Clinging on to things, not letting go of someone or something seems to be deeply rooted in human nature. On so many occasions we wish that a special moment would last, longing to take it with us and forever keep it the way it is, unique, fragile and irretrievable in the end.
The two Danish artists Mette Juul and Rasmus Søndergaard Johannsen examine the transience of time with two very different artistic approaches, while there still is a lot they have in common: both make the attempt – using diverse materials like photo paper or liquid metal spilled over a nylon net or a woven tapestry of nettle fibers – to capture that very special impression, to fixate it and to preserve its essential nature beyond the actual moment.
For her photographic creations Mette Juul (*1977 Randers) uses pictures from her own archive, which she maintains and extends with great care. This archive also comprises several negatives from her grandma, an enthusiastic photographer herself. Juul is fascinated by the old black-and-white photographs that don‘t show staged scenes from weddings, baptisms or birthday parties, instead they are snapshots of very intimate moments of family life.
One photo, for instance, shows Juul‘s grandma on a field in summer, caringly wiping her son‘s (Juul‘s uncle) face with a cloth. Their car parked right behind them, someone put a jacket on a hanger – matching the protagonist‘s elegant clothes – on one of its windows. Another picture shows a young woman, a man and a boy in a garden engaged in the arduous task of sawing up a big tree root. While the lady, wearing a nice dress and light color shoes, looks a bit misplaced next to the man in work-wear with rolled-up sleeves and only seems to pretend to be helping for the sake of the snapshot, the young boy gazes right at the camera with a critical look in his eyes as if he was talking to the photographer. Both photos tell a story that captivate the observer on the spot: the heartfelt gesture between mother and son in an almost unreal location; the three self-absorbed protagonists and the sort of metaphorical act of sawing up a trunk.
Even though Juul herself has never been part of these family events and experiences she is their product. Her retrospect shapes her own identity. The artistic treatment of her grandma‘s negatives helps her to continue their stories, to embed the past moment into new context and to bring it back to life. For this purpose the artist initially magnifies the negatives with a photographic enlarger she points at single photo papers mounted on a wall. The following exposure time takes up to an hour, eventually she develops photo by photo. During this lengthy process and the final fixation minor anomalies appear on the detail shots which add a very unique character to every picture, or as Juul puts it: “This is a very long exposure …, this also means that it is very hard to get the ‘perfect’ exposure and all kinds of happy accidents happen while you expose … At the end of the developing some of the chemicals get tired and the prints get a different look. These mishaps – happy accidents you cannot make in a digital process. It makes the process and the prints more alive.”
In a final step Juul joins the detail shots and puts them together like a mosaic. It’s like she dissects the original picture in order to get to the bottom of it and to get as close to the past moment as possible. However, her works are far more than some kind of nostalgic examination of her own family history, instead they bear a self-referred concept of the medium photography in them, which the rationalized work steps the artist applies, from enlargement and exposure to framing, deliver proof of. On top of that Juul chooses details that show a particularly interesting, almost abstract alteration of the surface structure and puts them in context with other ‘objets trouvés’, such as a red Agfa photo packaging and a black envelope for light-sensitive photo paper from the 50s/ 60s. In this triptych the artist addresses the theme of a cross-generational passion for photography, but also the process of making photos as such, which in itself bears creative potential.
Initially Rasmus Søndergaard Johannsen (*1982 Brovst) had also completed training in photography. Even though he is no longer active in the medium today, the lengthy, precise and often sequential processes seem to have coined him.
Accordingly, in his series Lineated Luminary Johannsen brings back an old photographic technique called cyanotype: Johannsen sprays a light-sensitive mixture of iron-salts on a rough fabric woven with ropes made from stinging nettle fibres. He then exposes the surface to moonlight in the Berlin park Humboldthain, right where he had picked the nettles at an earlier point. Everything that falls onto the image surface during the night (leaves, branches, shade…), leaves an impression behind. Similar to Juul, Johannsen also applies a kind of experimental arrangement for which he exactly specifies material as well as place and time of exposure, whereas he leaves the final exposure step to coincidence. The result is a dark blue interplay of light and shade that reflects the very location in a certain moonlit night, the artist documents the dates as a numerical code he uses for the titles of his works.
In contrast to Juul, who focuses on cultural and social aspects, Johannsen finds inspiration in nature: “I grew up in the countryside with the closest neighbor living a kilometer away. I spent my childhood outdoors; building, burning and destroying things, altering them in order to create something new. My method is almost the same as it was when I was a child, more refined and with more patience and skills. With a firm hand I work with and in nature and it is more of a struggle than an act of love. Nature is my toolbox and my material.”
In line with this philosophy, the metal net series Close Horizon was also made outdoors. On the western slope of the hill ‘Altkönig‘ near Frankfurt (Main) Johannsen put self-knot nylon nets on a rack. He mounted a bar of Rose’s metal, a bismuth alloy of zinc and lead with a melting point of 94° Celsius, above the mesh structure. He waits until sunset and captures the rays of the setting sun with a Fresnel lens1 and guides the clustered rays onto the metal so that it melts in the heat and flows over the net where it congeals again. In this process the final shape of the sculpture also largely depends on uncontrollable factors: the intensity of the sunrays, wind speed and blowing leaves. At times very regular works come into existence with the metal just slightly bulged by the wind, at times the sun burns big holes into the fabric. Each sculpture has its individual form, as unique as the moment it was created.
What Juul and Johannsen have in common is a passion and fascination for the material and the techniques they work with and in. Additionally, their works, owing to their immanent temporality, reference a narrative structure: What‘s the story behind every work? How was it made? And even though they have the same starting points, why does the story always have a different ending? – Well, because it is no story in which a narrator holds the strings from beginning to end.
Despite Johannsen‘s almost manic act of knotting and tying, the laborious process of making the ropes from nettle fibers or Juul‘s diligent and lengthy process of exposure and development – at the end of their artistic creation both artists let go and leave the work to the chemicals’ reactions, let the wind blow and let the clouds pass by the moon. “And that‘s when coincidence takes over – and that is something which is important for the both of us,” says Johannsen about himself and about Juul, too.
1 Fresnel lenses were originally used for beacons. Today they can be found in, for example, tail lights.
(Text: C. Heidebluth, Translation: A. Liebhold, Exhibition photos: A. Bondar)
Interviews with Mette Juul & Rasmus Søndergaard Johannsen
Videos: Diana Vishnevskaya & Igor Zwetkow