Per Christian Brown´s Melancholic Tableau
By Elisabeth Byre
What does my body know of Photography?
I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography (1980)
In the art of Per Christian Brown we are invited into a universe of pathos – with every picture being at a point of no return. Without a beginning or an end, they are either directly entering the action or tempting us to wait for some.
Brown stages his pictures with varying degrees of clarity. They are directed, decorated and lighted to achieve a certain representation. Some to form a scenic illusion, others to strive for realism. In the first case, we look for the model – is it scenes from a film, a painting or a stage play, we ask ourselves. However, the point of reference cannot be identified as one specific piece, rather as many pieces – ”a copy without an original” (1). In the second case, they strive so well for reality that we are searching for signs directing our attention to the method employed.
Brown’s pictures can be divided into two subject spheres – landscapes on the one hand, tableaux on the other. Thematically, these spheres meet in a project involving sexuality and belonging – the dark night and artificial lighting being the aesthetic common denominator.
In his landscapes, the deserted parks and streets of the night – the city’s hideouts – are the subjects of investigation. Surrounded by a secretive darkness, streetlights create a dramatic and theatrical effect, and many of these pictures are entitled “Scene”. We assume the position of someone peeping; in the shadow of the tree, at the edge of the woods, eagerly waiting for something to happen. In particular, it is the absence of people in these pictures that evokes our curiosity. By including clues, Brown makes us participants in his stories, in which unexpected objects or props create a symbolic ambivalence. In the series “Power and Pain”, toilet paper, like streamers from a party, is hanging from the trees. An aesthetically pleasing expression is formed by something associated with the negation of aesthetics – human faeces and secretes to be wiped away and hidden. Our attention is directed towards areas covered by taboos, and our thoughts towards the events taking place under the guise of darkness; hidden activities and brief encounters. In this way, the park is transformed into a sexualized landscape. Here, the stories unfold beyond the time frame of the photographs; they have already happened or they will happen – the pictures present the scenes of possible events, of unknown dramas.
In his tableaux, Brown is moving away from nature and into enclosed spaces. As in the landscape pictures, there is an enveloping darkness interrupted by dramatic lighting. Here, the streetlights have been replaced by candles or flashlights. In the tableaux, the presence of people, not the absence, creates the stories. These pictures show men in various vulnerable situations, half-naked, asleep, blindfolded, forced to their knees or staring melancholically into a fire. There are no confronting looks, no attempts to communicate with the camera; instead, partially hidden faces turning away. In ”Embracing the Night”, we see a naked man in front of a window – the light of the sunset on the horizon blurring all contours. In this piece, it is not an estranging object that arouses our curiosity, but the way in which the person is acting: the disturbing element lies in his movement. Is he about to climb out of the window – or is he just admiring the view? As in all of Brown’s pieces, we are not given any answers – just cues and hints – leading or misleading us.
Tableau photography is characterized by its toning down of the geographic location in favor of a more universal space. In this way, the pictures retain their mysteriousness; the dreamlike expression is enhanced, since the pictures are not associated with a particular time and place. The direct gaze characterizes the style of documentary film, portrait photography, snapshots and – not least – commercials. By avoiding direct communication with the camera, Brown maintains the theatrical and cinematic illusion he professes in his project. The narration is not obvious, like a chain reaction of cause and effect, but requires our imagination and time.
In the triptych “Nocturnal Vision”, Brown’s model is baroque painting. Inspired by the era’s dualistic thinking of good and evil, the saved and the lost, the scenes unfold. The composition of the triptych emphasises the elements of time and creates contingency between past, present and future. Here, it is presented as a threat from a swan haunting a man – awakening him from his sleep. The dramatic lighting evokes the use of dichotomies of the baroque era: the light flowing down from above as something divine, a saving light. The enclosing darkness from which the swan arises is like an ascension from the sinful dark, earthly. The white sheet and the white swan form a simple symbolic unity of purity and sincerety, contrasting with the aggressiveness of the swan attacking the man – vulnerable and naked.
Ambiguity is a recurring aspect of Brown’s artistic project – there are frequently contrasting elements in the titles and picture compositions. Facing his pictures, it is as if we gain access to a private and secret world. With a certain shyness, we become voyeurs: peeping into intimate spaces normally not available to outsiders, which we are nevertheless allowed to peek into – from a distance. An underlying tension arouses our curiosity, and it persists.
(1) Rosalind Krauss (1993) Cindy Sherman 1975-1993. New York: Rizzoli