Anja Niemi is a creator of elaborate fictions. Both artist and subject, she reinvents the genre of self-portrait through photographic living pictures. Building on a rich tradition in photography, which is to build worlds where fantasies can be played, Niemi exercises rigorous control over her characters and places. This precision and thoroughness grants a space of freedom, which she uses to ask difficult questions, about the nature of oneself, the desire to be another and conformity.
Niemi’s imagery sutures the Hitchcockian Blondes into Lynchian landscapes using two seemingly opposite aesthetic strategies – beauty and the unheimlich. The seductive beauty of its pastel color palette, its sumptuous interiors and its hyper-feminine characters with impeccable hairstyle invites the viewer to judge by its appearance. At the same time, by offering the doubled body, or by fragments, in awkward poses resembling missiles, we are forced to ask ourselves what could be below the surface.
Since her first series, the images of Niemi have explored the construction of femininity in society and, in its mirror, the film The undercurrent of violence seen in idealized women of the 1950s by Starlets is still played in the iconic Darlene & Me, in which Niemi stages a series of encounters with an always divided self. Darlene, doubled in the desert, represents the agitated internal dialogue that inhabits us all, inciting us to do something, when our instincts completely lead us in another direction.
Inspired by the western films she saw in her childhood, Niemi takes up the stereotypical classifications of women and men in She Could Have Been a Cowboy. This playful series oscillates between the character of the cowboy, dressed in leather and denim, free to dance at will, and “The girl of constant sorrow”, limited by the beauty and the pink of her dress. The cowboy has the freedom of the desert; she can ride her piebald horse at any time at sunset, but she is always tracked by a doppelganger who hides in plain sight behind a rock. The idea arises: who is really free to be who they want to be?
In the interiors carefully chosen by Niemi, amazing transformations take place. The woman who never existed wears lavish dresses and orders her lavish play as a scene. With each image, the character becomes more ethereal, made indistinguishable from the floral wallpaper of her painted prison, because it seems to be becoming so. In the end, she executes her own disappearance. Photography is a useful means of exploring absence and presence, since the form represented is supposed to refer to something or to a “real” person. Niemi plays with this idea in a multi-layered way, positioning photography as a kind of presence absent throughout her work. The ego, although everywhere in view, remains elusive.
Always working alone, Niemi ensures that her characters have a sense of endless solitude. Even when it is in conflict with a double of the ego, the face shows no trace of emotion. Like a doll and without expression, the feeling of a specific self is masked – sometimes literally – or completely absent. Although the Polaroid Short Stories series is made up of seven people, this work, as the whole of her work, functions as a poetics of isolation. Like butterflies pinned by the wings that gave them flight, to better see their lifeless beauty, the existence of each character seems fleeting. Yet here they survive, trapped forever within the confines of the photographic setting, offering a rare chance to consider, even live in, the lives of others.
Anja Niemi (1976) is a Norwegian photographic artist. She studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York and has exhibited numerous times in Europe, in addition to her exhibitions in the United States and China. His first monograph, Anja Niemi: In Character, is published in February 2019 by Thames and Hudson.
Text by: Max Houghton
Anja Niemi: In Character
8 February – 7 April, 2019
Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden