Seeing at its Sharpest: On Time and Transience
Annika Thörn Legzdins’s landscape photography constitutes a meditative sphere devoid of words and humans. Here, nature spreads out on its own terms, without the enhancement of staffage in the foreground to draw the viewer in. This is a conscious choice – human figures always come with stories that tend to lead astray. There may also possibly be ethical considerations. Nature never needs to be asked for permission before being photographed. It is always available.
Over the years, innumerable photographers have surrendered to breathtaking views and made a fetish of nature. Ansel Adams’s magnificent photographs from national parks on the US west coast are distinguished by their reverential approach to nature. This courteous attitude lives on in much of contemporary landscape photography.
Iceland’s evocative topography can be problematic to photographers who are not primarily set on aesthetic effects. Nature is invasive, and while working on the project Circumstances, Annika Thörn Legzdins occasionally found herself overwhelmed by a sublime view. At a precise moment, however, she would tighten the reins and take a step back. This restrained disposition is cooling. With her photographs from southern Iceland near the glacier Vatnajökull, she creates her own world where the enigma of nature requires no explanation.
I note the mist, deep crevices in the mountainsides and the ice-blue horizons. The paths seem to be cut into the glacial ice. In one picture my eye is drawn to a small stone on the rippled water. It becomes, in the words of Roland Barthes, the punctum of the picture, and is decisive to how the photograph is experienced. The scene with the solitary stone in the grey-blue sea is suggestive of someone in distress.
The brooklets from the mountain recur in various guises, melding into a narrative about us, a testimony about our arteries and of being in our blood stream. We are all victims of circumstance, and now we are seeing it all from within. Frozen into the desolate icescape, we wait for existence to reveal a kinder, more forgiving side. In our imagination, a soothing southerly breeze carrying grains of pollen drifts by.
In the midst of her project, it took on a new dimension. Iceland had been hit unexpectedly by a serious financial crisis with global repercussions. In the first photograph of the series it looks like wrinkled papers (bonds lacking coverage?) had been scattered towards the horizon before disintegrating in an impermeable fog. A surrealistically elusive note, a vague madness, where reality is twisted with disparate objects and theatrical quirkiness.
But the puzzling scene on the low-lying beach strewn with lava rocks is not staged or digitally enhanced. Nor is it a natural transformation act or wads of candyfloss; it is simply blocks of ice that have fallen off Vatnajökull. It is the middle of summer and the glacier has started moving. But the calendar is also deceptive. Sunlight rarely reaches this godforsaken coastal region, and temperatures in July never rise beyond five or ten degrees centigrade. In this land of ice and fire, hardly a flower dares to set down its roots.
Contemporary art photography is frequently characterised by extreme naturalism and detachment to the subject. Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth focus evenly across their monumental, razor-sharp images so as not to sway the viewer. No detail is more important than any other. However, after the initial fascination, these colossal photographs become unbearable to look at, and one’s gaze eventually explodes.
Annika Thörn Legzdins works more like a classical documentary photographer. She sets the focus with care, emphasising certain sections, while others are allowed to recede and dissolve. Different reality levels and moods often exist side by side in the same picture. Behind a sharp boundary of mist, her images suggest another world that is unattainable to us. This dual structure, with a near and a far field is also found in paintings from the romantic era, where the spectator can simultaneously contemplate life here and now and on the other side. Behind the fog in the first photograph in Circumstances I imagine a river of melt-water that brought the ice blocks. Soon, they will continue their precarious journey towards the coast, where they will be washed out into the heaving Atlantic waves.
Iceland’s unique landscape is seductive. Two of the most renownedcontemporary artists, American Roni Horn, and Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson have, like Annika Thörn Legzdins, used the island as a central theme and source of inspiration. In the multifacetted book project To Place Roni Horn captures the island with reproductions of photos and watercolours. The installation Vatnasafn (Water Library) consists of 24 glass pillars with melt-water from the largest glaciers in Iceland. The work is placed in a former library on the Icelandic west-coast and will be preserved in liquid form when the glaciers have disappeared due to climate change. A brilliant idea, when most other natural phenomena and man-made items have their museums.
Olafur Eliasson’s many suites of photographs from Iceland challenge our romantic notions of the island. Like a scientist, he systematically processes the subjects. With this typological report, he intentionally deflates the aura and intensity of image after image. The photographic suites of glaciers and lighthouses contain real gems, but if the pictures are removed from their context the entire project collapses. Neither Roni Horn nor Olafur Eliasson have any immediate similarities with Annika Thörn Legzdins, but they nevertheless demonstrate different approaches in contemporary art to the Icelandic geography.
