Maroesjka Lavigne: Island

By Jean Dykstra, April 16, 2014

Maroesjka Lavigne, Viewpoint, Gullfoss, Reykjavik, 2011. ©Maroesjka Lavigne, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

In a photograph that recalls Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a lone figure overlooks Iceland's Gullfoss waterfall. Unlike Friedrich's wanderer, who towers confidently over the scene beneath him, Belgian photographer Maroesjka Lavigne's subject is nearly indiscernible in the landscape, his black clothing almost completely blanketed in snow. 

He’s not the only person or man-made object made small by nature in Lavigne's series Island, on view at Robert Mann Gallery through May 17. A swimmer floating in a turquoise pool is rendered faceless by Lavigne's flash against the surface of the water. A red bus and a red roof are almost entirely veiled in white. Nature, if not humanity's superior, often seems at least its contemporary, a force with which to be reckoned.

But Lavigne's perspective is not so simplistic. Just as often, we are forced to consider humanity's influence on nature. In one photograph, a smattering of pink shrimp lie fetus-like across a clinically white kitchen sink. In another, taken at Reykjavik's Blue Lagoon, the tops of bodies are dots across the landscape, drifting in a cloud of steam rising from the water. Or is that haze from the industrial facility, just visible in the background, spewing clouds of smoke from a set of chimneys? 

Maroesjka Lavigne, Shrimps, Reykjavik, 2011. ©Maroesjka Lavigne, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

What is natural anyway? Amidst a flat environment of brown stone and leafless trees, Lavigne photographs a white arctic fox at suspiciously stiff attention, looking almost too perfect to be real (evoking her series Animal Cabinet, which includes images of actual taxidermied animals). In another photograph, a circle of partly melted snowmen stand in a Stonehenge-esque formation, raising questions about its origin and relation to the natural world. 

Lavigne’s Iceland is frequently strange and phantasmagorical – more David Lynch than National Geographic. In perhaps her most cinematic portrait, a young woman gazes pensively out a car’s dark window, a small band of light framing her eyes like a masquerade mask. 

Lavigne’s brilliance lies in this interplay between the familiar and the extraordinary. At first glance, the hallmarks of Icelandic photography are immediately present and ubiquitous in her work: the vast, wintry landscapes, the soaring mountains, the quaint, isolated homes. But she is always looking beyond the expected. Her images, consequently, bring novelty and intelligence to a subject too often photographed beautifully but uninventively. Lavigne was only 21 years old when she photographed Island, but her complex vision transcends her age.