Photographer Erwin Olaf, fury and solitude, at the Rabouan Moussion Gallery
From his furious self-portraits done after the attacks of January 7th to his clichés of solitary women caught in the act of interminable waiting, the Dutch photographer stages the vulnerability of humanity at the Rabouan Moussion Gallery.
Exhibited since October in the new and very beautiful space at the Rabouan Moussion Gallery, the two self-portraits of the artist with spittle on his lips and bulging eyes, raging at the 7th January attacks resonate with an even more unsettling acuity today. Faced with the eternal question of what an artist can do after the shock of such events, Erwin Olaf responds with art, i.e. the sensitive embodiment of his contradictory feelings. His tense body seems hampered, his deformed face gagged. Hatred, pain, fear, violence and powerlessness… “I was devastated, and at the same time incapable of crying,” confided the artist in September. “It was the first time I did self-portraits that talk, not just about me, but about the global situation. I didn’t know how to react. But I was too angry to just do nothing. These two photos are exactly what they are: an almost instinctive reaction, primal emotions in the face of horror. But it won’t stop me from continuing to celebrate freedom and to continue working.”.
His exhibition “Waiting”, on until November 28th, is visual proof. It includes – as well as these two self-portraits – two sides to the artist’s work, one is autobiographical and the other dedicated to sophisticated mises en scène. Both are interested in the human condition, from the vulnerability of simply being to the relationship between power and submission. In the first room are self-portraits. Erwin Olaf has confronted himself with this method for many years, recording the changes in his body brought about by time and illness [the artist suffers from a respiratory disease]. We see the very advertising-esque aesthetic of his photographs, the glossy colours and perfect light. The Dutchman earnt his stripes in that domain and continues – although more rarely – to contribute to campaigns orchestrated by major brands. Above all we recognise, since his series of the 90s to the 2000s, his ability to stylise, often to the max. His portraits rival the great Flemish masters from Vermeer to Rembrandt, to whom he is compared with a reflex that’s almost too Pavlovian.
The ambiguity of such an aesthetic is revealed to its full extent in the second and much bigger room of the Rabouan Moussion Gallery. Large scale photographs, as he likes them to be, along with two videos projected onto screens facing each other, give the exhibition its title: “Waiting”. Erwin Olaf captures women, of all origins, in profile in wide shots or in close-ups, but always they are waiting. In what we imagine to be a hotel lobby, or a restaurant, these women wait patiently, unperturbed… well almost. The whole force of this installation comes from this sense of ‘almost’. Is it deception in their eyes? Impatience in that rictus? Hope in that gaze? As the visit continues the questions multiply because we’ve all experienced these types of situations.
But the skill of the photographer lies with his ability to never give an answer, to retain that ambiguity. These women, whose vulnerability comes with waiting, thrusting them into a position of submission, remain forever elusive. They escape us because of the monochromatic styling and this “advertising aesthetic” that doesn’t allow us to “see” their feelings. They hide them, smooth them over and become ever more mysterious. Erwin Olaf has long excelled in this game of reversal. The stylisation that normally renders photographs so flat and so literal, transforms them into enigmatic clichés. The smooth surface covers a depth that comes out in the details with such delicacy. You have to dig, that is to say confront the videos and the photos as well as your own experience, to reveal what’s beneath. “Everyone can think what they like when looking at a photograph, take the time they need to understand, like or hate it. But I’ve noticed that certain people stay in front of my 45-minute double video, trying to get into the soul of the woman who’s waiting. They’re seeking her emotions, these same emotions I try to express through the camera in all their nuances and complexity,” the artist concludes.
“Waiting” exhibition by Erwin Olaf, until the 28th of November at Rabouan Moussion Gallery, 11, rue Pastourelle, Paris IIIe. www.rabouanmoussion.com
By Thibaut Wychowanok