Erwin Olaf is an interdisciplinary artist working across the fields of photography, video and installation. After studying at the Utrecht School for Journalism, Olaf emerged onto the international art scene when his series Chessmen won the Young European Photographer of the Year award in 1988. This was followed by an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, with subsequent solo and group shows at major museums and galleries around the world, including Bilbao Art Centre, the Modern Art Gallery in Bologna, Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Provocative and often unsettling, Olaf’s work is characterized by its scrutiny of societal frictions and the individuals affected. Chiefly through photography, but also video, sculpture and installation, his work is veiled in a stylized aesthetic that belies a tortured undercurrent. With sensitivity, humour, and Brechtian distance, Olaf draws us into his surreal, filmic narrative, while maintaining the distance of the critical observer. “It’s nice to lock people in a very formal world in which everything is nearly perfect – and then to break something. Then you have your drama” the artist says.
A bold approach to his work has earned Olaf a number of commissions from institutions including Louis Vuitton, Vogue, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and the Rijksmuseum, for which he designed the 2016 ‘Catwalk’ exhibition, including a promotional video and photographic campaign. He has been awarded Photographer of the Year in the International Colour Awards 2006 and Kunstbeeld magazine’s Dutch Artist of the Year 2007 as well as the Netherlands’ prestigious Johannes Vermeer Prize. Additional international awards include the Silver Lion at the Cannes Lions Festival for Advertising, and a Lucie Award from the United States for his whole oeuvre. In 2013 he won the commission to redesign the Dutch Euro coins, which have been in circulation since 2014.
Olaf has screened video work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum at FIT in New York, and at Nuit Blanche in Toronto with a live score commissioned for his series Waiting. He has also projected his 30 channel video installation L’Éveil onto the Hôtel de Ville for Nuit Blanche in Paris, curated by Jean de Loisy (Director, Palais de Tokyo). In March 2018 the Museu da Imagem e do Som in São Paulo will host a retrospective of his work. In 2019 Shanghai Center of Photography (SCôP) will host a solo exhibition. The Gemeentemuseum The Hague and The Hague Museum of Photography will host an anniversary solo exhibition for Erwin Olaf his 60th birthday, and to celebrate 40 years of photography. In 2019 there will be a new retrospective monograph released, published by Hannibal, Aperture, Xavier Barral and Prestel.
Erwin Olaf (born 1959, Hilversum, the Netherlands) lives and works in Amsterdam.
His most recent work sees the conclusion of the three-part project Cities in Transition (working title) – a series of artworks looking at internationally renowned cities undergoing seismic change in the modern world. Rather than fabricating a controlled studio environment, this trilogy is the only time the artist has shot on location, retaining his characteristic cinematic associations to produce a body of work wrought with the genuine emotions and neuroses of these places and their inhabitants.
From progression to decay, notions of transformation are prevalent throughout Olaf’s work with a multitude of projects proving his fascination for society’s ever-changing demands, its simultaneous development and devolution of our moral compass, and its cultivated sense of anticipation for an almost-achievable contentment. These are the preoccupations that add a fascinating dimension to Skin Deep and Tamed and Anger, but also color the tension in Separation which explores the artist’s relationship with his mother, the controversial Royal Blood, the pressures of aging in Mature and the self-portrait series I Wish, I Am, I Will Be. All these projects reveal the friction of an imperfect reality hidden beneath a perfectly curated façade.