Essay by Aaron Schuman

In 1945 the celebrated writer, philosopher and intellectual, Georges Bataille, stated:

“Extreme states of being, whether individual or collective, were once purposefully motivated.

Some of those purposes no longer have meaning (expiation, salvation). The well-being of

communities is no longer sought through means of doubtful effectiveness, but directly, through

action. Under these conditions, extreme states of being fell into the domain of the arts …

Literature (fiction) took the place of what had formerly been the spiritual life; poetry (the disorder

of words) that of real states of trance. Art constituted a small free domain, outside action: to gain

freedom it had to renounce the real world.” 1

The “Art” to which Bataille refers, more specifically, is that of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-

century [Western] Modernism, which over the course of less than forty years gradually yet rapidly

abandoned artistic aspirations towards literal realism and depictive representation, in favor of

fragmentary abstraction and often cryptic conceptualism. Bataille attributes this accelerated

evolution of Art – and its “ren[unciation] of the real world” – to a more general cultural need for

“extreme states of being”, which he argues cultivate a healthy sense of “freedom”, both individually

and collectively. In this sense, he formulates that the contemporary function of Art is to provide

society with extra-ordinary experiences outside those of direct action, which lead to “extreme states

of being” – of disorientation, potential revelation, possible epiphany and prospective redemption –

now that religion no longer serves such purposes.

Of course, Bataille’s argument is not unique, and within visual art alone his conclusion can

certainly be supported by a wide range of prominent artworks, artistic theories, artist statements and

art movements that gained traction and importance throughout the twentieth century. For example,

as Hugo Ball’s original 1916 Dada Manifesto reads, “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying

dada … ...Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness … By saying dada. Dada is the world

soul.” 2

Yet some of the twentieth-century’s most influential and outspoken proponents of Modern Art

have also simultaneously attributed this abrupt transition towards abstraction and visual

disorientation within Art itself to the invention and rampant proliferation of one thing: namely –

photography. As the Dadaist supreme, Marcel Duchamp, explained as late as 1966:

“[P]ainter after painter, since the beginning of the century, has tended toward abstraction. First,

the Impressionists simplified the landscape in terms of color, and then the Fauves simplified it

again by adding distortion, which, for some reason, is a characteristic of our century. It’s very

clear with all painters, whether they’re Fauves, Cubists, and even Dadaists or Surrealists. Why

are all the artists so deadset on distorting? It seems to be a reaction against photography …

Since photography gives us something very accurate … it follows that an artist who wants to do

something else would say, ‘It’s very simple. I’ll distort things as much as I can, and by doing that

I’ll be as free of photographic representation as possible.’”

It could be argued that, over the course of the twenty-first century, photography itself – and the

oeuvre of the artist, Asger Carlsen, in particular – has followed a very similar [r]evolutionary path.

In 1932, the photographer Ansel Adams firmly declared, “In a strict sense photography can never

be abstract, for the camera is incapable of synthetic integration.” 3 Yet since the turn of the

millennium, as digital technologies have advanced and almost entirely subsumed the creation of

photographic images at a blistering pace, the camera (and its associated technologies; today

image-oriented software such as Photoshop rather than the traditional darkroom) is now certainly

more than capable of “synthetic integration”, and artists such as Carlsen are taking full creative

advantage of such advancements.

Initially, Carlsen began his career as a photojournalist and crime-scene photographer, but then

quickly turned away from using photography as both an act and a representation of “direct action”,

instead building his artistic reputation by turning both the aesthetics and traditions of such

“evidential” and “documentary”-oriented practice on their head through the use of seamless, digital

photographic manipulation. In his debut body -of -work as an artist, WRONG (2008-–2010),

Carlsen presented a series of freakishly surreal, hallucinogenic and often disturbing black-and-

white photographic scenes in which the “real world” has been transmogrified via Photoshop into an

surreal hyper-reality, haunted by globular monoliths, bug-eyed creatures, trans-species multi-

headed monsters, crudely constructed wooden-legged cyborgs and more. Carlsen’s following

series, Hester (2010–-2013), then explored specific artistic traditions and mediaums more directly

– namely, the studio-based nude and its relationship to both photography and sculpture – resulting

in a collection of images that, again through digital postproduction, create believable photographic

scenes of impossibly amorphous bodies performing and posing for the camera within the confines

of Carlsen’s studio.

