On the Themes and Motives of The Seventh Wave Series by Marko Vuokola
In Eyes Wide Shut, the last film Stanley Kubrick was to make, the doctor character Bill Harford played by Tom Cruise is upset when his wife (Nicole Kidman) reveals in a late-night moment her own sexual fantasies and admits to having considered being unfaithful to him. What happens to the man the next night – strange, possibly imaginary, adventures in which he winds up, among other things, gate-crashing the orgy of a mysterious cult, getting caught and almost losing his life – is a kind of framework or background story of the film. The core of the film presumably lies in its attempt to depict the space between two people that sets things in motion.
I have associated Marko Vuokola's Seventh Wave series for several years with that film. The reason for this was perhaps at first sheer coincidence, which, however, also proved to be a connection in terms of content.
The story of Kubrick's film proceeds from what takes place between the husband and wife, and not from what the characters really think or what really happens to them. The tension between the couple leads to reactions that set in motion the series of events that form the film. Vuokola's pairs of images are tensed in a similar fashion into a relationship of two pictures, even though they do not present us with things touching upon death in the manner of the film. Externally, hardly anything seems to be taking place in the pictures, but it is precisely this insignificantly small movement between two images, just like the minor nocturnal episode of the couple in the film, that sets in motion a world that could forever have remained only a possibility.
Most of the works of The Seventh Wave could be described as landscape photographs. They repeat the same structure of two views of a single subject photographed from the same direction and placed parallel. At first sight, the gaze is drawn to the subject: a classic landscape with the horizon in the middle or slightly higher. The views of the series share the absence of humans, although some of the pictures make reference to man or an environment inhabited by man. The pictures are based on relatively conventional composition. They are either far-off landscapes or somewhat more intimate interiors of parks or close views of a shore.
As noted by the artist himself, the pictures are not stereoscopic images that would let the viewer experience the impression of depth when they are placed next to each other. The photographs, however, have been exposed in the same place, which means that the view of the two images in the pair is actually the same. The interval between the exposures, however, can vary from a few seconds to several hours. This relationship between the images draws attention not only to their similarities but also to their differences more than to the subject itself. Vuokola, therefore, forces the viewer to be attentive.
Soon after the subject is recognized, the gaze rises from the landscape of one image towards the surface of parallel photographs and their relationship, beginning to look for differences in their details: rushes, waves, clouds, lights etc. The details draw attention from the far-off landscape or the pictures as a whole. The interesting features are now surprising, typically irrelevant details and differences, the discovery of which is an experience of relief and outright satisfaction. This movement of the gaze leads to a consideration of the relationship of the images, their boundaries and their manner of being in a space.
Vuokola's work is characterized by the subtle directing of the gaze. In The Seventh Wave series the parallel nature of two almost similar images has the effect that the viewer's gaze not only begins to make its way inside the picture to seek meanings from within but also begins to shuttle between the images. A similar directing of the gaze takes place in other works by Vuokola. For example, in Hehku (Glow) the viewer's gaze undulates in the copper sheeting laid on the floor and in the composition between the sheeting and the floor. Hehku reveals Vuokola to be an heir of minimalism, for whom the meanings of art lie in relationships of the figure and its background and the attendant space and the work. He develops the initial minimalism, however, by actively making the viewer part of the work. This is clearly evident, for example, in On the Spot, a pair of images consisting of two adjacent yellow surfaces, in which the gaze not only darts from one yellow picture to another and wonders at their similarity but also begins to view this pendular gaze as reflected in the yellow images.
Also in The Seventh Wave the viewer's gaze is disturbed and begins to participate in creating the image. This takes place not only by the viewer seeming to observe himself but also from not being sure where to look – at the theme of one image or at what is taking place between the two images. This arouses a disturbed experience in the viewer that appears to fascinate the artist. And he goes on to disturb more. In Blue Movie, the viewer expects something to happen to fulfil the promise of the title. But the title is literal, and the screen stubbornly shimmers with an empty blue image.
In Vuokola's works this feature that I call a disturbance results from a conflict between the visual theme and the motive of the work. The images namely always have an external theme that seems at times to be an excuse to seduce the viewer to something going on beyond the pictures, which in fact is the motive of the works. On the other hand the visual themes of The Seventh Wave series draw one to consider the relationship of the classic theme and the visual space with the frames and exterior, which may gain a role that is more central than the theme itself. What then is the meaning of the visual themes if the focus falls on the relationship between the images?
One of the works shows brand-new Audis in a modern car showroom. This disturbs the viewer with regard to the series as a whole and the question of the meaningfulness of the theme seems increasingly apt. Why, amongst landscapes, are we suddenly shown a modern interior with shiny products promising speed? Does this not erode the position of the theme even more? Or should we think in opposite terms?
I would claim that the themes of Vuokola' series of photographs are ultimately of significance. They are not unimportant. The visual transition from the archaic natural setting of Marfa or Jurmo to the halls of the technological world underscores this view. The artist himself stresses the neutral or general nature of the visual themes. He observes: "The Seventh Wave – Window was photographed in Big Bend National Park, Texas. The location is the 'Window', a well-known site for viewing the sunset – a sight that HAS TO be photographed. I am fascinated by the idea of thousands of photographs taken of this same place. It represents an archetype of the landscape and the view." Commenting on The Seventh Wave – New he says in turn that the automobiles of the images are "suitably neutral". On the other hand, he underlines the chronological potential of the visual theme: "How it will look for instance 20 years from now".
The comments specify the general nature of the theme, while pointing to the temporal shift between the images, but also to the relationship between the images and the "real" time outside them. Despite the apparently general nature of the themes, I find the images of The Seventh Wave can also reveal a more personal level, for the artist has been to the places that he has photographed. Accordingly, they appear as a reminder of the parallel worlds of contemporary man, and also of the artist, none of which are unimportant but which no individual image as such can attain.
Vuokola has spoken also in other connections of his interest in temporality, the present moment, which is the only time that we have but is already lost. The works of
The Seventh Wave are melancholy evidence of the lack of temporal reach, the withdrawal of the world and its veil-like nature.
The personal nature of the themes becomes understandable by returning to the Kubrick parallel that I present at the beginning. Where the film operated between the public, real and shared and the private and hidden respectively, without establishing the boundaries of these two worlds, a similar encounter of two worlds can also be found in Vuokola's photographs. On the one hand, they are the personal images of the mind of the artist, and on the other hand they are public and shared. The boundary of private and public remains unclear.
The presence of the same fundamental contradiction can also be found in Vuokola's works in the concepts of spatiality and temporality. In fact, the images of The Seventh Wave series appeal to the viewer precisely because they succeed in simultaneously weaving two temporalities and spatialities together: the imagined, recollected, historical and cultural world with the annoying present moment and space that continuously flows away from us.
This surprising and arousing experience is based on the simultaneity and equal value of the visual theme and the motive. The images are illusions of a different world but they also make the illusion visible because they move the viewer from between the images towards the present, towards the time and space of the viewing situation that are already lost.
Hanna Johansson PhD, art historian.
The writer is a postdoctoral researcher with the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts.