“Parallel: Erwin Olaf” presents nearly fifty photographs from the dynamic career of renowned Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf, covering the recent 15 years of his creative work. A number of the works will be shown in China for the first time. The year 2019 marks a significant moment in Olaf’s career, one of the most important and influential photographers at work in the Netherlands today. “Parallel: Erwin Olaf” is one of several major exhibition events that will take place through 2019 to celebrate his career as he turns 60, the others being at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, and The Hague Museum of Photography. “Parallel: Erwin Olaf” opens at SCoP on 3 March 2019, coinciding with the Shanghai Art Weekend that is held ahead of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair, as a major event on the international art calendar.
Olaf’s expertise lies in fashion photography and in creating provocative advertising campaigns. On this occasion, however, “Parallel” eschews Olaf’s most widely recognized images in favor of exploring a more personal side of the photographer’s work as he marks his own especial career milestone. Olaf’s work matches parallel strands of stylistic excellence and visual intricacy. The works also weave together parallel elements that are on the one hand autobiographical, and on the other, dedicated to entirely constructed mis-en-scène.
As Olaf says, “My work is always a reflection of my personal life and beliefs. I am looking for more detail in the human emotion instead of focusing on grand gestures. I want people think about the subtext of the photograph. I create a highly stylized look, which draws in the viewer… ‘lured’ by the‘beauty’. But once they are caught, I hope they then get the second message as to what exactly is different for each series.”
Beneath the veneer of glamor and perfection that has come to characterize Olaf’s style – in his own words the “highly stylized staged” aspect of his photography —“Parallel”seeks the deeper message that lies beneath the surface, and which is the concept that directs collections of images like Rain, Hope, or Grief. These series share a common focus on the human condition “from the vulnerability of simply being, to the relationship between power and submission”. Olaf’s sense of the human condition often seems to revolve around alienation, distance between people, anonymous encounters and awkward interactions, which he feels to be a condition of the contemporary world.
Olaf’s work further reveals deep roots in the centuries of Dutch history and traditional art, and demonstrates how the photographic endeavour connects with history as the history of human experience. Running through the majority of series that Olaf has produced through the 15-year period explored here is a striking juxtaposition between adults and children. This is the defining feature of his signature series Berlin created in 2012. “Berlin focuses on the power of youth,” he says. So, it is a work in which children are treated as adults. The process of making a city theme around Berlin inspired a sequel in 2017 titled Shanghai. “Shanghai,” he says, “reminds me of a young, confident adolescence full of boundless energy, convinced of its own power, and doing whatever it takes to reach its potential.