Swedish artist Maria Friberg's first solo show in the Northwest is letting some much-needed air into the Nordic Heritage Museum. The series of photographs titled alongside us (2007) sends a chill right down the spine. Men cloaked in white garments are cradled in the limbs of dramatic, gnarled trees in a cocoonlike spiritual stupor—implying the precarious balance between human and nature. The branches spill across the composition like gestural marks in ink or paint: a reminder of the harmony that can be found in contrast. This web of branches transgresses between support and trap, prisonlike, coupling the vulnerability of flesh and a perilous environment. Each high-gloss photograph captures the viewer's own shadow on its surface. In many ways, the photographs visually articulate the weightless suspension of breath that occurs in moments of exaltation and apprehension.
Friberg works in photography and video, bridging contemporary gender concerns and Romantic sentiments. In way ahead (2009), three dramatically wide shots push forth from the deep, dark, brown walls. They also recede into an unknowable expanse, like Caspar David Friedrich's landmark 1809 Romantic painting Monk by the Sea. A young boy with pink cheeks kneels, stands in profile, and then faces away in a misty field of dewy grasses, his movements echoed by an old man who stands behind—he progresses toward his future with uncertainty.
The 35-second looping video blownout (1999) is an oblique shot of a man submerged in a frothy ocean as it swells against the San Francisco shoreline. We don't see the finale as the waves break and crash off-screen—we see the struggle before the resolution, begging for contemplation of the possibilities. Did he accidentally fall into the water or jump? Was he seeking redemption in death or simply warding off the stagnation of everyday existence? There is something animal in his desperation for breath—he triumphantly emerges like a breaching whale, yet almost willingly succumbs to the tumult. In the comforting sheath of darkness, the viewer's eyes strain and recoil at the physically oppressive whiteness on the screen.
Friberg's subjects are all male. Many have had their hair removed. They're barefoot and vulnerable, reduced to their humanity. If we're all hurtling toward some unknown, yet collective, end, as Friberg seems to suggest, then what she affords is the stillness and focus we need to reevaluate our life's direction.