To Be Lost In An Image
by Katrine Bruun Jørgensen
Trine Søndergaard has photographed the inside out of Carlsberg. The underground storage cellars, depicted in her work, were built in 1847 and used for storage and fermentation of beer when beer was produced in Valby. For many years it was here that the brewery workers conducted their daily work but today the cellars are empty.
Søndergaard’s four large format photographs, Untitled (2014), have been placed in the Dipylon Hall at the Carlsberg Museum, which was built to house the art collection of Carl Jacobsen in 1882. Today the Carlsberg Museum serves, among other things, as reception rooms for Carlsberg. Next to Søndergaard's work are nine tile paintings produced by the porcelain factory Max von Heider & Söhne in Munich. These portraits were originally made for the Dipylon Portal, the entrance gate to Ny Carlsberg, in 1901, and represent prominent people of Carlsberg at the beginning of the century. The portrait of Carl Jacobsen, master brewer and founder of New Carlsberg, is placed at the centre and around him his immediate family and employees. The portraits emphasize the powerful position held by Jacobsen within the company, and with the beautiful decor and important art collection of ancient and modern art surrounding them, Carlsberg Museum further highlights this view of him. Yet Søndergaard’s photographs have an entirely different effect on the viewer, with her work creating a fissure in the history of the brewery as Carlsberg Museum has otherwise represented it.
Space into form
At first glance, the motifs in Søndergaard’s four photographs seem identical. A doorway allows cold electric light into a vaulted cellar. A scale of grey light is spread out and almost engulfed by darkness, with damp mottled mushroom-shapes reflecting light in dabs and dots. Architecturally the cellars are reminiscent of crypts, not unlike those in which both Jacobsen and his family were buried under the Church of Jesus (Jesuskirken) in Valby. Upon closer examination, however, we notice that there are compositional differences within the series, and that the photographs can be brought together into two pairs. In two of the photographs we see an even pattern of round depressions, where legs of large storage tanks were once placed, marked across the floor. A series of metal rods cut diagonally through the space of the cellar around them, thick pipes that once led carbon dioxide and other substances around the production apparatus. In the two other photographs, the holes in the floor have been levelled out and a row of industrial lamps hang from the ceiling. The door openings in all four works are different. In one photograph there is another door apparent behind the first door and in another we look out of a wider door opening onto a tiled wall. In a third photograph the door opening is blocked by a barred door and in the last photograph we again look out onto a tiled wall, but this time through a smaller doorway.
The composition of the photographs is classical, using lines of perspective to lead the gaze of the viewer towards the doorways. During the Renaissance, and beyond, the choice of central perspective was traditionally used to highlight what was important in a painting, but this is not the case here. In Søndergaard’s Carlsberg photographs a two-dimensional darkness, a sterile tiled wall and a barred door, confront our gaze, rather blurring instead of clarifying our vision. In an article titled Stasis - How to See, included in Søndergaard’s book Stasis, theorist Mieke Bal discusses the abstract nature of Søndergaard’s portrait series Strude, depicting traditional historic protective headwear of rural women on the Danish island of Fanø. This abstract two-dimensionality, which Bal points out specifically regarding this portrait series, is also present in Søndergaard’s Carlsberg photographs. The motifs in the pictures consist of geometric shapes and lines that would be possible to reproduce with a ruler and a compass: the circles on the floor, the grid of the tiled wall in the corridor outside the cellars, the lines of the pipes against the ceiling and the rectangular shapes of the door openings.
