Ambiguous Composition

Ambiguous Composition

“An artist makes art, but they are also a spectator of art,” says Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus (b. 1972). She is perhaps best known for self-portraits, which are steeped in visual history – capturing herself standing, serenely, in the open expanses of lakes or atop the ragged summits of mountains. Her style has become instantly recognisable – lauded for its minimalism, as well as its enigmatic sense of storytelling. Here, figures are permitted a subjectivity of emotions, where the psyche is open to creative and critical interpretation.

A: Your practice has, for over two decades, focused on creating contrasts and connections: between bodies and landscapes, interior and exterior worlds. What is it that has continued to inspire you: to go out into the world and to create photographs? How has this journey changed along the way, such as, your principles or goals?
EB: I’ve had different reasons for photographing at different times. When I was young, I wanted to see what I looked like. I was divorced, so I had nobody else to take pictures of me. Another reason was that I was talking about emotions – what it is to be a young person growing up and feeling somewhat lost. It felt fair to use myself, to be genuine, and not to work with actors or other people. Gradually, my body and my face became tools. Many things have changed in my photography – I very seldom do narrative work nowadays, my practice is much more informed by historical avant-gardes, 1960s and 1970s conceptual and performative art. Yet, there is always this recognisable but evolving figure of the artist. I enjoy observing the changes in myself as the model. It has been so interesting in this time span of 25 years. I hope to live long enough to show a much larger evolution of the self.

A: Let’s talk about the tension that runs through your works: the figures could be seen as lost, or indeed exactly where they intend to be; lonely or safe within their own refuge; experiencing melancholy or serenity. How important is it that you maintain this sense of ambiguity – of complicating narratives, and expanding on the power of the image to communicate a spectrum of emotions?
EB: The emotions are much less structured, less defined in my current work, as opposed to the more autobiographical series that I have created in the past. The overall feeling is in the eye of the beholder. I believe that you see what you see because of what you are going through in your life. Images communicate on so many different levels. Even a seemingly neutral face can suggest a multitude of readings, depending on the context, the light, the surroundings, the framing – and the other images in the sequence. I like the idea that photographs can pull us in different directions. I love ambiguity, having a chameleon-like presence.

A: Whilst your works contain expansive psychogeography, the face is often hidden from view, especially in your later works. What is the significance of this concealment, or erasure, or in turning away from the camera as you have progressed throughout your career?
EB: Showing the face results in us fixing the identity to something specific. When the face is hidden, it’s easier to identify with the person. As a viewer, you are able to step into their body and see with their eyes. In recent years, I have been working on a portrait series inspired by John Baldessari. He once stated that the face steals all the attention, so to make people look at other elements on the picture plane, we need to conceal the face. This is a lesson I have adopted.

A: How can still images contain these kinds of multitudes – in ways that, perhaps, other art forms cannot?
EB: Images are more open than, say, films. We are not given one single story line to follow, and I’m keen that I expand upon this prism of emotions and ideas: ambiguity. The feel- ing that the viewer interprets? Well, that’s entirely up to them.

A: Many of the compositions reference the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, particularly the seminal painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). In what ways are you placing these works in dialogue with your own, challenging the narratives of humanity in which we glorify, and then conquer, nature?
EB: With my first Wanderer allusion (Personnage dans un paysage (montagne) – from 2000 – the protagonist still faces the camera, showing the slope she has climbed to conquer the mountain. When I returned to the subject matter three years later, the picture was already called Der Wanderer, and I chose to turn the model away from the camera. My initial idea was to place a young woman in a landscape that, through the Romantic ideal, was typically reserved for men. She, too, deserves to be on top and have her gaze free to roam the world from this critical observation point. I became so attached to this motif of the “Rückenfigur” – the figure seen from the back – that I have continued to use it in various series. My recent body of work, Sebaldiana. Memento mori, deals with remembering our dead – it has several figures in mourning at imaginary burial places, or sites I pulled from W. G. Sebald’s posthumously published writings about Corsica.

A: What power structures, if any, are you moving against, in your work? Are you questioning a certain gaze – either from the viewer, or through the lens of art history?
I want to create space and agency for women as do-ers, makers and self-confident actors within their own industry. I’ve been around for a while, so it’s great to hear that I’ve served as an example, and been an encouragement for younger artists. When I studied, we had Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin, but all the rest of the curriculum were men. As students and artists, we all need art made by a range of per- spectives – to avoid getting a biased view of the world.

