Anne-Karin Furunes: Lost Souls - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Anne-Karin Furunes reclaims the souls and lives of unknown faces found in archival photos. For more reasons than one, these images hover and dissolve with ghostly resonance, writes Ingrid Periz.

Haunting is the word that most comes to mind in front of one of Norwegian artist Anne-Karin Furunes’s paintings. These large-scale, closely cropped images of faces taken from archival photographs typically portray a mix of emotions – resignation, bemusement, melancholy – in which the subject seems distanced or lost. Furunes brings them back to the present through a painstaking process: recreating their image by puncturing an acrylic painted canvas with thousands of differently sized holes. As the viewer approaches a painting, the image seems to come to life against a gallery’s white walls. The work drops out of focus as it dissolves into dots, and then regains focus on an almost cinematic scale.

Furunes is interested in the nature of photographic reality, and her work asks questions about the ability of photography to capture a human subject. Very often these subjects have disappeared from official historical accounts. As she put it in a recent interview, what interests her is “found material carrying incomplete histories”. After mining archive material, she transforms an official document into an image of an individual in a process that might be called historical recovery.

Acknowledging that “history is more complicated than the picture we usually want to see,” Furunes gravitates towards repressed or counter histories. Subjects of her earlier series have included Communist women fighters in the Finnish Civil War of 1918; Norwegian Jews deported by the Nazis; and tuberculosis patients from a children’s hospital, subsequently converted into Furunes’s current home. A recent New York exhibition drew on a Swedish racial purity archive, which categorised citizens into groups like gypsies, Lapps, criminals and Jews and earmarked candidates for sterilisation. (The Nordic interest in eugenics was not simply theoretical. Over 100,000 Scandinavians were forcibly sterilized between 1934 and 1976.)

For her forthcoming show at Sydney’s Conny Dietzschold Gallery, Furunes will be showing Portraits of the Unknown, a series based on archival photographs of people lost during and after World War II. This is an ideal subject for Furunes, who has said: “I always wanted to make pictures that simulated a glimpse or faint memory.” Rather than simply documenting those who’ve disappeared, Furunes speaks of wanting to “bring them back simply as portraits.” Her work proceeds slowly. Gaining permission to use archives can be a lengthy process and the task of physically creating an image – some of which comprise as many as 30,000 holes, produced with a range of punches – is painstaking. She finds it “almost meditative”.

This labour intensive process has been translated into an industrial one for Furunes’s varied site-specific commissions where she typically works with laser cut aluminium and steel. Her award winning 2001 work in the National Theater train station in Oslo, which runs just under 500 metres, uses images of women taken from family albums rather than state archives. Furunes described her slightly different goal for this work: “I wanted to create a kind of strength in shared experience.

Standing on the platform, as you meet these portraits, you also mirror yourself in the steel plates.” Other locations for site-specific work have included an airport tower, a hospital and a North Sea oil platform. In 2007, Furunes produced work based on botanical illustrations for a commissioned show garden commemorating the tercentenary of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The upcoming exhibition at Conny Dietzschold Gallery is not the first time that Furunes has shown in Sydney. Her closely cropped view of a Chinese crowd titled China I, a second prize winner at the 2005 Beijing Biennale, was included in the recent From Mao to Now exhibition at Sydney’s Homebush Olympic site. Viewers wanting a local example of her site-specific work can find it on the 16th floor of the Foster + Partners-designed Deutsche Bank Place in Sydney, where it is one of a small number of contemporary pieces commissioned as part of Deutsche Bank’s 2005 relocation. Working from a wintry photograph of trees lining a European country road, Furunes transformed a section of aluminium-clad wall into a monochromatic winter landscape scene. (This wall can be moved to conceal a view of Sydney Harbour.)

At different distances, Furunes’s images look phantom and insubstantial, as if threatening to disappear. Up close however, the cleverness of their construction and the charge of their subject is something very different. •

Works by Anne-Karin Furunes will be exhibited at Conny Dietzschold Gallery in Sydney from 11 October to 19 November 2008.

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