Amidst the over-abundance of visual information produced by technology and the media today, what particular role could possibly be ascribed to the handmade image? One characteristic appropriate to some current painterly practices is 'scarcity'. It certainly fits the work of Swedish painter Cecilia Edefalk. A painting by Edefalk is a rare thing, and one gets the feeling that this scarcity is not an accidental feature, something that could be overcome through intensified labour. Her images are few, and they seem to rely upon the considerable time-span that keeps them apart.
Her most effective works depend not on information but rather on the lack of it. They create a sense of dearth, which sharpens the eye. Instead of adding new visual data, they take away, and the details that remain gain a new clarity. In a world brimming with information, this appears the most effective way to make visible what is already seen. These paintings teach you what, in a sense, you already know. Scarcity encourages concentration.
Talking about the current role of painting in terms of scarcity might sound like a version of a conservative defence of the 'auratic' quality of art. The unique 'here' and 'now' of the work of art, is, of course, threatened by all modern technologies of reproduction. The situation defined by Walter Benjamin in the 30s has become polarised through contemporary information technology: the 'here' and the 'now' seem even more evasive categories today, in the era of digital communication. Can the painted canvas recreate the old sense of 'auratic' presence? Ought it to?
While Edefalk's strength does not lie in some magical uniqueness of painterly expression, her projects do seem to deal with the tension between an evaporating sense of self, and a cautious re-inscription of the personal into the very medium of its dissipation: repetition. The personal appears not in the form of a confident assertion of a unique self, but rather in those marginal, sometimes hardly detectable deviations which produce difference in repetition. This is as far as you can get from self-assured Expressionism: the subjective functions not as a starting-point, but rather as a barely visible trace on the outskirts of the intentional.
Edefalk's paintings are usually executed in series. They imitate, distort, and intensify each other, all according to a principle of repetition which makes the distinction between original and copy difficult to uphold. Usually they begin with a photograph, which is then reproduced in paint. Unlike mechanical repetition, every step allows for small modifications, and sometimes drastic displacements. Subtle changes in posture or gesture can create radical shifts in atmosphere. In Another Movement (1990), based on a fragment from a magazine advertisement, minute alterations change our interpretation of the depicted scene - a man touching the back of a young women sitting naked in the sun. Depending upon how the man's left hand rests on her bare back, the images convey either tenderness or a sense of icy distance.
The play between identity and difference is given an additional twist in the series of self-portraits called Echo (1992-94). The twelve paintings all refer back to a photograph taken by the artist showing herself in three-quarter profile. The sequence has been developed in the following manner: the first painting is reproduced by the second, the second by the third, the third by the fourth... The photograph, itself already a reproduction, is absent from the series.
The canvases differ in size, and a number of alterations give the series a quality quite different from that produced by strict repetition: one painting is painted upside-down (not just hung upside-down), another is inverted as if seen in a mirror, a third has been diluted to such a degree that it appears to be a grey monochrome. Small details differ radically from painting to painting: 'I discover things in my paintings when I repeat them', Edefalk explained in an interview. 'It is a way to explore my own work. I am always surprised by the result. I think I can figure out what will happen. But with every new painting the others change'. 1
Edefalk's use of repetition has two effects. First, something personal loses its special charge: an image, in this case showing the artist herself, is purged of all uniqueness through multiplication. It's made anonymous. This move is well tested, and a recurrent strategy since, at least, Andy Warhol, who made great use of the anonymity inherent in mechanical reproduction. Warhol's work is perhaps still the most effective example of the power of repetition, partly, no doubt, through the calculated choices of subject. Take a work from the 'Disaster' series, such as 5 Deaths 11 Times in Orange (1963): isn't this the final provocation to European humanism with its traditional appraisal of death as a unique event, a moment of truth summing up a human life? 'My death is mine,' wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, aptly expressing a firmly established view. Through repetition, Warhol's work attacks this belief in human uniqueness at its very root.
Edefalk's treatment of the theme of self-portraiture - a subject no less closely linked to human uniqueness than death - might initially appear Warholian in its use of reproduction and multiplicity. The first impression created by the Echo series is that of an anonymous recurrence of the same. But the second effect follows very soon: the sameness dissolves, and makes way for difference - small shifts in tone, hardly discernible variations in colour and shape. Suddenly, every detail comes alive, a bearer of secret meaning. This is the return of subjectivity. Not that self-centred masculine subjectivity so well known in European painting, but a different, much more evasive form. Delicate. Listening. Feminine, perhaps?
'I don't feel I have a history, so repetition is a way of creating history,' she contends. 2 In the interplay of reproduction and subtle variation, a self is emerging. An interesting detail in this series is the ear. It starts out as just one insignificant part of the body, but takes on new meaning step by step. At the end, it seems to play a decisive role for the series as a whole: 'In the first painting, it was just a beautiful ear, but when it is repeated, it is obvious that the paintings have to do with listening... Sound enters through the ear. The sound grows in the painting and gives the painting life.' 3
It's an attentive face, one which listens rather than speaks. To enter the room where the twelve paintings are installed is like entering an echo chamber: these faces listen to each other listening. Without motion they communicate. In silence.
1. 'Zum Sprechen Bringen - Ein Gespräch zwischen Cecilia Edefalk und Eva Meyer', Be Magazine, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 1994, p.149.