Lucas Gehrmann

If we are to accept Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s own explanations, in the beginning there was a TV room—at least in the beginning of her series of photos Equivocal, started in 2007.1 At the same time, this TV Room was more than just the beginning of a new project in some 40 parts by this photo artist, born in a small Icelandic town in 1964, who lived in Sweden during her youth and later in the USA as a student. In contrast to her earlier serial works—where she deliberately blurred her motifs in a quasi-transitory manner by means of imperfect focus, over or under exposure and changes of perspective and horizons in cinematographic style²—beginning with TV Room her images are characterized by calm composition and orderliness, focus on detail or even depth of field and in general great precision in reproducing the reality seen through the camera.

This suggests clarity and a lack of ambiguity rather than anything relating to the “equivocal”, while Margsaga, the Icelandic title of this series, could be translated as “contradictory/contradicting itself.” Particularly in TV Room, however, everything is clearly recognizable and structured: the horizontally flowing row of seats, the centrally positioned window with a view of the nearby green of a maple tree, the materiality of the upholstery, the curtains and the wooden wall, which closes off the interior head-on and thus defines it. The relationship between vertical and horizontal pictorial elements is also in balance, almost geometric as in a Low Country interior of the 17th century. And, if one so wishes, the red-green contrast between the interior and the exterior spaces could even be said to provide a balance to the color design of the image. In contradistinction to this description, however our sensation when we view the picture is something different: from the perspective of the lowly placed TV set (because it can’t be seen in the picture) we gaze at an empty audience row of monumental plush sofa immersed, like the entire interior, in a satin-twilight reddish brown—a light that we, in the monitor’s position, could ourselves be radiating. Only vis-à-vis and above the seats, however, “the picture” appears brightly on the window pane, seeming to flicker vividly. Are we now playing the role of the TV monitor ourselves or are we sitting in its position as viewers in a cinema, which Katrín Elvarsdóttir might conceivably have installed in the Red Room of the Black Hut in the middle of the woods of Twin Peaks?³

Curtain falls!—For here, as in all the photo series after Equivocal, it is not a matter of particular associative images or films that could run in front of, on, or behind photographed windows or their panes. The artist’s concern is rather to find and also understand situations evoking an atmosphere that oscillates between reality, fiction and dream, from where we are able to imagine pictures.4 A rich hunting ground for this purpose are the artist’s choice of interfaces between interiors and exteriors, such as curtains, sometimes like transparent drapes, sometimes thickly material and opaque, sometimes half or completely open, sometimes lit from inside, sometimes from outside, appearing repeatedly through Margsaga, as well they do in passages of all the artist’s later photo series. Curtains offer (back-) projection surfaces not only for sensations of light and sight but also for history and stories. For example, from ancient to pre-modern times they were used not only for windows but also for pictures, to protect them from undesirable light effects and strange eyes. Curtains begin and end moving pictures even today—in theatres and cinemas. In this way a curtain marks not only a place of in-between but also the moment of opening (up), excitement and expectation, the beginning and end of a story or drama. A moment in time, therefore, that is often indefinable.

In spite of this, the curtain is generally paid no attention, since it serves primarily the role of interruption and splitting of two realities, rather than being itself the location and object of any action. Meanwhile, the curtain of Parrhasius achieved fame, being painted so (photo-)realistically that his artist rival Zeuxis wanted to push it aside to see the picture behind it.5 This curtain, so greatly honored, was thus none at all, being nothing but fiction. Katrín Elvarsdóttir now lends the curtain-as-medium real significance by making it the protagonist in many of her scenarios. In doing so, she literally moves it into the light in her picture, so that the material essence of its substance also acquires energized mediality, making it shine.

As far as one can tell, in order to light and metaphorically illuminate all her subjects and spaces, the photographer uses the locally available, situational light, which is usually daylight. Thus, just as she rarely or never arranges and stages motifs—exceptions are perhaps some of the portraits she has interspersed in Equivocal—neither does she direct or manipulate the light, whether it is shining in through a window or whether it is falling on a wall, a floor or a stair.6 That last situation occurs in Image #6 of the series Vanished Summer, published in 2013, and does so as colored light, which—even though it presumably comes simply through a stained glass window and strikes the stair on its modestly patterned carpet in grey and white—lends the scarcely spectacular subject sacral to surreally magical qualities. Which, to be sure, is due to more than the (colored) light; The wooden staircase leading up to an unknown darkness, the absence of any traces indicating it might have been used despite its age of a good 100 years, the quasi-phallic presence of the similarly lit bannister post at the center of a visual composition primarily made of verticals and diagonals—all these contribute to an imaginary world of situations we might already have sensed in Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Hopper or the house of our grandmother.

