author — Kristine Kern
published in — Next Level Magazine
year — 2012
On the photography of Nicolai Howalt
“…in the case of the photograph, one is dealing with a symbolic complex made up of abstract concepts, dealing with discourses re-coded into symbolic states of things”
Nicolai Howalt’s series ‘Endings’ certainly also depicts what lies beyond the image.
The photo series is about death, but in a very abstract sense. The series consists of 14 large-scale color prints. What you see is beautiful, almost black and white images of different, textural patterns. It is impossible to guess the source of these images. They could look like a close-up of the center of a storm or some microscopic material seen enlarged.
The title ‘Endings’ gives a clue, but not the whole story, which is exactly the point. Reading the exhibition text and finding out that what you see is in fact ashes from dead and cremated bodies clashes with your pre-perception of the images as beautiful. It is a feeling close to what Edmund Burke in 1756 describes as one of the characteristics of the sublime; a painful, ambiguous emotion split between attraction and repulsion. But there is more to the story. ‘Endings’ are representations of death beyond presentation, they are imaginative images which refer to the signifier in a for photography very unusual way, since there is no visually obvious link between the image and the photographed object. Rather, the motive seems to dissolve in an iconoclastic unknown, where the concrete image is replaced by a mental one.
In this way, the series is a radicalization of themes previously adapted by Howalt.
As his ‘Car Crash Studies’ from 2009, where the motif is also abstract, although still recognizable.
In ‘Endings’, the gap between index and sign is still wider, leaving more room for the thoughtfulness of the beholder.
Kristine Kern is an art historian and the director of Photographic Center in Copenhagen, Denmark where she lives and works. She has worked previously as an art critic and has written extensively on contemporary Danish art.