- author — Dana Stirling
- published in — Float Magazine
- year — 2020
1. First, maybe tell us a little how your artistic journey start? When did you first realize your passion for art and how did it all come together for you? My artistic practice took its starting point in the documentary field, where I initially was interested in photographing the world around me. Since then, that curiosity has become unified with a photographic method, through which I use photography as a tool to achieve a greater understanding of life’s more existential and complicated questions. In my investigation of these questions, you could say that I mobilize a photographic process through which the concrete method often results in abstract answers. 2. In one of your earlier works titled “3×1” (1999) you documented one family for an entire year. I think what I really found fascinating in the work is just how familiar yet foreign it felt looking at the images. It is easy to relate to their family dynamic but at the same time their interactions are so specific to them and their little bubble of life that it feels like all you can do is be an outsider observer. Can you teel us how this project start? What in this family was important for you to examine? How was your connection to them at the end of the project? In many ways “3×1” marks a crossroad between two somewhat different approaches. This was a time in my artistic career, where I really started to rethink the way I use photography – moving from a very classical documentary approach into a much more conceptual field. In this project, I tried to depict everyday scenarios seen from a perspective that was unknown to me as the family members were each involved in their own micro-dramas, often just entailing the banalities of everyday life. To me, the story behind this project has so many tracks that I think I got confused by them. Therefore, I missed the chance of following the daughter more closely, who I believe to be an important “character” in the story. And because of that, I feel that the book ended somewhat directionless – although it certainly has a touching feel to it and several strong images. 3. In that project, I also was interested that in many of the images, the daughter’s eyes were not towards the camera, but towards her family or even closed all together and facing away from you. I don’t know if I have a question per se about this notion, but I would be interested in hearing your perspective on this. Yes, definitely. As already mentioned, the daughter was to me a central person in the story. She is my witness and main character as she both confronts me as the voyeur I am, when entering the family’s private space, but she also deviates the encounter between me and the family. I think that her presence gives the book its nerve, and I am honestly not sure that I – as a photographer – live up to her level of presence and honesty. This is perhaps my greatest reservation, when looking back at the project today. 4. In projects such as “Endings” (2011) and “Car Crash Studies” (2009) you take a look at the “Aftermath” of a traumatic event may it be a car crash or a cremation of a body. Can you tell us about the decision of focusing on the aftermath of an event? Why was it important for you to document these traumatic outcomes? Throughout a large part of my work, I have followed what could be considered a clash of themes. It is my experience that many parts of life contain this clash, often between beauty and cruelty, where one must find meaning (and perhaps beauty) in what seems meaningless. For example, can death be experienced as anything other than the loss of life? Some say that after we pass, we become “star dust”, and in these works I am actually photographing ashes of the deceased at a crematorium. These landscapes of dust (or ashes) consist of particles in black, white and greyish brown nuances that create a distinctive image, which is surprisingly and confusingly similar to what we would see through the Hubble Space Telescope, floating around in the Low Earth Orbit. It reminds me of what the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) had written on his wall, opposite the door to his observatory: “By looking down, I look up – And by looking up, I look down”. He was so much more right, than he probably knew at the time. 5. I found that much of your work revolves around the examination of the complexity of humanity and in that the duality of life and death. Your work always shows these delicate notions without showing a morbid visual, the thin line of life and death is present all while showing us a beautify visual enigmatic representations of these complexities. Do you mind telling us more about this and how it affects the way you make your work? I am interested in humanity, in our lives and in our world. Basically, I am as an artist concerned with what I call “concrete abstraction”. What I study is both tangible and earthbound, but transcends through the existential questions that are raised. These studies of mine are not linear, and the answer is to me not the most interesting part. Instead I am concerned with the complexity of the answer and the formation of meaning. Things can be read in several ways, and to me art has the ability to shed light on new and different ways of understanding both the questions and the answers. So, as you can perhaps guess, I am not in favor of a totalitarian understanding of what is up and down. I am more interested in the complexity of these considerations. 6. In your project “Boxers” (2001) and then the “78 Boxers” (2012) of the same work, you documented young boxers before and after their fights. You write about the project “The match itself is left out, letting the faces tell the story of the action that took place in between the portraits was taken.”. This statement goes back to what we mentioned before, those lines of the before and after – life and death. Although this project is not an actual death, I think a big part of what is “dying” in these portraits in their innocence, their childhood and their young bodies that are shifting and growing. How did this project first start? What was your original motives, and did they change and shift as you worked on this project? What changed between 2001 and 2012 in your perception of the work and the edit of it? I could not agree with you more. To me, this project is also a form of reminiscence over myself as I had my first boxing match as a young boy in 1983, only 13 years old. But the project came to be after seeing a piece by the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra in the late 90s. Dijkstra had portrayed a woman just before she gave birth and then again 6 months after the birth. It was a wonderful and impactful work, and it was the starting point for “BOXER”. Because somehow, I saw similarities between how the depicted woman had changed after giving birth and how I had changed after my first fight. So I started portraying these young boys, who had just had their first fight – right before and right after. In that way, the project became a quite clear and stringent examination of this loss of innocence as well as the entrance into manhood that these boys were experiencing when they entered the ring for the first time – and for the first time faced what it means to be truly alone. 