Torbjørn Rødland The Touch That Made You

Daniel Culpan on the photographer’s queasy eroticism

By Daniel Culpan

Torbjørn Rødland, Bathroom Tiles, 2011-13. Private collection

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 29 September – 19 November

The photography of Torbjørn Rødland is an art of uncomfortable juxtapositions. His eruptions of the uncanny into the realm of the everyday are queasily direct: grabbing you by the throat and leaving you – finally – to process the strange sensation of it all.

There’s a charged, tactile quality to much of Rødland’s work in The Touch That Made You, the Norway-born, LA-based artist’s debut UK gallery exhibition, showcasing his photography from the past two decades. In Frost no.4 (2001), the arm of a heavy metal rocker, clad in spike-studded leather, grips the bark of a tree in an oddly tender embrace. In Candles and Cubes (2016), a series of candles encased in ice deliquesce into a puddle, with all the futility of a chocolate teapot.

In 2005’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we see what appears to be the remnants of a kids’ birthday at some point in the 1980s: Häagen-Dazs, Diet Coke and a VHS of hokey baseball flick Field of Dreams (1989). In fact, these are reputedly some of George W. Bush’s favourite things, displaying Rødland’s taste for irony-free statement.

Consumption is a recurring theme. The human mouth figures as a site of both hidden recesses and expressed desires, while hunger is rendered as something of a pathological appetite. In Avocado (2013) a ceramic imitation of the fruit, a polka-dotted handkerchief peeping out of the top in surprise, is posed like a shot from a Waitrose Food magazine. Plate and Spoon (2015) is a gastronomic anxiety dream: a half-devoured cake lies on a plate strewn with a spoon, gold teeth and molars. The large scale of the prints are simultaneously arresting and force you to look closer. Intraoral no. 1 (2015), from Rødland’s collaboration with a Zürich dentist, shows a latex-gloved hand injecting anaesthetic into bared gums. It’s cold, brutal and dispassionate.

Trichotillomania (2010-11), its title referring to a condition where people pull out their own hair, shows a neatly cut orange bristling with wispy blonde strands, an image both arresting and curiously perverse. There’s a fetishistic streak running through Rødland’s oeuvre, including images of dripping paint, octopus tentacles and honey suggestively drizzled down a woman’s face (Goldene Tränen, 2002).

These scenes turn us into voyeurs, implicated yet anonymous

He frequently turns disembodied body parts into erotic avatars. Bathroom Tiles (2010-13) shows a woman’s feet, toes painted scarlet, squelching in some kind of transparent ooze. In Pads (2010-14), a woman kneels on a wooden floor in protective knee gear. Red Pump (2014) nods to the kinky voyeurism of Guy Bourdin: a red stilettoed heel hooked suggestively into a waistband. These scenes turn us into voyeurs, implicated yet anonymous. In Summer Scene (2014), a nerd gets a sneakered foot in his face, treading the line between softcore BDSM and something more sinister.

Although many of these works have the sheen of commercial photography – splashy and tightly composed – Rødland isn’t afraid to use the image itself as a critique of our spectacle-obsessed age. In Heiress with Dogs (2014), Paris Hilton becomes an unwitting, and witless, synecdoche for empty celebrity: a reality where nothing exists beyond the self-promotional surface. Blue Portrait (Nokia N82) (2009) presents a photograph of Anne Frank on an old Nokia phone against a backdrop of autumn leaves. A comment on our era of selfie-obsessed isolation perhaps. Here the photograph becomes an epitaph – a haunting reminder of the past – where we merely seek our own narcissistic reflection in the present. As with most of Rødland’s images in this show, there’s just enough of a hint of provocation – even tastelessness – to make it impossible to look away. 

From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview