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Lars Tunbjork at the Open Eye, Liverpool (9 Feb - 5 April)
by Phil Thornton
Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork�s retrospective exhibition covers three separate projects covering 8 or so years, The Office a series of prints from 94 to 98, Dom Alla (All Those) a DVD slide show from 2002 and finally more prints from the Rivas Vacia estate, Madrid from 2004.
On first viewing the three elements have nothing in common; The Office showing various administrative spaces in mid 90s Tokyo, New York and Stockholm, Rivas Vacia documenting a new estate under construction on the outskirts of Madrid and Dom Alla a seven minute journey into Sweden�s welfare system. Yet it soon becomes apparent that Tunbjork�s recurring theme in all three pieces is alienation, of emotional and environmental dislocation, of human separation and isolation in industrialised habitats.
The Office features bland office furniture framed to show how filing cabinets and partitions, bins and doors take on abstract forms and, when devoid of human interaction assume a claustrophobic, even intimidating presence. When we do see humans they are busy, frantically fighting for space under or on top of desks, sleeping next to monitors, print-outs and empty cups or simply staring into empty, dead space. Their workspace has almost consumed them and they have become subservient to their surroundings. These are the offices of stockbrokers, lawyers, accountants, tax authorities and postal services and in these places, legs and heads, faces and bodies, wires and computers, plants and lights become part and parcel of the whole. Boxes lay discarded on carpets, suit jackets cover the back of chairs, office plant creepers colonise furniture. Staff run, staff sleep, staff sort and staple and staff get their shoes shined.
My favourite photograph shows a young big-wig having his expensive brogues polished by an ageing shoeshine. The young suit is lost in some report and oblivious to the look of utter contempt being shot his way by his pugilist faced elder. If looks could kill, Yuppy Boy would be dead within seconds. It looks staged but Lars insists he never deliberately sets up a pose but will move the odd piece of equipment while he�s observing. Another shows three stacked chairs that take on an alien presence, the arms pointing at us like the extended eyes of a crab-like life form.
Rivas Vacia is a series of 10 prints that explores the artificiality of the new suburban estates. It is actually located in Madrid but could be anywhere Ville; America, Britain, Spain, Germany, Sweden. The prints are all texture, the texture of soil and puddles, of gravel and brickwork, of flower beds and rocks. They are all devoid of humanity and they show how habitats become un-natural when touched by �planners� - these are not organic communities but houses made to look the same surrounded by flowers in neat rows that take on a Monet like quality. The harsh light of the Castillian sun and the barren soil of the Spanish interior bring these identikit conurbations into harsh relief. How less Spanish could Rivas Vacia be?
The portraits, interiors and landscapes of Dom Alla is accompanied by a suitably depressing Jim O�Rourke soundtrack. Sweden is always portrayed as a model for modern welfare benevolence yet here in the hostels and the flats of the country�s dispossessed, there is only the same neglect, anger and frustration of the poor the world over. The head shot portraits that form the beginning of the slide show are beautifully precise and, although there are migrants from Africa and Asia featured, it is the penetrating blue eyed Swedes who stare at you menacingly, coldly and dispassionately and make the greater impact. We are used to seeing photos of poor Africans and Asians but here the message is clear, among the scrubland patches, hideously wallpapered offices, cramped campbed hovels with shit-stained mattresses and terrifying dogs, are people marginalised and forgotten by the rich �west.�
Some of Tunbjork�s themes, those of global capitalism and its dehumanising effects have become almost cliched yet this retrospective provides an unsettling and disturbing document of a world that is becoming materially wealthier but spiritually poorer. It aint a barrel of laughs but hey, this is Sweden.
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