Listen to Austin 360 Radio

‘You could spend an eternity looking at them’: Photos turn mundane into divine at Contemporary Austin

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Torbjørn Rødland's 2014 "Shadow Work no. 2. Artwork © Torbjørn Rødland. Image courtesy the artist.

From a distance, the viewer first sees a mass of glowing, transparent spheres. Cloudy light drifts through the upper spheres, while it barely penetrates the dark shapes among the lower ones.

In “Shadow Work no. 2,” Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland takes his time revealing the truth behind the facts that he has gathered inside the frame of his chromogenic print on Kodak Endura paper.

The next bits that caught my eye were golden metal clasps, the kind commonly used to attach decorative globes to Christmas trees. A third element escaped my awareness for a few more seconds: Cotton swabs that appear to float among the spheres. Much smaller still are slender black or white strands of wire poking out here and there.

Are these random objects attached to one other, perhaps inside a box? Or are they floating underwater, which would explain some of the distorted light? Rødland, who takes portraits of seemingly ordinary objects and people to reveal their spiritual power, has made something memorably complex and mysterious here.

We know from the other prints — and from a video soundtrack that can be heard throughout the upper gallery at the Contemporary Austin's Jones Center — that “Shadow Work no. 2” is no mere still life. It hangs low enough to punch one in the gut. And the way it fills the white frame, the masses could easily lead the viewer to reflect on all the mundane things that crowd one’s life.

“Take a closer look,” Rødland seems to say.

And we know from the title of “Torbjørn Rødland: Bible Eye” that spiritual tension reigns over this show. The solemn music and religious voiceover in the video, shown in a dark room that opens to rest of the galleries, constantly remind us that otherworldliness hangs in the air.

Born in 1970 in Stavanger, Norway, Rødland recently spent some time photographing artists of various types in Austin. Their stylized portraits are scattered among other samples from the past decade of Rødland’s work.

Among the most startling portraits are two images of a bearded man posed in contorted positions alongside a vertical brass pole ordinarily used for dancing. He is identified as Matt, a dancer and instructor at Brass Ovaries, an aerial arts studio in North Austin. Matt wears high-heeled boots, lightweight chains, light fabric and lace, mostly black or white. He stares into the distance.

We get to know that look well. Other young people with long stares, often of androgynous presentation, appear posed in unusual positions. Some relate to nearby figures; others do not.

Among the humans, we see a boy praying, two men and one woman prone in separate scenes. Two romantic scenes were inspired, according to a wall text, by a Japanese literary and film genre that deals in “homoerotic relationships between male characters created for straight young women.”

Among the nonhumans, we look at stacks of pastel, sugar-coated gum candies pierced by nails, three burning candles upright inside three recently broken eggshells, sketches of space aliens, ultramodern water faucets and more candles arranged next to a prone man, almost as if to sanctify a death.

Pale light bathes these sensual images, especially a singular shot of an elaborate white church.

Rødland’s symbolism saturates the video, which shows shifting images of sometimes disturbing, sometimes peaceful subjects. Piano music burbles, and an old man speaks in coded language.

“When you look at things for extended periods of time, you see things that others wouldn’t see,” says Matt Weed, a museum employee who manned the upper galleries on the day I visited. “So many intimate details that you don’t see right away, and they change the meaning.”

Weed and other staff members often spend 6-hour shifts guarding the art and answering visitors’ questions.

“Between the show downstairs and this one,” he says, referring to the breakthrough "Deborah Roberts: I'm," “you could spend an eternity looking at them.”

“Torbjørn Rødland: Bible Eye” runs through Aug. 15 at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave., thecontemporaryaustin.org.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

About This Story

You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.