America to Russia: Erwin Olaf at FORMA Milan

by 09 September 2010

by Davide Strusani
Photography by Giorgio Affinito


In the tradition of Vincent Van Gogh, Piet Mondriaan, and M.C. Escher, the land of tulips provides us yet with another genius, Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf. Perfectly combining journalistic reporting with studio photography, unique creativity and a personal touch, Olaf's stunning images achieve a detailed and engaging narrative similar to the single frames of a movie.

Erwin Olaf has a strong interest in scenarios set in the private and public dimensions. He puts much effort into recreating the perfection in his locations: silent glances and atmospheres that often draw inspiration from cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, within which he plays with his 'toys' in front of the camera. For this reason he has been a popular choice for short commercial movies and advertising campaigns.

This current exhibition, Private Lives, at FORMA in Milan is the artist's first exhibition in Italy. He presents six of his most recent series: Rain, Hope, Grief, Fall, Dawn, Dusk and Hotel.

The subjects of Hope (2005) and Rain (2004) refer directly to the American stereotypes of the Sixties, when the American Dream was everyone's life claim. Boy scouts, pon pon girls and housewives exist in a dimension of closeness and absence with the objects that surround them, leaving the viewer poised between the experience of reality and dream.

With their averted, half-open eyes, the models in the series Fall evoke an even more estranged dimension. They are captured as they lower their eyes, they do not look towards the lens, a few seconds before or after the time in which the photographer should have takes the picture. These unwanted moments create a disturbing absence.

Dawn is based on one Olaf’s trips to Russia, and sets the pale-skinned and almost evanescent characters in luminous, white, empty rooms, as if immersed in a polar snowy night. The exhibition also includes films related to the photographic series. Private Lives is completed by Erwin Olaf’s last work: the great images from the Hotel series.

"I am not really sure what I wanted to say when I was working on RAIN, HOPE and GRIEF. Now I am growing. I have more doubts and I do not know where my work will lead me. I feel that I was exploring. When I made the series DUSK I did not have the answers. Now that I have finished DAWN, I finally understand what I wanted to say. I do not think I can express it with words, but I believe I know. The best thing is when at the end of it all, there is a question mark."
Erwin Olaf