Torbjorn Rodland’s Puzzling Photos Are Unsettling and Arousing

Torbjorn Rodland’s Puzzling Photos Are Unsettling and Arousing

His work was included in the 1999 Venice Biennale and he had his first retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo in 2003. After that, he branched out into black-and-white photography and also made six films and several photography books. He has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, in the roving Manifesta biennial (Manifesta 11 in Zurich) and in the Berlin Biennale.

In 2016, the Whitney Museum chose Mr. Rodland to take part in a public art installation on the outside of 95 Horatio Street, across from its new building. The museum’s curators and Mr. Rodland selected “Blue Portrait (Nokia N82),” a photograph of a hand, set against a backdrop of yellow fall foliage, holding an outdated cellphone with an image of Anne Frank on it.

The photograph is one of a number of works Mr. Rodland has made that allude to World War II. As with the religious and pop-cultural imagery that appears in some of his work, his interest in the topic, he explained, stems from his fascination with the myths that shape contemporary society. In his view, the war has replaced the New Testament as society’s vehicle for understanding good and evil. “The Holocaust,” Mr. Rodland explained, is “the main mythical story of our culture.” He said this explained why “movies dealing with that story are seen as Academy Awards contenders, while ones dealing with biblical stories are laughable.”


“The Cut” (2016).

Torbjorn Rodland

“I am interested in the older stories, and in the modern and contemporary ones,” Mr. Rodland added.

For the last seven years Mr. Rodland has mostly made his home in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. As he put it, “It makes sense to me to be in a place where the main industry is mythmaking, and where these images are being constructed, and scrutinized and believed in.” He said he doesn’t watch TV, because he is addicted to the medium — “like these alcoholics who can’t have a glass of wine” — but that he enjoys movies and has been recently drawing inspiration from original recordings of Broadway musicals.

David Ducaruge, a Berlin-based musician who performs under the name Andrew Claristidge and who has known Mr. Rodland for over a decade, said there were three words to describe the photographer: “very quiet person.” The two met in 2005, after Mr. Rodland heard a piece of music by Mr. Ducaruge’s former band, Sex in Dallas, and asked the musician and his collaborators to create an original score for his film “132 BPM.”

Torbjorn Rodland “132 BPM” 2005 (Clip) Video by Sam Stieglitz

“He has a very clear idea of what he likes and what he doesn’t like,” Mr. Ducaruge said. He explained that Mr. Rodland is a private person, and that, in real life as in his photographs, the stranger aspects of his personality remain just under the surface. “All of us have our deviance, and a lot of people have pride in showing their deviance to everybody, but he doesn’t need to show it,” Mr. Ducaruge said.

This year Mr. Rodland’s Serpentine show will move to Fondazione Prada in Milan, and he has solo shows slated for the Bergen Kunsthall and Mr. Kordansky’s gallery in Los Angeles. Mr. Rodland’s current popularity might be a reflection of the way his work has managed to predict the evolution of online visual culture. In recent years, Mr. Rodland argued, memes have shifted from the irony that characterized the LOLcats — an online joke in which silly text was superimposed over images of cats — toward something more personal and sincere, and more akin to his work.

“Memes now are about seeing yourself in the ridiculous imagery online,” he said. “It’s all about this represents me — this is my spirit animal, this is my mood — and so it’s not about critical distance, it’s about seeing this is the only language I have.”

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