Elina Brotherus, Carpe Fucking Diem

JTF (just the facts): Published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015 (here). Hardcover, 156 pages, with 104 color photographs. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The photobook is also available in a special edition (here). This includes a copy of the book with a choice of two prints: Marcello’s Theme (2014) or Bedsheet (2014). Sheet size 33 x 50 cm. In an edition of 12 copies each.

Comments/Context: Elina Brotherus is one of the most significant visual artists working in Finland today. Earlier in her career, she became known for her melancholic self-portraits, images charged with complex personal and emotional experiences, often dealing with problematic situations in intimate relations. As her practice has evolved, she has become interested in more universal subjects and formal issues, yet she has often remained present in her work as a model. Her photographs show an exceptional eye for capturing light, color, and composition, often evoking the work of such artists as Caspar David Friedrich, Jan van Eyck, and Jan Vermeer.

Brotherus’ new photobook is titled Carpe Fucking Diem, offering us a blast of honest frustration and simmering anger right up front. It is a penetrating visual diary chronicling the uneasy (and not widely discussed) process of infertility treatment, and the intense emotional experience that goes along with the effort to overcome childlessness. Based on her series Annonciation, taken between 2009 and 2013 (and tracking her accompanying five years of failed treatments), it returns Brotherus to an autobiographical photographic approach, putting herself once again squarely in the center of her work, this time touching a sensitive and very personal topic. Unlike the common popular stories with universally happy endings, the reality she portrays is more gruesome – “the hopeless story with an unhappy end is the story of the majority”.

The monograph is divided in three parts: the prologue before Annonciation series, the Annonciation photographs themselves, and the aftermath. In the first section, we follow Brotherus through a series of free associations, giving us a snapshot of her tumultuous emotional state. The book opens with a muted image, the foggy New York skyline above the stormy waves of the river. What follows is a stream of consciousness, full of subtle melancholy and absence – a dog running in the forest, a plate with green rotten tomatoes on the floor, the artist standing in the river with her back to us. As we flip further, the visual flow gets more intense, as some images go full spread, others slightly overlapping and continuing to the next page. The last image in this part shows Brotherus in the dark, sitting on her knees next to swimming pool, looking down, as if the fragments of her life are passing her by, changing in front of our eyes.

Annonciation takes the biggest portion of the book, the chapters divided by blank kraft paper. Its narrative is much more linear, incorporating scrapbook-style calendar slips, medical records, recognizable iconography, and of course, more self-portraits. As time passes and the story unfolds, Brotherus’ interior emotions serve as a driving force behind most of the photographs, where alternating moments of hope and despair take place in modest domestic environments and sparse rooms. She’s never seen in the hospital or medical clinic, largely just alone with her thoughts. Calendars with marks and scribbles are never far away, reinforcing the relentlessness of the ticking clock.

Brotherus has done a brave job of allowing her vulnerability to show through so clearly – her emotions gyrate up and down like a silent roller coaster, the tiny nuances of feeling seen in her gestures and facial expressions. One image depicts Brotherus in the dining room, sitting on a chair next to the empty table, the hollowness of the room seeming to echo around her; her hands are close to her stomach and her body leans forward slightly. (This room, with its changing interior, light and mood, appears several more times.)

In the next series, Brotherus sits on an antique blue sofa. In the first image, she stares into space holding the camera trigger, deep in her own thoughts, her feet slightly up off the ground. In the next, she looks straight at us, her feet on the floor, her hands together on her lap holding the trigger. And after we turn the page, we see the final image, the artist with her head down on her hands, the trigger under her foot. The sequence is like a time lapse of encroaching sadness, a cinematic flow reflecting a draining emotional process. Fears, nightmares, hope, depression, emptiness, numbness – they are all on view here at various times.

After few years, the treatments ended, and Brotherus’ pictures capture the process of trying to move forward. In one image, she stands holding a puppy in one hand, her other hand giving us the finger – “My Dog Is Cuter Than Your Ugly Baby” reads the caption. Her expression and posture seem to reflect a range of conflicting emotions: despair, weariness, sadness, and resolute jaded strength. A long fold out brings various life moments into a sweeping cinematic sequence, full of movement: the New York skyline shot from a car window, Brotherus in the forest with the dog, Brotherus at the swimming pool with her goddaughter. In these pictures, she frequently turns her back to the camera; it’s as if she wants us to move on from paying so close attention to her, and to reintegrate with the world around her. Perhaps it’s a sign of closure of some kind, an acceptance of needing to look outward rather than inward.

Carpe Fucking Diem is a powerful visual narrative, her images deeply moving and somewhat uncomfortable at the same time. Her photobook’s thoughtful structure and design reinforce the human pace of her visual narrative, the smart combination of papers emphasizing an intimate tactile engagement with its contents. Brotherus’ autobiographical work brings up issues that will resonate with many women. It doesn’t overtly judge or teach, but rather brings along on a harrowing personal journey, making us feel and experience each step of the agonizing process. She opens herself up with quiet clear-eyed courage, and we can’t help but empathize with both her determination and her sorrow.

Collector’s POV: Elina Brotherus is represented by gb Agency in Paris (here), The Wapping Project in London (here), Martin Asbæk Gallery (here) in Copenhagen and Ama Gallery in Helsinki (here). Her work has not yet consistently found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Elina Brotherus, Kehrer Verlag

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