Photographs 1978 - 2003
Viggo Mortensen is generally associated with the Hollywood firmament, especially now that he has been immortalized as the heroic Aragorn in the ambitious The Lord of the Rings movies. In Denmark, people have not been acquainted with Viggo Mortensen, the visual artist. Museet for Fotokunst now offers an opportunity to make that acquaintance through a major retrospective of Mortensen's photography.
Mortensen, the artist, is low-key and unpretentious. He portrays his immediate surroundings. His subject matter centers on recognizable landscapes and relationships among people. His photos treat their subjects with great empathy and sensitivity, drawing out their sensuality, their poetic and dreamlike qualities. Moreover, his photos have an autobiographical component. They frequently present his own world and his joy in observing and recording seemingly insignificant events. Mortensen is an observer of the world, assigning importance and meaning to intimate relationships.
Painting, photography, text
But Mortensen is more than a photographer. He is also a painter and a poet. Photography is just one form of expression among many. He often uses different mediums simultaneously. This is apparent in his books of photography, including Recent Forgeries (1998), Signlanguage (2002), and Coincidence of Memory (2002). These books present photos, paintings, poems and notes in alternation, creating mutual dialogue. Photographs are accompanied by text, adding new narratives to the subjects. Likewise, the paintings frequently include text and photographs. Through such overlaps, Mortensen creates a world of his own that is open to associations, narratives and dreams across image and text: he observes the world and gives voice to his observation.
Meeting with the artist in his home, the art critic Kristine McKenna provides an illustration: 'Every inch of his house is given over to artworks, either finished or in progress. There's art in boxes, in stacks, and leaning against walls, which are hung salon-style with yet more art. [...] Mixed in with the photographs, paintings, collages, assemblages, sculpture, and drawings are notebooks filled with poems and short stories, as well as odds and ends the artist has retrieved from the streets. [...] The house is like a giant compost pile that provides an inexhaustible supply of mulch, and when you see how Mortensen lives, you begin to understand how he produces so much art; it's as if he resides inside a paint box.'
Nevertheless, is it fair to say that the camera has a unique place in his heart? His method of linking painting, photography and text would seem to suggest it. His paintings frequently include both text and photography. Take Another Spring, 2000, a painting with photos "peeking out' from an abstract light-blue field. As a whole, the subject is abstract, and there is no attempt to make an unambiguous statement. However, closer inspection reveals that the painting is really a photograph, on which Mortensen has painted and drawn fragments of the original subject.
This generally characterizes his paintings. Featuring a basic, painted ground, perhaps a shade of red, blue or gold, they are abstract and symbolic. On this field, fragments and details of photographs appear. He thus uses photography to capture an element of reality and painting to reflect on his observation.
Observing the world
To observe, of course, is to see. When you observe, you sense patterns and note connections. Mortensen especially makes record of intimacy and relationships, both between himself and what he photographs, and among phenomena in the world around him. He points out his own perception and experience of the surrounding world, while pointing out photography as an opportunity for experiencing intimacy. Thus, his photographs come to resemble small reflections on meaningful experience. And likewise, they are images of how he perceives the world around him. They are like little self-portraits.
Mortensen's observation of intimacy finds expression in a variety of ways. All of the photographs center on his immediate surroundings. The surroundings are familiar: gardens, houses, kids and pets, but familiar also in being phenomena we encounter daily but do not always pay attention to. It is the color of a flower reflecting the lines of a nearby piece of furniture, or children playing in the yard. In that sense, it is also an anonymous world he presents us with. Anonymous, because we only perceive it in stray glances. In Mortensen, the familiar leads to an existence unnoticed by our awareness.
For the same reason, all photographs contain a duality of intimacy and distance. His camera establishes intimacy and closeness with his surroundings, but because of the anonymity of the subjects, the photos always involve distance. As it is ephemeral, this world tends to vanish and be forgotten. Yet, this world is present; it is right there before our eyes. However, we do not pay much attention to it, as our gaze routinely moves on. It is only elevated out of its hidden existence for as long as an observer, such as Mortensen, pays attention to it. Through his gaze, this world is rediscovered and reobserved.