By Rune Gade, MA, PhD
(originally published in the catalog “mellem-billeder”, Skive Kunstmuseum, 2006.)
There are myriad ways of getting lost. If you lose your bearings, you have no sense of exactly where you are. New localities that you’ve barely set foot in, and which are still unknown territory, provoke bemusement and aimless strolling. In the absence of clear reference points or familiar coordinates, these new locations threaten to absorb you into the kaleidoscopic maze on which, initially, they appear to be founded. Only when recognition sets in, and you begin to systematize your impressions against the backdrop of particular recurring features, does a sense of legibility and familiarity take hold and, pari passu, the propensity to get lost disappears. A structure asserts itself, ‘landmarks’ become salient, and finding your way about becomes a feasible proposition. Conversely, it is also possible to go astray amid the familiar, the intimately known. Confronted with a picture of yourself, an old snapshot long since forgotten, you find that its testimony to the effect that you were once, at some time
or other, at the place where the picture was taken, can scarcely be denied.
The picture mediates a kind of remembrance that corrects your non-recollection, and by so doing demonstrates, perhaps, that that it is not really remembrance that the photo provides but evidential proof.1 It plausibly confronts you with something that you may have long since forgotten but on whose reality it irrefragably insists. And what this mediates, as the French semiologist Barthes puts it, is a vertiginous “distorsion entre la certitude et l’oubli”.2 It turns out that the person whom you believe yourself to be best acquainted with – yourself – is someone you may know less about than you might wish. What you have no recollection of may unquestionably have happened, the photo reminds us. And so you lose your way in time, losing your bearings in relation to the life trajectory, life course, in which your existence consists, overtaken by a remnant that you had mislaid, repressed, forgotten, but which the picture compels you to remember, identify with. Who am I? you ask yourself, in the manner of André Breton, before descending sleuth-like, revenant-like, upon your past to ‘discover’ it – becoming a tourist in your own life, giving yourself up to contingency, losing yourself in the unknown, merging the present with the past.3
Temporal disorientation is generically different from its spatial counterpart since it allows
overlappings and displacements and lets two distinct temporal phases coexist, simultaneously, in parallel. The photograph is a pictorial form that invites temporal oblivion, the individual’s losing himself in time, since, through its hallucinatory power and precision, it reminds him of a past that in his own mind has been eroded beyond recognition or has faded completely, but which, via the picture, is recreated in the present.
“The dream is based only upon itself, whereas our recollections depend on those of all our fellows" the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observes.4 He was one of the first to give a systematic account of memory not as an individual, autobiographical phenomenon but as a collective social process, an interaction whose preservation requires the existence of a common intentionality, a community.
Memories exist only as repetitions, with every evocation of the past displaced, modified, because the situation in which they are remembered and evoked – the present – is forever changing, forever new. Admittedly, memories are lodged in the individual, but their activation requires a framework that extends beyond the individual since it is only through adopting an alternative perspective, another’s vantage point, that we can access our own past, claims Halbwachs. In contrast to dreams, whose psychic reality is unique to the individual alone, and which are not amenable to sharing with others, memories become meaningful only when collectively endorsed by a community. When memory systems are socially instituted, they take the form of traditions and rituals that are patently supra-individual, palpably referring to the collective dimensions of memory and preserved through repetition.
Søren Lose creates dream-like images of our memories, photographs that incorporate the material of which both our dreams and our memories are made, a phantasmagoric weave of remembrance. By so doing he creates ‘impossible’ pictures, which are at once both self-sufficiently in-turned and indissolubly bound into the community and its groups and members – unique and quotidian, rare and ubiquitous.
The pictures are ‘impossible’ inasmuch as they show us something that in the normal run of things we don’t get to see, namely, the way in which memory works. Substantially more than the mere stuff of remembrance, materialized and extroverted pictures of memory, they provide us with keys to the understanding of the social and collective dimensions involved in processes of remembering, albeit that by so doing they undermine and disavow the pictures’ social dimensions, insisting on the self-referential segregation of the dream.
Søren Lose’s photographs are garnered from the collective image bank that affords us access to historically specific viewing communities, particular ways of seeing that are characteristic of particular periods, while at the same time adopting an interpretative role – via a swathe of manipulations – vis-à-vis those very viewing communities.
The banal and slightly dated holiday snap of a landmark at a popular tourist destination provides the immediate starting point for many of Søren Lose’s works, most obviously perhaps in the series Panorama and The Rhodes Lead of 2001. We know the subjects without having to ‘recognize’ them inasmuch as, while enmeshed into a particular life, they seem – in virtue of embodying a collective trait, something ‘typical of the period’ as we might vaguely call it – to be public property. It is precisely the type of photograph that sociologists describe as pictures “taken just as much if not more in order to be shown as in order to be looked at”.5 In other words, they are pictures that fulfill a ritual, social function rather than an aesthetic one. Pictures produced to be shown to friends and acquaintances, trophies testifying to the fact that their originator has conquered a new country, traversed new distances, and hence they function as social and territorial souvenirs. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed”, as the American cultural critic Susan Sontag observes.6 As early as at the moment of exposure, the latent photograph performs a ritual act, the camera being a controlling mnemotechnical device that is virtually a prerequisite for observing the new and recording the fact that one has.
These functions are disabled, however, when Søren Lose appropriates the pictures, annexes them, rescales them and uses them in fresh contexts. Then they become functionally bereft, ‘homeless’ pictures no longer to be shown or looked at, but which, hidden away, exist as isolated fragments, free-floating images with no immediate, affective connection to an individual. Søren Lose endows these vagrant, functionally vacuous pictures with a new habitat and a new life in that he appropriates, modifies them, inscribing them into new contexts, aesthetic and reflexive contexts.
And yet there is a sense in which they continue to be the bearers of lost functions, negatively incorporating within themselves the social dimension that they have had to relinquish. They refer almost poignantly to the absence of an owner, the absence of an affective link to an individual, a biography, and so continue to exercise a species of emotive appeal – now merely of a more anonymous and generalized kind than that of the personal and historically specific ties that previously linked the images to particular individuals. The matrices in Søren Lose’s works are these melancholically toned images, bereft of an owner, and whose ownerlessness is precisely the factor that allows their affective ties – superseded, unravelled and languishing – to manifest themselves and become visible.
The pictures’ absent functions register as mental ruins, the rubble of bygone glories characterized not least by a species of use, an affective commitment, careful handling now reduced to an abstract reflection, an idea. These are the affective ruins that Søren Lose elects to rebuild as crisp new homes that make no attempt to disguise their origins in a past era, an absent life, and in so doing he confers upon them something other than a reminder of that loss, the demonstration of erosion and disintegration. Overlaying the patina and disintegration is a meditation on time, which, for all that it may be latently present in the images, is a dimension which only really resonates through as a result of Lose’s recontextualizing and rescaling interventions.
In Rhodes -reversal (Tourist) of 2003, we descry behind the shimmering horizontal coloured bands the presence of a figure, a person, shot frontally, gazing directly into the camera, arms akimbo. Centrally placed in the picture, the person is surrounded by large planes of washed-out ‘voids’, difficult to identify with any accuracy. It looks as though the person is standing at a stone circle, perhaps a waterfront, abutting a sea-blue plane surface that merges with his short-sleeved shirt, and which fades imperceptibly, melting into the pale blue sky. The rough-hewn, cubic stones behind the subject find a curious analogue in the chain of orange serrations that intrude themselves into the bottom of the picture, looking like the displaced and distorted impression of the perforations along a filmstrip. The picture’s subject matter and its materiality meld here in a manner that transposes the latter into the domain of the former. Instead of being transparent and a mere vehicle, the material becomes the subject matter. This transmutation of the material from transparent ground to visible subject is characteristic of the entire series Rhodes -reversal, which is exposed on old film material, an old-fashioned Kodak film that Søren Lose picked up at a flea market.
In these photographs an element of contingency is a signally active co-player, determining, almost to a greater extent than the artist, the pictures’ final form and appearance. The historical distance shows through in the material itself, whereas in the series The Rhodes Lead of 2001, which consisted of enlargements of found negatives it was, conversely, the subject matter, the depicted content, that caused the pictures to appear as remnants from a distant past. The eponymous ‘reversal’ may be construed both as a statement about the physical film material, the photographic negatives having to be converted into positive images for us to see the pictures properly, and as a statement about time, the picture’s relationship to time.
While in The Rhodes Lead, Lose uses old subject matter transposed onto new material, in Rhodes -reversal he uses old material to carry new images. This simple but not insignificant switcharound results in two disparate but simultaneously related series. Where The Rhodes Lead is made up of a species of ‘found memories’ with a potential status as archetypical tourist photos, Rhodes -reversal is a species of ‘reconstructed memories’, transposing the visual clichés of the past into the present, and by so doing preserving the stereotypes which the original, The Rhodes Lead, presented in the form of archetypical tourist photos. Moreover, these photos are invested with an oneiric haze in the form of the cracked masks of ageing, chemical ‘wrinkles’ in the emulsion, which inscribes elapsed time, age, into the material.
Søren Lose’s collected oeuvre displays lines of connection between individual series of works, elaborated in various directions, that all exploratively repeat and displace the keynote of photography as a medium and its connections to (bygone) time, to memory and to the community, a collectivity. Distances are in sundry ways measured and registered: the distance between our gazes and the gaze that was once the starting point for the picture; distances between the original transparency and pellucidity of the material and its now timeworn, abraded state; the distance between an original event, an original situation and its regeneration and reconstruction in a species of copying, replication, sampling or digital manipulation.
All of these forms of distance – relating to historical viewing communities, the material and the temporal – are investigated by Søren Lose in his work, which often, and not incidentally, addresses a particular historical era, namely the mid-1960s when the West, Denmark included, enjoyed an economic upswing which laid the ground for, among other things, the mass tourism that directly or indirectly is the subject of many of the works. Mass tourism is indissolubly linked to a camera-and-viewing culture that institutes the dominance of particular visual templates in the form of ‘sights’ or ‘photo points’ from which they are best photographed, thereby creating homogeneities in the resulting pictures which render them strangely familiar even to those who have never visited the relevant sites. Recognizable images, in other words, rather than recognizable places.
Rhodes -reversal (Tourist) makes this theme explicit in the title, which identifies the individual as a tourist, a type rather than an individual. Here the generality, as it were, has absorbed the individual, collectivized the person, reducing him or her to a specific property separate from the myriad disparate qualities any individual normally evinces. The tourist is a person who blithely and insouciantly loses his way in foreign places, secure in the knowledge that he will return home and rediscover his starting point. His forays into the unknown are of limited duration and without genuine risk because distance is always imposed by, for instance, the camera, which turns the tourist into a detached voyeur who, in Susan Sontag’s words, constructs his own ‘substitute world’ through his images.7
The tourist’s trip, and not least the package tours of mass tourism, is a contemporary counterpart to the aristocrat’s Grand Tour. With the advent of charter flights in the 1960s, this phenomenon achieved an apotheosis of democratization and popularization. The absorption of the ideals of the ancient world, which hallmarked the journey of the aristocrat, is arguably replaced today by the tourist’s more hedonistic aims. But that notwithstanding, sunbathing sessions on Greek beaches are ungrudgingly interrupted for the mandatory bus trip to an antique ruin which is dutifully captured on camera. It may indeed be in the vicinity of an antique ruin that the person in Rhodes -reversal (Tourist), who is caught at some point in 2003 on film produced in the 1960s and thereby physically embedded – like an insect in a lump of amber – ‘representing’ a piece of history whose subject matter is re-enacted in the contrived image. An image, which, with the artist himself as the main subject, paraphrases the aesthetics and the keynote of the original 1960 photographs in the series The Rhodes Lead.
That it is Søren Lose himself who poses as the anonymous and almost unrecognizably depersonalized tourist inscribes yet a further displacement into the picture, an ironic gesturing towards the transformation of the artist’s role from marginalized bohemian to ‘embedded’ tourist – a kind of visual anthropologist – enrolled into a middle-class lifestyle outside of which he had previously so emphatically located himself. Also subtly interwoven here is the perennial question of the work’s originator: who created this picture? Søren Lose? Or the casual passer-by who obligingly agreed to take the picture for him? Bearing in mind Søren Lose’s generic practice of appropriation and citation, his use of ‘found memories’, one realizes that it is not only a question that may be raised vis-à-vis this specific work but that it is fundamentally and intentionally pertinent to all of Lose’s works.
The temporal compression of discrete historical moments, a then and a now which
Søren Lose depicts so distinctly in a work such as Rhodes -reversal (Tourist), comes to expression in multiple ways in other series. From the beginning, Søren Lose has been grabbed by spatial and temporal confluences, as evidenced by the discreet digital manipulations in the series Der Fall Horst of 2000, where found German photographs from the 1960s are reworked, reconstructed and placed in contexts informed by narrative hints. Almost imperceptibly, Søren Lose contrives here, and in a number of panoramic pictures, to duplicate elements and figures so that they look like their own doppelgängers.
Imperceptible spatial and temporal compressions are also in play in the series Panorama of 2001, where found tourist photographs from Greece are, with minimal interventions, seamlessly conflated, with only the repetition of significant figures at several points in the same pictorial space prompting the recognition that a sampling of several images, apparently been taken at ultra short time intervals, is involved. In these series, Søren Lose discovers, as it were, the 1960s through digital manipulations that make visually explicit the principle of construction – the very fact that memory always involves a relativization to the present, that the past is seen ‘from here’ and that this ‘from here’ is always our only means of access to the past.
Instead of emphasizing the truth-bearing capacity of photographic material, Søren Lose thus indicates that an interpretative endeavour is required to translate the photograph’s certainty into knowledge, and that interpretation never leaves certainty unmodified and intact. Moreover Søren Lose’s spatial and temporal compressions reveal that such interpretations necessarily presuppose a community, an interpretative community as their supportive setting, their extensional logic. The pictures play against our expectations which they meet, not frictionlessly, but challengingly, rather. And, in consequence, the collective archetypes that Søren Lose uses are denatured. They are more like the enigmatic doublings and displacements of dreams than elements of prosaic realism, but above all they remind us of how memory works.
In a more recent series such as Hotel of 2004, Søren Lose continues to work with spatial and temporal fusions, but here in a much more exposed and explicit working process that consists in a digital multi-exposure in which several negatives showing the same data are superimposed upon one another. Slight temporal and spatial displacements are plainly evident in these works whereas the earlier series, by contrast, was at pains to conceal the visual fusions. The subject matter here too comes from found film dating from the 1960s, and all show what at that time were the comparatively pristine hotel developments to which the title refers. As slightly out of kilter serigraphs, these works too feature displacements of elements and phantom figures that semi-transparently traverse the image. The fused images have been taken at brief intervals and are thus already contiguous on the filmstrips which Søren Lose takes as his starting point. In his recycling of subjects, Lose nudges the individual pictures beyond neighbourliness into a cohousing project where they – not without tensions – must occupy one and the same pictorial space, irrespective of age differences. As in the early image samplings, there is temporal compression here in which individual moments are fused. Closely related moments, admittedly, but all the same, the fusions mediate a break with the logic of temporal autonomy, the conception of a self-contained here-and-now, inasmuch as disparate temporal moments have visual coexistence imposed upon them. In other words, a meditation on time not unlike that encountered in the series Rhodes -reversal.
Patently, with his insistence on complex pictorial spaces that undercut the evidential authority of the photograph, Søren Lose brings out another quality of the photographic image, namely its ability to produce remembrance, to create history instead of simply testifying to it. By so doing he produces realities that hold possibilities for us: they allow us to dream in a waking state, to be ‘haunted’ by the images, and with poetic potency they invite us to surrender to the images’ hallucinatory effects. In his photographs, Søren Lose articulates our collective memories, a particular inherited viewing culture, but he reworks them to the point at which lose ourselves in them, in each our own way.