Artist Talk: Per Bak JensenBack
Date: Saturday June 16th
Time: 1 pm – 2 pm
Meditations on Form and Flow
Per Bak Jensen has been described as seeking the in-between, and the unexpected. Through his photography he explores the enigmatic in both city and rural environments. In formal terms his compositions seem harmonious, easy to enjoy. But semantically they may be puzzling. How to account for the flow of shapes, textures and shadows that lend expression to the image?
Jensen’s concern is with the contours of the land; also with the visual and symbolic effects of objects in the landscape, whether natural or resulting from human intervention. We might think of Jensen as a landscape photographer, but perhaps nature photographer is more accurate as he so often photographs close-up and in detail, always with an eye to form, and always offering detail that invites us to look closely.
The textures of the rocks or the bark from trees in his (1980s) still life series seem tangible, as does the sublime cold of the icebergs in the extra ordinarily sparse and clear blue-grey imagery in his earlier Greenland series (2006). Other earlier series included residues of the technological (disused cars or pipes; low lying industrial sheds) and legacies of previous occupancy, whether industrial or pre-in dus trial.
When colour is present in his imagery it is intense, vibrant. He avoids the melodrama of shadow play in favour of the calm of even light that exposes detail in the environment. Images may harmonize visual echoes, for example, the red of the sheets hanging out to dry in ‘Laundry’, 2006, that references the red of a pier side derrick in the distance. Or they may directly draw attention to phenomena, for instance, through the scale and central position of the post in ‘Monolith’ or the compositional use of the trees to frame the classical style statue in ‘White Figure’.
‘Traces of history, the order of things’, one of the section titles in his major retrospective publication, The Unseen Image (2006), points to the dynamic interrelation of observation of phenomena and geometric composition that characterizes his work. For French philosopher, Michel Foucault, the order of things referred to the ideological systems facilitating and legitimizing social conditions. His interest was in the historic and cultural specificity of such conditions, and how they shift – or are disrupted – over time. Famously Foucault’s treatise opens with critical analysis of ‘Las Meninas’ (Velázquez, Spain, 1656) noting what appears, what is concealed, the exchange of looks within the image, and ways in which the gaze of the viewer is articulated. As he suggests, the single image has the power to imply relations that cannot be seen.
Per Bak Jensen’s project is one of observing phenomena that through his close consideration become charged with enhanced meaning. Roland Barthes famously talked of the need to decipher the visual. In urging people to ‘Look, See’ Barthes also distinguished between the act of looking, and the act of seeing; the exercising of the sense of sight and the making sense of what is viewed. For Jensen as for Barthes, photographs indicate presence, but, with persistence, lend themselves to perceptions that are more existential in import which was, of course, the im pulse underpinning Roland Barthes’ reflections on photographic allure and mean ing in his book Camera Lucida (as he sought the picture that expressed what for him would be the essence of his mother). Indeed, the semiotic contingency of photography plays within Jensen’s work as his observations of often banal phenomena en hance our engagement with the everyday. For Barthes the in junction to look is addressed to us and to himself as a reader of photographs. But there is a sense in which for Jen sen, as a photographer, the injunction emanates from the artist himself. The observations are specific, and his titles are often literal. Without over-emphasizing the rhetoric of imagery, or ruining the enigmatic through over-pointed captions, he sets up ‘double takes’ through juxta positions within the image, or tensions between form and content.
Per Bak Jensen’s pictures are undoubtedly beautiful in a formal sense. The harmony of his images lends a meditative quality; the imagery does not disturb. In landscape aesthetics beauty lies in the imposition of order on nature, whether through landscape planning or gardening or pictorial composition in the visual arts. Of course artistic form is a matter of convention. In Western Art the ‘golden rule’ whereby the picture plane is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally and the subject of the picture is centralized, is so familiar that we barely notice the compositional geometry (except if the ‘rules’ are broken). In Western philosophy notions of Beauty are founded in harmony, the rational, and intelligibility. There is a definitive contrast with ideas of the sublime, the awesome, that which is astonish ing (Edmund Burke) or logically inex plicable (Immanuel Kant). Yet, Jen sen’s work averts the romanticism so often associated with notions of beauty; rather, in drawing attention to phe nomena, whether broader scenarios or close-up investigations, his work induces a sense of awe as metaphoric resonances transcend the descriptive.
The title of a further exhibition and publication, Before the Darkness (2009), suggests an underlying unease. At a literal level it references light, and, perhaps, transitions from day to night. But there are symbolic perhaps biblical undertones. His work usually implies human presence rather than actually depicting people in the places that he inves tigates. How ever, this book opens with a picture of the back of a slightly dumpy woman, unfashion ably dressed, standing on the grass looking slight ly downwards as we can see from the tilt of her head; a large pond is in the distance. Bright greens and straw, with blue skies reflected in the blue of the pond, belie a sense of unease. All is not what it seems – the image caption, ‘Memory of the Bird Feeding Woman’, 1994, gives little away. Was she the bird feeder, or did the photographer ask some one to model a memory there are no birds nearby. Birds fall quiet in the dark. At first sight, the image seems straight forwardly documentary in idiom. Second sight induces a more complex set of speculations.
His captions sometimes set up tensions. Whilst ‘Lava’ is clearly exactly a flow from below the surface of the earth, ‘The Door’ is a strip of land creating a small promontory out to a group of rocks edging the sea that we might assume be come submerged when the tide is in. The promontory may be open, and inviting – or closed off to us. We often do a double take. The harvest is wrapped in plastic, and posts growing from the land at an airport are not natural plantations but a congregation of landing lights. In Jensen’s work nature and culture have be come irrevocably welded together. In this sense, again, if at first glance romantic, any sense of ease is unsettled as his images confront us with consequences of human transformation of our environment.
His new work includes several pictures more akin to the aesthetics of still life (nature morte) than landscape. Curtains flow vertically; the lighter blue in the centre balanced by the even dark blues either side of it. As with his previous work, each observation is precise. We wonder at the metal rods sticking up from the wooden base of what might be a balcony, or might be a table, or wooden block substituting for a ledge. Images in this series are shot close-up, eliminating contextual information, and thereby requiring us to scrutinize the shapes and textures of rocks or of plastic wrapped bales with little distraction. Other images, al though equally precise, are concerned with more sublime subject matter, for ex am ple, the fog enveloping the mountain in ‘Liverpool Land’, or the blacks and blues of the Hisingers Glacier where – in the play of light suggests hidden depths astonish and, perhaps, disturb. Per Bak Jensen does not impose meaning through his imagery. Rather, he looks so carefully that his pictures draw us in. The double resonance of the exhibition title, “Lost”, is deliberate. Photographically, we are invited to pause to reflect on that which might be overlooked, lost to our sight. Existentially we may be lost, but for Jensen seeing is redemptive.