BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Elina Brotherus

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

A Japanese tale describes a woman longingly awaiting her lover at the train station after a lengthy absence. But when he finally arrives, bearing gifts and attempting to embrace her, she violently rejects him, accusing him of being an imposter, as if, during his absence, she has so heavily invested her fantasy of him that her mental image of him is distorted, transformed, rendering her incapable of recognizing him in the flesh.

The same sense of alienation, of the intense strangeness of familiar things, lies at the heart of this photo exhibition. In her 1999 self-portrait series „Suite Française 2,‰ the Helsinki-born artist, who currently lives and works part-time in France, depicts her experience during a fellowship at an artists‚ colony in Chalon-sur-Saône, in the French countryside. In one of the most moving photographs, „Desolé,‰ she stands awkwardly in the corner of her room, speechless and unmoving, her arms dangling limply at her sides, the walls of this glow faded institutional white, the carpet a dirty hospital gray. On the peeling, mustard-colored door, underneath a pair of poorly framed memorandi, a small yellow Post-it reads „la porte.‰ As on a couple of mundane objects˜the lock, a light switch, her shoes, a thermometer˜her breast wears a label as well, reading Œdesolée,‚ meaing sorry (does she feel guilty about something), or desolate (is it melancholia, regret, a feeling of solitude?). She is the „Other,‰ an outsider, looking fragile, forlorn, like a scolded child, small, insecure, on the verge of tears.

Throughout the series, Post-its label the humdrum objects in her sparsely furnished room˜a barren, monastic cell that reflects her interior void, metamorphosed into a child-world, like a summer camp or kindergarten where everything is identified with tags or stickers. You can almost feel her disappointment, the gap between what she might have fantasized about in coming to France and the pared-down actuality. Those slips of yellow paper, which subsequently and variously label the chair, apples, a bicycle, her hand, her bed, her sex („desire‰)--become a metaphor for disorientation. The sameness in color and format and appearance of the notes, rather than revealing uniformity, reflect the struggle to adjust to a foreign city where linguistic ability is lost and language becomes clumsy and enigmatic, where even the most elementary phrase seems ambiguous or misleading or remote; the frustration of being emotional and complicated and trapped in an impersonal, antiseptic environment; and perhaps expression itself˜-the difficulty in understanding and naming a thing or abstract state of mind, or the very inadequacy of language to express the depth of feeling.

Large in scale, classical in composition, often symmetrical, with their luminous, austere palette and limpid surfaces, Brotherus‚ photographs recall the Nordic portraits and landscapes by such 18th- and 19th-century Scandanavian precursors suchas Edelfelt or Gallen-Kallela, which eschewed all sentimentality and favored unflinching honesty, as well as the existential angst, the severe objective reality of Ibsen or Kierkegaard. But at the same time, they remain wholly rooted in contemporary culture, recalling the searing honesty of autobiographical works, say, by Richard Billingham or Tracey Emin, or Cindy Sherman‚s black-and-white film stills, or confessional TV talk shows. Combining documentary photography with personal experience, she openly exposes her intimacy and weaknesses, while also keeping a distance that invites the viewer to participate in the photographs.

If, with their pared-down simplicity and unflinching honesty, Brotherus‚ photos appear effortless, they in fact are highly wrought (interestingly, Brotherus, while studying photography, also received a Master‚s degree in analytic chemistry, and her approach is methodical, even obsessive). Such tidiness and intricacy appear in „Le Reflet,‰ which, paradoxically, reveals everything except the reflection designated in its title. In it, Brotherus stands against the bathroom wall. Yellow Post-its mark the mirror, the toothbrush, the soap dish, the sink and faucet, the hand cream and makeup remover, but where the reflection of Brotherus‚ face should be, it is obstructed by Œle reflet,‚ the label stuck to the mirror, so that we see only her forehead and her short blond hair. By eliminating her face, she shows how much she feels disembodied, infantalized, stripped of her adult identity. In her anonymity, she skillfully glides away from herself and toward the spectator, presenting herself as a mirror for our insecurity and fragility. What makes these photographs so poignant is the way, with their truthful plainness, they suggest the mysterious vastness and complexity of today's world.