“Ever tried it? You meet someone you think you know, but they don’t recognize you?” – Trine Søndergaard asks one day when we meet at her studio to talk about the exhibition A Room Inside at Martin Asbæk Gallery. “Yes,” I reply. Yes, for who hasn’t tried it? We continue along the same lines: when it happens, it’s as if you’re invisible, as if you’re no one. Recognition is acknowledgement that you are in the world. It’s quite banal. I see you. You see me. And that way we become someone in each other’s gaze. But sometimes it just isn’t there. That gaze. Sometimes the world doesn’t look back at you. Or so it can feel.
That’s one way to begin pinning down Trine Søndergaard’s latest photographs. In everyday experience and personal confession. Another way, of course, is to go to the works themselves: the 16 photographs and X photographic objects that make up the exhibition A Room Inside. “Everyone carries a room inside,” writes Franz Kafka in his diary. A mental space, a private space that contains what cannot be shared, what can hardly be thought, articulated, shown or uttered word for word. It is this space that the exhibition title refers to, is an extension of and perhaps establishes. The exhibition title’s assertion of the private space is typical of Søndergaard’s practice, which with precision and bated breath seems to revolve around what exists, but cannot be shown. It is as if her visual world is latent with what we cannot see. As if the subjects so to speak claim a kind of invisibility, as they turn away or refuse to reveal all. As if they show themselves and yet refuse to be seen.
Take the motif of the young woman who holds a mirror up in front of her face. The mirror is angled towards the camera precisely so that the blank surface of the mirror, instead of reflecting the world, becomes a dead zone. Becomes a gap in representation that shows without showing. Shows that there is nothing to see – nothing but this absence. Or as the Dutch theorist of culture Mieke Bal has written about Sønder-gaard’s works: “We are confronted with a visual presentation of invisibility – of the figure supposedly temporally or spatially near the image, or in it but turning away”. On the one hand this rupturing of representation – this hollo¬wing-out of the subject – is a photographic device that points back to Surrealism’s play with picto¬rial codes as in a Man Ray or a Magritte. On the other hand it consti¬tutes nothing less than an existential abyss, inasmuch as visibility and being can be said to belong together – I write, as I log on to my Facebook profile, update my status and change my profile. A Facebook friend ‘likes’ it. I am seen. If one keeps up with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and the imperative of visibility on which all these media are based, then invisibility is equivalent to death. Black earth, as in Søndergaard’s large photographs of the bare field, among the first things that meet the eye of the visitor to the exhibition. Wet, heavy earth right in your face. There’s no getting away from it. This is where it all begins and it all ends. “Earth to earth”…. You know how it goes. Heavy matters. You can go with this logic and see the blank mirror as the cessation of life, the erasure of identity. Or you can go against it and ask whether there is a possible criticism in remaining invisible, in remaining unmarked?
Unmarked is a book by the American performance theorist Peggy Phelan. It is from 1992 and has long since become a classic in performance studies, but is nevertheless still relevant today. It is about performance and documentation, but also about the relationship between visibility and power. Or rather the power of becoming invisible within a culture of visibility. “Visibility is a trap,” Phelan writes with a reference to a quotation from Jacques Lacan: “it summons surveillance and the law, it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonial/imperial appetite for pos¬ses¬sion”. There is therefore a power in avoiding the trap of visibility and remaining ‘unmarked’ within a culture that equates visibility with power. Phelan argues for “active disappearance” as a kind of oppositional strategy, and thus writes her way up against the standard politics of representation, which equates power and visibility, since in the name of visibility it participates in a stereotyped categorization. In this perspective, the ‘unmarked’ can be a place from which the subject can speak without being spoken in advance, without being categorized, evaluated, typecast or ‘personalized’. We know who you are before you know it yourself, is the logic of the Internet today, when everyone is ‘that sort’, understood as an algorithmic function of searches, sharings, likes and consumption. In that economy, the ‘unmarked’ is a place from which the subject can resist the trading of visibility for identity that is built into the logic: “If you let us see you, we will tell you who your are”. A blank mirror for the face. A screen between the self and the world.
“She wears her heart on her sleeve,” is something we say about a person who is par¬-ticularly sensitive or whose emotions are particularly readable. For the most part we keep them up our sleeves, these emotions. Away from the gaze of others. In Trine Søndergaard’s photographs, however, the emotions are given a kind of visi¬bility in the form of black mourning veils that cover winter-pale faces. A mem¬brane between the woman and the world, which both shows and veils, both reveals and screens off. The veils are in French mourning lace from the 1700s and 1800s, today part of the collection at Tønder Museum. Back then the veils were a great luxury. They were expensive, because they required great craftsmanship and hours of meticulous handwork. In Søndergaard’s photographs the lace is worn by young women from Tønder. As in the artist’s other photo projects such as Strude, Interiors and Guldnakke Søndergaard also confronts present and past in one and the same picture. Most of all, though, they seem beyond time. The veiled women who keep their eyes closed, which almost makes them more dead than alive – or at least sleeping, absent, in their own world. Black earth. There we have it again. Wet, heavy earth. In your face. Not to be got around. Like Søndergaard’s photo¬graphs, which set themselves up as blank mirrors, disappearances, rejec¬tions, obstacles to the gaze. As abysses or possibilities, but most of all as image forma¬tions that operate sophisticatedly, discreetly; underplayed and searching in the field between visibility and invisibility, the space outside and the space inside.