Anja Niemi | In Character

Museum - Open today 10:00 ― 20:00

01:06 - 14 Jan 2019

Anja Niemi (b. 1976, Oslo, Norway) is a creator of elaborate fictions. At once artist and subject, she reimagines the genre of self-portraiture through photographic tableaux-vivants.  Building on a rich tradition within photography of constructing worlds where fantasies can be played out, Niemi exerts an exacting control over her characters and locations. Such precision and attention to detail grants a space of freedom, which she uses to pose challenging questions, about the nature of the self, wanting to be another, and about conformity.

Niemi studied at the London College of Printing and Parsons School of Design in Paris and New York and has exhibited in galleries worldwide. Anja Niemi: In Character, is published February 2019 (April USA) by Thames and Hudson. This book features over 170 photographs that have marked her career to date, supported by an essay and interview by Max Houghton. Three previous monographs of her work have been published, Short Stories, The Woman Who Never Existed, and She Could Have Been A Cowboy (all by Jane & Jeremy). Her work has also been published in Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames & Hudson, 2017) 

Anja Niemi´s captivation images are not only beautifully created stories of her fictional characters. Like mirrors they reflect questions asked by the characters on who we are ourselves, and who we perhaps would really want to be, says Johan Vikner, exhibition manager at Fotografiska Stockholm.

Employing two seemingly opposing aesthetic strategies – beauty and the unheimlich, or uncanny, – Niemis imagery sutures Hitchcockian Blondes into Lynchian landscapes. The seductive beauty of her pastel color palette, lavish interiors, and immaculately coiffed, hyper-feminine characters, invites the viewer to judge by appearance. At the same time, by offering the body doubled, or in fragments, in awkward, missile-like poses, we are compelled to wonder what might lie beneath the surface.

When I was younger I always had lots of ideas but no coherent way to express them. Being dyslexic with social nerves seemed like a huge stumbling block at first. When I discovered photography, I started to realize that I could tell stories without words and translate the ideas in my head into something tangible. The camera was a tool to turn my ideas into reality. In the beginning the thought of the images reaching such a wide audience, in fact, any audience, was not on my mind. I have been putting myself into my work for almost twenty years, but I’m not sure if the images I create are autobiographical; it certainly isn’t how I think about them. I have been creating images in a way that makes me comfortable, alone. I want to ask questions about identity, and about what it is to be human, but not about what it is to be me.” Anja Niemi

From her earliest series, Niemis images explore the construction of femininity in society and in its mirror image, film, The undercurrent of violence glimpsed in the idealised 1950s women of Starlets, is played out further in the iconic Darlene & Me, in which Niemi stages a series of encounters with an always divided self. Darlene, doubled, in the desert, represents the restless internal dialogue that inhabits us all, inciting us to do one thing, when our instincts pull us in another direction entirely.

Inspired by Western movies she watched as a child, Niemi repurposes the stereotypical classifications of women and men in I Could Have Been a Cowboy. This playful series shifts between the character of the cowboy, clad in leather and denim, free to dance at will, and ‘The Girl of Constant Sorrow, restricted by the prettiness and pinkness of her dress. The cowboy has the freedom of the desert; she can ride into the sunset on her piebald horse at any time, yet still she is stalked by a doppelganger, hiding in plain sight behind a rock. The thought arises: who is really free to be who they want to be?

“She Could Have Been A Cowboy is not really about being a cowboy. It’s about wanting to be another. I wanted something that could stand for a vast number of things, a symbol for all those dreams not being fulfilled, whether they are to do with sexuality, gender, religion, or lifestyle. Big or small, I think a lot of us have something we wish we could do or be, but something prevents us. I wanted my characters to be symbols rather than real people. They could be anyone. It’s not about who they are but what they stand for”.  – Anja Niemi

Within Niemis meticulously-chosen interiors, astonishing transformations take place. The Woman Who Never Existed wears sumptuous gowns and commands her palatial room as her stage. With each image, the character becomes ever more ethereal, rendered indistinguishable from the floral wallpaper in her painted prison, for so it seems to become. Ultimately, she executes her own disappearance.  Photography is a useful medium for an exploration of absence and presence, in that the represented form is assumed to refer to something or someone ‘real. Niemi plays with this idea in a multi-layered way, positioning the photograph as a kind of absented presence throughout her work. The self, though everywhere in sight, remains elusive.

Always working alone, Niemi ensures her characters possess a sense of infinite solitude. Even when in conflict with a doubled self, the face betrays no trace of emotion. Doll-like and expressionless, a sense of a specific self is masked – sometimes literally – or altogether absent. Though there are seven selves that constitute the Polaroid series Short Stories, this work, as her entire oeuvre, operates as a poetics of isolation. Like butterflies pinned by the very wings that gave them flight, the better to see their lifeless beauty, the existence of each character seems transient. Yet, here they survive, trapped forever within the confines of the photographic frame, offering a rare chance to consider, or even to inhabit, the lives of others.

Exhibition: February 8–April 7


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