Fragments of Modern Life
Elina Brotherus Photographic Works was at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, 5 January - 2 February 2002
Review by Colin Darke
Elina Brotherus talks more of what her work isn't than what it is. Furthermore, what she says it isn't is precisely what the rest of us would think it is. She denies the melancholy of her landscapes, the narrative of her text/image pieces and the issue of women's sexual identity which are evident throughout. She prefers instead to stress the aesthetic and the opportunity that photography provides for catching the fleeting serendipitous moment.
The earlier works in the show, however, are undeniably autobiographical. Brotherus uses her camera as a diary, recording events in her life, with varying degrees of significance. Wedding Portraits, consisting of two photographs taken days after the artist was married in 1997, subverts the traditional wedding photograph. On the left panel the couple stand unsmiling before a rough concrete wall, she wearing her long blue wedding dress, he a black suit and crimson satin bow tie (with matching hankie). She holds in her left hand a pair of scissors, protruding phallically, pointing towards her husband in a reversal of male sexual aggression. In the image on the right, they have changed places. The scissors have fallen to the ground and the groom is now seated, holding the hair cut from his wife's head. A power struggle appears to be in progress.
In Divorce Portrait, made the following year, on the day the couple decided to end their marriage, Brotherus is again wearing her blue dress and her hair is cut even shorter. She stands on a bridge with a Helsinki port behind her. Rain clouds loom above while she cries in grief and frustration as she struggles to pull the ring from her finger. This echoes both the clichéd image from popular cinema of the wedding ring thrown into a river from a bridge and the work of Bas Jan Ader, who photographically recorded his personal grief in such pieces as I'm Too Sad to Tell You of 1970.
Suites Françaises 2 of 1999 is a series of tableaux which again record or enact events in her life, but now of a much more prosaic nature. These were made during a residency with the museum in Burgundy dedicated to the innovative nineteenth-century photography pioneer Nicéphore Niépce. The events depicted are punctuated with a narrative of sorts - post-it notes labelling objects, events and emotions. La Nature Morte Jaune contains a blue coat thrown over a wooden chair, placed in front of a yellow door. They form the backdrop of a Cézannesque still life arrangement of fruit. The chair, the floor and shoes are labelled accordingly and the title of the piece is included, stuck to the coat.
The inclusion of the photograph's title within itself is repeated in Le Nez de Monsieur Cheval. M. Cheval is the director of the museum and one day while walking with Brotherus in its grounds he was horsing around (The play on words is intentional, unlike the accidental, but much better, nez/neigh pun in the title) and using a red berry he'd picked from a bush as a clown's nose. Brotherus re-enacts the game back in her apartment, but with the humour less apparent. Again we have the blue coat and the yellow door and a couple more objects are tagged with post-its, including, in case the connection hadn't yet been made, Magritte's black umbrella leaning in the corner.
Le Vélo Volé du Curé is again just what the title says it is. Brotherus stands blocking a narrow country road with a bicycle borrowed from a friend who stole it from a priest. The piece records her pleasure at using the illicit bicycle and her amusement at the anagrammatic rhythm of the again Duchampian title (as in Anémic Cinéma). The image contains visual puns too; the flare of her ubiquitous blue coat cuts into the triangle of the receding tarmac road. The wheel spokes play against the pylon and cables overhead.
Also included in the Orchard show was a video piece, Le Miroir. When I asked her about it, the first thing Brotherus said was, 'It's not about female identity.' But it is. We see the back of the artist's head as she looks into a steamed-up bathroom mirror, reducing her reflection to an indistinct blur. Gradually the mist clears to reveal her face and naked upper torso. She asserts that the film is an 'allegory of photography', with particular reference to the Dageurrotype, but that her primary concern was aesthetic - that it works as a picture. These are both true, but that it is also an image of sexual self-discovery is pretty much undeniable.
Elina Brotherus seems to be struggling against readings of her work which disagree with her own. But, as she says in her interior Le Sommaire (unfortunately not shown in the Orchard show), 'Today I understood a profound truth: in life the most important thing is not artistic work, it is other people.'