Depth of Field, volume 5, no 1 (December 2014)

Behind the Facade: 1:1 Sets for Erwin Olaf at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam (2013/2014)

Hinde Haest

The artist’s studio has been the subject of a collective popular fascination since time immemorial. Yet the advance of artistic productivity into the two-dimensional space of the digital realm heralded the dwindling relevance of the atelier as the sacrosanct ‘locus of genius’, as well as a shattering defeat for universal human nosiness. Imagine therefore the delight when Guus Beumer, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut, announced 1:1 Sets for Erwin Olaf, an exhibition of the decors for Olaf’s photographs designed by Floris Vos.

Olaf crafted his images in six ‘moulds’ arranged in the museum space, offering a glance of the raw material that formed the basis for series such as Hope (2005), Grief (2007), and Dusk (2009) – this time lit without pretension and lacking airbrush. The interiors are accompanied by scraps of artistic inspiration, e.g. interior design catalogues, advertisements, and art historical books, complete with post-its and inartistically drawn mood boards.

At a time when artistry, and photography in particular, has become increasingly nomadic and intangible, there is comfort in the preservation of traces of artistic imagination. Like the 1998 relocation of Francis Bacon’s entire studio to Dublin City Gallery, Sets gives us the solace that genius is somehow being materialised and can be captured, stored, archived and displayed.

Imaginative Interiors

Besides offering a glance backstage, the exhibition aspires to unearth the interface between architecture, design and photography. The introductory text tells us: ‘These sets create a world that exists solely by virtue of the photograph; they are made exclusively to bring a character to life.’ According to Olaf, the early 1960s-inspired set for Grief – Grace ‘radiates that people “have it all”. It mirrors the glamour and style of the times, such as the example set by the Kennedys. Everything in its place. That is where you are when you hear terrible news. In an instant the beautiful lace curtains become bars that imprison you.’[1] The interiors thus function to anchor the models in a historical and socio-economical context. Through her interior, her dress and her hairdo, the image can be ‘read’ as an impersonation of Jacky Kennedy Onassis, as well as a sneer at the American Dream at large.

The narrative agency of architecture and design in photography is as old as the process itself. Photographic studios in the nineteenth century vied for the most elaborate choice of backdrops and attributes with which their customers could manifest a visual identity. From the onset, setting went beyond its documentary function of spelling out the sitter’s habitat, profession and wealth, and became a means of imagining the self.

The nineteenth-century interior in the Dusk series likewise explores the power of the object as a mould for identity. It was inspired by The Hampton Album (1900), a photographically illustrated book about the Hampton Institute, where members from the American middle class sought to ‘enlighten’ the black population by placing them in a ‘sophisticated’ interior and dress. In the accompanying video, Olaf explains that the focus of this project ‘was primarily about whether I only photograph the façade of things. Ethnicity only came second.’ The series thus investigates the socio-political agency of facade as a tool to construct an imagined self, as well as a straitjacket.


This raises the question: how superficial is the superficial? Are the sets just sets, the stage on which the story is acted out, or do they themselves play the lead role? Whereas Olaf’s decors are dismissed as frames for the models, the facade is in fact the very core of Olaf’s artistic practice. In his photographs, the models are as clinically composed and rigidly moulded into a pose as the sets. They resemble what they really are without pretension: models in front of a background.

For example, the wooden boarding and lace curtain in the interior that informed Hope firmly places the scene in a 1950s American context. Yet it is the utter non-action of the models that renders the image timeless. Hope (2005) ‘refers to that briefest of moments when the world stands still, caught between action and reaction.’ The man and woman are completely disengaged from each other and their surroundings, like dolls in a dollhouse. Not surprisingly, this photograph was inspired by Edward Hopper’s Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958) – an image that has been placed in front of the set as a visual reference. Like Hopper’s subjects, the models seem to have been dropped into the space, but they do not interact with it.