Empty, alien rooms
Repetition plays an important role in Søndergaard's artistic oeuvre. She often works in sequences in which motives, with minor differences and alternations, are repeated throughout. In Strude, it is the portrait format: a selection of woman in folk costume are repeatedly photographed in front of a grey toned background. In her Carlsberg work it is the vaulted room with a door opening, that is the motif, and in her series Interior, created between 2007-2012, the artist focuses on windows, corridors and doors. The Interior series was photographed on five different locations, including a remote estate on Lolland that had been abandoned for 50 years when the artist visited there. In Interior we find the re-representation of motifs from paintings of the 1800s and early 1900s, especially as painted by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) and Martinus Rørbye (1803-1848). Hammershøi's interiors were preoccupied with corridors, windows and open doors, but in Søndergaard’s repetition of these well-known imageries, there is an apparent shift of meaning. The subject matter in Søndergaard’s photographs may well be alluring to Hammershøi's iconic paintings, but they do not convey the same homely character. Often Hammershøi depicted his wife Ida in his interiors, her presence underlining the homely, intimate and private nature of the images. Contrary to this, Søndergaard has photographed localities and places that are foreign to her, functionless and devoid of any human activity. The photographs are without people in them, instead placing the viewer in rather claustrophobic spaces that on many levels invoke a feeling of the morbid or the uncanny. In his famous essay, Das Unheimliche, published in 1919, Sigmund Freud defines the concept. The German word ‘heimlich’ is difficult to translate, into Danish or English, as it can refer to both something homey or cosy but may also be used about something secret or hidden. In this way the word can have has two different meanings. In English ‘unheimliche’ translates into ‘uncanny’ but hereby lacks some of its facets of strangeness that Freud attributed to it.
A sense of the uncanny can, to some extent, be found in repetition itself, unfolding between what is known and unknown, between what we recognise and what is alien to us. In Interior, Søndergaard explores the dialectic between such elements in a photographic depiction of places and objects that have seemingly lost any clear identifiable function that they once might have had. We recognise what we see, but with their loss of discernable usage and facility, such motifs take on an eerie or uncanny character. In one image form the Interior series, we see a window hanging limply from the sill, unable to keep itself up. In another image a door leans up against a wall, unable to close, and in a third image all you see is an empty corner where a stove once stood. We know all these objects from our own homes, but in these empty rooms, and in all their uselessness, they have become objects of strangeness and seem unfamiliar. An immediate understanding, or sense of similarity, in what we see, has been lost, and any offering of intimacy exchanged with an experience of peculiarity. In our everyday life we are informed by the reality of these objects without even thinking about it, but when they appear separate from anything we might recognise or are stripped of apparent function, there is a sense of loss and disorientation. In the images from the Interior series, we, as viewers, also get a sense of being lost. Our viewpoint is limited, determined as it is by the angle of the camera when the photograph was taken, and the location in which this image actually exists is inaccessible. We cannot fully know where we are located within the building or what environment exists outside the building. Ordinarily the motif of an open door provides the viewer with a view of what lies beyond, but not here, not in Søndergaard’s Carlsberg works or in the Interior series. For Freud, this sense of disorientation is seen as another key element regarding the experience of the uncanny. As an example, Freud describes how he once got himself thoroughly lost in a small Italian town, again and again finding himself ending up back in the same place. Here repetition again plays an important role in the experience of the uncanny.
Entrapped and lost
In one of Søndergaard’s images from the Interior series we see two doors, both of which are open. The work seems to almost paraphrase Hammershøi's work, Two Open Doors, from 1905, but where we in Hammershøi's work are able to look out of the open doorways, this is not possible in Søndergaard’s work. The one-eyed perspective of Søndergaard’s camera traps the viewer's gaze into a corner of the room with the door itself preventing any possibility of seeing what is beyond. This entrapment or obstruction of the gaze makes Søndergaard’s interior representations somewhat unpleasant, uncomfortable even, as they transgress what we have come to expect as spectators, evoking feelings of disorientation and claustrophobia instead. In one of the photographs the door is flung wide open but there is only darkness on the other side.
The window is a recurring motif in the Interior series, and also a popular motif of the Biedermeier culture of the 1800s, where a window often represented what was considered homely, comfortable and familiar. In his painting, View from the Artist's Window, from around 1825, by Martinus Rørbye, we are looking at a window in his parents’ home. This is a domestic environment, showing a windowsill with potted plants, a book and various trinkets. It is also a composition where the idea of the comforts of home life inside are contrasted by the harbour scene we see outside. From the safe distance of the interior of the home, it is possible for the artist to fantasize about the world that exists beyond, and in the work there is an explicit distinction between the perception of inside and outside. Even though it is possible to identify motifs from art of the 1800s and early 1900s in Søndergaard’s work, there is an obvious and important shift within the scope of how such repetition has been performed. We recognize these motifs, but with their lack of function, and in their darkness and abstraction, they obtain a very different character of strangeness and mystery. Also, Søndergaard chooses to photograph her interiors from angles where there is no actual view, which means that we, as spectators, might get a feeling of being lost. Her work has a claustrophobic character as we loose sense of where we are. In several of Søndergaard’s works in the Interior series, windows are portrayed as an independent motif, but we are unable to look out of them. Our view is instead held by fog and haze and greyness on the other side, where an actual ‘outside’ seems to not even exist. Instead the viewer is trapped within the photographed space of the composition. Where Rørbye renders the world outside as something one can safely fantasize about from within, one cannot sense exactly where we are in relation to the outside world in Søndergaard’s work. In her Interior series, the pictured stories unfold neither inside nor out. There is no obvious inside, or outside, which one might fantasize about.
