The Living Mountain by Awoiska van der Molen, made in collaboration with composer Thomas Larcher, is a work that hangs in the air, a work whose final purpose has been suspended. The work sees Van der Molen apply her now signature photographic approach to the countryside and mountains of Larcher’s native Tyrol, Austria, as part of a collaboration for his residency at The Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. A rock climber himself, Larcher had originally planned on responding to these images in a performance scheduled for April 2020, in which his music and Soprano Sarah Aristidou’s performance of passages from Nan Shepherd’s namesake book would accompany projections of the images. A slimmer work than Van der Molen’s prior publications, the book is composed of a modest seventeen images (including the cover) set over thirty pages with a six-page insert bound into the center of the book containing pages from Larcher’s composition notes.
Photographically, a greater sense of textural indulgence prevails, as though she has allowed herself to reach out and touch the landscape with these images; horizons are visible (#570-18,all works 2020), blur and movement are given a place (#566-16), and the pace noticeably ebbs back and forth as the turned pages stack up. This textural quality is what leads the way when it comes to the book-object, expertly designed by longtime publisher/collaborator Hans Gremmen, and printed by Harold Strak and Wilco Art Books[LMD2]. The distinctive and effective choice of paper—well, card to be accurate—with its single-side coating, allows the constant flux between a brilliant white, glossy base layer and a flat, neutral gray to be the device that makes the act of turning the page so vividly present in the experience. Sharon Helgason Gallagher, Director of ARTBOOK and D.A.P., describes this phenomenon as:
the extraordinary symphony of movement […] in my brain from left to right, from right back to left, from spatial to temporal processing, from visual to verbal and back again; the thick temporal symmetries of the dance steps my brain takes as it progresses through the book.
Each turn of the page is a reminder of the somatic connection of mind-body-material, and of the persistent refusal of Van der Molen’s images to be penetrated by the gaze (consider #589-5 and #560-1 for the most challenging examples of this). This constant refreshing of conscious perception could be likened to the peripheral rotation of an LP as its music is plucked from its grooves, grounding the transient and ephemeral sounds in a finite space and time.
Splitting the flow of the work in two is a bound-in section of tissue-thin folded sheets of paper, connected at their top edge as though they had narrowly avoided the blade of the guillotine, and printed black on their inner folds to make them opaque. This materially distinct central booklet shows a facsimile of Larcher’s handwritten compositions. These pages are less informative to someone as musically illiterate as myself, but this does not mean they should be skipped. With even a passing understanding of Larcher’s work, one can begin unpicking his austere approach here, where sporadic flourishes of intensity are punctuated carefully and deliberately within acres of silence. For Larcher, composition also happens visually, with regular patterns emerging from his musical notes that may or may not be perceptible to the ear. Sharing these pages are also the notes Larcher makes to himself: instrument choices, doodles of stage layouts, and test measures.
The pace of the image sequence leading up to Larcher’s notes is slow, heavy, and solemn, then immediately picks up, before tripping and stumbling back to a hands-and-knees crawl. Though visually interesting, I was initially skeptical of the musical notes section set in the center of the book, questioning both the efficacy of integrating music this way and its placement being decided by the practicalities of publishing and binding. What, beyond mere aesthetic embellishment, could these handwritten scores contribute to a photobook? I have come to understand that its placement is not about integrating music into the photobook-object; it’s about bringing together Van der Molen’s process with that of Larcher’s, similarly rooted in the resonant influence of physical, analogue production. This draws the book into the conversation, reverberating the dialogue between Larcher and Van der Molen perfectly. The remnant folds at the top of Larcher’s notes and his marginalia, along with the single-sided coating on the card, infallible photographic detail, and visible knots of thread holding the book together, all culminate to create a piece whose analogue physicality seems to, at each turn, embrace the book.
Awoiska van der Molen’s first two publications, Blanco (2017) and Sequester (2014), set the tone for a career that embraces analogue image-making for its meditative nature and that reflects the discipline required to produce dense compositions of precision and severity. Her black-and-white landscapes, made using large and medium format film and printed by hand on baryta paper, are impenetrable, complex and challenging, playing with the inky limits of lithographic reproduction to create book-objects that demand to be moved in the light, to be bent and manipulated and scoured for traces of information that whisper out from the paper’s structure. The Living Mountain presents work from the borders of Van der Molen’s established formality; while unmistakably her own work, there is a certain sense of remove from the utter strictness of her previous publications.
COVID’s delay may have been a good thing, in fact. Had the work accompanied a contemporaneous performance, as originally intended, this impact may have been somewhat lost—the book relegated to the realm of catalogue or keepsake, subservient to the ephemeral performance. Now, with the bookwork firmly established and the performative aspects still unrealized, I find myself aching for the project’s ultimate deliverance, which the book stubbornly and stoically refuses to give.
1The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Aberdeen University Press, 1977.
2Titles of the works can be found on the artist’s website: https://www.awoiska.nl/2019-2020-tlm.
3Gallagher, Sharon Helgasson. “What Shall We Want to Have Called a ‘Book’?” In The Book is Alive!, edited by Emmanuelle Waeckerlé and Richard Sawdon Smith, p. 19. Sheffield: RGAP, 2013.