Henriette Sabroe Ebbesen – Self Reflection

Henriette Sabroe Ebbesen’s new book Self Reflection, published by Danish young heavyweight Disko Bay, is a fascinating foray into the psychic territory of mirror play, in which bodies double, dissolve, and align with the subconscious. It would be easy to call the work psychedelic, but that precludes pre-existing conditions, which, like Surrealism, are contained in a specific era in which political and social forces shape the drive to produce such imagery or concepts across culture. In considering the surface suggestion to those topics as relative, it would be incorrect to think of her work simply in those terms as it would exempt them from the present moment. It sounds standoffish of me to say so. Still, I think it is fair as the work has been contextualized elsewhere recently as having a neo-surrealist quality, and that other works coming from Europe (without specification as to why-refugee crisis, Brexit, no war, technology, housing prices, which?) also exhibit this tendency. In short, I want to shortchange this assumption to the nomenclature around Self Reflections. If we look at where it might stem from, understanding the artist’s background as a medical doctor, and if I stretch my imagination, the rise of AI generative systems might be part of the mix. However, the artist clearly states that no AI was used in its creation.

The condition of art’s production must rely on cultural, social, and political exchange in time it was crafted. In this, adding a light touch with terms such as neo-surrealism, ultimately, to coin a term, seems fallacious. Instead, I think we can examine other works from painting to photography that best exemplify the aesthetic base, if not the cultural drive of the work, which relies on a sense of fashionable narcissism in the production of the images that could be drawn from selfie culture, but also the very fundament of the word Narcissus, the Greek God who drowned admiring his image. I reference Narcissus and narcissism not as a crude insult but rather a reference based on a longer tradition of mythology, which the game of mirrors represents, and it teases out and distorts the bodies within the frame. I do not use it to speak on the artist’s pathology or her authorship in or out of the frame.



Regarding referencing art from the past, I am reminded of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus from the 1480s. There is a central quality for many of Henriette’s images that are copacetic with Botticelli’s landmark work. The angle is often slightly different, looking up instead of straight onto the subject matter. Still, the figure, its gesture, and the summertime seasonal attitude to the work fit the caliber of images found in Self Reflection. I might also suggest that the pearl or silver sphere that Henriette uses feels like it has a kinship to Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring in that his model stands in the center of a clam, an association to pearls, much like the object that Henriette uses repeatedly works as a motif for a shared allegory. The pearl in the photographs, quite unrelatedly, reminds me of the sentinel sphere in the film Phantasm from 1979.

In modern times, Wilhelm Von Gloeden’s nude studies of Sicilian youth are also within the applied tradition of Henriette’s bodies. In Henriette’s work, there is less troubling sensationalism with the implications of naked, premature boys used as sexual fodder as in von Gloeden’s case, but the bacchanalian sentiment pervades. The use of fish within her photographs also echoes Von Gloeden’s use. This association with the use of fish is often linked to the Catholic tradition of the Pieta, notably in the sculptural work of Michaelangelo Buonarotti.



Further associations include one Surrealist (though arguable with Breton’s assessment of Fascism and its place in Surrealism) in Salvador Dalí, whose melting clocks or soft watches from 1931 entitled The Persistence of Memory, feel like an apt association to Henriette’s work. From the same period, though not considered a bastion of surrealist photography, André Kertész Distortions from 1933 (published as a book in 1976) is likely the most likely association for Self Reflections since the work by Kertész also employs a game of using mirrors to introduce elasticity to the body, to stretch the nude form to limits almost unrecognizable. This handling of the body suggests abjection and polymorphous continuations that harken an image of a grotesque, the animal/man/plant hybrid seen notably in variations of The Green Man, European mythology, and is to be understood as a symbol of rebirth.

In more recent relative suggestions, I am reminded of the profoundly saturated color photographs of James Bidgood, who also, like Von Gloeden before him, concentrated on the homoerotic depiction of young men as satyrs, another mythological and mischievous symbol from ancient Greece. With Bidgood and Henriette, the overlap is more stylistic and color-oriented. With the medium of painting, and though a slight stretch, Lisa Yuskavage’s kitsch (a word to bury before the altar of painting) is someone who I thought of, primarily in how the posing operates in Henriette’s photographs to Yuskavage’s employ of often, but not always center-weighted figures who take up the majority of the framing. Her voluptuous nudes are also worth noting in relation to the Danish photographer, though there is an emphasis on pregnancy in Self Reflection that is not evident in Yuskavage’s works.



In summary, Sabroe Ebbesen’s book is a fabulous study of bodies in the natural world, subverted by her interest in distortion. There are subtle hints of where the work is drawn from within the book that push it into being something more rounded than a simple studies of nudes. I think the work is a fantastic play on a several motifs and its overall production, including the mirrored cover make the work whole, not a sum of parts haphazardly put together as an extended portfolio of images. I highly recommend the book for its levity, but also that it defies genre with grace.


Henriette Sabroe Ebbesen

Self Reflection

Disko Bay

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