Rosie Heinrich, We always need heroes

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover with flaps, 136 pages with 8 pages insert, with 66 color and black and white photographs. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Rosie Heinrich is a British artist based in Amsterdam whose practice combines video, installation, performance, and photography, as she focuses on the “constructs of self-storytelling, belief, reality and (spoken or wordless) language.” She often uses audio materials from recorded conversations as a medium.

In 2015, Heinrich began a long-term, multidisciplinary project entitled We always need heroes, examining the devastating financial crisis in Iceland in 2008, and focusing primarily on its cultural and social consequences. It was the country’s worst financial crash and a traumatic experience for the entire nation. Over the course of two years, Heinrich spent nine months in Iceland recording conversations with Icelanders as they reflected on their memories of the crisis. Many of them mentioned that they also saw the crash as a cultural collapse. The final project includes live performance, videos, drawings, and photographic works, and Heinrich has also published a photobook (with the same title), its release coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the crisis.

We always need heroes reflects Heinrich’s use of various mediums. It is a softcover book with french folds. An image of a rocky surface with several cut out white circles appears on the cover, and the four words of the title are placed on each side facing inwards. The front flap has an insert with a songbook of a choral piece entitled Rational Inattention. It synthesizes the eponymous economic behavioral model and the melody of the much-loved yet very dark Icelandic lullaby, Sleep, My Young Love. This piece (also performed live) is part Heinrich’s reinterpretation of the Icelandic crisis.

The book combines her photographs with the edited and rearranged texts of conversations recorded by Heinrich. She recorded about twenty interviews, each roughly one to four hours in length, and if the interview went well, she would return to the person to continue the conversation. In particular, she looked for special moments that could be used later; she transcribed everything, even the uhs, ahs, and ums, the silences and the unfinished words, and the tiny gestures that might have indicated a particular feeling.

In the book, the excerpts from the interviews are marked by notations, adding an almost performative element to the dry text. Heinrich developed her own notation system for the transcribing the unseen portions of the interviews, allowing her to document some of the emotional nuances that would normally have been overlooked, identifying “speaking on an inward breath”, “prolonged stutter”, “audible body movements”, and other movements. Heinrich meticulously breaks speech down into its component parts, emphasizing its structure and systematically unpacking the layers of self-storytelling. Tiny holes seen throughout the pages mark a physical “cut within or between interview material” and the footnotes added throughout the interviews provide another level of information, clarifying and elaborating certain statements (for instance, the remark that Iceland had “grown fantastically” is explained in more detail in a side text). These texts are placed on the left and right margins of the pages, and the marks, typography, text arrangements, and use of color create visually exciting spreads within the book.

Through the excerpts, the Icelanders share their reflections on the crisis, a phenomenon that wasn’t simply economic in their eyes – it shook the whole internal perception of Icelandic identity. The collective narrative reinforced by the Icelandic sagas and nation’s own beliefs in its greatness suddenly felt apart, revealing its fragile constructed nature. Through this shift in perception, narrow interests and preconceived ideas were put aside, allowing the residents to see things from a different perspective. For Heinrich, this self-examination process is a form of listening. 

The texts serve as building blocks for the collective narrative, while Heinrich’s images add another visual layer to the cultural examination. Most of the photographs (some of them are screenshots from the artist’s videos) are images of surfaces – clay, sky, rocks, and piles of paper – and they consistently feel like fragments or layers, almost like indirect portraits of the societal forces coming apart. During the printing process, the yellow in many of the images was replaced with gold, altering the colors of the photographs and also alluding to the gilded effects of financial crisis. There are no people in the images, however, a few of them include hands: hands touching clay, hands placed on a scanner, hands with a medical hammer (perhaps testing for reflexive responses), grasping hands, each bringing a hint of anonymous human touch back to the proceedings.

One spread pairs paper sheets with a close up of what looks like layers of lava. Another depicts a rocky landscape with white balloons tossed around. A few spreads later, black balloons with strong shadows decorate a landscape of black lava. These balloons look like cut out holes, creating a sense of missing elements, gaps, vacancies, and incompleteness, a state Heinrich considers essential for creating a collective narrative.

“I peel away the myth and investigate the politics of perception. I reconstruct what people experience and think about reality. They tell the stories themselves, and I reconstruct their observations and collective fantasies. That statement by Claude Lévi-Strauss, that it seems like mythological worlds exist only to splinter apart, so that the fragments can be built into new stories, seemed like a motto for the Iceland project”.

Unlike the many projects we have seen documenting failed banks, unfinished housing developments, unemployed workers, and other surface indications of Iceland’s financial ruin, Heinrich has made a much more abstract and conceptual portrait of the breakdown, trying to use analytical tools of various kinds to inform her artistic approach. Her photobook interweaves disentangled images and text fragments into a complex new narrative, one that feels both brainy and elemental at different moments. It’s a book that requires an engaged reading, and through this process of active connection, it reveals multiple aesthetic layers and unexpected cultural links buried within a story we assume we have seen before.

Collector’s POV: Rosie Heinrich does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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