Unstill lives,
Nathalia Edenmont

By Meghan Dailey
Published in: Nathalia Edenmont, Eternity, Borås Konstmuseum, exhibition catalogue 2011

The lone female figure in Nathalia Edenmont’s photograph Nostalgia wears a golden-yellow gown trimmed with blossom-like ruffles. Against a deep black background (a formal convention the artist often uses) the girl, a teenager, stands with arms hanging straight down her sides, her expression wounded and melancholy but as resolute as her posture. Close inspection reveals that the dress has gash-like holes across the front and the flowery trim looks as if it’s been burned, or almost melted. Yet its wearer remains unharmed—at least physically.

The model’s steady gaze and taut emotional bearing brings to mind the figure of the girl in Jan Steen’s famous painting The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter, 1655. Wearing a golden dress, her hair pulled back severely and her gaze squarely meeting ours, the Delft girl on the verge of womanhood is isolated from the other figures in the picture, and thus a bit inscrutable. But aside from surface associations, what brings these two very different works together in the mind’s eye is the stillness of the figures. Without motion but not without emotion.

Nostalgia was included in an exhibition entitled “No Feelings.” The show also included a series of Edenmont’s related images, all from 2009, with such titles as Aspiration, Delusion, and Independence. There is hardly an absence of feeling in a single one of them. The irony of course, is that what Edenmont’s photographs do best is elicit a gut emotional reaction. When we are confronted with her daring and deeply personal work, there is nothing to do but feel.

Part of the emotional pull of these images is the artist’s own story and how it seeps into the work. Nostalgia, along with the others in the series, is emblematic of a pivotal episode in Nathalia Edenmont’s life. She is 14 years old, ironing a dress that she will wear to pick up her art-school diploma. The doorbell rings but she initially ignores it. Irritated, she finally goes to see who’s there. It is a neighbour, who delivers the news that Nathalia’s mother had died. Returning to the dress, she discovers the iron has burned a hole in it. [1] The hole, the scorching of a part but not the whole, is an allegory for the emotional void left by the tragedy and the pain of the sudden and irrevocable loss of innocence.

Her mother’s death came not long after that of her father. An orphan, she was also a person with a country. She was born in Yalta in 1970, when it was still part of the USSR. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet ideology in which she had so firmly believed as a student was yet another upheaval for her. But she survived the trauma of losing those essential foundations and did not lose herself; she was wounded but living and breathing and made a life for herself elsewhere, despite of her loses. And this essential strength finds its allegory in Frustration, in which the figure wears a gown made of shimmering orange fabric streaked with dark shadows that looks like liquid fire. Like the other dresses, this one also has singed edges, but the fire seems to come from within the wearer, whose expression is calm but determined. (How does Edenmont elicit such intense expressions from her sitters?)

That strength appears in glimpses throughout her work although it is often clouded by vulnerability. At a young age, Edenmont was forced to acknowledge death, both physical and ideological, and the realization pulled her, perhaps unwittingly into adulthood—never an easy passage in the best circumstances. But now, as a woman and as an artist, Edenmont uses her photographic practice as a key to the past. Not to undo the old losses but perhaps to reclaim them. It is as if by remaking certain memories she can both escape her past and reclaim it on her own terms.

And Edenmont’s aesthetic and conceptual terms can be startling, beautiful, shocking and, at least for some viewers, perverse and even offensive. Her first solo exhibition at the Wetterling Gallery, in 2003, featured colour saturated images of dead animals, or more specifically, parts of them, arranged in quasi-decorative ways. Cat’s heads were placed atop coloured-glass vases, rabbits were coifed and given ruffed collars, and a mouse head was placed atop a ceramic figurine of an angel. Like documents of a Wunderkammer, these images of curiosities provoke wonder and revulsion at their strangeness. Certainly they were like nothing else. What was too much for some who saw them was the fact that Edenmont created these animal-objects herself, starting with live animals. Part butcher, part taxidermist, and part sculptor, Edenmont caught these hybrid creatures in a suspended state, and by showing them with their eyes open, reanimated them for a photographic instant.

These works have drawn comparisons to 17th- and 18th-century vanitas paintings and Dutch still lifes, in which objects are rendered with an exactitude that mingles with symbolic elements. The same may be said of her portraits. The naked little boy in Angel holds a bouquet of white roses. His lush curly hair and androgynous beauty places him in a long art-historical line of cherubs but that iconographic reading is suddenly rendered insufficient by the fact that he is wearing a bridal veil on his head. Child boy-bride? A hybrid of both male and female, meant to be symbolic of the universal innocence of children? Even that innocence cannot, apparently, be taken for granted. In the deeply unsettling Chair a child in a white nightgown is strapped into a scaled down electric chair. Perhaps he is being sacrificed for the sins of others, for it is difficult to imagine what his crime might be.

And in fact, meaning is never so literal in Edenmont’s world, which is full of proxy objects and people, stand-ins and look-alikes. A few years ago, Edenmont herself found a model to represent her younger self: a girl named Carolina, who has the same red hair and pale complexion as the artist. In Last Portrait, we see her, wrapped in a traditional Ukrainian scarf that she clutches around herself. At first the bright floral pattern of the fabric distracts from what else she’s holding: a condom with blood filling the tip. It’s like the “happy” ending of some dark, bizarre folk tale in which a threatening force, underestimating the shrewdness of its captive, has become the prey.

Carolina appears in numerous photographs as a kind of muse to the artist as well as a symbolic presence that allows Edenmont to inhabit the works and never let go of her role as their maker. There is a strong element of the theatrical in action in these highly constructed environments where “actors” embody grand themes. The stylized spaces suggest stage sets, and there are many costumes and props. What the figures are wearing is central to the meaning of these works, as we know from such images as Nostalgia and Frustration. In fact, the role of fashion and adornment is a fascinating aspect of Edenmont’s work. She often covers her models with minimal elements—a single piece of fabric, newsprint, a strip of gauze bandage. Elsewhere the garments are more opulent, even achingly beautiful. In Treasure, 2009, in which a girl wears a vivid rose-pink dress with a ruffled skirt, the edges of the petal-like ruffles are blackened, giving them the appearance of a bunch of exotic blooms.

The photographer occasionally appears in her photographs and when we realize it is her, the recognition is a like a jolt. One of the most visceral images is one she reserved for herself. In Behind the Scenes M, 2009, she wears a crimson dress. Resting on her hand like a puppet is half of the body of a rabbit, its torso dripping blood down her arm. Like the Beuysian shaman who tries to explain pictures to a dead hare, Edenmont seems to be on the verge of addressing the animal—will she ask a question or answer one? The interrogative mode will yield neither, but the meaning is clear enough: The truth about art, as in life, Edenmont seems to be telling us, is that it’s often, maybe always, beautiful and horrible all at once. To pretend otherwise is to miss an essential truth about both.

Note: [1] As related by Arthur C. Danto in his essay “Nathalia Edenmont and the Photograph as Scherzo,” from the exhibition catalogue “No Feeling,” Wetterling Gallery, 2010, pp. 9–10.