Excess As Shortage?
”Hypernatural” by Astrid Kruse Jensen
Cudowność nigdy nie jest efektem nadmiaru rzeczywistości, lecz – przeciwnie – nagłego braku rzeczywistości i zawrotnego wrażenia, że się w nią wpadnie (…) A więc wyrzeczenie się rzeczywistości właśnie poprzez nadmiar pozorów rzeczywistości.
Can naturalness be unnatural?
The prefix ”hyper” denotes excess, surplus; it suggests existence of a quality overstepping the universally accepted norm. The title of the series of photographs by the Danish photographer Astrid Kruse Jensen, ”Hypernatural”, contains the prefix combined with the word ”natural”: thus, the name brings associations with excess of naturalness, its peculiar condensation, an exceptionally dense state of concentration, intensity, accumulation. This way, paradoxically, naturalness loses its natural character. It loses its obviousness and strikes with essential strength perceptible in the thickening of the colour, in the sharp – extremely sharp – outline of the photographed objects, in the refined lighting and smoothness of the surface of water in the images of swimming pools. The scenery turns hypernatural; it is made real to the point of be-coming unreal.
What aspects of Jensen’s photography evoke this surplus of naturalness? What makes the photographed world more ”created” than merely ”reproduced”?
What happens in the emptiness of the hypernight?
The photographs show deserted swimming pools, folded deckchairs, piles of stacked chairs, colourful slides. They are deserted, as several leads seem to point to the presence of humans during the day. Now, at night, the presence of those who folded the deckchairs is hinted at by the lit windows visible in certain photographs. Everything is empty, quiet, and frighteningly peaceful. Dark skies hang over the illuminated surface of water, and remain in sharp contrast with the shiny metal of the railing, the rough texture of the concrete flooring, and the bright smoothness of the slide pipes. Artificial light shed by street lamps either inside or outside the picture frame, covers the area around the pools and seemingly makes them familiar to the eye. A certain singularity evoked through accumulation of naturalness and delicate transgression of the borderline between what is known and ordinary, and what is ”exaggerated”, excessively expressive, and thus impossible to become familiar with, creates a mood of mysterious sus-pension. Typically, the night blurs the outlines and dims the shapes, thus questioning the pres-ence of objects lost in darkness. Pictorial nocturnes are usually moulded softly, patches of colour penetrate one another, while the colour revolves around dull, virtually monochromatic hues. Jensen’s photographs remain in contrast with such understanding of the nocturne, as in this particular case the night neither hides objects in darkness, nor models their outlines with soft shadows. Quite the opposite: it exposes them in a spectacular way by putting them in the spotlight and highlighting their enhanced palpability, their conspicuous bulkiness. Hence the surprise, a kind of disconcert of the eye at the sight of a situation reverse to what one is accus-tomed to. There is simply no escape from the materiality of metal, plastic, wood, concrete and stone. One is intimidated with the saturation and provocative vividness of colours which at night should die down, ”fall silent”, turn grey and hide in darkness. Here, the night is not what it is – it is hypernight, a night of excess.
In dialogue with Hockney’s ”A Bigger Splash”?
The motif of the swimming pool selected as the leading theme of the ”Hypernatural” cycle, brings associations with paintings by the British artist, David Hockney, who paints the sur-roundings of California residences. Hockney frequently paints the man, who is shown taking a swim or resting by the poolside; in Jensen’s pictures people are absent. However, what unites the painter’s and the Danish photographer’s works, is not only the very motif of the swim-ming pool, but also the atmosphere of suspension, anxiety, of waiting for something that might never happen. Furthermore, Hockney’s most famous picture of the “pool” series, ”A Bigger Splash” (1967; acryl on canvas; 243.8 x 243.6 cm; Tate Gallery, London), shows but a glimpse of man’s presence, a splash of water caused by somebody jumping from the spring-board visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture. In the background, an empty chair is standing in front of a house. The picture is ostentatiously closed in a square with grey passe-partout, which reminds the viewer that the image was painted from a Polaroid photo-graph. The aesthetics of photography is perpetuated, which invites confrontation of ”Hyper-natural” with ”A Bigger Splash” even more. And although Hockney paints a daytime scene, and Jensen photographs the night, the kinship of their works is based on such an emphatic and conspicuously expressive manifestation of the presented fragment of reality, that the extra of ”realism” questions the reality of the representation. Here, reality is not what it is – it is hyper-reality, a reality of excess.
