Dawn & Dusk

May 19, 2010

By Bill Clarke

Olaf, who hails from the Netherlands, gained international attention in the early 1990s for his provocative and stylized commercial fashion photography. Since that time, he has become increasingly recognized for his fine art photography, as well. In both, Olaf displays a strong sense of aesthetics and staging. The sets for his photographs are often immaculately designed and his models are styled within an inch of their lives. His entire approach to production is gorgeous and slick, but there’s always an underlying tension to the narratives within his photos that makes them unsettling. What is going on beneath the glossy surface of an Olaf photograph is left for viewers to figure out.

Dawn & Dusk is comprised of a dual-channel colour video and a suite of accompanying photographs. On each screen is a mother, looking forlorn and sitting by a cradle, slowly rocking it and quietly singing a lullaby. Meanwhile, in rooms just outside the nurseries, a boy dressed in a sailor’s suit, who we presume is the woman’s older child, bounces a ball, and a man, who we presume is the other woman’s husband, saws a piece of wood. The elaborate sets are virtually identical, except that all the furnishings in one are black (Dusk), and white in the other (Dawn).

It becomes apparent quickly that both households have experienced death. In Dusk, it seems the father is dead (there is a portrait of the absent father in the suite of photographs) while in the Dawn video, it appears as if the couple have lost an older child. For the first few minutes, nothing particularly riveting happens, but viewers eyes are kept busy drinking in the set details until the video takes a turn into the Twilight Zone. Simultaneously, the father drops a photograph of a blond-haired boy, while the boy in Dusk knocks something over with his ball. The smashing noises startle viewers out of the reverie they’ve been sharing with the mothers. The woman calls to her husband, who enters the nursery and looks down into the crib, while the woman in the other video exits the nursery to investigate the noise in the hall.

The father in Dawn utters the first words of clear dialogue in the piece, telling his wife that everything is okay, and then asks, cryptically, as the camera pans into the cradle, how long one can exist without form. Instead of seeing a fully formed baby’s head, viewers are confronted by only a silvery puddle with a squalling mouth. At the same time, the young boy turns toward the camera, revealing a hollow where a face should be. The artist ends the videos there, leaving viewers to, first, get over the shock endings and, later, to ruminate on the themes of memory, loss and, in a way, hope, that he has so sumptuously presented.