The series Memento te mortalem esse (Remember that You are Mortal) was created at the time when Annika Thörn Legzdins’s closest friend died of cancer after a short period of illness. Unlike the images from Iceland, there is nothing pristine about this series. On the contrary, we encounter the imprints of human activity and the wounds it leaves behind. The photographs were taken in Vancouver and in the impenetrable, primordial forests on Vancouver Island. Several times, Annika Thörn Legzdins burrowed herself into the mud, and into the undergrowth near uprooted trees, to capture her subject from the earth’s own perspective. Like a geologist or archaeologist, she became one with matter.
The photograph of the dying trees in the waterlogged landscape is a distinct illustration of the straight-forward title of the series. The abandoned tree trunks appear to be exposed to a biological attack. The end is nigh, but the cycle continues. Young, soaring fir trees are pushing in to take over, but they are likewise moving towards certain doom. Annika Thörn Legzdins reminds us of our short existence on earth, but her photograph can also fuel the environmental debate.
Throughout art history, familiar symbols for the fragility of life, such as skulls, hourglasses and rotting, maggot-eaten fruits, are intermingled. Annika Thörn Legzdins adds her own variations on this theme. In one image, the mist lies like a horizontal streak across a house with a rusty roof. The curtain is about to be drawn behind the nearest fir trees – a reminder that life is running out. The snow in the foreground is solid, while the mist is ephemeral. She explores the various structures of whiteness and finds symbols of obliteration, nothingness and death.
Vancouver’s skyscrapers appear in the same suite as glistening jewels far away beyond the sand, which has been laid bare by the receding tide. The clouds have temporarily parted, but may just as soon cover the city once again. She juxtaposes the gigantic emptiness in the foreground with the expanse of the sky. Vancouver is high on the list of “the world’s best cities”. Here, however, it appears like a mirage that can disperse at any time, with our entire civilisation, as the grains of sand in the foreground will soon be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean.
Contemplative peace is also characteristic of the suite Shadows, where nature reveals itself in all its simplicity and grandeur. In one of the works – Timeless – the horizon is slightly slanting, a snapshot where the skewed angle creates tension. The beach in Latvian Kurmrags on the Baltic coast is embedded in green slime, and the algae are photographed with extreme sharpness. Further out to sea, the bare rocks contrast with the mess on land. In Transformation a mountain of seaweed and entangled shells broods on the newly cleared beach. A little ways off is Jurkalne, a stretch of coastline hidden by high cliffs, where Latvians fled to Sweden in boats during the Second World War. The pile of seaweed on the beach is part of the natural cycle; it is oblivious to history as it awaits its transformation into compost.
The modern ruins that tell us about the crimes of communism, fascism or colonialism, about the pioneering spirit or the spoils of industrialism, provide a rich source for many artists. The series La Serre (the French word for Greenhouse) was taken in an abandoned greenhouse district on the way to the airport on the outskirts of Riga. When the iron curtain lifted and the Soviet government retreated, the greenhouses became obsolete and were left to their fate. New ideological winds were blowing, and a new chapter started in Latvia’s modern history. The state owned land was taken over by private investors and just nearby one of Riga’s largest shopping malls was built. And a bit further on lies the new American Embassy, a reticent monster of a building in a compound the size of five football fields.
The pictures of the greenhouses are monotonously homogeneous in temperament and colour. This repetition, this indefatigable twisting and turning of perspectives, is trying, but it is also the strength of the photographic series. The wood has cracked and everything has collapsed. The glass panes have fallen from their frames and lie smashed on the floor with clay pots that were never used. In one photo, the glass panes are piled up like the ice blocks in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wreck of Hope. Vertical wood slats frame the compressed panes in Annika Thörn Legzdins’s photo, and suddenly a painting has been created, a picture within the picture. In Friedrich’s work, the disaster with the ship crushed by the ice is brutal and momentous. Annika Thörn Legzdins instead portrays a gradual decay, where man mends and patches, in the certainty that the end can be postponed.
In the first picture of the series, my attention is drawn to a black detail. Either it is a shard from a pot, or the entrance to Hades. Death sometimes hoists its flag. In another scene, the windows are scantily replaced with sheets of plastic – a thin membrane between outside and inside. Through the rips we see an unraked path and rampant vegetation. The image embodies a state of vulnerability. Encapsulated in ourselves, we have neither full protection nor a full perspective.
Under the decay, the weeds of the field have shamelessly invaded the dilapidated greenhouses: ground elder with its white umbels and the green stalks of goldenrod. Not a trace can be seen of the plants that were once grown there. On her first visit to the place, Annika Thörn Legzdins came across some youths who had taken refuge in the derelict buildings and were burning cables to get at the copper. The suite documents a place and a time in transition. Today, the greenhouses are gone, and the latest proposal is to build ultra modern car wash facilities on the site.
Sophie Allgårdh, Art critic for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and author of several books on contemporary art