THE OBJECTIVE VOYEUR
– REFLECTIONS ON THE SERIES "CLOSE TO HOME" AND "COMMON GREEN"

Marte Aas has been accused of taking "boring" photographs in which "nothing is happening". They are so ordinary that people say they resemble any old view. The basis for this opinion is that everyone has, at some time or other, looked out over the rooftops of a town or watched for a moment as someone runs across a lawn. Since the material universe is what confronts us in these photographs, we have, in a sense, already been there. According to this line of criticism, Aas is too democratic, she makes the image "ordinary". She allows it to descend to the level of a memory, so to speak, in the same way as we all store similar visual experiences.

Needless to say, all this talk of “coincidences” contrasts starkly with Aas’ own research. A great deal of preparation lies behind each photograph. The apparent “snapshot” style, in that people are captured in the middle of a game or a contest, is set amid a rigorously composed landscape. The photographs are almost annoyingly consistent in their three-part form: sky, ground level and an intermediate layer of vegetation or buildings that ties the whole thing together. Annoying, that is, for onlookers who have grown used to arbitrary forms of expression with the emphasis on inconsistency and illegibility.

The photographs of Marte Aas are uncontroversial in the sense that they do not rely heavily on the staged dramatic effects otherwise widely employed in contemporary photography. Instead, she constantly strives for a process of “emptying”. Nevertheless, the images contain aspects that help set in train a series of speculations, substantive or trivial. In fact, the images are also genuine “as if” expressions. Aas challenges the concept of “straight photography” by handling the pictorial elements in such a way that we cannot avoid adding new chains of association. “It’s as if something in the photographs is holding its breath,” some people might say. “It’s as if something has just happened or is about to happen,” explain others.

So there has to be something more to these universal landscapes, there has to be something beneath the surface of familiarity. Apparently people want to believe that there is an underlying plot behind Aas' photographic techniques, a plot which the photographs are almost longing to be revealed as part of.

The people in Aas’ photographs are reminiscent of the figures on a model-railway layout. It is as if every single positioning has a clearly defined role to play in creating the right atmosphere, as if an invisible hand has set the whole thing in circulation.

Perhaps this indefinable quality is something we absolutely have to associate with any form of artistic expression in order to make it meaningful to us. Behind the individual situations, depicting games and movements in medias res, a separate narrative develops, more or less reflecting everything we recognise in the picture, yet somehow remaining unresolved. The photographs in themselves show a realistic space, but as soon as we let our gaze fall on these outer surfaces, we find there is also something here that we have yet to discover.

“That’s a park, that’s a house, that’s a garden,” we may say, at the same time hearing how banal it sounds. Once this is said, however, we have left this naive level behind us, in that the park, the house or the garden becomes the scene of numerous connotations that arise of our own volition. Aas leaves all these possibilities open, for she has absolutely no interest in any symbolism that may be perceived by the individual eye. Perhaps we simply invent the situation as prepared by Aas.

What kind of photographic perspective leads the onlooker into these landscapes? Is it an embarrassed photographer taking pictures incognito, or a photographer who wants to capture everything, who stands back to make sure of not missing out on anything. Or perhaps a bit of both? The distance between the camera and the subjects induces a panoramic feeling, as well as introducing an element of self-reference. The presence of the camera can be sensed in the frame of the photograph because this distance is what establishes contact. It creates a longing to be involved yourself, as you discover how alone you suddenly feel as an onlooker. In other words, the photographs incorporate a performative aspect in relation to this sense of passively observing the situation within the frame of the photograph.

Language is material, and can lie. We cannot count on language holding the key to the truth. Yet an immediate need arises to imbue the photographs with language, with meaning, and possibly without noticing it, we draw on our own range of experiences. The photographs of Aas indirectly seduce us into doing so, and it is not difficult to get carried away. Rather, it is difficult to imagine that there is not anything behind these outer surfaces. So we unleash our imagination and fill the images to the brim with stories if we so wish. We find that we utilise the reflexivity of language, since nothing is complete to us beyond the section of the world on view.

“There is no perception without meaning,” the German philosopher Karl Bühler once said. This is exactly what Aas realises when she takes photographs. But she also goes a step further, for as soon as we imagine we have grasped the “truth” of a photograph, it eludes us, there amid the flat, even light which is “everywhere” yet which leads us nowhere, and we have to start all over again.

The world is presented as a shape by Aas, but at the same time it goes beyond its own confines in so far as the onlooker’s own experience of the world may form a web of connections that break through the façade. Beneath this, however, I am sure there is a sort of photographic laughter, rejecting everything that is read into it while placing itself at the centre of all speculation.

Marte Aas reveals our yearning to create tension where there does not appear to be any. We may well describe the photographs as “undramatic” or “documentary”, but as onlookers we do nothing other than examine them in minute detail to reveal their “uncanny” side – absolutely convinced that it is there, in the bushes, behind the windows, between the people playing ball. At the same time nobody, not even the photographer who was present, can confirm that this underlying, as yet unspoken something is not present. This is a suspense that infiltrates the visual situations, but it is also a suspense that is maintained in the way we look at the photographs. Whether or not they contain a mystery in broad daylight, the tension is also maintained in our attitude to how much we believe or disbelieve this.

Anne Karin Jortveit