In both of these cases, Carlsen’s sources of influence and inspiration are relatively explicit – from

the absurd Surrealist imaginings of René Magritte, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador

Dalí to the writhing fleshy contortions of Balthus, Hans Bellmer and Francis Bacon, Carlsen

consistently imbued his contemporary pseudo-photographic images with the spirit of those artists

who “renounced the real world” in order to evoke more “extreme states of being” over the course of

the last century. Furthermore, by adopting newfound technologies that not only allow for but also

strongly encourage “synthetic integration” within the photographic medium, Carlsen both exposed

and enthusiastically reveled in the newfound “freedom” and artistic potential of photography itself,

and explicitly encouraged the viewer to do the same.

In an interview conducted in 2016, Carlsen remarked, “I don’'t photograph hoping for immediate

perfection; I photograph to get what I refer to as my ‘material’, and I strictly consider my practice as

being an introverted studio-based one … In fact, I’m more interested in creating a unique and

original sculpture, object or form … than creating a ‘good photograph’ in the traditional sense.” 4

Since then he has made a new and strikingly abstract series of works, B L I S T E R C A R D

(2017-–2018), in which he takes this newly discovered photographic “freedom” to an even further

and more provocative “extreme”. Here, he adopts the artistic influences, aesthetic tendencies and

conceptual intentions associated with much of twentieth-century abstract art even more closely,

but then gracefully melds them with twenty-first century photographic technologies and textures;

and in doing so, he has created a unique, new and original visual form.

Although the works included in B L I S T E R C A R D are initially founded upon hundreds of

Carlsen’s photographs – or his “material” – they have been digitally layered, sculpted, drawn upon,

synthesized and meticulously manipulated to such an extent that their photographic roots are all

but invisible. Instead, these abstracted works lean more towards the painterly – Matisse more than

Meatyard; Miró more than Mapplethorpe – placing emphasis strongly on line, shape, gesture and

colour rather than on their content, context or subject matter. Furthermore, the palette adopted for

B L I S T E R C A R D is not the cool and clinical one often associated with new technologies and

our digital reality, but rather that of the Impressionists, Fauvists and Cubists that Duchamp cited

earlier – the same fleshy pinks, soft peaches and pale blues one might find in a Monet haystack, a

Céezanne still life, Matisse’s Pink Studio or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’'Avignon.

That said, through various visual techniques – from explicitly pixelated lines that zigzag across a

perfectly monochromatic plane, to clunky geometric shapes and glitchy borders that sometimes sit

on the periphery of the frame, to hyper-artificial surfaces that have been contoured and smoothed

almost beyond physical recognition – Carlsen makes it explicitly clear that every aspect of these

works have been digitally generated. In doing so, alongside as well as linking tying in with

painterly abstract movements of the past, he situates the B L I S T E R C A R D works firmly within

a twenty-first century realm of visual reference points such as CGI, 3D-printing, simulated

environments, fractal landscapes and virtual reality.

Although at first glance it may not appear to be as sensationally provocative or devilishly

disturbing as Carlsen’s earlier pseudo-photographic series, B L I S T E R C A R D in fact

represents something much more revolutionary, “extreme”, free and profound in terms of the

development of visual art. These works both literally and figuratively blur the lines between

photography and longstanding artistic genres, mediums and histories – the nude, the still life,

landscape and abstract collapse into one another on a hard-drive; photographys morphs with

drawing, painting, sculpture, computer-generated imagery, visual algorithms and the virtual world;

the movements and ambitions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art collide with those of the

twenty-first. By freely and unapologetically “ren[ouncing] the real world” of photography as we

have since known it to for such an “extreme” – not only visually but methodically, conceptually,

materially and otherwise – B L I S T E R C A R D establishes incredibly exciting and as yet unseen

territory ripe with possibility, for both photography and Art in general. As Carlsen himself has

stated, “I don't feel that my process is very related to the mindset of a photographer … I’m willing to

have a fall out with the traditions of photography for the purposes of making a new kind of image.”