Is ”Hypernatural” a photographic trompe-l’oeil?
In the history of painting the term trompe-l’oeil is associated with still lives painted by 17th century Dutch artists, which were structured to produce an illusion of real presence of the represented objects. Such an assumption blurs the borderline between the image and the viewer, since initially the picture is not perceived as a flat surface covered with colours fol-lowing a certain order, but as the object itself. It is only after a while that the pictorial medium reveals itself, and the artistry of the author who deceived the eye is accorded due admiration.
In a number of ways, the situation with Jensen’s ”Hypernatural” is very similar. The pho-tographed swimming pools and their vicinity stand in front of our eyes as if they were present in reality; this impression is strengthened even further by the large format of the photographs. At the first glance, the plane of the photograph appears transparent, absent, while what comes to the foreground in the process of perception, are the represented objects. These sometimes cast shadows or reflections upon the water, which, in turn, distinctly intensifies the suggestion of their real presence and the bulkiness of their silhouettes. The light simply ”sculptures” the railings, slides, pool edges, as well as the texture of fences and walls of buildings. Illusion is triumphant. The eye penetrates into the world that is opening to it.
However, in the course of this penetration, it turns out that the observed fragment of real-ity has nothing to do with what is generally considered real. Operation of certain aspects of the titular prefix ”hyper” is revealed: everything appears excessively, or even virulently real, surprisingly palpable, or performing its roles with exaggerated involvement. In time, the pho-tographic medium unfolds itself, and the eye – just like in front of the pictorial trompe-l’oeil – proceeds from fascination with illusion to the observation that it has been deceived by a delu-sion of three dimensions on a plane.
Analogies between Jensen’s cycle and the pictorial trompe-l’oeil, which consist in depriv-ing space of one dimension and introducing excess of reality into the pure appearance of ob-jects, lead to a situation in which the principle of reality is radically challenged . The objec-tive never is to identify the presented fragment of reality with reality proper; on the contrary, the stake in the game is construction of artificiality, a fiction to be revealed only after some time. Here, space is not what it is – it is hyperspace, a space of excess.
Can excess be a shortage?
”Hypernatural” emanates an atmosphere of certain uncanniness, as well as evokes a poetic – or melancholic – mood. This is how both the night and emptiness operate; above all, however, it is the natural giving in to the hypernatural. All this is a result of a peculiar shift of accents: excess, paradoxically, becomes shortage, and gains an unexpected charm typical of oxymo-rons. Two opposing values clash: one does not herald presence of the other, yet in Jensen’s photographs one is conditioned by the other. Shortage of naturalness stems directly from its excess, from the ”hyper” element. The eye lets itself be seduced, be deceived by an excess of the appearances of reality, only to eventually realize that the miraculous it is facing, comes from renouncement of reality. Hypernaturalness guarantees deliverance from naturalness and transition to a level, where possibilities of saturating the depicted motifs with meanings be-come much more multi-layered than in the world without the added ”hyper-storey”. This is the reason why one finds Astrid Kruse Jensen’s cycle ”Hypernatural” disturbing with a se-mantic density superimposing itself on the (extra)ordinary appearances of the photographed objects and the context that surrounds them. The appeal lies in the equivocality and game played with broadly understood tradition, both painterly and photographic. Shortage of reality – here caused by its excess – is an invitation to a world that the eye can experience only through the medium of photography.
* Author is holder of scholarship of the Foundation For Polish Science.
Miraculousness is never an effect of excess of reality; on the contrary, it is an effect of sud-den shortage of reality and a dizzying impression that one is going to fall into it (…) So, re-nouncement of reality through an excess of appearances of reality.