Alanna Heiss on Tom Sandberg

MoMA PS1 founder Alanna Heiss comments on the exhibition Tom Sandberg: Photographs 1989-2006, curated by Bob Nickas and presented at MoMA PS1 in 2007.

Interview by Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin

The exhibition was Sandberg´s first solo show in the US, following Torbjørn Rødland in 2006 and followed by Børre Sætre in 2008. Over thirty works were shown in the exhibition, spanning from 1989 to 2007, in the Second Floor Main Gallery. It was an important show for the Norwegian photographer, and coincided with MoMA PS1’s mission to act as springboard to international and emerging artists in the American art world.

The show’s curator, Bob Nickas, described Sandberg’s photography as a world where life is always in the balance. We are in it, but only in passing. We can experience an intense connection to it, and share it with one another, and at the same time be awed by how insignificant we are in relation to its vastness. We all understand how, in an instant, the camera automatically fixes a person in time, and yet in affirming our very being, photography also evidences our mortality, the fleeting nature of life.

"Sandberg’s photography can be quite ominous, I think” says Alanna Heiss, sitting down with me at Clocktower HQ in Manhattan. "And for me the common denominator is mystery. Nothing in his work is communicated as a simple statement. Take the one with the infant and the sea as a backdrop (Untitled, 2004). One sees this big round disk, and as you get closer, you realize it´s a baby´s head. Closer inspection reveals that the child is laying in the sun, in complete ecstasy. The image, which begins as an ominous one, transfers into an essay on joy."

With the millenium growing closer, Alanna Heiss encountered chronic problems that faced P.S 1 as a contemporary art space. One problem was P.S 1’s survival as a vibrant and powerful venue for contemporary art. She eventually chose a course of action that seemed at the time the most radical thing imaginable: a merger with MoMA. To do this, meant that the artist-driven, non-collecting “anti-museum” of almost thirty years was to shed its guerilla tactics, and explore aligning its building and programs to the leading Museum of Modern Art. But it had to be an equal trade-off: MoMAPS1 was to still have the edge of Heiss´s P.S 1, which had largely drawn its structure from her pioneering work in the alternative space movement of the seventies. She hoped P.S 1 could garner strength from the prestige of its new heavy weight partner, while at the same time retain its worldwide reputation for being at the forefront of new art activity. During this process, a greater commitment to photography emerged.

“We were looking for ways to interact department by department, and one crossover was photography. P.S 1 had been showing photographers since 1976, however, as part of a general art committee, rather than as a separate discipline. I am not a photography curator, but I have always been fascinated by photographers. And so, when Nickas introduced me to Tom Sandberg´s work, I was enormously enthusiastic!”

There were several reasons for this. One of them being that his work felt very familiar to her.

“He was a quiet gentleman, who reminded me of my family. You know, I´m Norwegian three generations removed. One of the things I love about Norway, is that you can see far and wide. You have a very keen sense of where you´re positioned in the world…And I also saw in his work a traveller, which I felt very akin to my own way of life. I remember we had a little bit of common understanding about the importance of nothing, the lack of everything, talking in very cliché ways about landscape.”

“As a photographer, Sandberg was a true craftsman: very old-fashioned by nature, and what he captured was quieter and more personal at key points than, say, his documentarian counterparts."

It was a big decision to show him in the Second Floor Main Gallery.

 “We were showing Sandberg in our most glamorous space. It was a huge commitment from us to Sandberg. Photography is absolutely wall art, so when installing a show you look for walls with a defined beginning and an end. When looking at them, you don´t stand far off, you go up to them. Our first consideration was that the gallery had so much space, we weren’t sure it was going to work. But it looked beautiful in the space, no doubt about it. He belonged there.”

 “I think an interesting discussion today is: What is the value of photographs at all? I mean, a photograph is so ephemeral, and has the ability to disappear in a sea of other photos. In many ways they´re easily reprinted, and if a photograph gets damaged by sunlight for example, it can be reproduced. In that way, photographs are unique in the art world as authentic pieces, attainable to a general public. They are accessible in a manner that paintings or sculptures could never be: housed in museums or galleries or artist’s studios as unique art objects. But then again, I think Sandberg evaded that pitfall of photography with the gigantic scale of his prints. They create a massive experience that you´re robbed of if you see it on a screen or in a diminutive copy. "


Welcome to the opening of Diptych / Tom Sandberg at Kunstnernes Hus Friday the 24th of April at 7 pm.  The opening also marks the launch of Objektiv #11 / Tom Sandberg. 

All images are taken from MoMA PS1 site from the exhibition Tom Sandberg: Photographs 1989–2006