Field Experiments/ Landfall
Frank van der Stok
The exhibition Field Experiments by the artist duo Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen is on show in → Galerie de Expeditie for the rest of this month. As a bonus, their Landfall project may be inspected there in book form – all the more reason to indulge in an unhurried visit to the gallery.
The exhibition invitation tells us that Elodie Hiryczuk and Sjoerd van Oevelen study the complex relationship between man and nature, using photography. The Field Experiments testify to this more explicitly than ever. To me the artists’ photographic images, constructed as they are with meticulous care, shimmer with the tensions between various forces. The uneasy relationship between nature and culture in the widest sense indeed forms a constant point of departure. It is not their intention to illustrate sharp antinomies such as those between the sublime and the cultivated, between the emotional and the rational or between immediate experience and alienation. On the contrary, they introduce a breath of fresh air into the well-tried representation of these themes by their distinctive use of visual resources, combined with a subtle dislocation of the dimensions of scale, depth and space and with optical illusions. The resulting images exert a invigorating effect because they perturb our mental clichés at both the conceptual and formal levels, thereby opening a space for new insights and alternative perceptions.
First, let us consider the four-part work Shadow-Light-Reflection. Four large-format colour photos hang side-by-side almost touching so giving the appearance a single rectangular block. Each image shows the same cedar tree photographed from a practically identical viewpoint but shifting a little closer into the tree each time. As your eyes scan the images, their focus is constantly diverted so that it becomes impossible to achieve a visual synthesis. Not only do the branches and needles offer little in the way of a point of reference, but the narrow depth of field of the photographs adds to the visual confusion. The technical camera which the artists used enabled them to shift the point of maximum sharpness to somewhere above the branches. Your eyes dance over the images; your gaze becomes hazy and cannot come to rest, hopelessly seeking a mode of perception that will let you construct an integral picture.
Hanging opposite Shadow-Light-Reflection is a work which is atypical of Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen’s production. It is a found photograph of an Icelandic scene, in black and white, which they have included in the exhibition under the splendid title Displacements. It is a mystifying image in which an equally mystifying action is taking place, irresistibly recalling the 1970s work of Sigurdur Gudmundsson. Before seeing the image I assumed that the ‘displacement’ must refer to a psychological state like alienation or disorientation, but on seeing the work it is undeniably about a physical displacement such as that of a ship and its cargo. The menacing heaps of volcanic tephra visible through the window, some of which has found its way into the room, are clearly the cause of the displacement referred to in the title. The house appears to have been lifted at an angle and seems on the point of collapse due to the overwhelming pressure of the advancing volcanic ejecta. The way all the walls and floorboards are tilted and the carpet has curiously puckered into an imaginary mountain range, turns this image into an unprecedented visual spectacle whose instability resists any attempt at sensory rationalization. The makers of this work do not deny that they have manipulated the original image, but the extent of their intervention is something I have not been able to elicit from them. That is perhaps what preserves the magic of the image. It is a photo which is pleasing to think of as latently changeable; might something be different the next time you look at it?
Another highlight of the exhibition is the triptych Cloud-Water-Snow, which shows opposite banks at the exit of a fjord in the remote wilderness of eastern Iceland, spread over three photographs. In those icy blue surroundings, a mist bank can develop with alarming speed (so I am told). It rises so quickly that only a brief moment passes when the mist is visible as an imposing, diffuse wall, before it entirely veils the fjord from sight. It is lovely how Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen have deployed the medium of photography so convincingly to record the onrush of something as intangible and gradual as a mist bank. Perhaps it is interesting to compare this phenomenon with its sensory counterpart, the ‘landfall' (the title they gave to their project in the Zuidas): a mass looms unexpectedly from the sea as though about to overwhelm you. The effect is especially intense after a prolonged voyage without sight of land.
– Frank van der Stok, December 2011