essays & excerpts
Exhibition Zine download: Glowing Wavelengths In Between -
Depth of Field - an essay by Nicholas Frank
Legend has it that Buckminster Fuller could feel the rotation of the planet, in his foot, when standing on a promontory near his Bear Island, Maine home—at once perceiving the edge of the known world, and staring out into space, grasping. This imaginative sensitivity, perhaps suspect, is surely what led him to imagine Earth as a vessel, a spaceship, careening through the universe. If the flat-earthers wanted a simple world, Fuller willed it into dizzying extradimensionality. His vision of us on a boat together in endless space reduces us, and simultaneously places us within scales beyond perception.
Is it possible to take a picture of that sensation? Many technological means give us glimpses beyond what our visual cortices can perceive. A camera trained on the night sky, for example, contradictorily captures the motion of the earth by making it appear that the stars are the things in motion, time-lapsed lines rather than the shining pinpoints of light they appear as to the naked eye. In such an picture, without necessarily being aware of it, we see the materiality of photography, how time and space and position and movement and life and death and the universe get translated through the medium of images.
Sonja Thomsen humbly claims not much more than a dilettante’s interest in science, in math, cosmology and phenomenology. But all these subjects are in play for a true student of photography, who sees light and physics coalesce into a form that influences perception, measurement and memory. The idea of a ‘frozen moment,’ so important to the operation of a photograph, transmits one instant into a succession of forthcoming moments. It is starkly different from the fluid act of photographing, which is a play of recognition, hope, luck, and an awareness of the mechanics the present operation will produce—catching the rainbow, or the dogstar, or the assassination, in a play of light, time, distance, focus, surface, reflection, refraction and distortion.
Almost nothing is unphotographable. Even mysterious brain processes can be imaged, and a single atom can be gazed at. None of this visualization would be possible without context, the wider perspective that gives focus to the specific. Through wondering about photography as a process and an effect, Thomsen has arrived at a view beyond the viewfinder, where a mere play of light comments on how her family interacts intergenerationally. Like peering at a distant object through a radio telescope, a photograph can allow entry to a moment we have no direct access to, which we can then connect to our own personal present —seeing one’s son’s eyes reflected in an image of the great grandmother you never met.
Thomsen’s particular perversity in physically peeling the human subject out of a photograph, via the emulsion (the Efface series), reveals image as object, as a fallible, staged thing, representative of life but not of the living moment it tries and fails to capture. Her act is not unlike glomming flesh through an electron microscope, which anyone could easily mistake for a foreign planet. Only a sophisticated operation of light, material, reflection, refraction, translation, and distortion even allows such a preternatural glimpse. Can a person be recognized from their fingerprint? Or just a place they’ve been?
Looking back through the lens, a photograph is firstly proof that the photographer was there. It then also proves each element of its makeup. Thomsen’s recent focus on a Fulleresque construction (Trace of Possibility, 2013) is one in a series of efforts to materialize the constituents of photography as things in themselves, to catch and construct the play of light on a surface, for example (as on a child’s hand in Demarcate, 2013), to open up that light into its separately colored beams Prismatic Compass, 2013, to examine the physics of the lens (both kinds) in Tangents, 2013, and to dig into the substrates of perception at the level of raw sensation (Trace of Trace, or Power of Ten, both 2013, among others). Thomsen uses the form of exhibition to bring these works together in an extended meditation on the substance of the image, an operation almost Lucretian in its scope (wherein objects throw off ‘skins’ that travel through the ether to the surface of our eyes, that we can perceive them visually). To gain the necessary distance of an examiner and analyzer, Thomsen steps back even further from behind the camera to a different sort of objective place, where her family lives, with its pressing demands in the immediate but also in the patterns that it places on her, in the patterns she replaces, and in the grander pattern that will replace her eventually. It’s as though she can feel the planet turning underneath her feet, the abstraction of time working its barely perceptible effect, while the brain does its best to freeze each memorable moment in a fixity that is as false as it is true. The only photographic truth is everything that happened around the frame of the photograph, only there and only then. All else is memory.
Allison Grant - Assistant Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography
"There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see, but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far away to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye." —Janna Levin
"As astrophysicist Janna Levin points out, the deepest forms of truth often elude careful scrutiny. This is true even within the fields of math and science, which are perhaps humankind’s most direct line to empirical truth. Dark matter, a shadowy substance that we now know makes up more than half of the mass in the Universe, cannot be seen because it neither emits nor absorbs light; however, we can mathematically measure it. The existence of the Higgs boson particle, a fugitive that evaded scientists for years, has now been confirmed. Understanding the particle’s properties is crucial to predicting the behavior of matter on a subatomic level. These are two examples of what the fields of science and math do best. Like magic, they can open up the Universe in ways that map the future and the past, the visible and the unknown, allowing us to predict the behavior of the matter that surrounds us. But ultimately, our discoveries always lead to more questions. As we chase answers, the dark and mysterious corners of the Universe often fissure, moving deeper into more abstract and ever fainter territories.
