While I’m waiting for Torbjørn Rødland to surface, I’m fixated on one particular image. In the centre of the wall at C/O Berlin, the photograph shows an unravelled danish pastry with a set of dentures tucked into its centre. “Cinnamon Roll”, part of Rødland’s “Back in Touch” show at the gallery, verges on the grotesque; it typifies the kind of composition for which Rødland has become so renowned. Foodstuffs, hair tufts and isolated body parts populate his imagery, which has been branded “perverted” and “peculiar” by many. Rødland, however, resists such definitions of his work.
“For me, photography was never about going out into the world and ‘capturing moments’, it was always about seeing how far I could push it”
When I sit down with Rødland, he’s calm and almost distant, intently focused on picking specks of fluff from his trousers as we talk. “I don’t think [the work] is that weird,” he tells me. “For me, photography was never about going out into the world and ‘capturing moments’. It was always about seeing how far I could push it and seeing what I could make happen in front of the camera if I took a little bit more of an active approach.” Indeed, Rødland’s photography is far from reportage; instead, it tends towards the highly constructed. “There’s always been this pull towards the fantastical,” he tells me, explaining the “Hollyweird” aesthetic of his close-ups. By placing objects in such staged scenarios, Rødland not only creates a dynamic that’s ambiguous and often uneasy, but also symbolic. “It’s about wanting the photograph to have emotional presence for the viewer,” he explains, “and some kind of symbolic potency. I feel I have to shake photography and throw something at it and push it to make it come alive — to try to keep it from just being dead and boring.”
“Back in Touch” is one of many recent European exhibitions for Rødland, and it’s full of characteristically intriguing images that cause the viewer to question exactly what the f*** is going on. “It’s representative of what I’ve been showing this year,” he tells me. “This mix of recent portraits and object photographs; portraits with hands on them; objects with hands on them and body parts with hands on them.” “Recent”, for Rødland, seems to be within the past 2 or 3 years; a large portion of the works on display at “Back In Touch” are from 2015. “It’s part of the process,” he explains. “I keep things lying around for a while. Sometimes there’ll be seven years between when I make the negative and make the first print of it.” This process creates double-dated works that are simultaneously old and new — “it’s something else when you finally see them in full size.”
“I feel I have to shake photography and throw something at it and push it to make it come alive — to try to keep it from just being dead and boring”
Most of Rødland’s work as we now know it is time-stamped from 2003 onwards — before then, he lacked the technical means to take such images. “That’s when I started doing close-ups,” he explains, “and I moved more into object photography as a continuation of that.” Works such as “Arms” (2008), which shows an octopus tentacle emerging from a sleeve and delicately coiling itself around a woman’s hand and “Trichotillomania” (2010), of oranges scattered with human hair, demonstrate the fragile yet decidedly frank manner through which Rødland makes us accept surprising compositions.
But Rødland’s work extends beyond close-ups — self-portraits, Norwegian landscapes and beautiful models (albeit against unusual backdrops) are also part of his diverse repertoire. His early work establishes his fascination with the fantastical, and foreshadows his later journey into the aforementioned “perversion”. This varied exploration uncovers Rødland’s mastery of photography — which comes as no surprise, considering his 36-year love affair with the medium. Rødland recalls picking up a camera as early as age 11.
Though he’s moved from his native Norway to LA, Rødland insists his work hasn’t changed. “I think it’s hard to tell from the show which ones are made where. You can try to guess if you want!” he laughs. Unless the motif gives it away (one image we’re sitting close to depicts a landscape that’s instantly recognisable as American, for example), it is indeed difficult to tell. “I had already phased out being based in landscape work before moving to Los Angeles, so I can’t blame the move for that.” Instead, we’re surrounded by contorted bodies, scattered cameras and golden tears. Wherever you’re standing, Torbjørn Rødland’s photography is as enticing as ever; just don’t call it weird.
“Back in Touch” runs until 11th March at C/O Berlin.
Torbjørn Rødland’s “The Model” is available now at MACK books; more information available here.