Torbjørn Rødland at Kiasma, Helsinki

The artist’s new photographs and videoworks make further steps into spirituality and esotericism, writes Mike Watson – through 5 January

By Mike Watson

Painbody no. 1, 2015–18, c-print, 110 × 140 cm. Courtesy Standard (Oslo) and Nils Stærk, Copenhagen

The strength of Torbjørn Rødland’s Fifth Honeymoon resides in the artist’s deft avoidance of a particular genre or thematic foundation, leaving a range of interpretative pathways open to the viewer. The 35 photographic works and one video blend esotericism, abstraction and symbolism via still lifes, landscapes and duo portraits. As befits the work’s implicit mystic underpinnings, they feel koanlike, the viewer’s response saying as much about themselves as it does about the artist.

There are threads, nevertheless. Motifs are repeated, including marriage, rings, tarot cards, pairings of people and the number five, which – according to Rødland’s own previous statements – has special significance for the artist. The chromogenic print Ace of Cups (2017) depicts a chalice brimming with water. Referencing the Ace of Cups tarot card (symbolising passion and strong emotion), the cup fills the picture, yet appears located outdoors. The pool of water it stands in is infused with a bright natural light; again, one might be thrown back – amid swaying aesthetic pleasure – on one’s own preconceptions about the validity of the tarot.

Elsewhere, a series of three black-and-white silver gelatin prints, collectively titled Painbody (2015–18), employ double exposure, overlaying patterns featuring Christian crosses and paisley motifs onto a nude female body. The result is a rich tonal abstraction that encompasses the female figure, merging it with the design. Referencing Eckhart Tolle’s theory of the ‘painbody’ – a kind of negative emotional state people carry with them, marked by memories and experiences – the works suggest an inseparability between the model and the symbols overlaid upon her.

The tendency to point to spirituality via a luscious physicality continues throughout the show. Midlife Dilemma (2015) is one of several works depicting unequal or unusual pairings of models. In it, we see a muscular, bare-chested young man gripping a suited elderly man by the collar while turning his own gaze to the camera. Rødland has suggested that his age fell exactly between that of the two models at the time of shooting: the photo conveys the entwinement of opposites – a preoccupation of Eastern mysticism – though intergenerational aggression is strongly suggested.

Rødland’s first videowork in 11 years, the five-minute Between Fork and Ladder (2018), cuts together scenes of Californian and Norwegian landscapes and a log fire, accompanied by a female Japanese voiceover evocative of Japanese anime. The voice reads quotes from the American mystic Ken Wilber, with English subtitles: ‘This is a soul for whom the personal has gone flat / This is a soul on the brink of the transpersonal…’ Partway through the video, a boy in his early teens appears and, with scissors, cuts images of Pepe the Frog – a cartoon figure coopted by the far right in meme imagery, and more recently by the democracy movement in Hong Kong – from torn fabric wrapped around the tree branch he sits upon. As he does so, he sings a melancholic song: “What are you supposed to do / When everything is up to you? / The world’s been bright / The world starts spinning out.” The song reaches a point of high bravura coinciding with the boy holding aloft what appears to be an oversize dining fork as he sings, “Is it better to accept the loss, or fight the war at any cost?”

Could the video be a message of defiance in the face of malign political forces? A spiritual riddle? Or simply a documentation of teen angst? What seems clear, near-paradoxically, is that against our prescriptive era Rødland wants art to be a space held open, in which the prompts are the artist’s but the journey is the viewer’s. 

Torbjørn Rødland: Fifth Honeymoon, Kiasma, Helsinki, 13 September 2019 – 5 January 2020

From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview