Torbjørn Rødland’s Photographs of Touch Are More Uncanny Than Ever

Alessandro Merola
Jul 13, 2020 9:17PM

Torbjørn Rødland, Wordless no. 1, 2010-2017. Courtesy of Nils Stærk.

Touch is the first sense developed in the womb. From the first time we are consoled as newborns to the departing kiss of a loved one, the touch—however fleeting—can leave its mark for a lifetime.

Yet wrapped up within a sweeping contagion, have we become untouchable? Puzzling word pairings such as “self-isolation” and “social distancing” have become ubiquitous, and humanity is confronting a touch taboo of sorts. Hyperaware that the act of touching can be deadly, we have all been called upon to reinvent the ways in which we interact with our surroundings—animate and inanimate alike. Indeed, the crave for—and fright of—human contact has never been so bewildering.

Torbjørn Rødland, Philadelphia, 2008-2014. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber and Air de Paris.

Torbjørn Rødland, Film Face, 2008-2013. Courtesy of Nils Stærk and Galerie Eva Presenhuber.


Not many contemporary photographers get under the skin like Torbjørn Rødland. Bound by a permeating fixation on the charged, tactile points of contact in which body parts, objects, and surfaces rub together, his photographs exhibit his willingness to wrestle with an assortment of visually discordant and ostensibly oxymoronic subject matter. Pandemic or not, Rødland’s images will leave you with a surge of sensations that you can’t quite put a finger on.

Growing up in the Norwegian coastal town of Stavanger in the 1970s, Rødland became accustomed to a kind of isolation during adolescence. “The caring touch is something I didn’t get enough of,” he told me recently via email. Discovering photography at the age of 11, the camera became a means for managing his melancholia and putting his “weaknesses to work,” Rødland said. “Observer types are introverts who need a lot of alone time to not feel overwhelmed and drained. Although, I’m atypical in that I love strangers,” he admitted. “Humans are my favorite animal.”

Torbjørn Rødland, In a Norwegian Landscape 5, 1993. Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO).

Rødland made the move to Los Angeles’s leafy Hollywood Hills a decade ago, though, up until earlier this month, he was locked down in North London with his girlfriend. “I’m getting back into cooking after 20 years in restaurants, and I’ve also revisited my 2013 journal to see if it’s ripe for publishing,” he said. What hasn’t ceased these months, unsurprisingly, is Rødland’s avid image-making. “If you’re secretly relieved to be ordered to stay put in your carpeted cave, you may be a natural born photographer,” he proposed on Instagram back in April, alongside an image of a shredded bouquet of funeral flowers.

Rødland’s breakthrough series, “In a Norwegian Landscape” (1993–95), saw the young artist turn the lens on his lone, long-haired self as he wandered through the wilderness. At first glance, these romantic vistas seem a world away from the highly constructed mise-en-scènes he is known for today—where anyone from a posturing bodybuilder to a primped-in-pink Paris Hilton could show up—but something is still amiss. In several photographs, we see him carrying plastic grocery bags. “Literally, they’re contemporary urban signifiers,” Rødland explained. “Metaphorically, they’re the baggage we bring to the forest—the views or images we might expect to find there.”

Torbjørn Rødland, Frost no. 4, 2001. Courtesy of Nils Stærk.

Rødland stuck with the forested backdrop in the series that followed: “Nudists” (1999), “Priests” (2000), and “Black” (2001). In “Black,” we stumble upon black-metal musicians, caked in corpse paint, as they lurk in the foliage. It may be an absurd sight, but, for Rødland, it made total sense. “These artists had actually brought themselves here,” he said. “The Nordic forest always had a stronger pull than the Nordic cities. Black metal symbolizes a break with death metal in that it’s more organic, nostalgic, and theatrical. It’s not an urban subgenre.” In collaborating with these musicians, Rødland realized their respective, paralleled spiritual yearnings to “make life more real,” as he put it.

These early works represent the photographer’s lash against the postmodernist backlash of the 1970s, spearheaded by figures such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince—the so-called “Pictures Generation.” While their appropriation of popular imagery and critique of the notion of authorial authenticity made a sharp impression on Rødland as an art student in the early 1990s, he felt a certain interiority was missing to what seemed an overly outward-oriented sensibility. His solution? To “risk losing that critical distance” and “move photography in a more sentimental, psychological, or bodily direction,” he said. To, in short, “get dirty.”

Torbjørn Rødland, Apple, 2006. Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO) and Nils Stærk.

“[A subject’s] pull is in entering through the imagination; to envisage what the inside of its surface might feel like,” he said. “As a student, I quickly noticed how in contemporary photography, there was so much love for ‘references’ and not enough focus on how to give life and soul into whatever you’re looking at.”

Rødland approaches the photograph as a transformative site where weird and wonderful reactions can surface. In turn, he defies the popular idea that the medium is in any way a “sterile” one. The new folds in reality that emerge through Rødland’s textural collisions thereby uphold his lifelong loyalty to the analog format, in which light rays and chemicals mingle. This might also be why Rødland often likes his frames hanging low in the gallery space. “I want to confront, or communicate with, paranoid bodies as much as the viewers’ intellects,” he said. “I never want them to feel fully safe.”

Torbjørn Rødland, The Zipper, 2019. Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO).

Torbjørn Rødland, Stockings, Jeans and Carpeted Stairs, 2013-2017. Courtesy of Air de Paris and STANDARD (OSLO).

“What leads me,” he continued, “is my curiosity to take on forms and motifs that I’m drawn to but cannot fully understand.” Although they may hold as twisted metaphors or sardonic allegories, readings can be slippery. In Drunken Man (2014–15), we find a balding, bare-breasted man from the belly up, red wine trickling through his rug of chest hair, as he is flanked by a pair of women who help him find his feet. In Stockings, Jeans and Carpeted Stairs (2013–17), the bulging, vein-popping arm which gently cradles a delicately-poised, young foot inches towards something more sinister. Or does it?

For all their curious perversity, Rødland’s microcosms are not entirely unfamiliar. We have felt them all before; crooked silverware, yanked-out hair tufts, the latex-gloved finger poking into our gums—albeit never quite like this. Through Rødland’s eye for both a matter-of-fact aesthetic and abnormally tight crop, his photographs occupy an eerie world—at once hyperreal and surreal—as if dispatches from an impossibly lucid dream, or nightmare. Referring to the “uncanny,” psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that images which occupy an at once recognizable but off-kilter quality induce emotional estrangement. The hands that so often creep into Rødland’s frames do just this. Where have they come from? What do they want?

Torbjørn Rødland, Midlife Dilemma, 2015. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber.

Torbjørn Rødland, Pink Pipe, 2018. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

“People have vastly different experiences with, and responses to, being touched,” affirmed Rødland. “Repeatedly, I end up in this open and unsettled zone where the touch represents one or several combinations of healing, harmful, or horny.” Indeed, the fetishistic undercurrent throbbing throughout Rødland’s imagery—with its air of Merry Alpern’s illicit intrusions—is hard to ignore. The wet, glistening octopus tentacles that coil gracefully around a woman’s index finger in Arms (2008) recall Hokusai’s famous shunga woodblock Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814), while the teen boy who gets a sneakered foot to the cheek in Summer Scene (2014) hints at a fancy for softcore BDSM.

So queasily direct, Rødland’s uncanny connections appeal for us to come closer, to meet them halfway, and face our own “inner catalogue of photographic memories”—the fantasies, phobias, or anything in between that bubbles within. In a time when we have been largely starved of haptic interactions, they remind us that a remembered or imagined touch—however far gone or in whatever guise—can be just as spine-tingling as the touch itself. “With eyes closed but still mostly awake,” reflected Rødland, “my dreams can start producing images of backlit reeds and sunny meadows if my torso is touched.”

Torbjørn Rødland,The Man in the Moon Is a Miss, 2016-2018. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

Torbjørn Rødland, Yaoi, 2016-2018. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

Never before has our screen-based sociality been so palpable, having witnessed the unprecedented adoption of new virtual rituals—from on-cam “happy hours” to pixelated karaoke sing-alongs. They embody a very modern desire to be both present and absent through technology, but have we lost touch with the bodily thrill of human intimacy? For Rødland, the answer is simple. “There’s no changing human nature…and as we speak, protesters are assembling, filling up our big cities, with all the added pent-up energy from having self-isolated for months. This year seems to be all about remodeling our worlds.”

In the winter, Rødland will exhibit work, old and new, at STANDARD (OSLO), Zürich’s Galerie Eva Presenhuber, and The Contemporary Austin, the last of which will mark the photographer’s first solo show in Texas. Though we might think of a skin-hungry yet touchless future as Rødland’s worst nightmare, he has faith in the reaches of the imagination. “Do jarred heads dream of bodies touching?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course they do. Our evolutionary wiring runs deep.”

Alessandro Merola