National Museum in Gdańsk
Green Gate Department and the Photography Department
Długi Targ 24, Gdańsk 80-288, Poland
Tel.48 58 3075912 www.mng.gda.pl
Wojciech Bonislawski, Director of the National Museum in Gdansk
is pleased to invite you to the official opening of the exhibition 24 April, 2014 , at 6pm
Erwin Olaf, Choreography of Emotions
The exhibition of Erwin Olaf, one of the most important Dutch photographers and ‘Artist of the Year 2014’ according to the Dutch foundation Week for Arts, for the first time brings to the Tri-city his interesting and, for some, controversial art. A journalist by profession, an advertising photographer and artist by choice, Olaf masterfully combines the world of mainstream with high art. Boldly and often somewhat perversely, he plays a game with both the viewer of the exhibition and the consumer of the advertised product. In his art projects, he speaks of extreme emotions, sexuality, and artificiality of the world, yet without abandoning humour or the grotesque. His works are characterised by sophisticated elegance and pragmatism; the intricate stage designs which he creates for individual cycles do not leave room for accident. Thus, the models are more like actors in these conceptualised performances, like protagonists of the artist’s stories.
The exhibition features four photographic cycles and video pieces from 1900-2009: Blacks, Grief, and Dusk and Dawn. The oldest cycle Blacks (1990) presents male and female portraits with elements of the nude, resembling the style of a Mannerist allegory. Everyday objects approached with humour to serve as attributes incorporated into the elaborate framings of the photographs transpose nudity and sensuality to a higher rank of feelings. Fancy titles – names of the portrayed figures – refer to propensities of the body or the mind, e.g. Liebswan (Obsessive love) or Desire. The apparently light subject matter is contrasted with dark form; all portraits are in monochromatic black, and the figures’ eyes are not visible to the viewer, which enhances the mood of unease.
The cycles Dusk and Dawn were inspired by the theme of East meeting West. Dusk in particular refers to the works of Frances Benjamin Johnston, one of the first women photographers and photojournalists in the world, who in 1899-1900 worked on portraits of black students of the Hampton Institute in Virginia. At that time, the freedom of Afro-Americans was still met with doubts, and with her representational portraits of full-fledged U.S. citizens the artist in a sense spoke out in support of the establishment of this new situation. With remarkable aesthetic sensitivity, Johnston showed the world that despite their cruel past, her protagonists had a great and bright future ahead. In Erwin Olaf’s Dusk, the story set at the beginning of the 20th century presents a black upper middle class family portrayed in stylised interiors. In the photographs and their accompanying video film, there is the hope for a normal world where skin colour does not matter; also discernible, however, is the fear of loosing this right, newly won despite being naturally human. Dawn shows the same photographic shots, this time set in Russia, also in this historical period. Using white as the dominant colour, the artist produced portraits and still lifes describing the indistinct world of the past. In this way, the two cycles constitute each other’s reflections, referring to the visual form of analogue photography technique: the negative and the positive. Both cycles are introduced by melancholy videos featuring the protagonists of the photos.
Taking us into the 1960s, the cycle Grief, a selection from which is presented at the exhibition thanks to the cooperation of the Netherlands Embassy in Poland, was intended as the conclusion of Olaf’s trilogy of 2005-2007. The preceding cycles Rain (2004) and Hope (2005) captured moments of utmost emotion in relationships between people. Grief registers the despair and sadness of people who have just learnt about the loss of their loved ones. In perfectly arranged, cold, monochromatic brown apartments, we watch perfectly dressed women and men going through tragedies elegantly and alone. This theme was inspired by aristocratic American families of the 1960s, e.g. the Kennedys, and the dramatic events connected with their lives.
Erwin Olaf’s exhibition registers a choreography of emotions. Skilfully, professionally planned gestures and facial expressions relating to intimate moments, to the private world of sensations which is divided into frames. As viewers, we do not feel like voyeurs; the figures in the photographs are alone, though at the same time perfectly aware of our presence. The artist produces an interesting blend of liminal states: pride is combined with humility, despair with pleasure, coldness and sublimation with baroque-like abundance. The tension does not subside, but rather takes on new forms.
Erwin Olaf (born 1959) is one of the most famous contemporary Dutch photographers. He makes photographs, performances and films. Raising controversy and exhibiting immaculate technique, he is among the most eminent contemporary creators in advertising photography worldwide. In his art projects, he draws inspiration from his unlimited imagination, the baroque, and the aesthetics of kitsch. He lives and works in Amsterdam. From 1977 to 1980, he studied journalism at the School of Journalism in Utrecht. Combining press and studio photography, the artist emerged on the world art scene in 1988, when he won the first prize in the Young European Photographer competition for his photo cycle Chessmen. This achievement was preceded by an exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (Germany). Ever since, in his multiple works Erwin Olaf has continually explored the themes of gender, sexuality and humour. He is inspired by old painting, especially 17th-century genre painting. Highly celebrated as a fashion photographer, at the same time he remains an original artist whose projects are born from insightful observation and sensitivity to the outer world. Thanks to his engagement and his sense of freedom, Olaf is very successful in social campaigns.
His works often constitute messages which hit right home, though at times the problems they address are presented quite bluntly. Erwin Olaf is a versatile artist, a life-loving man, and a participant of reality who is ready to criticise it. He can combine his predilection for perfectionism and even excessive aestheticisation in photography with critical views on universal beauty canons. Inviting to his projects elderly or disabled persons, as well as members of cultural and sexual minorities, Erwin Olaf makes real the idea of creative and human freedom. He enjoys great recognition at home and abroad; in 2013 he designed the new obverse of Dutch Euro coins.
Honorary Patrons of the exhibition:
His Excellency Mr Paul Bekkers – Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Poland
Mr Mieczysław Struk – Marshal of the Pomorskie Voivodeship
Exhibition organised with the financial support of the Mondriaan Fund and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Poland
In cooperation with the Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Gdańsk and the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk
National Museum in Gdańsk
Green Gate Deaprtment
Długi Targ 24, Gdańsk 80-828
Exhibition open till 15 June 2014 | Tuesday – Sunday 10 am – 5 pm
Financial supported by:
Mondriaan Fund | Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Warsaw |
Farm Frites Poland
In cooperation with:
Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk www.asp.gda.pl
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