“The Fox”, I ask Helena. “What inspired you?”
We are sitting in Helena’s studio and looking through her photographs. A magic fairy tale world unfolds with mythical creatures and hauntingly beautiful landscapes. But, as in all good fairy tales, darkness lurks just beneath the surface. There are wars, nuclear bombs, and abandoned children who wander around a deserted house like condemned souls. Inside the room, several custom-made dolls stare down at us – the elephant girl with her startled expression and the melancholy ape. Hidden under a cloth is the Grey Gardens style abandoned house from The Elephant Girl exhibition – a work of art in itself that took many months to construct. We are looking at The Ivy Room. Here a pale girl lies in a derelict room where vegetation is creeping across the walls and closing in on her. And on the floor sits a mangy fox gazing at the lighted window as if transfixed.
“I don’t know,” replies Helena. “I thought the girl seemed lonely.”
Afterwards I begin to see them differently, these compassionate animals, kindred spirits in an unimaginably lonely world. Often they are only animals – like the mouse in The Elephant Girl, or the roe deer, chicken and fox who watch over the dead old woman in the tragi-comic image series, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Sometimes they are more human than the humans themselves – like the ape in The Last Golden Frog. His eyes reveal a profound wisdom as he sadly contemplates man’s destruction of the earth. In a bed that resembles the girl’s in The Ivy Room the same ape lies alone and injured at a hospital. He has no one to keep him company, not even a mangy fox, and that is sad, almost unbearably so.
That could partly explain why The Forest, a work heavily influenced by the photography of Lady Hawarden, is so disturbing. The Elephant Girl stands with her back to the observer, dwarfed by the dense forest towering above her. She is alone, utterly alone. The ghost childrens’ faithful animal companions, reminiscent of characters from a Beatrix Potter story, have disappeared. Not a mouse or golden frog to keep her company. It feels as if she is on her way to death.
But, in Helena Blomqvist’s work, it is seldom death itself that is most terrifying. Worse are the events leading up to death. In The Dark Planet, her 1940s war-inspired images, dark clouds and crashing planes evoke a sense of impending doom hanging over a fragile humanity. The old lady – a leading character in this exhibition – shuffles forward with her walking frame through the slush while the world collapses around her.
The passage over to the other side is, in contrast, solemn, ceremonious – and silent. How can you convey silence in a photograph? In Lost in the Fog the old woman edges into the forest mist with her walking frame and in the silence I can almost hear the wheezing of her breath and the crunch of twigs snapping beneath the wheels. In The Silent Stream a deathly quiet descends upon the ghost children and their animal companions as they glide across the black water of the River Styx, while not even a ripple disturbs the surface. With sombre facial expressions the wide-eyed children observe their surroundings and I know that none of them are talking, laughing or screaming. I know that there are no birds singing.
But it is the silence in outer space that I find most disturbing. Dog in Space who is sent out to space as a human sacrifice …..for what?
“Laika died of stress and overheating after just a few hours in space,” says Helena.
Left behind are the mourners – a sorrowful procession of black-clad apes as depicted in The Mourning Procession. Left behind is a physical body drained of purpose, a fallen hero, like the ape in Marshland, or a celebrated hero as in Dead Dog.
But death – as seen from a distance – is just a fragment of the truth. I can’t stop thinking about one of the most moving descriptions of death I have ever encountered. It was in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (Helena also made the images for Stockholms Stadsteater’s version of the book in 2009).
“Hey, you know what Skorpan? I don’t think it’s so terrible,” said Jonathan.
“In fact, I think you will enjoy it.”
“Enjoy it”, I said. “ How can I enjoy lying dead under the ground?
“Come on!” said Jonathan. “It’s only your skeleton that lies there while you
fly off to some other place.”
Nobody can fly in any of the photographs. But where, except in an imaginary afterlife, could an old woman become a dancing ice princess (Figure Skating), or a hobbling girl be seen spinning and laughing through the room in Dress Rehearsal in which the light from the window has dimmed and, instead, seems to emanate from within her. And though the silence on the way to the underworld is oppressive, the tune of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” seems to echo across the sky in these luminous images of an afterlife. Death could never be more beautiful than this.
Despite the dreamlike quality of so much of Helena’s work, there is still an underlying social commentary. In The Elephant Girl, the handicapped orphan girl orphan girls are drifting about an abandoned building house in the forest. A building that could be an old, dilapidated mental hospital or other institution, whose main function from an historical perspective was to lock people away so that we never had to see them. It is a fantasy world, but there are subtle references to real events in certain countries where infants born of the “wrong” gender or handicapped are shuffled away to an institution or hidden at home. Or abandoned to die in the forest.
While Helena was working on The Dark Planet, the Iraq war was raging with its nearly one hundred thousand civilian deaths and The Last Golden Frog was inspired by a report claiming that the last Golden Toad had been killed off because of environmental pollution.
However bleak, Helena’s images are peppered throughout with her own particular brand of black humour; in the otherwise ethereally beautiful Among the Swans a gruesome, decrepit fox is supplied with crutches; in Darkness on the Edge of Town an old woman shuffles towards the viewer like a character from an Ed Wood horror movie. And in The Last Giant Octopus, a group of smiling bathing beauties from the fifties stand beside a dead giant octopus, as if posing for the local newspaper. In First Woman on the Moon a montage of historical images recasts heroes and workers as female characters. In a play on the national romanticism of the turn of the century and obsession with the exotic, she reveals how she constructs the images and makes us doubt the authenticity of a documentary photograph. In Queens of the Savannah there are creases in the sky backdrop and in the title photograph the jubilant astronauts, who have taken off their helmets, wouldn’t be able to smile, let alone laugh if the photograph was genuine. But even here, in her first one-woman show, you get a sense of the dream motifs Helena goes on to explore in greater and greater depth. It is as if the strange human-animals portrayed in Deerhunters are already being offered a glimpse of the imaginary worlds she will create in the future.
I look at the fox again. At the elephant girl with her awkward legs and deformed chin. I look at the determined old woman with her walking frame. Then it strikes me: there is a link between her work and that of her favourite photographer, Diane Arbus. It is the misfits who are the focus – the invisible, imperfect animals and humans in the background. It is these strange figures, not the lowering apple trees, who underpin the beauty of the fantasy world.
– Titti Persson, author
I met Helena Blomqvist when we were both studying aesthetics at upper secondary school in Falun and dreaming about moving to other much more interesting places: London, Ireland – or a world created by David Lynch, where bluebirds always sing.