Essay by Barbara Pollock
Morten Andenaes was a student of mine almost a decade ago and so it came as a surprise to me when he got in touch and asked me to write about his work for a monograph of a major exhibition of his work. I was fascinated by the photographs he showed me, muted and neutral on first glance, becoming more ominous and disturbing the longer I stared at them. With pictures of empty courtrooms, an axe handle, a skeleton, a father—I thought of them as evidence, proof of a violence that hasn’t yet occurred.
Andenaes has titled this survey “Skyldfolk,” a term referring to the middle class in Norway. Born in Oslo in 1979, Andenaes has only experienced Norway as a place where almost everyone is middle class or is considered middle class, even those of great wealth. His mother is a painter. His father is a business executive, whose career has been spent in various Norwegian corporations. His upbringing is marked by an ethos that places the responsibility of the common good above all else, where the value of one’s work is mainly its value as part of the greater project of the social democracy.
All this propriety came crashing down with the massacres of 2011, the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II. On July 22, 2011, a lone assassin, Anders Behring Breivik, set off a car bomb explosion in Oslo’s government quarter, killing eight and injuring 209 more, then two hours later, invaded the island of Utoya and shot down 69 people at the summer camp of the AUF, the youth division of the ruling Labour Party. The aftermath of these events took place in the District Court in Oslo, where lawyers went back and forth on the mental state of the aggressor. Was he or was he not responsible for these crimes?
Though Andenaes made most of these pictures before this series of events, it is impossible not to read these images as in anticipation of the newspaper headlines. In Shaft, we see a bladeless axe handle, neutral in its state of rest, but brimming with the potential for violence. In To Wit; Kleenex, toilet paper and trash bag, Oslo District Court, Andenaes photographs the very courtroom where the trial was to take place. The scene seems totally serene, but the photographer instigates a mute drama. He places a box of tissues on the witness stand to indicate that this is a site of high emotional states—an outburst of the defendant, the quiet sobbing of the victim’s mother—that regularly take place in this wood-paneled room.
Often the images reverberate with each other, creating an ominous overtone that is not sensed when viewed individually. In Panel, we look straight at a dais, awaiting panelists for an annual party meeting at Folkets Hus, literally translated as “the people’s house,” a convention center with offices for many of the biggest unions in Norway. Replica is a straightforward image of a skeleton laid out on a table. Taken together, the former becomes a site of investigation, that latter as evidence potentially presented at the hearing.
Just as with this view of Oslo District Court, Andenaes has tampered with the evidence in all of these pictures. They look “objective” but in fact every single one is staged, Andenaes takes weeks to plan an image and takes hours to get the picture he wants. Asked how he got such access to the courtroom or the meeting room at Folkets Hus and he informs me that it was easy. In Norway, all public places are available for photographs.
A trial is a form of abstracted violence, several steps away from the initial occurrence, introducing artifacts from the scene under the strictly controlled rules of evidence.
Vitally fascinated by this process of sociological abstraction, Andenaes purposefully makes his photographs muted and minimal. He has told me that he wanted to see how little can be left in the frame—both in terms of formalism and in terms of narrative—to still effect a reaction by both the right and left side of the brain. The reaction he is after is not as outsized as horror or repulsion. Each image is carefully premeditated to enact a state of ambivalence where shock meets shame and where beauty meets banality, inducing such a heightened sense of confusion that it risks numbing the viewer. But there is just enough left in the pictures to instill an aura of fear.
Take for example one of the most personal photographs in this collection, Father in Front of the Stadium. We see Andenaes’s father in a khaki raincoat standing against the white exterior wall of a sports stadium, where father and son attended many games together. But according to Andenaes, this is not a photograph of familial bonding, but an investigation of his own feelings towards his father. He wants to do the man justice, by treating him with respect, yet he also portrays his dad’s aloneness, his alienation from others, complicating what otherwise would be a portrait as straightforward as a mug shot. Another white wall in the series displays a surveillance camera, an indication of a new Norway, one where protection is necessary. Andenaes informs me that it is sited outside one of the few mosques in Oslo, another factor complicating the world that his father grew up in.
Other pictures seem to tell a different story but are actually central to Andenaes’s inquiry. Most notably, the moving image of The Polite Elephant depicts an elephant from a local circus in its cage, turned towards the light, face away from the camera. It is a very sad picture, one that makes the viewer think that the elephant himself is sad, depressed by his bleak environment. Andenaes has explained that he doesn’t believe an elephant is capable of sadness. To him, animals do not have souls and do not mimic human emotions. “He may not have the best environment, but I don’t think he is sad about it,” he says to me. Yet, it is impossible to look at this photograph and not be convinced that this creature could be happier Can we look at the picture of a tiger’s skin in Tiger, hollow and crumpled on the ground, without feeling a mixture of empathy and repulsion? Andenaes seems to be posing these questions and moreover asking if a photograph of an animal can ever be something other than anthropomorphic. Can we ever just look without reading into them a series of emotions?
These photographs are key to Andenaes’ approach, because he is asking whether we can ever see what is in the frame without bringing our emotions to bear on the image. Our distortion of the photographs we see is endemic to reading an image and may be inescapable. Andenaes sets up pictures to challenge this reading, asking us to keep an open mind and stay neutral about their meaning and intent. He calls this approach “photographic ambivalence,” meaning that his use of minimalism is not merely an aesthetic device, echoing the works of minimalist artists. It is instead intent on achieving multiple interpretations, often at odds with each other, so much so that they cancel each other out, leading to a state of apathy. This ambivalence about meaning is in many ways the true subject of these photographs—whether the focus of the photograph is human or not, easily discernable or barely decipherable.
What is true about these pictures is that these are not metaphors. They do not contain a poetic intent nor do they stand for anything other than what is in view. An axe handle is just an axe handle, a mysterious stack of twigs in the woods is just a stack of twigs in the woods. Yet, they cannot be understood from their content alone. Too little is left in the picture to make sense of it all. Too much can be read into these images that it is best to resist the temptation to do so. Just as detectives are warned not to draw conclusions until every bit of evidence is collected and analyzed, viewers of Andenaes’ photographs are warned not to leap to generalities about Norway, the Norwegian middle class or the photographer himself from the visual clues he reveals in this series.
Yet, these works do grants us an insider’s view of Norwegian society, a very personal view, without divulging much information about the photographer. Andenaes picks subjects that have often been photographed, to the point that they may border on cliché. But he carefully eschews repetition by bringing his own unique vision to each image. The trick, and there are many, is that he does this in such a subtle way that you might, on first glance, think that he has done nothing at all. You might miss the secrets he is revealing, unless you look at any one of these images for a very long time. On the other hand, by gathering all these photographs together, he is letting you in on the smallest details of his life. If you try for a minute to shrug off the sentimentality you normally bring to photographs and examine these pictures like a trained pathologist, you may even be able to find his fingerprints and DNA samples in these works. And in the end you might find that you know more about Morten Andenaes than you first thought was possible from his subtle and disturbing photographs.