It is this mysterious territory that fascinates artist Sonja Thomsen. The quote at the top of this page appears in one of her artworks called at work, vol. 2 as an enlarged copy of a page from Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (2006). A work of fiction that is rooted in fact, Levin’s book embellishes and builds upon the biographies of legendary mathematicians Karl Gödel and Alan Turing, two brilliant although tragically flawed protagonists who interrogated the idea of truth and found profound beauty in mathematics. As an artist, Thomsen is captivated by the ways these mathematicians discovered unseen patterns within the practice of mathematics and changed the course of how their entire field perceives reality. She draws on aspects of their stories in her appropriation of the book page, which she then uses as both inspiration and raw material, altering its appearance and juxtaposing it among other texts and images. In addition to the inclusion of Levin’s quote, the artwork features a page from Robert W. Marks’s influential but now dated 1964 primer The New Mathematics Dictionary and Handbook. The charts and figures in the handbook are cold and matter-of-fact in contrast to the prose in Levin’s book, but they take on a poetic magic through Thomsen’s addition of iridescent strips of vinyl, which are placed over portions of the writing. The colorful bands gleam and vivify the words on the page; however, they also cover up and obscure several passages of text. With her alterations, Thomsen fragments the clarity of the text’s original information and brings us into a magical moment of possibility, where her reformation of ideas appears as pure sensorial experience. She riffs on codified knowledge and opens texts up to discoveries beyond rational meaning. Her process becomes a new iteration, less objective but more wondrous.
At work, vol. 2 is presented in a gallery setting as a folded booklet that opens up like a double-sided map. The folding and unfolding of the page interrupts a fluid reading of the information and handling the document can feel like an echo of the vacillating complexity of the Universe in miniature. Faceted or folded forms repeat throughout Thomsen’s work, not only in small, handheld booklets, but also in enveloping, wall-sized murals. The recurring structure lends her enigmatic installations a scaffolded sense of complexity, where repeating shapes and textures converse with appropriated texts and materials. She supplements her more cerebral works with abstracted images of the human figure and formal studies of color and light. Many of the abstract works include polychromatic elements that glitter and transform in relationship to the body. These dynamic ocular experiences interface with mathematical theories, weaving elements of ethereal mystery into a rigorous and factual fabric. Ultimately, Thomsen is fascinated by the world that surrounds us, and the ways fragments of knowledge can be drawn out of the immeasurably complex Universe to be analyzed, with the big picture remaining incomprehensible in its entirety.
Rainbows appear over and over again in Thomsen’s studies and animate the link between the known and the unknowable. Though easily explained scientifically, rainbows are visually stirring and rich with symbolism. In Thomsen’s hands, they are frozen in photographs, embedded in shimmering material, and broadcast as beams of light that play on gallery walls and illuminate artworks. Across all of her depictions, the prismatic glow never sits comfortably in the realm of the known. It is oblique and wondrous and Thomsen seeks it out. To quote the artist, “There should always be a place for wonder; it is a direct line to new knowledge.”
Britt Salvesen - Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department, and Prints and Drawings Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. for Mary L. Nohl Fellowship Exhibition Catalog
"Time haunts photography. Photography occupies every point on the temporal spectrum, from instantaneity to permanence. Hailed upon its invention for its ability to preserve forever what would otherwise fade away, the photograph is itself vulnerable to the effects of light and loss. Not infrequently, a photograph disappears while its subject remains, although just as often a photograph must act as a surrogate for its absent contents.
While time is the declared motif, even obsession, of many contemporary photographers, it is rare that an artist can get at its paradoxical nature, as if setting the clock to wind in both directions, or conjuring an hourglass to trickle sand upward and downward. Sonja Thomsen, in her exploratory, empathetic work, manages something like this. While concerned with metaphysical ideals and essences, her art remains humanist in its acceptance of imperfection and the limits of knowledge.
The very title of Thomsen's 2009 project, Lacuna, points to just such limits. A series of 70 small photographs installed in an array, the gaps between images point to the gaps in memory, to the life experiences—whether trivial or momentous—that went unrecorded or slipped through the cracks. Another component of Lacuna, a stack of peel-away reproductions (not unlike a page-a-day calendar), offers the participant an image with which to fill a gap. Time is restored in a new, improvised configuration.
