PRINT January 2006

Hanna Liden

The photography of Swedish-born, New York–based artist Hanna Liden delivers a cunning referential amalgam that comprises Northern European Romantic painting and art cinema, heavy metal and Hollywood horror. In her work, folkloric antiquity, modern life, and the shimmer of postapocalyptic fantasy exist in a state of delicately sustained equipoise. Her images evoke a mythic past, but one that has been disinterred from the graveyard of timelessness; the figures populating her desolate and gorgeous landscapes belong, finally, to the present. In Death Gate, 2003, two denim-clad men wearing skull masks—Liden’s characters always wear masks, sometimes store-bought, sometimes of her own making—perch on giant piles of bulldozed limestone that form the “gate” to the argentine, luminous hell-waters behind them. The men, whose calculatedly grubby attire suggests an attunement to global youth culture, may represent chthonic sentries but might just as well be a pair of typical disaffected teenagers getting high in the woods, listening to death metal and “having fun.” As the foregoing suggests, Liden’s work could be understood in the context of the goth(ic) trend that surfaced a few years ago. But her practice (like those of Cameron Jamie, Banks Violette, and Aïda Ruilova, among others) transcends that perishable label via a keen and self-ironic intelligence that underpins the creepy hocus-pocus. Liden further distinguishes herself through sheer technique (eschewing digital manipulation, she relies on old-fashioned photographic chops) and an unerring sense of composition.

The latter may derive, in part, from the fact that she has apprised herself of her aesthetic’s art-historical, and in particular, painterly, provenance. While the landscape in Death Gate is recognizably man-made—it’s a limestone quarry—the picture clearly descends from the kind of sublime Romantic vista perfected by Caspar David Friedrich, who influenced nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scandinavian painters including Christen Købke, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Eugène Fredrik Jansson, and Edvard Munch. The composition recalls Friedrich’s watercolor Hollow in the Shore Looking to the Sea, ca. 1824, the U-shaped limestone outcropping in Liden’s picture precisely echoing the “hollow” in Friedrich’s. In Black Flag Burner, 2004, Liden depicts a shrouded figure standing on a rock just off an ashen shore, facing away from the viewer and, per the title, bearing aloft a burning black flag. The coastline is strikingly bereft of vegetation, as if transformed for ambiguous purposes of “development”—another human intervention in the fugitive, once-virgin landscape. Given the Swedish context, the allusion to the character Death in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 art-house classic The Seventh Seal is plain. As overdetermined as it is in its almost comic lugubriousness, the image retains a certain Friedrichian sublimity (mediated here by the reference to Island of the Dead, 1880, by Arnold Böcklin, himself a follower of the German master).

But I keep wondering what would happen if Liden’s grim reaper were to turn outward, toward the viewer. I imagine the figure wearing a Scream mask, the bleak lyricism of Bergman’s film traduced by a horror movie that is pure Hollywood product, at once blithely self-referential and the progenitor of myriad parodic spin-offs. When I suggested this to Liden, she commented, “Trashy American popular culture actually sparked my interest in Scandinavian paganism. The last Scream would be a beautiful reference.” Her turn on my suggestion is telling: While the first entry in the series is actually quite good, the second, following the predictable trajectory of sequels, is markedly less so, and the final installment is a mess. Liden selects the worst film in the trilogy as “a beautiful reference,” advocating third-generation trash—the trashiest—as perfectly suitable material for inspiration and commentary. Here her sensibility intersects John Waters’s: Isn’t Pink Flamingos, in the sick-minded horror of its peripeteias and catharses, a truly sublime film?

In the spirit of Waters’s most preposterous burlesques (e.g., Desperate Living’s papier-mâché Mortville), Liden’s props stridently announce their status as props. Even those she fashions herself rather than buys from the nearest dollar store evince a self-conscious “dumbness.” See, for instance, her picture of a naked tyke wearing a toothy zombie mask (Untitled, 2005)—Edward Weston meets Wes Craven? In Black Sabbath, 2003, a path in the snow leads down to a pentagram made of rope, smoldering as if recently set alight. A case of diabolist hijinks or an homage to the British heavy-metal band? Maybe some goth chicks were “calling the Spirit” the night before, just as Neve Campbell (star of the Scream movies) and her girlfriends did in The Craft. The devil’s circle glows with a few embers—which I at first took for Christmas lights. Photographic verisimilitude never quite recuperates these gestures; they remain obstinately “art.” I’m reminded of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, in which a hideously deformed (but chic) young woman wears a vacant pretty-girl mask throughout. A description of the plot would yield a litany of generic horror-flick tropes, and yet the film itself is one of the most genuinely haunting and poetic ever made. In like manner, Liden’s trash sublime refigures the art of her Scandinavian forebears, retrofitting it, necromantically resuscitating Munch’s ill-fated Scream for, as the artist would have, the era of Scream 3.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.