Curtain falls!—For no matter how much Katrín Elvarsdóttir’s visionary images might animate a search for reference material in Surrealist or Neo-Surrealist texts, personal diaries, visual images from film noir or Magic Realism, more directly they will lead us to the photographer’s actual Kunstwollen7 (urge or ambition to make art). When asked about the source of her ideas, the artist also mentions the importance of literature, film “and many other kinds of art” without naming specific movements or people. More significance seems to be attached to other sources, directly appearing to her in real space: “My inspiration comes to a large extent from observing my surroundings and nearest environment. … I travel quite a lot and often get inspired by the places I visit, especially things that go unnoticed or fall into the background.”8 In addition to those already mentioned—curtains, views from windows or reflections of light—this could also be the dreary facades of terraced houses, mobile homes parked in the landscape or partly weather-beaten conservatories. The two last-named motifs lead us at once to another theme, to which the photographer closely attends: “The interplay between the natural and the man-made interests me tremendously, and I’m fascinated by the methods that people use in trying to improve upon nature. Sometimes I stumble upon expressions of the absurdity of it; sometimes it’s the beauty that captures me. It’s really a mixture of things.”9 For example, when her mobile home seems to observe us from its draped windows as it stands lonely in front of a half green, half snow-covered mound of lava. From here we can at last round the circle by returning to TV Room, in other words to the question posed by Katrín Elvarsdóttir, presumably consciously, about the ability to position and differentiate subject and object, observer and medium, sender and recipient. This question has become especially demanding in an age when virtual, media-related, fictional images and information are totally interconnected with analog, “real” ones. And there is, further, the question still caught up in all the curtain folds, namely why all the photographed things and situations bring with them something surreal or vividly uncanny, to which the media researcher Johannes Binotto even has a—quite pragmatic—answer: “Simply because the camera isolates things, framing them and cutting them out, it invests them with uncanny life. Seen through the camera lens, reality is changed and turns its surreal flip-sides towards us.”10 But as we come to the conclusion of this brief journey through the image worlds of Katrín Elvarsdóttir are we actually satisfied with this explanation? Perhaps it would be better to give a painter the last word, one who has spent his life devoted to the simultaneous or “equivocal” articulation of opposites—of inner and outer worlds, moments and continuity, emptiness and fullness, stability and instability, the visible and the concealed, Edward Hopper: “Great art is the outward expression of an interior life of the artist, and this interior life will lead to his personal vision of the world. No invention, however skillful, can replace the central element of imagination.”11

1 “The Equivocal project … started by one single photograph, a brown sofa and curtains with green Maple leaves outside the window [TV room]. Something in it captured my imagination and I wanted to ‘see the rest’ of that series – before it existed.” From: “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir,” posted by Nina Corvallo, June 4, 2009, at: NYMPHOTO. A collective of women photographers, http://nymphoto.blogspot.co.at/2009/06/conversation-with-katrin-elvarsdottir.html

2 For example Revenants Proximal-Dimension (2004) or Longing (2005). Accessed at: http://katrinelvarsdottir.com/work-2

3 The allusion to David Lynch is based partly on the magical “Red Room” in the Black Hut of Twin Peaks (USA, 1990–1991) and partly on Maurice Lahde’s analyses of Blue Velvet (USA, 1986), whose locations are not “real” places introduced to the viewers in film “but places ‘generated’ with the first shot and developed from image to image.” And this has certain parallels with the story of the origins of Katrín Elvarsdóttirs series Equivocal. See Maurice Lahde, “We live inside a dream. David Lynchs Filme als Traumerfahrungen”, in: Eckhard Pabst (ed.), A Strange World – das Universum des David Lynch, Kiel 1999, 100.

4 On this point compare: “Katrín attempts to integrate her own observations and experiences from the past and the present into a single unified concept. She combines imaginary environments with real ones, implying a sequence of events that appeals to the subconscious as well as to logic and rational thought. Katrín underlines this highly narrative approach with a careful choice of subject matter and through the use of repeated forms and colors.”, from: “Gallery Ágúst Exhibition: Equivocal the Sequel,” in: Iceland Review, Reykjavik 2010, http://icelandreview.com/bin/58968

5 The Natural History. Pliny the Elder, John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London, Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855, Chap. 11. (5.)—The Art of Painting.

6 She said herself in an interview in 2009: “The atmosphere of various places, people’s faces and lighting plays a big part in most of what I do, whether they are found locations or partly constructed by myself.”, from: “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir”, cf. fn. 1.

7 A polysemic term originating with the art historian Alois Riegl. See, for example, Andrea Reichenberger, Riegls „Kunstwollen“. Versuch einer Neubetrachtung, St. Augustin bei Bonn 2003; as well as the same author in: kritische berichte 1/03, https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/kb/article/download/10837/4696

8 “A Conversation with Katrín Elvarsdóttir,” cf. fn. 1.

9 Interview with Kenta Murakami, in: Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, The Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, University of Richmond, VA, 2015, www.antigrand.com/katrin-elvarsdottir

10 Johannes Binotto, “Für ein unreines Kino. Film und Surrealismus,” in: Filmbulletin – Kino in Augenhöhe, 3.2010 (April 2010), 33–39, accessed at: https://schnittstellen.me/essay/film-und-surrealismus

11 Edward Hopper, in: Reality 1, Spring 1953, 8; reprinted in: Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York 1983, 153.

Lucas Gehrmann