Thomsen’s own environment and family provided rich subject matter for Lacuna and other bodies of work up to around 2011, when residency and exhibition opportunities drew her into other places and communities. At the same time, curiosity about new media prompted a re-engagement with the primary elements of photography—light and space—in dialogue with time. The Nohl Fellowship allowed Thomsen to explore a continuum of internal and external concerns, fluently shifting between representational and abstract visual languages. We cannot understand the world without reflecting on the self, she suggests; we cannot decipher an image without sensing its substance. For example the white-on-white still lifes of the Vessel series, graceful and mysterious, reveal the insecurity of our figure-ground perception. Lacking our usual firm footing in three-dimensional space, we are left by default in the fourth dimension of time. A similar re-orientation is forced by Thomsen’s mirrored-cave installations, which functions metaphorically as a translations of the expansive landscapes she shot in Iceland, and as metaphorical interiors of the vessels she shot in the studio.
Together the vessel photographs, the landscapes, and the cave environments trigger an instinctual, corporeal awareness. The individual feels a connection to intangible processes of perception, which—like photography—occurs in objective time but also creates subjective time. For Sonja Thomsen, temporality is an artistic medium and a conceptual space. In time, personal experience and universal recognition can converge."
Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, translated by Anna Yates, for Bergmal/Echo Exhibition Catalog
"The theme of time and reappearance of the past is also addressed in the work of American photographer Sonja Thomsen. Thomsen allows us glimpses of a life which, at first sight, appears to spring from the unconscious. She stirs involuntary memories, offering them up like a gift, then asks the viewer to grant them new meaning, thus transforming involuntary memories into voluntary ones.
In the work entitled Ripe, however, Thomsen shows us not only glimpses of the past, but also poses questions about the veracity of the photograph and its power to objectify reality, to preserve some things and forget others. We see the photographs through a circular hole in the wall. By simply departing from the conventional rectangular shape of the photograph, which has been granted an aura of authenticity by its reception history, Sonja emphasizes the way that the photograph invariably removes reality, and hence time, from its context. In the photograph we see only a tiny fragment of reality, never the full picture.
In one photo, we see an old man or, more accurately, we see signs of an old man—disconnected parts of his body and moments of his day. On his emaciated body, a bony, veined hand shakily holds a glass of milk. On a blue plate beside him lies a half-eaten slice of cake, which looks hard and unyielding. Instead of showing the moment in its entirety—the whole man in an environment that might provide a clue as to who he is and why he is being presented to us—we see only a restricted slice of his life. The circular shape of the photograph gives the observer the sense of looking through a peephole at someone else’s life. The old man can neither reciprocate our glance nor explain himself. He isn’t even aware of observer’s existence—and could never imagine that the observer had some claim on this private moment in his life. The photograph shows us not only a moment past, but also disarms the subject, objectifies him and removes him from his context. The motive, however, is a good one—for the photograph provides us with a share in the lives of others, blurring the boundaries between what is and what was. It lets us in on another’s personal moments, which could equally as well be our own.
In another image, we see an old woman—or part of her naked body. She shields one breast with her hand, revealing part of the other breast as missing, leaving only scars, folds of skin—a discrepancy in existence. This photograph elicits strong emotions. It enables women who have never met, who never will, to share in a feeling.
My life becomes yours. Your life becomes mine.
Lacuna, like Ripe, offers glimpses into other people’s lives, but here Sonja Thomsen goes, in a sense, a step further. We are allowed an opportunity to remove past moments from the wall, to carry them away, and thus to make moments which pertained to another person, place, and time, moments of our own life. These moments could easily be ours. They are commonplace, random, yet they embody a narrative, which we must extract, receive and imbue with a new meaning. We bestow on the memories of others a new story, another story, which ultimately becomes our story.
What characterizes both Ripe and Lacuna is the way that every single perspective appears to be circumscribed yet simultaneously part of a larger narrative. Each glimpse encompasses endless possibilities, innumerable stories, but it is left up to us which story we seize upon, take with us, and pass on. Sonja seems to offer these glimpses of a distant world as gifts to the viewer. Her works are like a journey in which the unforeseeable, the random, and the unconscious take on new meaning as the observer receives and works through them in a conscious way.
