Still Born

By Pete Marinucci
Published in: Wetterling Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, Still Born, 2008, exhibition catalogue.

“Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
- Alfred Stieglitz

Nathalia Edenmont’s photographs tread a fine line vis-à-vis the viewer’s conception of reality. This has been seen in her previous exhibitions at the Wetterling Gallery, where she presented images that immediately baffle. The fantastical juxtaposition of flowers and eyes, of the heads of rabbits with elaborate baroque collars at first seem to be the product of digital manipulation or darkroom alchemy; however, these images are absolutely pure, in that she does not employ any technological means to doctor the photographs but rather uses animals that she has freshly killed and prepared herself to create these jarring photographs. These works traffic in the uncanny, the uneasy sense of recognizing something that is familiar – objects that are identifiable and nameable – but still at its essence is foreign and disconcerting. What the viewer expects to be untrue proves itself to be true and, by way of the photographic object itself, becomes “more real than reality”.
It follows, then, that Nathalia Edenmont’s most recent series of photographs, “Still Born”, would initially appear to be free of the epistemological dilemmas that vex the viewers of her earlier photographs. The works largely center around a young girl on the cusp of pubescence (while slightly younger in some of the photographs, she is now 14). Gone is the ambivalent reality of the earlier works, as the young girl is presented in a rather straightforward manner. However, the works of this series are engaged in a complex system of transposition and representation where it is never really clear at what, or when, we are looking.

Edenmont met the young model, Carolina, five years ago at Gröna Lund amusement park, and immediately felt an affinity for the girl. It was only after she had made several pieces with Carolina that a friend noted the young girl bore a remarkable resemblance to Nathalia. Indeed, they do share some obvious features, most notably their long red hair and slender body type, but upon closer inspection they both have similar facial construction. Carolina “really looks a lot like me,” the artist wrote in an email. “It really is unbelievable.”

What is most striking is that Nathalia and Carolina both have such deep and soulful hazel eyes, eyes that have so often been locked on one another through the reciprocal gazes of photographer and subject. This reciprocal gaze will problematize a number of the photographs, as I will further elaborate below, questioning exactly what or whom we are seeing. It is as if we are looking through Carolina into Nathalia and that Nathalia is looking back at us. Eyes have been featured in Edenmont’s photographs before, but it is only with these images that the eyes gaze back at the viewer.

The photographs in “Still Born” are collected around the moment of a loss of youthful innocence. While blissful in some works, the girl is often burdened by the weight of loss and the toll of time. Through the series, she passes from the free innocence of youth to an inflexible representation of awareness. In this way, Edenmont’s photographs are akin to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, his series of poems and engravings that contrast the two states. On the one hand Songs of Innocence relate the joyfulness of youth and blissful unawareness, while Songs of Experience contrast that vision through the perspective of adulthood and the dealings of the material world. In this regard, “Still Born” can be placed somewhere between these states, acting as the bridge that connects the two. After all, is this not the function of adolescence?

The series begins with a photograph simply titled Carolina. I say that this is the beginning of the series both because it is one of the earliest photographs of the girl – as she is noticeably younger than in later images – but also because it was the first image that Edenmont envisioned for her. While I feel that there is no strict order to the works, there certainly is a beginning and an end. Here, she is shown nude, a young girl who is about to become a young woman, as indicated by her developing breasts. Tellingly, this is the only photograph where Carolina shows a full smile; she seems content and self-possessed. This assuredness is undermined by the snake around her neck – of which she appears completely unaware – threatening to constrict at any moment. This danger is repeated in Necklace. Wearing a pretty white dress, her pose and facial expression are quite coy and even coquettish, as she timidly responds to a young boy’s interest. To the viewer’s horror, a noose is tied around her neck and again she is completely oblivious to her imminent danger. This looming threat hints at danger to come; in fact, this danger is life’s experience itself. She does not see it coming, and in fact appears to enjoy the appearance of these threats. “If you don’t look at the rope above her head, then it looks like a designed necklace around her neck, kind of beautiful,” writes Edenmont. The same could be said for the snake necklace, if one disregards the head and tail. “She is smiling because she is not aware of what is happening.”