The atmosphere from Søndergaard’s Interior series has resurfaced in her Carlsberg photographs, evoking the same sense of disorientation as darkness and tiled walls block potential views through doorways. Again we feel trapped, particularly in the third of the Carlsberg photographs, where a barred door is in the process of closing completely. In these works from the cellars of Carlsberg there is no ‘outside’, and with the inside of the photographed spaces so alike in all their obscurity, they are difficult to place or define. Even within the composition itself, the lines of perspective are part of what misleads us, as they direct our gaze onto a murky sheen of darkness or the abrupt blankness of a tiled wall. Anthony Vidler, a writer on architecture, sees the notion of the uncanny as a continuation of the Romantic understanding of the sublime, through which one is reminded of ones own mortality, but where the uncanny most often is understood within the context of the domestic, ideas of the sublime are more often associated with a sensibility towards nature. This relation between the uncanny and the sublime, of culture and nature, is also found in Søndergaard’s works at Carlsberg, in as much as they, in various ways, can be seen as an investigation or explicatory approach to the theme of death - both within the context of the viewer’s experience of the work but also in relation to the representation of stories already bound to the historic cellars of Carlsberg.
Darkness and death
In his reportage, A Visit to Carlsberg, from 1881, author Herman Bang describes his visit to the brewery where he, amongst many other things, visited the underground storage cellars of Carlsberg. Afterwards Bang vividly portrays his experience of the darkness and his fear of falling down the stairs on his way down to the cellars, where he at every turn "stood before an abyss of darkness." According to psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski, the power of penetration by darkness on the subject is far more powerful than that of light, as any notion of boundary between organism and environment ceases to be when the body becomes surrounded by the dark. Within the context of the death drive, a theory of desire for self-destruction, of annihilation and the return to the inorganic, the subject is therefore seen to dissolve. In this way, darkness is understood as having a very particular effect on the viewer. In her Carlsberg work, the viewer is potentially held exactly there, with Søndergaard’s four large format photographs placing the viewer in the midst of such darkness.
But it is not within such exploration of actual darkness alone, be it real or symbolic, that Carlsberg’s cellars can be seen to allude to ideas of death. Various stories of actual deaths are linked to these cellars. In his account, Bang criticizes the conditions in the underground corridors for being a potentially harmful work environment for the brewery workers, highlighting especially the risk of being poisoned by fumes and debris from the fermentation processes, and expressing a fear that workers might die in the cellars. Also the story of Carlsberg’s corridor of death, a corridor built to connect Old Carlsberg with New Carlsberg at the turn of the century, links the cellars with such a theme of death. According to the tales, there were several clashes between workers from the two breweries in the years that followed the initial merger in 1906. Men met here in fights and several workers died. This is the same corridor that we see in Søndergaard’s two Carlsberg images where we look directly out onto a white tiled wall.
By photographing these cellars, Søndergaard focuses on a very different narrative, related to Carlsberg, than those represented by the ceramic portraits created by Max von Heider & Söhne already hanging in the Dipylon Hall, her work instead conveying a distinctively altered sense of awareness and circumstance. While the famed ceramic portraits, from 1901, convey a rather more comforting and reassuring account of Carl Jacobsen, the great founder and leader of Carlsberg, Søndergaard's four new photographs are disorienting and claustrophobic, creating a feeling of the uncanny, of eeriness, in relation to this primary master tale. Søndergaard brings the storage cellars of Carlsberg, and with them their stories of poor working conditions and deaths, to the surface, effectively destabilizing a more affirmative image of brewer Carl Jacobsen and Carlsberg, which Carlsberg Museum has otherwise presented here. With her photographs of the storage cellars, Søndergaard has inscribed yet another significant part of Carlsberg's history into the self-representation of the brewery, adding an important account of life underground to the legacy of the museum.
English translation and editing by