In Proscenium, Sonja “stages” reality, documenting the footprint of time. We see stage curtains as they frame the outside reality: the ocean and sparse seashore vegetation. This work, the fruit of a prolonged process, not only showcases the unique beauty of nature and man’s own perception of it, but also documents seasonal variations in hours through daylight and weather fluctuations. It brings together two forms of time: measurable time, defined in terms of movements of the sun and stars; and time as it is lived, experienced by the subject in an individual way in face of reality, surrounded by a flow of time in which the distinction between past and present is not clear. In the flow, we simultaneously experience that which is, and that which was. So, Proscenium mirrors the perspective of Outlook by Charlotta María Hauksdóttir. The echo evoked by the title of this exhibition is thus not only a reference to the way that the past resonates throughout the present, but also in the way that the works on display resonate with one another."
Amy Stein, an artist and educator based in New York City, for Collective.Give, the book
A crawfish rests in a woman’s open hand, exposed, but the viewer has a sense, not helpless, its arms reached out in either alarm or surrender.
The image is from lacuna, Sonja Thomsen’s subtly poignant photographic installation which through a loose, lyrical narrative explores her relationship with family, friends and the small artifacts of everyday life. Thomsen defines a lacuna as “an unfilled space or interval in knowledge, literature, or in bone,” belying her desire to share a broad narrative of the most visceral and personal nature. Thomsen lives in Wisconsin, surrounded by a large, tight knit family. These relationships and her reverence for the small details of everyday life lend a rare depth and integrity to these highly personal but readily accessible images.
lacuna is not simply a series of static photographs. Thomsen is much too complex and generous an artist for that. The installation explores the themes of erosion and loss by presenting her images in small stacks that the viewer is invited to peel off and take away. As the images are removed each subsequent photograph is a faded version of the one before it. When the final image is peeled away it reveals a plexiglass plate that contains only a faint impression of the original. In this way Thomsen’s installation explores the ideas of memory and forgetting. A mere trace of the original expression is all that remains. The piece changes each time a viewer interacts with it and eventually erodes itself. Latecomers to the exhibition beware.
But back to the hands, which are a recurring theme in Thomsen’s work. Throughout lacuna we see hands presenting the viewer wonders large and small. These gestures suggest the act of showing and sharing that at its core have a close relationship to the act of photography itself. Thomsen directs us to stop and look closely. Even, and especially, at this lowly but lovely creature fished out of a lake.
Katherine Ware, curator of photographs New Mexico Museum of Art, Finding a way home from Earth Now, American Photographers and the Environment
Fascinated by the American dependence on oil, Milwaukee-based artist Sonja Thomsen examined her own consumption over a year's time. In her installation Petroleum, she brings us face to face with a dozen pools of the viscous substance (plate 45). These containers of the visually impenetrable blue and black substance that greases the wheels of our industrial society have a tremendous allure. It is tempting to stick a finger into the dense bubbling goo, and Thomsen's insistence that we come to terms with this material makes its seductive qualities unnerving. "I'm curious about oil's invisibility and ubiquitous influence in daily life," Thomsen writes. "I remain captive of this elusive and complicated substance that affects our economy and politics." The artist's choice of print materials creates a mirrored surface, so that the viewer is reflected in this iridescent "wall of oil," aligning her with Misrach's and Maisel's flytrap strategy of luring viewers in with the size, surface, and color to confront an uncomfortable subject.
Lisa Hostetler, Curator of Photographs George Eastman House, former curator of photographs Milwaukee Art Museum, for the 2007 Silverstein Annual
I discovered Sonja Thomsen’s work soon after my arrival in Milwaukee in 2005. At the time, she was in the midst of her Surface series, a group of images depicting the reflective surfaces of puddles and other mundane accumulations of liquid commonly found in and around urban terrain. Her attention to this humble subject, and the care and delicacy with which she rendered its appearance, gave me pause. Soon I realized that her photographs were not the formal abstractions that they at first appeared to be. Instead, they were about moments of heightened consciousness amid the flux of everyday life—as when you glimpse a reflection in a glass of water and are launched into a daydream. Crude functions similarly, but it plunges even deeper into the matrix of thought and emotion that comprises contemporary American life. In the current political climate, oil is a complicated subject, evoking the energy crisis and the war in Iraq. For Thomsen, it is also personal: a cousin to whom she is close served as a marine in Iraq. Her oil photographs pique these associations, yet they are beautiful, with rich, creamy surfaces and subtle details that reward extended viewing. The series points to the ubiquity and influence of oil—that raw and mysterious substance on which third-world economies depend and first-world life runs—while reminding us of its virtual invisibility in daily life. How often do we see actual oil? Thomsen’s photographs invite us to stare at it and think about it. For me, the result is an uneasy conflation of personal and political blame, along with a slick reminder of how seductive it is to look without thinking. Crude doesn’t let me do that, and that is why I nominated Sonja Thomsen for this (Silverstein Annual) project.