Torbjørn Rødland’s best photograph: a plate of teeth and cake hung in a dentist’s waiting room

I’m not afraid of dentists, but I did go to one for several years who was probably a sadist. He seemed to relax when I was put through pain. I know that some people have tooth dreams. Everything that’s part of the vocabulary of the unconscious has some depth to it – people are interested.

As part of the Manifesta exhibition in Zurich last year, each artist was paired up with someone in a profession, and that person would then become our host while we were in the city. At first I was looking at working with a personal trainer, or someone who works with animals; I’m interested in how people handle animals. Then I realised I’d already done those things.

One thing I hadn’t done was teeth. So I asked to work with a dental technician or a dentist. They found me Danielle Heller Fontana, who does a lot of corrective work – surgery and implants. The surgery is pretty dramatic: to correct an overbite or underbite they cut open the jaw. I photographed a couple of her patients during lighter procedures. But I was also interested in model teeth and implants, so I borrowed a selection of them.

The next morning, I was having breakfast in my room. I can’t digest wheat but I don’t like to throw food away or let things go to waste so I thought, fine, I’ll just have to use the cake they’d brought me in some photographs. I put up my large-format5 camera, with the morning sun coming in. Then I started messing up this beautiful moist cupcake, adding implants, crowns and teeth to it. Gradually I found the right balance. The sun was moving the whole time – the universe isn’t ever still.

I added a cork. Opening a bottle with your teeth can be quite evocative for anyone who’s done it. There’s also a rotten tooth on the plate. I framed it pretty tight and put objects all around the plate to tighten it up. The spoon was always there – to evoke the feeling of metal against teeth but it’s good to have this longer element in the picture. It’s a connection between the viewer and the meal. I also added the cashew because I liked its visual dialogue with the teeth.

I only know if the image is right once I see the results. I had the film processed in Zurich and then had some old-school analogue contact sheets made to see which exposure I wanted. Later I made exhibition prints with a lab in Los Angeles. Sometimes I don’t decide on the final image until I have to print one for an exhibition, but in this case it was pretty clear: it was probably the one with the least number of teeth in it.

The plan with the project was for some of the work to go into a main exhibition and other pieces to go to satellite exhibitions at the workplaces of our hosts. I thought that some of my examination pictures looked too harsh to put in a dentist’s waiting room, but that this photograph of a plate and spoon could work. When I came back after installing, however, the picture was gone. Even though the dentist was really positive [about our collaboration] and wanted to be part of this collaboration, she started getting feedback from patients [about the images]. We didn’t mean to terrorise the patients – and she has to make a living – so they took the picture down.

I spoke to a guy recently who really wanted to talk about his tooth dreams. He asked me what they meant. I had to tell him, quite ruthlessly, that they’re about insecurity, ageing or impotence.

Torbjørn Rødland

Torbjørn Rødland’s CV

Born: Stavanger, Norway, 1970.

Influences: “Romanticism, symbolism, cryptozoology, integral theory, the Enneagram.”

Low point: “When all of my lights, cameras, computers, phones and contact sheets were stolen from a van in Malmö in 2002.”

Top tip: “Don’t miss this month’s Alfred Kubin exhibition at the Richard Nagy Gallery in London.”

Torbjørn Rødland: The Touch That Made You is at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, until 19 November.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *