Excerpts of Brendan Cormiers’s essay No Interest in Reality, written for The New Institute’s exhibition, 1:1 Sets for Erwin Olaf and Bekleidung, Nov 11th 2013 – March 30th 2014. Full text here.
“In the documentary, On Beauty and Fall, celebrated Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf states that he has no interest in reality. He laments the art world’s exaltation of the documentary photographer, who moves the viewer with earnest depictions of the ‘real world’, which in the end are often conceits of their own. Instead Olaf’s real world is his interior world, the world of his own fantasies. Loaded with ambiguous meaning, it’s a world where wallpaper drips with pathos, and curtains veil an exterior we’ll never encounter. Models reveal ambivalent expressions and all objects sit complicit in the montage: a carefully positioned phone is charged with anticipation of a call that never takes place.
Embedded in these images is a story about design, a story of theatricality and the idea of a constructed interior, for in these interiors representation blurs with reality. Perhaps unwittingly, Olaf resurrects the nineteenth century notion that architectural space should display and amplify the drama of life. In so doing his photographs suggest tools for design – the careful montage of stylistic references, expressive skins, and selective framing – that have been used in the past, and might be resurrected once again.
In Which Style Should We Photograph?
Style is a word inseparable from Olaf’s images. His work is characterized by the variety of historic styles that comprise his sets ¬– from the Norman Rockwell optimism of 1950s America [Rain], to a somber post-JFK 1960s [Grief], to the interbellum years of Germany [Berlin], to the ravages of war in sixteenth century Holland [The Siege and Relief of Leiden]. The ease with which Olaf moves through these styles recalls the practice of the nineteenth century architect, who, driven by the historicism and eclecticism of the time, was expected to recreate any number of styles – from Greek, to Roman, to Gothic, and so on – at the whim of his patron. This seemingly rudderless approach to aesthetics prompted Heinrich Hübsch in 1828 to ask the question: ‘In which style should we build? – a debate that would endure the century, with various architects advocating for one style over another. Gradually architecture would resolve this tension by muting and abstracting historic elements altogether, paving the way for the unadorned facades of twentieth century modernism.
Similarly, Olaf’s interiors aren’t employed as historical reenactments as such, but employ historic styles to evoke an idea or a feeling. Style is an expression, a mood-setter, and a signifier. For example, in Grief, each element in the set, and each color, acts as a reference that contributes to the melancholy of the title: The vertical lines made by the shadows of the drapes mimic the bars of a jail; juxtaposed with the optimism of the sleek modernist furnishing, referring to the resurgent postwar middle class. Meanwhile the Jackie Onassis haircuts and outfits recall the tragedy of the JFK assassination and the collective feeling of loss that the nation experienced. The montage of contradicting moods triggered by these signifiers creates a tension that forms the drama of each piece.
Life On Display
To view an Olaf photograph is also to enter into a world of multiple frames that guide our gaze and that of the actors. It is a reminder of how our interior spaces are constructed as such, full of gaze-directing cues. Your gaze falls upon a framed space often so intimate you feel as a voyeur. The actors in the scenario are also aware of the frames – the window looking out on the yard, the spotlighted furniture arrangement, the perfect table setting, or the camera lens staring right back at you. Works like Keyhole, are explicit in this voyeurism; with the actor’s back turned, you are free to stare without shame, but the framing is tight (as if through a keyhole) and the gaze is limited. In wider shots, such as in Hope, you are confronted with the model’s gaze, and made uncomfortable by the muted anticipation in their eyes.
Such notions of framing can also be drawn back to the nineteenth century in the works of Semper and Schinkel. They shared a common view that architecture is a frame that should accommodate human experience. Drawing from Schinkel’s experience with stage design, the frame was intended to catch the eye of the viewer and direct their attention to the drama of life. This was used to great effect in Schinkel’s paintings, especially to highlight the transition between the interior world and the outdoors. In these paintings the colonnade often serves as a frame through which the viewer’s gaze must pass to reach the landscape, moving from a closed space bounded by opaque materiality, into a space of daylight and distance. Unsurprisingly, the colonnade would later be used to great effect in his architecture. For instance in the Altes Museum, he covers the façade with a wide colonnade framing views out to the Lustgarten and the monumental buildings beyond. In the museum’s rotunda multiple frames are at play vying for your attention: the columns frame each statue, while an oculus plays a double role, framing a circular image of the sky, and directing your attention to the center with a casted beam of light.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Art Pulse, 2009.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, The Gaurdian.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, British Journal of Photography, 2012.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Liberation Next, 2010.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, Los Angeles Times, 2007.
© Erwin Olaf, press clip, The Wall Street Journal, 2015.