This image can be reproduced at any given moment. However carefully composed the time reference, the images are also vigorously drained of any momentary urgency or documentary function. The surrealism in Olaf’s photos can arguably be explained by exactly this lack of punctum. The interiors are time capsules in which human presence serves only to anchor the image in the moment. The models seem to function as decorative elements that hint at the real and the temporal, like the dolls and trees in an architectural model.

With the invention of the photographic process, the absence of human beings in photography was self-evident due to the lengthy exposure time entailed. The first person to be photographed was captured accidentally by Louis Daguerre (in 1838): a man that happened to be having his shoes polished in the middle of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris stood still just long enough to be immortalized. In early photography, place preceded the portrait. Yet it is the presence of a person – of potential movement captured in a still – that grounds the image in time and space.


‘Having something temporary as the actor, or bearer makes us responsive to the experience of space the photo is intended to arouse. After all, we are looking at a two-dimensional version of something that can only be understood in three dimensions. […] By capturing something transient in the photo, the photographer can better render the sense of space, which the architect evokes with his building. The time-space relation cannot be explained without a feeling of transience.’

Therefore, it seems no coincidence that Olaf’s models reside in places of transience; they hover in hallways (Hope and Keyhole, 2011) and linger on stairs (Separation, 2002). One of the exhibited sets, the background for a work in progress called Waiting (2013), represents a restaurant or hotel lobby. Photographed from behind a transparent structure, we pry on a woman who is sitting at a table alone, waiting. She has possibly been sitting there forever and could just have easily been carved in marble, instead of being photographed. That is, if it were not for the half-empty glass of water on the table in front of her: a detail suggesting recent action that instantly grounds us in the here and now.

Olaf’s fascination with spaces of transience – e.g. doors, hallways and lobbies – is reminiscent of insights obtained by the surrealists: doors and windows are used as frames and staging devices that estrange us from the scene. We are neither inside nor outside. According to Freud, the sensation of the uncanny lies precisely in this alienation from what is familiar. Indeed, Olaf’s interiors radiate an epitomic familiarity, as they seem to have emerged directly from style guides and lifestyle magazines of the 1950s. And yet it seems as if the sitters have always been standing in the hallway, peeking through keyholes or grieving in their immaculate interiors –as if they will continue to do so forever. The suspense that lies in emptiness and the choreographed mundaneness is what both engages and estranges us from that which is portrayed.


With the narrative agency of the facade as its theme, the exhibition tends to linger in superficiality. Bright pink toys adorn the stairs of the set for the gloomy Separation series, and as a pendant to the glass of water in Waiting, a bowl of nibbles is playfully placed on the counter. The decorative lack of depth is only enhanced by buckets of paint and brushes that are cutely hung about, as if ‘accidentally’ left behind. Between the sets for Hope and Separation, the museum installed Sarah Lucas’ work Penis Soup, a giant wallpaper covered with glans, as a part of the parallel wallpaper exhibition Bekleidung. The museum legitimizes this rather suggestive intervention by the fact that Olaf used a flower pattern wallpaper in Separation.

For those who can ignore the IKEA-like interventions to ‘liven up’ the sets with ‘spontaneously’ placed objects, the exhibition is more than mere entertainment. The relevance of Sets goes beyond its function as a trace of artistic imagination and a behind-the-scenes view of a famous artist. This is essentially a display of the photographs’ physique. It is an exhibition about photography in which the photograph seems to have become collateral; in Sets, the photo is secondary.

With such an objectification of the material origins of the photographs, Sets transcends the referential and anecdotal. The sets are not simply the residue of art-making, because the architecture and design in the photographs predate (and inform) the work of art. In the photographs of Erwin Olaf, material objects that were once conceptualized for consumption are again dematerialized and translated back into an idea. What is displayed in the exhibition space are traces of a photograph that preceded the photograph. As such, the sets are hyperreal antecedents of Olaf’s imagined worlds. They are not the photograph’s residue, but its prerequisite.


Hinde Haest studied Liberal Arts & Sciences at University College Utrecht, obtained an MA Material and Visual Culture at University College London, and an MSc Development Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies in London.


1. All quotes in this review are derived from the exhibition texts.