I recently found myself eye to eye with a buff male model slouched and nearly naked on a tile floor. He had been tarred and feathered, and stared directly at me through a clump of soiled hair with the blank and unreadable expression typical of a perfume or underwear ad. What did he want? I had no idea. And the nearby photo on the attached gatefold wasn't any help. It was virtually the same image but with the model looking toward his crotch. The scene was contrived and charged, like a fashion ad. But it wasn't commercial. And it wasn't quite fine art. It was just plain inscrutable.
This photo appears about two-thirds of the way through Torbjørn Rødland's most recent book Vanilla Partner, and for me it encapsulates the entire monograph. It's a book that seems determined to defy easy understanding. Is it a fashion book? A study of texture? Is it meant to be arousing? Disturbing? Provocative? I don't think it's intended as slapstick -- although one photo does depict a clown -- but I found myself laughing out loud in several places, simply because the themes and combinations are so wildly absurd and unexpected. But is the book meant to be funny? I really don't know. I think it depends who's reading.
Rødland relishes the role of cypher. He's "a weird dude," in the words of Vice Magazine. "I don't believe humanity is a uniquely privileged species that will solve all problems and rule the planet, and I'm more enthusiastic for another photographic tradition, one that advocates reality expansion. I'm thinking about UFO and spirit photography, cryptozoology, ectoplasm, that kind of thing…" he says in another interview (with Gil Blank). "Ultimately, I try to show you something you haven't seen in an image you're convinced you have."
Uh, right. A grand statement, maybe even a slapstick statement. But I think he may have actually succeeded here. Vanilla Partner is just plain weird. There is no introduction or explanatory text, just images and captions. After a brief visual preface of held faces and hair-draped orange slices, the book shifts to traditional black and white. Thirty pages in it pulls a Wizard-of-Oz switch, after which the remainder is in muted color. This much can be pinned down. As for the rest… Well? Certain subjects repeat throughout the book: Statues, gelatinous textures, cropped limbs, multiple exposures, tubular forms, physical punishment, graffiti on skin, defanged political symbols, and of course the beautiful young models which form the book's core. These are often slouched or in mysterious poses, and sometimes tarred and feathered. But beyond that it's wide open. "I want the book to be surprising throughout," says Rødland (Vice). Hey, the man knows what he wants. Sometimes he wants UFOs and judging by some of these photos he's gotten them.
Rødland's earlier work does not offer many clues. Although his previous four books included posed models, those projects were far more concerned with landscape, visual detritus, and other found material. But Vanilla Partner consists mostly of people, presumably staged. Some of the poses border on cliché, but always with a twist, perhaps a melting face or a posture that seems unnaturally symmetrical. There enough hot young bodies to remind one of Ryan McGinley, but this is far from the territory of wild abandon. These images are strictly contrived, under Rødland's tight control. The extreme variety of material and sequential juxtapositions brings to mind Juergen Teller or Rinko Kawauchi. It's photography not as mere recording but as art - capital A. But even those comparisons are a stretch. Rødland has cleared space for his own unique tradition.
Mack's production is up to its normally high standards. The choice of font is great, the colors nicely muted, paper stock and reproductions excellent. Mack is currently at the top of its game, and the top of the phonebook publishing world. Vanilla Partner is carefully constructed, physically and editorially. But it remains a cypher.