Robin Ek, Inner/Visions

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Another Place Press (here). Softcover, 56 pages, with 40 color reproductions. Includes a series of 8 short texts by the artist, printed on smaller yellow paper and bound together in the center of the photobook. In an edition of 200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Inner/Visions is also available as a special edition, which includes an inkjet print. In an edition of 35 copies.

Comments/Context: Robin Ek’s recent photobook Inner/Visions is an elegantly simple example of how straightforward photographic elements can be built up into a more subtle and complex artistic statement. Ek carefully pairs images of two separate photographic subjects, and then quietly recalibrates their potential meaning with a selection of short first-person fictional anecdotes. The result is hauntingly and tenderly bleak, and unexpectedly resonant in our own dark times.

At first glance, the component parts of Ek’s project might not seem particularly innovative or compelling. Photographs of anonymous pedestrians from the back and spotted and blurred flares of light, mostly made by the sun at different times of day, are images we have seen before.

But Ek has executed these pictures with understated attentiveness. His portraits from behind capture people walking away, their heads often slightly bent forward. Since we can’t be drawn into their personal stories by their faces, Ek uses their hair and clothing as the best available options, centering his views on textures and surfaces. Hair can be a straight fall of white, a perfect bald spot, swirls of grey, or a long ponytail, and various headscarves and hats (from an embroidered skullcap and a nun’s habit to a duct-taped motorcycle helmet and a puffer coat hood) offer further possibilities for individual expression.

Ek’s studies of light generally turn the sun into a single round spot hovering in a field of murky color. The light can be small or a bit bigger, bright or hazy, a single shape or a jittering series of repetitions and echoes, and any number of colors, including variations of white, yellow, orange, red, and even purple. In a few cases, we can struggle to place it in the context of the sea, some silhouetted trees, a few clouds, or even a scattering of other lights, but we’re never quite sure – the spots of light wander toward abstraction with only a hint of familiarity.

These two bodies of work are then interleaved, with each spread including one portrait on the left and one light study on the right. Ek has chosen these pairings with meticulous thoughtfulness, the images smartly linked by echoes of color. The blue puffer coat with crinkled highlights is matched with a white sun that shimmers through a veil of light blue. The man with the ponytail stands in front of a geometric wall of orange panels, the flanking image an intense orange fireball. And other pairings link a green fur collar against red bushes with red spots of light in a green fog, a pink headscarf with a series of pink circles, a red jacket with dark hair with an inversion of red spots against a dark backdrop, and a straw hat and green landscape with white lights against a wash of dark green. Each combination feels natural, the spark of light becoming a reflection of the person it seems to be mimicking.

While we might have been content to consider the formal resonances between these two sets of images, Ek goes further via texts that are found in a separate section in the middle of the photobook. Each short anecdote tells the story of an apocalyptic dream or vision, where an unnamed narrator recounts his or her personal moment of fear or blackness. A child is left alone playing the sand when the sky turns dark. A dust storm approaches and engulfs the speaker in a desert of debris. An abandoned farmhouse shelters a huddling group of survivors who listen to a recording of the NASA moon landing. And the rules of the heavens break down – suns turn purple, balloon in size, and multiply, stars fall, and the world comes to a hollow end.

With these stories given as context, we assume that they are the thoughts, daydreams, and visions of the people in Ek’s portraits, with the light studies becoming actual celestial bodies in various forms of distress or transformation. Each person now seems to be traveling alone in their own world, their heads often bent by the weight of their depressed interior moods. With access to fragments of their innermost fears, Ek’s portraits look even more lonely and isolated, each individual lost in their own private despair and matched by his or her own trembling light in the sky.

Not surprisingly, Inner/Visions packs a silently heavy punch in our current moment of uncertainty – the idea of being alone or separated from loved ones, trapped in our own increasingly worried thoughts, with the sky literally falling has an obvious resonance. Ek’s imitate photobook offers this possibility, but doesn’t deliver it with heavy-handed apocalyptic cliché. Instead, he makes the uneasiness human-sized and tenderly personal, where a quick shudder of cold across your back or a flare of light in a darkening sky just might mean the beginning of the end.

Collector’s POV: Robin Ek does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his Instagram (linked in the sidebar).

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