Minimal Surreal: Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s Photosculptures

By J.Piper Marshall

The Non-site (an indoor earthwork) is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it respresents an actual site in New Jersey (the Pine Barrens Plains). It is by this three dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it – thus the Non-site .– Rboert Smithson 1

Conceived by Robert Smithson, non-sites are figures that, arbitrarily mapped onto others, render them analogous. Over Thirty years later, sculptor Scarlett Hooft Graafland borrows Smithson’s mapping technique both obliquely and openly.

Her recent work, Vanishing Traces, 2006, is an homage to Smithson and the red Laguna Colorado, the salt lake that inspired his Spiral Jetty.

Here, however, Graafland uses balloons instead of enthropic basalt to compose her spiral.
Graafland creates non-sites by inscribing her presence onto the surface of a landscape, and documenting its traces in her color photographs. Non-sites and, more broadly, topology demonstrate how proximity makes two arbitrary figures equivalent. Mapping is the action that generates this equivalence. In Smithson’s non-sites, a figural diagram traced onto another figure renders the two forms similar. Graafland fabricates her own non-sites by mapping her presence- with both her body and with sculptural elements- onto landscape for the photograph.

If Graafland’s images appropriate the non-site, her artistic process also betrays a healthy dose of surrealist sensibility. Cance encounters with people, materials, and landscape dictate some of the parameters of her non-site productions. Having pre-selected the natural settings in which her work unfolds, Graafland then orchestrates random elements. This often yields absurd yet beautiful and humorous situations. Consequently, Graafland’s idiosyncratic mapping stages a relationship between surrealism and minimalism, both of which inform her work.

As for many of the surrealists, Graafland’s work originates in a quest for unfamiliar cultures. This wanderlust sustains her artistic process. She explains that her desire to travel stems from the freedom to go from one place to another. It’s gambling. You never know…You are really dependent on someone’s help..I just go. It is exciting, because you have no idea if you are going to succeed.

Traveling without plans or connections, Graafland bets on randomness and the help of others. The collaborations she generates in these situations are the very materials of her sculptural scenes. In Bolivia, she traveled with a refugee from Andy Warhol’s factory. Their jeep packed with materials, they traversed the Uyuni desert because, as she notes; ‘I find it very hard to do things inside a city; I really need to go out and find places. .. a very isolated area; where you see hardly any human traces.’

She selects remote landscapes, which shes uses as composition surfaces, that is, as grounds for her ephemeral installations. Her photographs record these compositions, , which vary to her experience with the local culture. The absurdity of her photographs reflects her confrontation with foreignness, her loss of codes and references. The scenes she creates distill her experience into one moment. Shot in Bolivia, Sweating Sweethearts 1, 2004, depicts women atop of salt mounds, bowler hats upon their heads, cotton candy in hand, and conical skirts flowing into salt mounds. Graafland explains that the photograph derives from her interaction .. with this macho culture where they use all these sweet words, such as sugary sweetheart’

(This) was part of the reason I wanted to place the woman with the sugar on top of the salt, and so I called it Sweating Sweethearts. Some kind of reaction to the society.
This work requires the cooperation of local women and the permission of their husbands, which Graafland had to secure. Derived from the Bolivian fondness for Hulk, the superhero, Masmo!1, 2004, also distills her cross-cultural encounter.

Produced by way of the aleatory convergence or remote lands, local actors, and material props, Graafland’s photographs enact Lautreamont’s famous discription of beauty as “the fortuitous meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”3
In this, the strangeness of her vistas and the fortuitous process of their creation align her with surrealist conceits.

Still, the images are products of a certain measure of intention, which lays bare the artist’s subjectivity and aesthetic choice. While she adapts to situations and works instinctively, Graafland does not fully subscribe to the surrealist quest to tap into the unconscious. She explains her initial concept of the work Seven Steps, shot in the Uyuni flats near Laguna Verde in Bolivia:

My original idea was to make a video with the Green Lake. Every time he took a step, this person would breathe into a plastic structure. He would grow and grow, like a real Hulk. At the end, this strange figure would just float or something. But then the lake itself was not what I expected it to be. There were lots of waves and few flat surfaces. It wasn’t calm.
Likewise, works such as Vanishing Traces, or Harvest time, 2006, reveal the artistic precedents on which she relies to create such artificial scenes. Finally, her construction of these scenes also distances her work from the surrealist tenet of found situations. In this, her compositions subscribe to a more minimalist approach of mapping.

In some works, Graafland condences her experiences of a culture into a single moment by mapping her body onto the landscape. In these sculptures for the photograph, her body becomes a tool: atop the roofs of Iceland in Rust Roofs, 2004, wedged as middle ground between rock and houses in Body Landscapes, 2004, or wrapped around a towering cactus in Discovery, 2006.

Graafland enscors herself into the scene, transforming the site into a case. She then documents these body sculptures in photographs: records of the non-sites she creates with her body and the landscape. These images act as perennial non-sites of her ephemeral experiences of foreignness.

In the works from which her body is absent, mapping remains implicit. In Domestic Marble, 2004, Graafland laid linoleum onto the cracked surface of the desert. It seems as though the earth separated into teal, blue, and rust-colored flats. Here the linoleum is an index of the artist’s presence. Similarly, in Out of Continuum, 207, a local woman wears a bowler and holds a white balloon; she is poised atop a salt mound into which her skirt seamlessly flows.

Graafland’s work borrows from both minimalism and surrealism- but only partially. Her dual approach positions her photographs as both photographs and archives, sculpture and document. Her photographs are always also visual artifacts. As indexes, they point to moments outside the photographs- the time concept and composition. Ultimately, Graafland’s images yield a map of artistic subjectivity.


  1. Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-sites, “Robert Smithson: Collected Writings, Jack D. Flam, ed., Berkely: University of California Press, 1996, 364.
  2. All quotes are from the author’s interview with the artist, New York, August 2, 2007
  3. Lautreamont, Les Chants de Maldoror, Together with a translation of Lautreamont’s Poesies, Guy Wernham, tr., New York, New Directions, 1965, 263. 

J.Piper Marshall is Assistant Curator at the Swiss Institute in New York.

Download: Minimal Surreal Art Papers.pdf