Skin tones, textures, body parts, and abstraction can only mean Birk Thomassen. Redefining freedom, while exploring what connects us to each other and to the world, he creates fiction to realize his inner world. A world of skin, intimacy, and sensuality, any human can identify with and relate to.
In your work, the issue of freedom is strongly present. Where does this come from? What is freedom to you?
A couple of years ago, I spent a month traveling The Baltics with my friend, who is a pastor, looking into that very question. She conducted a series of interviews as we met people along the way, taking inspiration from the works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, specifically “Either/Or”. Basically, we were looking into whether people found a sense of freedom in ethics, aesthetics, or religion. We spoke to a lot of very different people (a shaman, a vice president, a professional poker player, etc.) Not surprisingly, considering the region’s history, a lot of them answered that freedom to them meant freedom of speech and the right to move freely between countries. However, some also spoke of a sense of inner freedom – not being tied down by feelings of hate, stress, revenge, or excess sentimentality. I think for me personally, this is the definition that makes the most sense. I, like many others, often make the mistake of setting up freedom against responsibilities; if I have a job, a house, a child, a deadline, that means I have responsibilities and, therefore, will be trapped. I will not be able to party for three days in a row or travel the world. As I am getting older and slowly settling down a bit, watching my friends have children and getting 9-5 jobs, I am learning that it is possible to feel a sense of purpose through your responsibilities. That what I do is important and can make a difference in the world – I think this is my current definition of personal freedom. I sometimes miss my art school student days, where I had all the time in the world and no idea what the future would hold. Thinking back, though, I know that I sometimes felt completely stressed out and trapped by the uncertainty of everything, just like I later have felt trapped in a 9-5 job. I now work for myself as a freelancer, which is even scarier. I suppose freedom is not really meant to be something constant but instead something that should be experienced in glimpses throughout our lives.
You use the camera as an artist. How did it become your means of choice?
As a teenager, I went to a boarding school where I studied art as a main course. I had been obsessed with drawing since I was a child – it was my escape from the world around me. I would just sit and make up stories in my head, then let them unfold on the paper. At the boarding school, I took courses in drawing, painting, glass sculpting, and sculpture. However, I was never any good at either drawing or painting. When people say things like “talent does not exist – good work happens through practice,” I tell them it is a lie. I had no talent, and I practiced since I was old enough to hold a pencil. Being dissatisfied with my art work, I later changed courses and took up drama classes instead. At the same time, my dad gave me his old digital camera, and I would dress up with friends and take pictures in the woods. It was really a form of playing, I guess – it provided the same feeling of escape from reality as drawing had when I was a child. My old art teacher saw some of the pictures and encouraged me to continue with photography. Looking back, the pictures were just terribly cliché, but for the teenage version of me, I had finally been able to create something that looked like the world I pictured in my mind – something I never managed to do with pencil and paper. And that was it. I continued taking pictures, and I never did another drawing since.
Identity is another main theme in your photographs. How do you think skin adds to someone’s identity?
I think it depends completely on their relation to their own skin. Whether you would see your skin as a part of yourself and your identity – maybe politically – or just as something that covers your body that you never really paid much attention to. I guess I can only really speak for myself in this case. My skin was always an issue for me when I was younger. I did not like the look of it; I felt impure and wrong. I was very skinny growing up, which caused people to constantly ask me if I was okay, or imply that I had an eating disorder. I ended up feeling like I was truly ill and unhealthy/disgusting for people to look at. This led to quite a severe case of body dysphoria. For many years I covered my skin with many layers of thick clothing and my face with the longest fringe you have ever seen. I did not like people touching me or looking at me, so sex and intimacy were also very complicated. This all happened as I was growing up and trying to understand who I was as a person, so of course, this had a huge effect on shaping my identity, even though I no longer suffer from it to the same extent. In my early 20s, I wore a t-shirt in public for the first time since I was a child, and it was such a huge deal to me. I wore it on my way to do my laundry, and to my relief, no one paid any attention to me whatsoever. Since then, I have been getting better, but I think I will always have a difficult relationship to my own body and my own skin. I sometimes like to think that perhaps this tension and preoccupation with skin and intimacy is where most of my work as an artist is rooted.
Do you think skin sets us apart and creates borders between us and the world or that it connects us to it?
Probably both, depending on how you interpret the question. In my work, I try to focus on what connects us – to each other, but I guess also to the world. In the images I produce for exhibitions, there is often a lot of abstract surfaces and textures present. I always meant for these kinds of images to represent skin, intimacy, and sensuality and for people to connect with them, no matter what skin they themselves happen to live in. I think this is the beauty of abstract work. That you can identify with or relate to, say a flower or a puddle of mud.
Fiction and reality. How much of what we see in your work is fiction and how much is reality?
I would say it is all fiction, to some extent. It might all be photographs and images of the world, but they are chopped, cropped, edited, and sequenced, and this is where the fiction happens. I would argue this is the case for all photographs, even those we consider journalism/press photographs. You are never looking at the full story, and I think that is important to keep in mind.
You shoot a lot of skin. How do you notice people interacting when they are skin to skin?
That depends entirely on the situation. If it is a couple in their own home, it might be one vibe, whereas if it is strangers in a studio, it is something else. Sometimes when I shoot a single subject, I like it if there is a bit of awkward tension – however, when I work with multiple models in an intimate setting, I consider it my job as a photographer to ensure a safe and comfortable environment to work in. I talk a lot and try to stay in touch with the models, even as I am focused on the cameras. When people are comfortable, they feel free to move, and this makes my work as a photographer a lot easier as new images are appearing in front of me.
When you think of skin, do you feel it is restricted to humans or also other subjects you shoot like plants etc.? Why or why not?
Absolutely not restricted to only humans. I am a visual artist, not a journalist. I know that I would be incredibly bored if I restricted myself to only working with a literal approach.
What are you currently working on? Anything you would love to do in the near future?
Right now, I am putting the finishing touch on two group exhibitions in Copenhagen. Due to corona, it was a very quiet spring – nothing happened at all. Now everything is happening at once. I have another small group exhibition planned in late September to promote a book called “BOYS! BOYS! BOYS!” I was featured in, also in Copenhagen. After that, I do not know. My boyfriend and I bought a house outside of the city, so maybe this will lead to some interesting changes in my work. I imagine I will just continue to produce images and see where it takes me. One thing I would love to do is get paid. When I am invited to exhibit, when people want to buy my work or hire me. Just to get paid so I can lead a normal life like those of my friends who did not study art. Oh, and I would really like to exhibit my work in The States, too. I have always had this idea that I would do well there, and I have always wanted a reason to go.