It is noteworthy that Edenmont’s first image contains a coiled snake. While it is not a precise representation, this suggests the self-consuming Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail that appears in a number of ancient mythologies worldwide. The Ouroboros is an allusion to the cycle of life, or more generally the cyclicality of time. By the first definition, the snake merely signifies the phases of the young girl’s life, that the danger is human mortality itself, with respect to life’s experiences. However, seen within the broader context of the entire suite of photographs the Ouroboros indicates the oscillatory nature of time, insomuch that all that once was will be again. The striking physical similarities shared by Edenmont and Carolina has previously been discussed; through the inclusion of the Ouroboros Carolina becomes young Nathalia, so that as we look upon the young girl in the photographs we are seeing a consubstantialized representation of both women. Furthermore, as Edenmont looks through the camera lens and Carolina looks back at her, she is looking at herself across the span of time.
The paradoxical conflation of self and other is most visible in Self Portrait (Deathbed). This work depicts Edenmont lying dead on a long table while Carolina holds her hand but looks toward the viewer. Edenmont explains that this is a recreation of her own mother’s death: “I am lying dead as my mother did, and Carolina is sitting beside me holding my hand, just as I sat holding the hand of my dead mother at the age of 14, exactly the same age as Carolina.” (Her father had passed away a few years earlier.) Thus we are presented with a double-transposition as Carolina and Edenmont stand in for the young Nathalia and her mother. This functions as a double self-portrait of Edenmont, as we see her twice in the image, first under the guise of her departed mother and secondly in the person of Carolina, who becomes the embodiment of the young Nathalia. This is further complicated by the fact that the girl looks toward the viewer/lens, and therefore at Nathalia herself.

In essence, Edenmont is witnessing the occurrence of three moments at once: the present as she looks through the lens and at the photograph, the past as she sees herself at fourteen, and the future as she witnesses her own mortality. (The “young Nathalia” also perceives the same three moments, albeit from a different vantage point.) This intersection of temporalities is impossible if time were to be linear; rather, it is only with a cyclical and inter-nesting conception of time that such an alignment can occur. Likewise, such an experience is only through the vehicle of photography. This essay opens with a quotation by Alfred Stieglitz that asserts that the photographic condition is such that it is “more real than reality.” Accordingly, Self Portrait (Deathbed) reaches beyond the quotidian epistemological experience to bare a deeper segment of the workings of time, memory, and being. More real than real.

Carolina directly stands in for Edenmont in a number of other photographs from this series. Family presents the young girl in a long black dress of mourning, flanked by two empty white chairs representing Edenmont’s deceased parents. “It is actually my family portrait,” says Edenmont. “Me and my parents, which have gone.” Though no longer living Edenmont’s parents remain with her, as she carries them and the burden of memory. This acts as a weight that bears down on her: “The chairs are empty, they are not there, but the girl is not free, she cannot stand up and walk away.” The chairs are on her long dress, anchoring her to that place and time, but also to her responsibilities to family. Nathalia would eventually break free, fleeing her native Ukraine in 1991, when she settled in Sweden.

In Together, Carolina – wearing the grey dress from Self Portrait (Deathbed) – lies in bed next to a mound of soil. The bed’s frame recalls the gates at her mother’s grave, which is further signified by the soil. Here, the girl brings herself to the mother she yearns for but can only encounter the cold iron and insensible dirt. Black Night finds her again clad in black, seated on a black bed, and set against a void of blackness. She is utterly alone, seemingly dwarfed and overwhelmed by the darkness that surrounds her, as even the bed seems to outsize her. There is a subtle grace to the image, however, as the girl projects bearing and perseverance. She lacks the coyness of Necklace or the vulnerability of Self Portrait (Deathbed). Not yet a woman, she is no longer a little girl.

The title of Heirloom refers to the large scarf that wraps around the girl. When Nathalia hastily fled the Ukraine in 1991, one of the few items she brought with her was a scarf that resembles the one in the photograph. The textile is made in a style particular to the Ukraine, as is the hairstyle worn in this photograph and Last Portrait. While the heirloom in this photograph is the scarf, so too does the photograph itself become an heirloom. With the image functioning as a representation of “Ukrainian-ness”, her memory of her home and youth in Yalta and any markers of that existence become the true heirlooms.

The girl’s stoic attitude in Heirloom is taken one step further in Nothing. No longer a mere portrayal of a Ukrainian youth, the girl becomes an Orthodox icon. Her pious pose, intense, penetrating forward stare, and the extensive use of gold all connect this photograph to the religious icons used in Eastern Catholic churches. Here, Carolina’s face has lost all hopefulness and rather is seen in the cold stare of a martyr. All vital essence has been drained from her face, which is now lifeless; furthermore, her forehead is covered in large maggots, accentuating this sense of decay. Far from her initial innocence, she is now a martyr to life and its suffering, memorialized as an icon. For this reason, Nothing can be viewed as one of the final works in the series.

A second major theme introduced in “Still Born” is that of sexual awakening, another point of estrangement from the innocence shown in the girl in the earliest images. In Morning the young girl uses a mirror to look between her legs. However, instead of seeing her own genitalia, Edenmont tells us that the mirror “reflects nothing.” This is the beginning of her sexual awakening as she is demonstrating a curiosity for her body, a desire to know the unknown; the non-reflectivity of the mirror signals that she does not have knowledge of her self. She is still a girl, as evidenced by the ribbon in her hair and her bed-shirt, which seems to be almost too short for her, as if she is just about to grow out of her childhood. Morning, hence, is not just the time of day but also the dawn of pubescence.

