Opening Speech at Gallery Swedish Photography, Berlin, 2011
With their two series of works on display at the exhibition, Saga and Watching Humans Watching the former consisting of a series of staged landscape photographs and the latter of pictures of people caught in the act of contemplating landscapes Lindergård and Holmström have taken their place in a long tradition of European landscape artists. Presaged by isolated forerunners as long ago as the 17th century, landscape paintings including human figures with their backs to the viewer enjoyed their greatest popularity in the ages of Enlightenment and Romanticism at the turn of the 19th century; the best known examples are those of landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Pictures such as Wanderer ̧ber dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the mist) show figures with their back to the viewer, gazing out over the landscape; rapt in contemplation of nature, such figures provide the viewer with a means of identification with their own position as they stand in front of the painting.
This state of absorption, which sees the surrender of the figures to the majesty of nature, has, along with certain statements made by Friedrich and other of his paintings, led to the insight that this Protestant artist, who was living in an era characterized by the critique of religion, was concerned with revolutionizing traditional images of devotion: depictions of saints or elements of the Christian story as the means of inspiring reverence in the believer were instead to be supplanted by the experience of a phenomenon whose sheer scale was simply overwhelming – something for which philosophy had long since coined the term sublime.
According to Friedrich Schiller, the sublime consists on the one hand of a feeling of our powerlessness and limitation when we attempt to comprehend an object and, on the other hand, of a feeling of our own superiority, which recognizes no boundaries and submits spiritually to that to which our sensuous powers are subject. In the case of the sublime, we have a feeling of freedom because our sensuous impulses have no influence upon the legislation of reason, for here the mind acts as if it were bound by no other laws than its own.
The belief expressed through the aesthetic of the age of Caspar David Friedrich was that this experience of the sublime was to be found only in nature and art.
Friedrich’s most important painting – the Monk by the Sea ñ appears to find its counterpart in particular in one of Lindergård and Holmström’s photos in which two figures are seen against the backdrop of a sea shore. Just like Friedrich’s monk, they are dwarfed by the horizon, with the effect that they appear infinitesimal against the vast expanse of nature. But this is where the similarities end; the very fact that the picture depicts two figures which, far from gazing into the distance, are looking down at the sand in front of them, serves to reduce the solitary heroism of Friedrich’s figures to something altogether more mundane.
Other elements of Lindergård and Holmström’s photographs also serve to clearly distinguish them from Friedrich’s compositions, thereby marking the existence of doubt in the accessibility of the sublime for modern-day people: We rarely see what they are seeing; the figures depicted therefore offer the viewer no possibility of identification with his own position in front of the picture. Their appearance and behaviour also make them appear all too mundane: They are clad in beige holiday kit or even in black-and-white business uniforms which give the impression that they have just briefly emerged from a tourist coach to get their quick fix of nature before being whisked away to the next tourist destination. Just as banal as their clothing is their attitude to nature: Gone is the quiet absorption in contemplation evinced by Friedrich’s figures; these people seem instead to be immersed in conversation – we hope that they are talking about what they are looking at, but it might just as well be about the unpleasantness of the trip and the lack of consideration of their fellow holidaymakers.
What Lindergård and Holmström are conveying to us all too clearly in the pictures from the Watching Humans Watching series is that we are yielding to a delusion if we still think we can find redemption in an experience of nature, even though all of us, whether or not we care to admit it, probably entertain some slight hope that it can be found in this way. We are simply much too rational and realistic, and so degraded and over-photographed are our landscapes that any chance of experiencing redemption has been snuffed out; this insight is communicated by the artists in a deliberately ironic way in order to prevent it from tipping over into bitterness. Perhaps they do this because they still dare to hope that nature can offer the potential of a unique experience, which is what they are trying to convey in the Saga series of photographs.
As Matthias Harder has written, the word saga in Swedish refers to fairy tales or myths, and the eponymous work, as the artists have it, combines various different approaches in one series of images. Staged situations are to be found alongside pictures of grotesque apparitions and exaggerated
phenomena. For the same reason, the motifs of the photographs in this collection also vary widely: A veil on a beach flying in the wind; a headless deer on a meadow in the foothills to the Alps (which reveals itself at second glance to have stretched its neck out fully to the right, thereby removing its head from the viewers field of vision); what looks like a rectangular picture standing lengthwise on a large rock, which on closer inspection is revealed by a dazzling point of reflection in an upper corner to be a mirror reflecting the orange evening sky, etc. These situations may be staged, but the pictures are unedited. As is the case with the artificially generated pink clouds set in front of a sunset, the settings intensify yet further the already expressive character of the images.
It can therefore be said that the approach of Lindergård and Holmström is less reminiscent of the works of those Land Artists, such as Robert Smithson, who undertake massive transformations of the landscape than it is of artists like Richard Long who wander alone in the vast pristine expanses, encroaching temporarily on the landscape by laying out circles of wood or stone prior to documenting them photographically and moving on.
As Matthias Harder writes, the material used for the interventions in nature is removed again after a single photograph or series of photographs has been taken; no open-air setting survives longer than one hour. The arranged objects and Nature herself are accorded identical status as pictorial objects and motifs.
The resulting photographs confuse, often remaining enigmatic even on closer inspection, and at the same time reveal something of the view the two artists have of nature. In the Saga series, with its lack of system and its sometimes surprising, sometimes repellent motifs, nature appears both unregulated and enigmatic, refusing to open itself up fully to human scrutiny. And it might just be that, in our over-organized, regimented world, this is nothing other than the modern equivalent of the sublime in the Romantic tradition.