What is missing in the picture?
An attempt to find what has been lost in Anna Ekman’s “Dreaming”.

As soon as we open our eyes we begin to construct the world. And anything will do as material. Take, for example, Fred Sandback’s minimalist sculptures. Operating in collusion with the viewer, they demonstrate that the gaze only needs some lengths of stretched yarn in a space to make a volume appear from the void, in the form of a pane of glass leaning against a wall.

We are particularly skilful at recognising faces; we see them in landscapes, in abstract patterns and in clouds that slowly move across the sky. A few sketchy lines drawn in the margin of a newspaper is enough to make us see a face. A face that looks elated, surprised or sad, even though it’s just casual doodles made during a phone call, without any intention of depicting anything at all. Still, what we see is not random scribbles but a face and its expression. And we do not even have to make an effort to see it. We recognise the face automatically. The fleeting pencil lines take us away from themselves and propel us towards that which we see in them. It is as if every representation – no matter how reduced, scanty, sloppy or unintentional it may be – carries an inbuilt mimesis machine that is activated as soon as the gaze falls upon it.

This chameleonic act of deduction, which completes the picture and provides us with much more than what it actually contains, takes place without us noticing anything, which indicates that our eyes are not as suspicious as we believe they are. They prefer a lie that makes sense, before not understanding what they see.

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But there are other kinds of pictures. Pictures that do not make sense. Pictures that are never really finished. Or pictures that have suffered a loss, which they prefer not to talk about. Pictures in which we discover holes. Or onto which shadows fall when we look at them.

In front of Anna Ekman’s works I have a feeling that something is present but not visible, or that something is lacking, which I experience as a phantom sensation. This despite the fact that her work – and especially her late photographs, which are engaged in an animated dialogue with Baroque painting – are so rich in visual information that the suspicion that something is missing may seem somewhat paranoid. However, there is also a sense of loss in her early conceptual pieces, such as A place where I have never been, in which the camera functions as a prosthesis for the artist’s eyes, when, blindfolded, she is taking photographs of a place she has never seen.

I also seem to experience this loss when I look at works by two artists as dissimilar as Paul Cézanne and Cindy Sherman. It is as if I have been struck by partial blindness in front of these images, because there is something in them that I cannot see, something that evades my gaze.

There is a gulf between Ekman and Cézanne. And, of course, she might protest vociferously if she knew I was comparing her to an artist who dreamed of the impossible: of painting the world as it looked when it first appeared. Yet in both of them there is something the gaze cannot reach, something that frustrates the completion of the representation.

Cézanne’s paintings are curiously strange. Many have pointed out that there is something inhuman about them, which creates a distance to the viewer. That which is depicted has not really taken place – it is there on the canvas and at the same time it isn’t.

In Ekman it’s not about something unfinished, but about a loss, which is present almost in the manner of a living body. One cannot see it but if one listens attentively one can hear faint breathing under the pictorial surfaces.

In Sherman’s close investigations of identity and representation, it is the viewer’s gaze that dodges the image rather than the other way around. My blindness is the result of instinctual self-censoring. Just as when one opens a door by mistake, a door to a private room, which is usually locked. One both wants and does not want to see what is going on inside. But one does not want to be caught watching, because one knows that one is not supposed to watch. Look at Untitled Film Still #56, which shows how the artist, appearing in one of her roles, is looking at her reflection in the mirror, with her face only a few centimetres from the glass. We are not meant to see how she is searching for herself in the image.

There are several connections between Ekman and Sherman. Not least how their images relate to the gaze. Also in Ekman’s Dreaming I am uncomfortably aware that my gaze has no right to be there. Still, I cannot stop watching. My gaze wants to drown in the dark water on whose surface Narcissus is reflected – the young man who in Ovid’s version of the ancient myth was condemned by Aphrodite to fall in love with his own reflection, as a punishment for rejecting the nymph Echo.

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In Ekman’s film, it is not just beautiful Narcissus who is reflected but a number of representations of the myth, from psychoanalysis, popular culture as well as art. And if one thinks of the camera as a mirror one may regard the film as a narcissistic narrative, representing its own medium. Like a gaze that sees itself.

As in her photographic series The Black Pond, the primary source of Dreaming is Caravaggio’s Narcissus, which shows Narcissus gazing at his own reflection. He is completely absorbed and unable to tear himself away from his reflection; tied to it by love, or rather desire. A tie between the picture and that which is depicted, a tie that Ekman severs.

In Dreaming it is not Narcissus that we see, but his reflection in the water. His eyes are closed and at first I think he is asleep. But of course, he could be dead, because his body is rigid, leaning over the water. He is perfectly motionless and I cannot make out whether he is breathing or not. He could have been enclosed in this image for an eternity, where the only thing that occurs is the surface of the water moving and reflecting him in various ways. In a steady rhythm his reflection is folded and unfolded, as if the image itself was alive and breathing.

While the reflection shows us Narcissus, it also distorts and conceals him, because the pictorial surface is never entirely still. This does not allow us to see what he looks like, or, indeed, who he actually is. No, we never get to see him. Neither would Narcissus see himself if he suddenly woke up and looked into this unreliable water, if, that is, he is even there.

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In his essay “Cézanne’s Doubt”, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that Cézanne wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, that he painted the world in its becoming, before it had manifested itself to our gaze.

If Cézanne was present at the sunrise of the world in order to let us see how things were born, Ekman works at the sunset, in order to let us witness how they disappear.

In Ekman’s film, I see Narcissus in the same way he would have seen himself: as an image on a surface of water. I see the picture with his eyes. I breathe in the smell of dark soil and metal. Feel the faint, cool breeze that sets the water in motion. But, Narcissus is not there. He is missing from the picture. In his place, Ekman lets me, the viewer, enter. The breathing I hear is my own. It is my own searching for myself in reflections, traces, pictures and signs that I see in the film.

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Jens Soneryd
English translation: Hans Olsson