Nicolai Howalt - British Journal of Photography

Close Encounters, May 2013, Volume 160




What happens when you lean in closer and try a different perspective? When you poke your nose into a subject and sni around for a new angle? Colin Pantall and Lauren Heinz talk to four photographers who have done just that, exploring the sense of abstraction and dislocation that occurs when their subjects are cut o from their usual contexts.


Nicolai Howalt deals in opposition and ambivalence. His Boxer series - a classic before-and-after series of young pugilists - looks at the transition from child to man, from innocent to bully. Since making Boxer in 2003, the 42-year-old Dane has followed this oppositional track, but on a trajectory that has become increasingly abstract

in nature. Central to this route are his still life projects, including Car Crash Studies, and Endings, his large format photographs of crematorium ash.


The former was influenced by JG Ballard's controversial novel Crash, within which road accidents are directly linked to a hyper-real state of heightened sexual arousal - that of a crash-induced adrenaline rush. "I have always found it remarkable that, when I came across the scene of an accident - with injuries, ambulances and blue flashing lights - I felt a really repulsive discomfort but also an attraction and fascination that usually made me look as I passed by," says Howalt. With this in mind, he decided to confront this ambivalence by putting himself into the driving seat of the crashed cars. "Unaware of who and how the accidents happened, I began to photograph the interior of these cars. A kind of examination of whether the cruel light appears diðerently, if seen in its opposite light."


It's a simple idea, brilliantly executed, with a visceral edge that differentiates it from the car crash projects of Andy Warhol or Walid Raad. Strangely enough, this gives it more of an emotional connection, reminiscent of some of Enrique Metinides' crash-scene photographs; pictures where the impact and its a!ermath are so fresh you can almost hear the screaming of tyres and the ripping of metal.


The images that Howalt took had two forms, with the interior shots made with a hard flash. #e main materials shown here are the plastic of the dashboards and the fabric of the seats. These are ugly pictures, harsh and evidential in nature; they show what gets smashed, twisted and crushed - the glass, plastic and metal. In terms of the people who were in the car, we don't see anything. We are left to imagine who and what got caught up in the violence of a high-speed collision. In at least one of the cars, we know that somebody dies - there is an engine in the front seat - but in the others we are le! in a Ballardian world of horror mixed with fascination. We become picture-gazing rubberneckers.


The second series of pictures is the exterior shots of the crushed paintwork. These are also harsh, but the materiality of painted metal has a different effect than that of the plastic car interiors. It's colourful, shiny and bright. It looks like foil wrapping paper, the afermath of a child's birthday party. Then you look a little closer and the violence creeps in, the smashing and the shearing. Look at that too closely and you end up being dragged along the tarmac these cars collided on.


"I see the abstract images in context with the works of the concrete interiors of the cars," says Howalt. "They express just another layer of the story and the feelings implied. The abstract photographs seem to bring about two contrasting experiences. On the one hand we see beauty and seduction, and on the other hand the representations of death... Since there is visually a clear link between the image and the photographed object. In effect, the design appears to be dissolved into an iconoclastic unknown, where the concrete image is replaced by a mental one." 


Where Car Crash Studies works with the duality of horror and fascination, Howalt's project on crematory ash, Endings, works with the conceptual dualities of the mortal and the eternal, of the earthly and the celestial. These ideas originated from the photographer's research into the science of the cremation process and how flesh and bone is chemically transformed during cremation.


"The idea of the work comes from the understanding that we are the soil we have come from and the soil we need to go back to," explains Howalt. "I became interested in the idea that we in the ash looked into a kind of eternity and infinity, which, in turn, also reminded me of the texture and aesthetics of the universe." That combination of the remains of the finite physical body and the eternal celestial infinity are what Howalt shows in Endings. The ash looks like celestial bodies set in an infinite sky, multi-hued galaxies made up of stars
set against a black background. "It's all photographed at a crematorium where I made a mobile studio. I had challenges technically, about clarity and sharpness of contours in such small elements as ash flakes, but it's all done on traditional film, with traditional flashlights, and a large format camera."


As with Car Crash Studies, there are elements that remain unexamined. We don't know whose ashes are being photographed, how they lived or how they died. But this is unimportant, and we don't really think about the who or the why when we see the pictures. Everything is taken up into the infinite expanses of the universe we imagine we see. "Working with Endings is, in my view, a fine meeting between infinity from both perspectives; in the microscopic, as seen in the ash, and through eternity, as seen in the perspective of the universe. In addition, it is interesting when a star is dying, it swells up and turns red, then it explodes and shrinks. The explosion sends a very large quantity of stardust out into space but, in time, the elements in various dust clouds accumulate and form new stars and planets. So you can ask the same question: 'Is a dying star another star's beginning?'"


Howalt's work is a series of dualities - of life and death, horror and fascination, finite and infinite. At the same time, he uses these dualities to get under the skin of what he is photographing, using photography to question photography. "What we photograph, what is shown in the work, is always something concrete. Thus, pointing specifically to something that is. I would like to challenge the surface of the media and to have both a concrete and an abstract story, yet to keep 'something' we cannot see or perhaps fully comprehend 

24 May 2013