The Professor of Desire

First published here.

I’d like to begin this review by getting the art historical references out of the way. There is a wealth of that kind of information on Rødland on the internet, and besides, historical appropriation is the least interesting of the interesting things about Torbjørn Rødland’s Festival Exhibition Fifth Honeymoon at Bergen Kunsthall.

Rødland is sometimes acknowledged as the strange offspring of the so-called “pictures generation”, iconically represented by Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, and James Casabere amongst others. Douglas Crimp is credited with having set this movement in motion with the 1977 exhibition Pictures at Artists Space New York, and this moment is sometimes cited as Rødland’s origin story. Indeed we find some echoes of “pictures” sensibilities in Fifth Honeymoon. For example, Richard Prince’s infamous 1983 photograph of a glistening, nude, 10-year-old Brooke Shields lurks somewhere in the fluids and gels that populate works such as The Man in the Moon is a Miss (2018) in this exhibition, and an earlier work, Bathroom Tiles (2010-13), in which we see two feet coated in slime and on tip toes on a black tiled floor.

A more direct trace of his artistic ancestry is the fork and ladder that appear in the new film, Fork and Ladder (2018). In this brief, looping film, a young boy raises a giant fork above his head as he sings the lines “Is it better to accept the loss/ or to fight the war at any cost?”. The fork recollects the disproportionate fork in James Casebere’s 1975 image Fork in Refrigerator (1975), which is itself a slapstick homage to André Kertész’s modernist classic La Fourchette (1928). Rødland’s titular ladder bypasses Casebere and goes straight for Kértész, for whom ladders turn up fairly often. Both Peintre d’Ombre (1926) and Untitled (Cat on a ladder) (c.1928) betray a somewhat mawkish view of everyday life and aspiration that winks out at us from Rødland’s work as well.

For me, Fifth Honeymoon churns up two passages from twentieth-century American literature that sandwich the pictures’ movement chronologically. The first is from Philip Roth’s 1987 novel The Professor of Desire, a story of the erotic “bildung” of an ageing professor:

“Of course by now the passion between us is no longer quite what it was on those Sundays when we would cling together in my bed until three in the afternoon – ̒the primrose path to madness,̓ as Claire once described those rapacious exertions which end finally with the two of us rising on the legs of weary travellers to change the bedlinens, to stand embracing beneath the shower, and then to go out of doors to get some air before the winter sun goes down.”

Roth may be to blame for the endurance in literary fiction of the sorts of men who in real life attract #metoo scandals, but it’s impossible to fault him on atmosphere: the slow, hypnotic newness of a fresh lover, nights turning into mornings, turning into salt-licked afternoons. Hygiene is largely irrelevant and together with someone else, someone quite unknown to you, you have few qualms about being sticky, dilatory and somewhat dehydrated. Rødland, too, is a master of mood (and stickiness), and like Roth he conjures a sense of becoming lost in time with another person, precisely as you begin to lose that ability to get lost. His signature backlighting – the key, according to his manifesto, “Sentences on Photography”, to creating a “pregnant object” – is soaked with this atmosphere. Rødland’s warm backlighting evokes an important presence just out of shot, life going on elsewhere while we are looking closely at the object or person directly in-shot. To squander light like that, especially if you are in Scandinavia, is extremely decadent. It hints at a preoccupation far more urgent and intimate than everyday life, which continues “out there”, without you.

The second passage is the iconic opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955):

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Everyone who quotes Lolita stops after “My sin, my soul”. But in the next line Nabokov, the synaesthete, presents us with the most sensual salutation to lips and teeth, and along with it, the cue that we should continue to keep mouths in mind for the rest of the novel. Rødland does the same, but through three images of hard objects partially coated in tempered chocolate: a yellow porcelain anchor, two enamel-coated rings, and an extruded number 5 made from cardboard. If you are made of flesh and blood, you will, while viewing this exhibition, think about biting off the chocolate points at the bottom of the yellow porcelain anchor, or of sucking the chocolate off the rings.

Mouths are also the culprits of wedlock: you utter a promise and then you kiss. And so, behind each of the four honeymoons that led up to this one, the fifth but probably not the last, is a twee little dance of lips, tongue and teeth. To kiss and say “I do” is, one hopes, sincere, not ironic. It is also, incidentally, a surefire way to put an end to other, more salacious uses of the mandibles. This putting-to-an-end rather than allowing a spontaneous ending is the shadow of matrimonial celebration. A marriage proverbially locks something down, ties a knot, puts a nail in it. The works Voodoo Shoe and Candy skewers (both 2017–18) literalise this with the presence of long metal nails impaling an ornamental shoe at one end of the exhibition and a collection of softly coloured candies at the other. These images evoke the aftermath of a commitment that cannot be undone without leaving its objects ruined.

When you produce images as perfect as Rødland’s there is a risk that no matter how cleverly you put together your exhibition the sum will struggle to transcend the parts. How does one create a viewing experience that is something more than simply looking at one image after another, as you might in a book, a gallery store room or in your own home? In this Festival Exhibition there are no architectural hijinks, which some colleagues in Bergen have lamented. Instead, Rødland relies on a rhyming combination of images, the strange film, and its soundtrack to produce a vast and pensive atmosphere, a feeling in the air that is more prominent than curved walls or a lowered ceiling. This is gently shepherded along in the first room of the exhibition with pictorial references to the surfaces and architectural features of the Kunsthall itself, a trick which tells us we have to extract the images from the exhibition’s scenography. Two field-like images, Salty Earth (2016–18) and Desert Double (2011–16), imitate the somewhat furry pattern on the floor of the galleries, and Interior with Can and Pitcher (2016–18) echoes the partly visible rose window above the Kunsthall’s main entrance.

Fifth Honeymoon is neither ironic nor naïve, but something that comes long after both. In Church Scene No. 2 (2017–18) a naked elderly man sits in a halo of backlit bodily hair, clinging to legs – we cannot really tell if they belong to someone younger or of a specific gender. It’s a confusing image of pathos, desire, and self-governing hair. The situation it depicts is deeply ambivalent, and anyone over 30 must wonder, gloomily, if they too will one day cling so nudely to someone who hasn’t even bothered to take off their shoes. That is not ironic – it’s terrifying.

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