If Morning is the dawning of maturity, Unmade Bed appears to show the effects of this new maturity. The girl sits on the edge of her bed, which has a bloodstain on its white sheets. While the viewer might assume that it is menstrual blood, Edenmont leaves this for the viewer to decide, as she suggests that the blood could be menstrual or due to her loss of virginity, an assault, or a miscarriage. Regardless, the girl’s pose and attitude have changed markedly from Morning: whereas she had previously explored her body she now turns her back to her own blood, looking off in the distance as her body slightly slumps. This shift in body position reveals her changing attitude and knowledge. For whatever reason, her childhood and the innocence that goes along with it have been lost.

Another topic in this series is that of motherhood, specifically in the three works Thirteen and a Half, Madonna, and Still Born. In the first work the girl is pregnant, but instead of appearing happy or celebratory she is clad in a long black dress. Along with the small black crib by her feet, this is an omen of bad luck for the mother and her child. These forebodings are demonstrated in Madonna, where the girl – now dressed in a radiant white – holds not her child but rather a plaster cast of a child’s body. The “baby” is hollow, seemingly missing from its clothing and its mother, though her face is that of blissful unawareness. Her slight grin and the positioning of her body and that of the baby-cast recall the Medieval and Renaissance Madonna and Christ-child paintings alluded to in the work’s title. Accordingly, Madonna foreshadows the death and loss of the child in the same manner that many Madonna and Child paintings point to Jesus’ death. The photograph Still Born alludes to the result of her pregnancy. The girl is wrapped in a heavily soiled sheet on yet another bed frame. There seems to be an odd timelessness to this work, as it is unclear exactly who is under the sheet (the girl-as-mother, or her child?) and how long she has been there. Notably, this work is closely related to a photograph and a video piece by Edenmont, both called Eternity. Here we see what seems to be the same bed frame (missing its mattress) but aged and dilapidated. Edenmont herself lies on the bed (it is clear that this nude figure is that of a woman, not a young girl) in much the same position as in Still Born. The pairing of these two photographs suggests that even in death there is life and growth, as the body has matured and the hair has grown long.

“Still Born” differs from Edenmont’s earlier series of photographs, in that she explicitly shows blood. Her previous photographs that included parts of recently killed animals were immaculate; their bloodlessness contradicted the laborious and bloody process that Edenmont undertook in creating these images. When she used dead animals, the images were free of any trace of blood. Somewhat paradoxically, it is with images that involve live human subjects that blood appears. In addition to Unmade Bed, other works that depict blood are Empty, in which the girl spews out blood from her mouth and onto her pristine white dress, and Last Portrait, where the girl is shown wrapped in a Ukrainian scarf and holding a condom containing blood. (The inclusion of blood in the latter is so subtle, and blends in with the patterning of the scarf, that it takes close inspection to see what she is holding.) Whereas the earlier works were fantastical contrivances that could only exist in the mind or in the realm of art, this new series is rooted in the human experience; therefore, the blood is a necessary marker of the works’ reality.

Perhaps the most enigmatic object in this series is Lost. By and large, the works in this series – both those discussed above and all others – follow some type of narrative structure, whereas Lost is purely symbolic. Visually, it is the most arresting work in the set as it is almost completely colored a highly saturated red, punctuated by Carolina’s light skin and the brilliant white fur of the rabbit she is holding. The rabbit – dead, stiff – still maintains the appearance of a soft warmth, something that is contradicted by the animal’s missing eyes. Carolina holds the rabbit in a motherly manner similar to how she held the “baby” in Madonna. In fact, the figures’ poses, the usage of dazzling color, and the girl’s steely straight-forward gaze give this work the appearance of an icon, as discussed above in regards to Nothing. Still, the rabbit (who perhaps has given his eyes to another work) preserves a mystical quality, as its role in the photograph and its overall message remains unclear. More shockingly is that Carolina is wearing an ornate collar that is reminiscent of those used by Edenmont in her photographs that combine the collar with beheaded rabbits. Is this an odd coincidence, or does the girl become the stand-in for the martyred animal? Is she herself to be the next sacrifice? Lost becomes the summation point of the series of photographs, as it parlays the major emotions of the various works into one statement, that of loss. Edenmont sums up the work as such: “Lost life, lost eye, lost childhood, lost faith, lost hope.” Though exquisitely printed and beautifully composed, the images in “Still Life” offer the viewer no hope of redemption, no chance to regain the innocence that has been lost. The best that one can hope to do is to pivot upon these traumas and use the experience to move beyond in a constructive way.

Pete Marinucci is an art historian living in New York City and teaching at Brooklyn College.