’s just the hard work of carrying the apparatus around and eventually she will find something. Anna queried whether not wearing makeup in a lot of the images is like taking off a mask. Elina said she stopped wearing makeup out of laziness. Is it taking off the mask? Not intentional but a very nice point and some Art historian could write about that point. She recollected a C19th Finnish painter, Akseli Gallen-Kallela who created, in Paris, a beautiful painting Démasquée (1888) http://www.wikiart.org/en/akseli-gallen-kallela/d-masqu-e-1888#supersized-artistPaintings-293897 of a nude model holding a mask next to face that she had taken away
Another question by Keith concerned ‘figure in a landscape’ but the cable release always shows. Elina’s response was that it’s important that the viewer sees that the person who is the model is also the author. By knowing that maybe we also look at the landscape in a different way. We know that the artist or author has chosen this particular landscape to look at and chooses to show it to the spectator, like an invitation to a shared contemplation. That’s why she likes the back so much. If a frontal view, the figure is looking at you and a confrontation, then we would be lured by the face and less by the landscape. She thinks it’s easier to enter into this kind of scene because we feel we are there together but not disturbing each other. Regarding the cable release – this makes it an image about photography. “This is a photograph, this is the person who took it”. It’s free for you to see it how you like it . When asked if the landscape says something about the model, Elina responded that she was not going that far. She has her reasons for each picture but it’s really free for you to feel the way you want about it.
Asked whether she had ever regretted making her IVF treatment public with Annunciation Elina said she was happy she finally decided to show them in a book and a Show after encouragement by Susan Bright. This is something that touches the lives of an amazing amount of people and we don’t know about it because it’s a taboo. As an artist we can assume the responsibility, like the Kings Fool, to “put the cat on the table”. Many people got in touch and it was a good thing to do. It’s a big thing in our society; difficult to talk about it and that’s why pictures can be a route/pathway into those questions. She said she doesn’t believe in catharsis but she believes that pictures can be a route into things you can’t express easily and sees herself as part of a bigger picture. We are much more like each other than we are different.
Conclusions and thoughts
As I wrote above, Elina was generous with her time and even stayed on a little to talk further with us.
I already knew much of the story of this particular Exhibition and yet it was different to hear it from Elina direct. It was illuminating and thought-provoking for me in terms of approaching photography and self-portraits. Also the first time I’ve heard an artist talk whilst standing in front of their work and referring to it. It gave the work so much more meaning for me and I gained a greater understanding of her motivations and concepts. I’ve wondered before how much difference it makes to perception of an artist’s work when you’ve met with and heard them speak. I think that this evokes empathy and adds another subtle layer – unseen but informing understanding because my imagination is engaged and I add to the narrative.
The photographs are beautiful. Large images (from both film and digital) on the walls in pale, subtle hues, with misty landscapes, some including Elina in the frame, often looking at her from the back. She also re-photographed herself in the same room, wearing a similar colour coat and boots; hair dark instead of blonde; obviously older yet still looking fragile somehow.
For me there was a sense of melancholy about the work – the misty softness of the outdoors and, throughout a subtle, slightly faded colour palette. Her work fascinates me, despite feeling slightly distanced by the dispassion I sense, which is why it’s taken me so long to work through this write-up. I am interested in her Landscapes with figure where a ‘traditional’ Landscape view (beautiful if not quite sublime) is mediated by the figure of Elina with her back to us; her more solid figure drawing our eyes from the misty view as if directing where we look. We are always aware of her presence, holding the umbilical cord of her camera. We are looking at her looking at the view. How intense is this view given that her attention must be split between the looking and the decision as to when to press the release button. We can only see what she allows us to see as our view is hindered and we cannot see exactly what she is looking at. She is a large presence in the landscape yet, by turning her back to us, puts herself in the frame at the same time as removing herself from the frame.
The point about the ‘mask’ made me think of Gillian Wearing who also exposes herself to view whilst not being exactly present, whilst taking on other personas. Elina Brotherus always re-enacts herself. I wonder if self-portraiture at depressing times uplifts the spirits or depresses even more. It certainly acknowledges it rather than serving as a distraction and the slow process of medium format analogue must slow down emotions – calming as she said. I guess that attention paid to actually making the photograph gives some emotional grounding and feeling more in control and this lends itself to a more dispassionate and objective approach.
As Elina said, you can look back through the photographs and see where you are now. You can also re-edit them and create a new story from an earlier story. This control of our view and how we look makes me query how ‘open’ her work is. Quite definitely the narrative is about Elina – no death of the author here and yet she portrays something universal that we can lean towards as we enter into her space – albeit at some distance. I have also been thinking about depiction of space, place, passage of time and creating the narrative. We can compare the artist at different points in her life; see how she has aged; see where she lived and walked.
The landscape is pretty much the same but the colours, tones etc add an out-of-time feel and sense of melancholy as she looks back over her life. The post-it notes also show the changes and reflect some of her thoughts. I have spent a lot of time thinking about her work and have taken from it the advantages of working more slowly. Medium/Large format attracts me very much although I have to deal with that voice that tells me I’m not technical enough. I aim to practise more with long exposures. I can’t say that I feel more attraction towards self-portraiture but maybe that will change somewhat as I work through Context & Narrative. 30th January 2015
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akseli_Gallen-Kallela#Paintingshttp://www.elinabrotherus.com/news/ http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/suites-francaices-2/ https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/elina-brotherus/ http://thewappingprojectbankside.com/exhibitions/2014/elina-brotherus/index.shtml http://weareoca.com/?s=elina+brotherus http://weareoca.com/photography/elina-brotherus/ https://vimeo.com/22647132 https://vimeo.com/58005699 http://www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk/home-truths-3