Torbjørn Rødland is a weird dude. I mean that in the best way possible, as his weirdness manifests itself in brilliant and subversive photographs that twist our perceptions of visual culture into a ball and throw them in the trash. What at first glance seem like beautiful, if not banal shots you see everyday, suddenly reveal themselves to be grotesque and peculiar. This element of surprise is what we really love. His fantastic new book, Vanilla Partner, was just released by MACK, and we decided to talk with him about his mad genius.
VICE: As I looked through the book, I kept wondering, “Where does he come up with these ideas?” For some of the images, I see you jolting out of a dream, writing it down, and recreating it later. What is your typical process?
Torbjørn Rødland: Well, some photographs are versions of images from dreams, but they’re created by my unconscious as I finish artworks for a show. You see, I sometimes visit other artists’ exhibitions while sleeping. And if it’s good photographic work, I wake up very excited, asking my conscious self, “Has that actually been done? If not, I’m doing it!” But this is untypical. I find that I can get ideas and take orders from the dream brain without actually going to sleep or taking psychoactive substances.
Typically I see potential in a cheap object or a jpeg from a Ukrainian blog or something like that, and after living with the object or jpeg for a while, I try to realize that potential. In the photograph that I end up producing, the conflict or quality that initially caught my attention is accentuated or is transformed into something more precise. I always improvise when I start the process of photographing, but the initial trigger is important to help keep the result interesting.
What I really love is the way that you take our accepted visual language—the Debordian “spectacle,” if you will—and subvert it. Do you think about these moments of confusion or discovery on the part of the viewer when creating the work?
I do gravitate towards visuals that need my participation to make sense and yes, I want the book to be surprising throughout. One-dimensionality is uninspiring, and the age where a series of photographs only needed a strong idea to be exciting is over. All in all, I believe viewers are getting more sophisticated. Photography is no longer a new art form.
You seem to be interested in ideas of power dynamics, people being tied or held down by others' hands, being drawn on, or sitting in cages. Were these concepts you were trying to explore?
These are patterns that emerge when I collect what I’ve made, and the book is organized to support these patterns. I find it difficult to make an interesting photograph of two people in harmony, so I allow or push for inequality and potential conflict, which gives life and movement to a still image. What you point out is perhaps also a visual metaphor for what photography does, at least in popular lingo: It captures.
Ah, that makes sense. I also see quite a bit of historical and political references in the book. How do those play into the overall arc of the book to you?
It widens the theme. I want the idea of a dominating partner to encompass the relationship between image and reality. Our interest in and ability to hold on to reality is limited. Reality is the vanilla partner. This is accentuated in American politics. In 2004, I produced still lifes of George W. Bush’s favorite things, and in Vanilla Partner there’s a fascination with the Reagan myth. Anne Frank in also in there. Because of Kitty, her diary, Anne Frank is a central figure in our culture’s main mythology of evil and sacrifice.
This is your fifth book. Congratulations! What kind of artistic evolution do you think you have made since your first book?
Thank you. Oh, I don’t know yet. It seems quite circular. For example, the lack of landscapes this time around doesn’t mean I haven’t made any. They just did not fit into this book. Maybe the multiple exposures and twisted bodies in Vanilla Partner indicate that I need to push the medium harder now to stay interested?
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m doing a few multiple exposures in color, out here on my Laurel Canyon terrace. I’m also choosing and printing work for a gallery show in Denmark where most of the Reagan-pieces we talked about will be included.