Utopia or the mistake of the intellect
Oct 12 - Nov 17, 2018

Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer create overwhelming works. They use staged photography not to bypass reality, but rather as an interpretative art form. Like archaeologists of the soul, they give life to portraits brimming with vitality. Those portrayed live not only within the frame, but also seem to be able to lead us into hidden places within ourselves…The magic within these images holds the viewer fast…We constantly waver on the threshold between reality and the imagined. The only thing we cannot do is divert our gaze.
/Joanna Persman, 2017

Christian Larsen is delighted to present Utopia or the Mistake of the Intellect, our third solo exhibition of new works by Cooper & Gorfer and their first in Stockholm since their critically acclaimed exhibition I Know Not These My Hands at Fotografiska in 2017.

In this new series of works the artists continue to develop and expand upon their rich visual language presenting a world that feels at once historic and yet decidedly of our time. Utopia or the Mistake of the Intellect presents a subtle and sophisticated body of work with questions of identity, sanctuaries and idealisation of place. Emanating from the current political reality, this new series imagines a playful utopian theatre. With a deep interest in the human story, it reminds us of monocultural conditioning and the illusions of the human mind.

The protagonists that inhabit the works are drawn from a new diaspora – a young generation of girls whose lives have been influenced by forced migration and a need for a new home. These are teenagers on the cusp of adulthood who have experienced what it means to uproot their reality and sense of self. The girls are adorned with a small array of personal items, safely grasped in their hands, tied in their hair, clasped around their arms, or clipped into small crevices of the portrait. They are photographed like goddesses, surrounded by an entourage of helpers and assistants, who embellish them in a western ideal of historical memory with items from important museum collections, like the V&A Museum, London or Nordiska Museet, Stockholm.

Influenced by the narrative structure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible City and Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, the artists worked with a conceptual architectural team in Vienna to create simulated architectural structures, and researched and photographed a diverse array of architectural elements, from the Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana, to the muraled rooms of Villa d’Este in Rome, to dioramas from museums such as the Museum of Natural History, New York. Using this research and manipulating the gathered photographic and rendered materials, the artists built a constructed miniature world, a continuous coulisse of surfaces and woven structures of architecture and nature. The camera journeyed into these labyrinthine arrangements capturing the visual topology the protagonists would later inhabit. Caught in an unending enclosed space of walls, gardens and doorways, the girls are integrating themselves, removing themselves, pasting themselves in or cutting themselves out of this created illusionary coulisse.

The artists’ delicate and sophisticated layering of image and texture contributes to the surreal visual tales that appear throughout their complex compositions and creates a world where anything seems possible. Sections of the figures or image may be cut away revealing a new level below, a portal into an adjacent space or a door leading to a new sphere of metaphorical possibility. At other moments architectural and abstracted geometric elements are placed on top of the subject, bending and morphing to create new and unexpected garments, gestures and surreal associations. This playful manipulation of image is part of the formal construction of each image but also contributes to the feeling that each figure could be overcome by their own tableau at any moment. With the use of naïve cuts and collage elements, Cooper and Gorfer construct various layers of physicality within each work, acting like the many layers of backdrops on a theatre stage. This visual dance between abstraction and figuration, and Cooper & Gorfer’s continued mastery of space and perspective transforms a seemingly surreal world into something utterly believable. Caught in a constant maze of surfaces and projected realities, each girl’s environment may be built, torn down and rebuilt differently, but it is inherently constructed, subjective and therefore a theatrical image of reality, never reality itself.

Sarah Cooper (b.1974, US) and Nina Gorfer (b.1979, Austria) have been collaborating since 2006 and work between Gothenburg, Sweden and Berlin, Germany. The artists’ exhibition The Weather Diaries is currently on display at the Nuuk Art Museum, Greenland and then travels to Latvian Museum of Art, Lithuania Museum of Art and Landesgalerie Linz, Austria (2019) and Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (2020). Selected recent exhibitions include Interruptions and The Weather Diaries, Rosphoto, St Petersburg, Russia (2018); Interruptions, Árran, Lulesamisk Senter, Drag, Norway (2018); A Queen Within, NOMA New Orleans Museum of Art, USA (2018); I Know Not These My Hands/Interruptions, Strandverket Konsthall, Marstrand, Sweden (2018); The Weather Diaries, American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, USA (2017); I Know Not These My Hands, Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden (2017); The Weather Diaries, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, USA, Danish Cultural Center, Beijing, China (2016); The Weather Diaries, National Museum of Photography, Copenhagen, Denmark (2014). In 2018, Cooper & Gorfer were the winners of the prestigious German Photo Book award for their monograph I Know Not These My Hands.