Intertwined Realities: Marie Sjøvold’s Photographs

Written by Christine Hansen

[Philosophers] know the universe before they know 
the house, the far horizon before the resting-place.
— – The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

Marie Sjøvold’s art explores timeless themes such as maternity, family, and sleep. We live at a time when motherhood is subject to constant discussion and focus, and many women feel pressured to share their maternal bliss on social media. Although the home, the family, and motherhood are all visible elements in society, a deeper reflection on such essential frameworks of everyday life is often lacking. It is precisely this type of reflection that is at the heart of Sjøvold’s oeuvre. In Midnight Milk (2015), for example, we follow the photographer through various stages, as a heavily pregnant woman, a recent mother, and a mother with young children. In a photograph taken right after the birth of her son, we see the photographer resting with her baby lying close to her chest. The plastic bracelet around his hand and the white linen indicate that she is in hospital. The artist appears to be asleep, but her hand, which is holding the child’s head, reveals that she is merely resting. Her hair is dishevelled, and her facial and body hair seem almost canvas-like. For anyone who has seen a woman right after she has given birth, there is a sense of corporeal recognition in this scene. The picture showcases Sjøvold’s ability to turn the intimate and private into something universal. This is no rosy-eyed depiction of postpartum reality. As spectators, we can feel the exhaustion and at the same time the almost brutal proximity to life. 


In another work, Sjøvold shows us an equally direct portrayal of her husband along with his daughter and his new-born son on his arm. The subject’s vulnerable gaze and naked body, which his daughter has drawn on with lines of red and blue, hit us deep inside. This sombreness is counterpoised by a sun drawn on his chest and a smiley on the baby’s nappy. Sjøvold’s works show us intimacy and helplessness, but also strength and sensuality. Her pictures are multifaceted, devoid of clear-cut answers. 


Sjøvold makes use of autobiographical elements in her projects. Even though her pictures look authentic and effortless, the journey from life to picture is actually a time-consuming one. One particular challenge is that she features in her own pictures. Sjøvold reveals that she uses many different methods when she photographs herself. Sometimes she uses the camera’s self-timer, other times she uses a remote shutter to take sequential photos. Oftentimes she films what she wants to photograph and lets whatever happens to manifest itself during the process serve as the basis for developing a photograph. “It’s like a little performance that no one sees,” she says. 


It is particularly interesting to compare this latter strategy with the technique employed by the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Wall often refers to his photographs as “near documentaries” because many of his pictures stem from his own experiences, which are then recreated as a photo in front of a camera. This process is akin to cinematography, given that Wall often operates with stagings that can be as extensive as those on a film set. Interestingly enough, Sjøvold works in the opposite manner, shooting film to begin with and then letting this staged event in front of a camera serve as the basis for something personal. Sjøvold’s and Wall’s divergent methods show that the staged and the personal are not necessarily mutually exclusive – creating a convincing photo often requires taking a detour into the theatrical. 


There are also other elements in Sjøvold’s pictures that balance the relationship between document and staging. She mitigates the theatricality by almost never turning towards the spectators and peering into the camera. Her face is often turned away, or it may be shrouded in smoke or concealed with balloons. Oftentimes she rests with her eyes closed, or is entirely asleep. By averting her face from the camera, she helps create an important space in the pictures for the spectator: peeking into a universe without being seen yourself makes for an intensely seductive experience. 


Another vital aspect of Sjøvold’s universe is the role allotted to the home. Dust Catches Light (2010) deals with the artist’s first pregnancy and her grandmother’s dementia. In this series, her grandparents’ house is one of the main characters. Garish wallpapers, family pictures, and synthetic carpets are the surroundings wherein she portrays herself. In the video Hide and Seek (2008), made as a continuation of this project, we encounter a house that lives and breathes, full of ticking clocks, buzzing flies, and the sound of running water. In tiny glimpses we can see her grandparents haunting the house from which they moved out a long while ago. 


The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard is one of the few thinkers to reflect on the importance of the home in our lives. The home is not only a venue for living but a venue for dreams, he says. Further, the home contains histories and dreams that are constantly being penetrated by the memories and dreams of the past.  We live therefore at many different times simultaneously, and our imaginations tinge our experiences. “Something unreal seeps into the reality of the recollections that are on the borderline between our own personal history and an indefinite pre-history,” Bachelard writes. This unreality is particularly evident in Dust Catches Light, where the grandparents’ lives, the grandchildren’s lives, and the dreams of the artist become intertwined. 


The relationship between dream, reality, and history is also at the fore in Sjøvold’s installation They Crept into Their Father’s Sleep (2016). The project is about the artist’s paternal grandfather, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Second World War. The installation consists of photographs, video tableaux from the concentration camp, and documents. The work also contains audio recordings featuring a conversation with the artist’s father and her grandfather’s closest friend, with whom he had shared a cell in Poland. Since Sjøvold never met her grandfather, They Crept into Their Father’s Sleep is about how recollections of this trauma live on. The work shows how fragmented memories and incomplete histories play a part in shaping subsequent generations. The solemnity of its subject matter notwithstanding, They Crept into Their Father’s Sleep also shows hope. This is especially on display in the striking video tableaux from Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the recollection of the light that kept her grandfather’s courage up materializes itself in front of the viewer.