A: How do you choose the landscapes you work in, and what is their significance? What is the role of the figure as a whole within these geographies? Is it romanticised?
EB: I don’t feel I’m romanticising. I use the geography as a stage where performative actions can take place. The landscape can be anything – anywhere – I just need alone- time there for the ideas to surface. Lately, I’ve been receiving invitations to work in fantastic places. In 2019, Centre Méditerranéen de la Photographie invited me to Corsica where I made the Sebaldiana series. AKO Kunststiftelse had me working in southern Norway for two years, which resulted in another recent series, Seabound (featured here). In every region, I visit different landmarks: this takes me to outer archipelagos and mountains, from NYC skyline views to forests or to lighthouses. My eyes are hungry for new landscapes, and through discovery, the work becomes easy.

A: Has your relationship with ecology changed over the last few years, and, if so, does it feed into your work?
EB: I have started to personally invest in ancient forests through a Finnish foundation called Luonnonperintösäätiö. Their sole goal is to recognise valuable woodlands – to buy them and, ultimately, protect them. I donate both money and works for their charity auctions. By protecting forests, we also protect animals and biodiversity and create long-term carbon storage. This has become very important to me.

A: Tell us about your upcoming show at FFFrankfurt. What does the title In Reference to a Sunny Place mean to you, and what does the exhibition bring together in terms of your wider practice? There’s almost a sense of play that comes into this title – how important is this?
EB: Celina Lunsford, my curator and the director of Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, came up with the title. I liked it and ap- proved it. I much prefer long and obscure titles to something like Elina Brotherus – Works 1997-2019. In Reference to a Sunny Place is a small retrospective that presents key images from over 20 years, but it has a strong focus on recent work. The older I get the more carefree I become. I don’t need to prove anything anymore. I can do fun things as and when I please. I have taken as my reference various sources like Baldessari’s Art Assignment Sheets (1970), where he encourages artists to “make up an art game”, “disguise one object as another”, or “document change, decay and metamorphosis.”

I also draw upon the Event Scores of the Fluxus artist collective from the 1960s – an interdisciplinary community of art- ists, composers, designers and poets who engaged in experimental art performances, emphasising the artistic process over the finished product. Their proposal pieces or “recipes” for actions, include directions such as “place a dog or a cat (or both) inside a piano and play Chopin”, “run a 220-yard race with inflated balloons tied to the body” or “regard two or three oranges for a long time.” These physical gestures are creative tasks that open the mind – like blueprints. They are tools through which I create something completely new.

A: What was the starting point for the curatorial focus of the exhibition? How do you want the title to inform and influence the viewers’ overarching experience?
Celina Lunsford took my 2019 Playground exhibition at PHotoESPAÑA as a starting point for this show. She took the idea of colourful walls, a selection of video works and playful performative pieces. Crucially, however, she added a “before” and an “after.” We have early autobiographical pieces and some works from Wanderers plus other model studies, to show where I come from. We conclude with a se- lection of new works from Sebaldiana. Memento mori. That series has quite a different tone: it deals with death, mourning and tribute. I follow in the footsteps of W. G. Sebald whose book on Corsica remained unfinished at his untimely death. I went to many locations Sebald mentions and was thinking of my own dead. I was looking for places so beautiful, that, if I were Corsican, I would bury loved ones there. In Reference to a Sunny Place is well-curated, well-installed and well-paced. It allows, as I intend, for multiple readings and experiences.

Words: Kate Simpson

Elina Brotherus: In Reference to a Sunny Place |

Image Credits:
1. Elina Brotherus, Aften I Ny-Hellesund (båt) (2018). 90cm x 120cm, from Seabound. Courtesty of the artist, gb agency, Paris, and Martin Asbaek Gallery, Copenhagen.
2. Elina Brotherus, Seabound Two Nights in a Row (2018). 120cm x 90cm, from the series Seabound. Image courtesy of the artist, gb agency, Paris, and Martin Asbaek Gallery, Copenhagen.
3. Elina Brotherus, Is There More to Life Than This (2018). 90cm x 120cm, from the series Seabound. Image courtesy of the artist, gb agency, Paris, and Martin AsbaekGallery, Copenhagen.
4. Elina Brotherus, Imaginary Burial Place 3 (2019, detail). 80cm x 120cm, from the series Sebaldiana. Memento mori. Image courtesy of the artist, gb agency, Paris, and Martin Asbaek Gallery, Copenhagen.
5. Elina Brotherus, Shore (Shadow of a Cloud) (2018, detail). 80cm x 106cm, from the series Seabound. Image courtesy of the artist, gb agency, Paris, and Martin Asbaek Gallery, Copenhagen.