Sara Bjarland, Groundwork

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Art Paper Editions (here). Softcover, 160 pages, with 178 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Hanne Hagenaars. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by 6’56” and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While many photographers have intuitively understood how a camera flattens what sits in front of it into an image in a single plane, and then gone on to leverage that knowledge in the careful arrangement and construction of their compositions, far fewer have pushed further to truly use photography to think sculpturally. In many ways, the concept fails to make sense – why try to use a two-dimensional representation medium to interrogate how objects function in three dimensions? But for a sculptor, making photographs can be an improvisational process of iterative seeing and rework, where images made from multiple vantage points around an object can unlock different aspects of its form, volume, and negative space.

It is immediately clear from looking at just a few pages of Sara Bjarland’s photobook Groundwork that she thinks and sees like a sculptor. Every one of her photographs, regardless of whether it was set up in her studio or randomly discovered on the streets, is a formal study, and the aggregation of these images into a flow feels something akin to the sketchbook of a painter – her images are preliminary ideas, experiments, learning tools, and playful keep-sharp tests, each an exercise in wrestling with how a particular thing can be placed in space to maximize its aesthetic interest and complexity.

Apparently, Bjarland bikes around Amsterdam on a nearly daily basis, scanning and scavenging through the discarded leavings of the city. She either gathers up the objects she finds and brings them back to her studio, or she photographs them in situ, taking advantage of available spatial combinations and a variety of bricked, painted, and concrete backdrops. Her process is a version of inspired artistic recycling, where the old is given new life by one who sees unexpected and overlooked value in its decayed, broken, or otherwise worn out state.

Seen together, the individual photographs in Groundwork coalesce into a number of obvious groups, categories, and recurring themes. Dead house plants seem to catch Bjarland’s eye time and again, particularly dried out cacti and wilted and yellowed big leafed jungle plants whose owners didn’t have green thumbs. She looks for perspectives that highlight textures and sweeping gestural lines, and finds these consistently when the leaves dry to a crispy, crackly stiffness. Even toppled over trunks and sad stumpy vines, still in their decorative planters, make for surprisingly tactile sculptural forms.

Bjarland’s interest in the cycles of life and death then extends to the small animals and insects of the city, most of whom have met with untimely or grisly ends. But she finds formal dynamism their discarded bodies, from a run over frog, a squished snake, and a flattened mouse, to a number of bloodied birds (mostly pigeons, but a few gulls too) whose wings are now twisted in awkward, unnatural directions. She gets even closer to a handful of insects, inspecting moth wings, creating a tumbling series of striped wasp bodies, and highlighting the iridescent hairy green of a bulbous fly, arranging the bugs in ways that feature their best sculptural angles and edges.

Bjarland has made some particularly elegant compositions when thinking about the extremes of hard and soft. She has done wonders with smashed metal window blinds, their jittering lines crumpled and bent into feathered jumbles, and she has been similarly successful with the planes of broken umbrellas and with unidentifiable wiry things, their many legs jutting out in all directions. On the soft side, deflated balloons and rubber balls become studies in deformation, with a few lumpy, droopy piles that would have made Eva Hesse proud. Bjarland pays attention to greasy rolled up mattresses, discarded rugs, broken chairs, scraps of car tires, and a parade of building materials, from metallic pipes and shattered tiles to crushed drywall and peeling linoleum, giving each a chance to show off its overlooked harmonies of line and curve.

The design of Groundwork follows the idea of a scrapbook, an inspiration board, or a crowded file of source material, where images are shuffled together to explore contrasts, connections, and echoes. The photographs jump around the spreads in various sizes, often slightly overlapping, giving them a sense of being spatially in front or on top. The result is a lively set of page turns, where we follow along as Bjarland interleaves her visual notes and unlikely findings.

While making pictures of found junk isn’t a new photographic idea, treating those leftovers and leavings with the respect of an attentive, risk taking sculptor feels vibrantly reclaimed – the eye in this photobook thrums with energy and inventive grace. Bjarland is both excavating her city and re-envisioning its cast offs, turning artifacts (and animal carcasses) into artworks. It’s a kind of consumerist archaeology, where the death, decay, and disposal of an urban population become a fertile hunting ground for unlikely sculptural forms.

Collector’s POV: Sara Bjarland is represented by Hopstreet Gallery in Brussels (here). Her photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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