In 2019, Maria Pasenau was the most talked-about photographer on the Norwegian art scene. She had a solo exhibition at Fotogalleriet, published the photobook Pasenau and the Devil and the National Museum’s purchased six of her photographs for its collection. All of these appear in her first book, Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau (2018). Conceptualising the role of photography in a digital visual culture, the book is highly topical for the situation the coronavirus has currently put us in. That is, a situation where reproductive media have become necessary preconditions for friendships and art experiences alike.
Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau is quite a brick of a book, with each page covered by a colour photograph exposing the intense, private and confidential community of which Pasenau was part from the ages of 21 to 24. In the introduction, written by Elise By Olsen (who appears in several of the images in the book), Pasenau’s photographs are described as impulsive snapshots of situations she shared with her friends. However, the claim that the project is ‘impulsive’ should be taken with a pinch of salt, for all its images reveal a highly deliberate approach to the devices and conventions of photography.
For example, the pale pink roses and tennis socks that appear in several of the pictures seem to be well-placed references to Wolfgang Tillmans, whose photographic practice oscillates playfully between magazine work, fashion, and art in the same way as Pasenau’s. Tillmans’s explicit rendering of themes pertaining to gender and sexuality also seems to be an important reference for Pasenau’s photographs, in which menses, dildos, female pubic hair, drag, sex, and nudity are central motifs. Still, the most striking reference is Nan Goldin’s iconic photobook The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 1986). One of Pasenau’s photographs shows the catalogue from a Goldin exhibition on the floor among panties, a camera, and worn sneakers, seemingly acknowledging this inspiration. Incidentally, it is striking to note the number of images that evoke Goldin’s photographs without becoming direct paraphrases. These include the images of Pasenau in the bath, a friend in the shower, a high-heeled sandal on a wooden floor, a close-up of the artist’s crying face, and two friends tattooing each other.
Goldin describes The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a visual diary of her own life within a close-knit community of friends on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s and 80s. For Goldin’s circle, this was a time marked by youthful excesses, hard drugs, and boundary-breaking sexuality; a lifestyle that came to an abrupt end when AIDS and overdoses began to claim lives towards the late 1980s. Pasenau’s book is presented as a diary too, with obvious thematic overlaps with Goldin. Pasenau and her friends are similarly unfettered, as suggested by the cover photo depicting the artist bare-chested, wearing her lover’s boxer shorts and adopting a fighting pose. And the words on the final page of Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau might just as well have been Goldin’s: “Youth I pick you like a flower. Your colors are filled whit joy, danger, reagret, love, blod, sex and alcohol [sic].”
Even so, the most interesting link between the two projects is that both seem to be rooted in an understanding of the act of photography as an extension of one’s (female) body into a social space. In The Ballad, this perception of photography as a social practice is explicitly expressed in Goldin’s introduction, where she makes the following statement: “The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me.” She adds: “It’s as if my camera were my hand.” For Goldin, the camera is not an object inserted between her and the social reality represented by the photobook, but the fundamental premise of this reality. The camera is the vehicle that gives her access to her friends’ private experiences – sex, sorrow, and boredom – which is the prerequisite for friendship.
Similarly, Pasenau’s camera, present in almost every image in the book, either physically, metaphorically, or as the reflection of a flash, appears to be the fundamental premise of the community portrayed in Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau. The self-conscious way in which Pasenau’s models look into the lens also suggests a performative sociality that apparently exists to be mediated. In other words, here, as in The Ballad, photography appears to be a way of establishing rather than documenting contact. But whereas Goldin’s social photography resonates with the family album’s documentation of life lived as a succession of happy moments, Pasenau’s project is connected to the sharing practice of social media.
It has become common, especially among younger generations, to send nude pictures to establish intimacy, to share other people’s nude pictures to produce shame, and to post selfies to build a desired identity by having it confirmed with ‘likes’. Moreover, people will gladly post information about where they are, what they are doing, and what they are thinking in the form of photographs that – at least on Snapchat – are gone the very next moment. When Pasenau, speaking during an artist talk at Pink Cube last year, describes how she wants her images to prompt a response in the observer, she is activating this communicative feature of photography. The fact that the smartphone is the most frequently repeated motif in Whit Kind Regrets is yet another sign that Pasenau is aware of how social media is a context for her own practice. Another sign is the many images in the book of actors from the TV series Skam (2015–17), probably the ultimate symbol in a Norwegian context of the digital youth culture of which photography is an integral part today.
In his much-publicised book The Social Photo (Verso, 2019), Snapchat scholar Nathan Jurgenson writes that one of the features of this burgeoning photographic practice is that it challenges the established notion claiming that experiences in the physical world are more authentic than those in the digital realm. Strikingly, the art field opposes this by reasserting the importance of the physical viewing space – a tendency made explicit in our current quarantine situation. In connection with the launch of Fotogalleriet’s digital exhibition programme Let’s talk about images 2.1.0 last week, Artistic Director Antonio Cataldo stated that “the digital is a tool, not a solution.” Similarly, Marit Følstad and Ole Jørgen Ness have explained that they will keep the exhibition venue 222T open during the quarantine period because “physical and spatial inputs embed themselves more deeply in us than digital ones because they involve more of us.”
A similar mindset can be discerned in Pasenau’s photobook. The pictures in Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau were not taken with a mobile phone, but with a camera. And the use of the enduring physical format of a book asserts photography’s classic documentary function. In addition, the work is produced in a signed and limited edition of 150 – a low figure, even for photobooks. In doing so, Pasenau contrasts the conventions of the art field with the conventions of social media. From this point of departure, she enters the tension-filled arena – suspended between documentation and communication, physical and digital presence – that is photography today. In an age when social experiences and art experiences merge and intertwine because the coronavirus has made the screen a prerequisite for both, Whit Kind Regrets Pasenau appears as eerily relevant as Pasenau’s photograph of two young girls kissing while wearing protective masks.