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DETROIT — In today’s technology-driven society, something feels anachronistic about people who choose to live in harmony with nature. In Detroit, this sort of lifestyle often manifests in urban agricultural communities that eschew email and office jobs for field work — communities of people who are more likely to drop by for a visit unannounced than to text ahead; people who might hand you a basket of dried beans for shelling when you come through to chat by the fire.
Perhaps that’s why a selection of images featuring an odd cast of elderly characters camouflaging with their natural environments feels so at home in the DCDT Gallery in Detroit — this city that still holds space for analog technologies, inter-generational wisdom, and parcels of untamed wilderness.
Or perhaps these images — part of an ongoing project called Eyes as Big as Plates, by the Norwegian-Finnish artist duo Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen — sit comfortably within any contemporary time and place, much like the folklore that inspired them. Started in 2011, the project was originally conceived as an exploration and reimagining of Nordic folk figures, but evolved into a broad international search for modern humans that “belong to nature.” The true nature of the work is a little bit slippery: it includes sculpture, character design, installation, photography, book art, and the creation of elaborate costumes in collaboration with the artists’ elderly subjects. The first six years of Hjorth and Ikonen’s eclectic efforts were documented in book form in 2017, but the project has continued to accumulate subjects since then.
The array of senior models who meld with their natural environments, thanks to clever camouflage, also appear to be a part of their surroundings on a deeper temperamental level. In “Greenland 2015,” a cryolite miner, fisherman, whaler, and Artic iceberg field researcher named Jakob lies stoically among ice-patched rocks. In “Japan 2015,” the ethereal Becki emerges as a calm specter on a rugged, misty plain, a cage of bare azalea branches rising in a shrug around her shoulders. The flamboyance and humor of Arnold in “Faroe Islands 2015” is obvious as he takes a little nap on a grassy hillock, his haberdasher-styled suit in forest green mostly obscured by a turtle shell of live sod piled over him.
Most of these shoots are improvised on sites chosen by their subjects, all of whom the artist duo meets by chance in their global travels. For “Norway 2011,” the pair planned to shoot an interpretation of the “huldra” — a kind of Norse forest nymph, usually sporting long, flowing locks of hair. Their subject, Astrid, created a wig out of a giant, leafy rhubarb uprooted from her garden; with her back turned in the portrait, she resembles a kind of botanical Cousin Itt retreating to her forest lair. In “Finland 2012,” Ikonen’s aunt Tuija poses chest-deep in the dark water of Lake Kelvä wearing only a bonnet made of yellow water lilies. There is something fearless, funny, and unselfconscious about the nature-people from Eyes as Big as Plates — the comfort, perhaps, of knowing oneself in age, or the peace derived from cultivating a relationship with nature, or perhaps both.
Eyes as Big as Plates is more than a living archive of aesthetically beautiful photographs of nature: there is something touching and almost revolutionary about this chronicle of senior models that seem utterly (sometimes literally) grounded and at home in the world. Just as modern society pushes a disconnect with natural systems, pop culture categorically devalues the elderly, marginalizing the incredible wealth of experience accumulated as one enters old age. Without preaching, moralizing, or threatening, Hjorth and Ikonen have managed to create a powerful testament to the beauty and worth of old stories, old places, and old people. Each image offers a glimpse into a reality so fantastical that it gives the viewer a little jolt to remember that these mythic tableaus feature actual flesh-and-blood, stick-and-sod occupants of the planet.
Eyes as Big as Plates continues at Lawrence Technical University‘s DCDT Gallery (4219 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201) through April 5. More images from the series and the “Eyes as Big as Plates” book is available online.