Photo: Oddbjørn Løken Aarstad/MUST

Photo: Oddbjørn Løken Aarstad/MUST

Sandra Vaka Olsen

Born 1980, Stavanger. Lives and works in Stavanger, Copenhagen and Berlin.


Photography has traditionally been understood as a window through which to view reality. Today, however, we are engulfed by images and photographs relayed through many digital platforms; they seem to emerge out of thin air and propagate in infinite numbers all on their own. Due to digital manipulation’s unfathomable possibilities, photographs have lost their foothold as representatives of reality, and many artists are now seeking to redefine photography as a medium. One such artist is Sandra Vaka Olsen. She uses a conceptual approach to analogue photography, in an attempt to make photographic works with increased tangibility on account of having a distinct sender – the human body.

Vaka Olsen often works serially, and in her early works we can see that she explores different ‘translations’ – from one medium to another, and from three to two dimensions. This is most clearly seen in what she calls her ‘water-data pictures’ for instance the work Drop Horizon (2012), which is also on show here at Stavanger Art Museum in the ongoing exhibition Chromophilia. To make Drop Horizon, she photographed a computer screen on which she had dripped water. The interaction between the two materials results in a fusion between the colour and the pixel structures which dominates the photograph. Water and ephemeral materials are recurring elements in her works; she finds them fascinating because they are abstract, uncontrollable, autonomous and transformable. 

Two works by Sandra Vaka Olsen are included in NN-A NN-A NN-A. Dive (Skin) #1 and Dive (Skin) #5 are oversized photograms mounted in Plexiglas box-frames. A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera. The artist places objects directly on to the surface of a light-sensitive material (e.g., photo paper), then exposes it to light. This results in a negative shadow image where tones are determined by the opacity of the objects used. Areas of the light-sensitive material that are not subjected to light appear white. The photogram method was often used by artists and photographers in the last century, perhaps most notably by Man Ray (1890-1976) who created what he called Rayograms

To make Dive (Skin) #1 and Dive (Skin) #5, Vaka Olsen added new water droplets to one of her water-data pictures and then re-photographed it. She then took the work into the darkroom and challenged the technical process further by manipulating the exposures. The method is, firstly, to lay a large piece of photographic paper on the floor of the darkroom. Vaka Olsen smears her body with sun cream and then makes an imprint of her body on the photographic paper. Her body and the sun cream’s protective filter block certain areas of the paper from being exposed to light, and this is why we see clear imprints of hands and feet. 

Imprints of the body are some of the most ancient images we know of, being found in Palaeolithic cave paintings and Bronze Age petroglyphs. They provide the clearest representation of bodily presence (and with that, the artist’s own presence) in a work of art. In the 1960s, the French neo-dadaist Yves Klein explored Body Print Art with his Anthropométries: he used female models as living brushes, covering them in paint and laying them onto or dragging them across canvas. For Klein, the body was only a tool – an object, but for Vaka Olsen, the imprints are a result of the artist’s (the subject’s) presence. So perhaps it is more worthwhile to compare Vaka Olsen’s process-oriented approach to that of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Susan Weil (1930-), who in the late 1940s explored another type of camera-less photography: blueprints or what are also called cyanotypes. An article documenting Rauschenberg and Weil’s work process has recently been re-discovered, and it shows that the two artists, using large sheets of light-sensitive paper and ultraviolet light, created 1:1 prints of human bodies and diverse objects on the floor of their shared New York flat. They used their own bathroom as a darkroom. The results were monumental blue-toned works that show to varying degrees the outlines of the elements that were placed on the paper and exposed to light.

In Sandra Vaka Olsen’s practice, the imprint of the artist’s body does not stand alone but is combined with large fields that have been smeared with sun cream applied with a paintbrush-gesture reminiscent of 1950s-American abstract expressionism. Only after completing the exposure/developer process can she see the result. She therefore lacks complete control. In sum, this type of abstraction is developed through a physical, process-oriented production method, which, when taking into account her careless treatment of the photographic means and the Plexiglas box-frames, emphasises the media’s insufficiency as a documentation of the body’s impermanence. 

Text by: Lene A. Aadahl