7. I found that many of your earlier works were more “traditional” in the sense of their photographic approach, where some of your new work have a more abstract and experimental. What created this shift in your work? My process and my practice are by no means clearly defined. But the best answer to your question is perhaps that as a photographer I seek development. I am not interested in repeating neither process nor form. I enter into dialogue with my own photographic process based on intuition and on being in place, where my work isn’t controlled or restricted, but can grow and evolve freely. 8. I think one of my favorite works of your is Old Tjikko (2016) where you took just one negative photo of this tree in Dalarna Sweden and is believed to be the oldest tree in the world (approx. 9,600 years!). You than exposing that single negative onto over 90 different types of analogue photo papers some of them pretty old (1940’s) which created an array of visual representation of this single tree and image. I found this work to not only be conceptually intriguing, but visually beautiful. Can you tell us how this work began? What made you interested in this tree and how did you conceptualize the way you wanted to visually represent this work? Can you tell us a little about the work process and the journey of making these images? In 2014, I heard that researchers in Sweden had come across a spruce, which had turned out to be the world’s oldest tree. I decided to find it and photograph it, without really knowing why or for what. Around the same time, I was working on a different exhibition, which I was producing in a darkroom. Here I discovered that photo paper has an almost anarchistic way of reacting, depending on its expiration date, how it has been stored and where it has been produced. This technical aspect fascinated me, so I started collecting old and expired photo paper, which – believe it or not – turned out to be something of a market! But what also fascinated me was the paper’s relation to the photograph and the shift in interpretation, since photography can be understood as both representative of reality, but also as deeply deceptive in all its simplicity. In “Old Tjikko”, I am basically focusing on what photography is – when taken aside from digital development. In the work you see the world’s oldest tree, but you also see many other things, and perhaps most importantly you see time. Time itself is expressed through the different papers on which the negative has been developed. The photo paper shows the significance of the material, when reading an image or interpreting a motive. In that way, “Old Tjikko” takes a step back and lets the material have a say in defining the expression, but at the same time without giving the viewer too much direction. Apart from the exhibition at Nikolaj Kunsthal, the project was also published as a book in 2019 by Fabrikbooks – a publishing house that I founded together with Trine Søndergaard in 2015. To me, the book is an immensely relevant medium when working with photography and it represents yet another way of showcasing photography. The book has other qualities and strengths than the physical exhibition, and you can’t make an exhibition into a book nor make a book into an exhibition. They will always differ. In the book, you will see that the photographs have been cropped, so that you truly get the sense that you are turning the page and seeing the same photograph over and over again. People sometimes think that I’ve travelled to Dalarna and photographed Old Tjikko multiple times and that the series have been produced over a much longer period of time, though it is in fact the same negative. This also shows how much the photograph’s materiality affects our interpretation of it. 9. You have an exhibition up in Martin Asbæk Gallery with the project Old Tjikko. In addition to showcasing 82 photos of the tree you also created an installation of analogue photo papers in tower like status on pedestals. I think this installation hits home to anyone who ever worked in an analogue photo setting, you can almost smell the chemicals when looking at these statuses. Could you talk about the decision behind this installation? What. Compelled you to showcase them in such a way? They are actually two different exhibitions. The latest is at Nikolaj Kunsthal, called “Variation of Old Tjikko”, where I showcase 73 works, individually framed but in identical frames, each in the same format. The works have been installed as one long horizontal line on a free-standing wall, which runs through the middle of the space. On the white passe-partout I have had the brand name and expiration day printed in silver, which is what gives the works their sense of time. Silver is an essential element in the chemical process behind a photograph, as it is the silver bromide that makes the paper light sensitive. Furthermore, printing the text in silver on white means that from certain angles, the text either vanishes or appears almost black, making it alternate between present and non-present. This small detail is a comment on photography itself. As a photographer, I am extremely interested in the way that photography is anchored in something that has been seen and then fixated. It is after this fixation that an image can grow, evolve and sometimes even end up showing something that wasn’t necessarily there in the first place. This happens together with the spectator, who might read things into the image depending on their own background and experiences. Also exhibited is a series of podiums placed in the opposite room. On these podiums the packaging from the photo paper has been stacked in neat piles, protected by an acrylic box. In this part of the exhibition, the historical materials – meaning the boxes and packaging – are turned into a series of sculptures, which could be said to be the foundation of the exhibition. 10. In your projects “Silver Migration” (2018) and “Light Break” (2015) you focus on the materiality of what photography is. These cameraless projects harness what photography’s basics are – the physicality of a medium that captures an image with the most elusive tool we have – light or the lack of it. In these works, you examine how the materiality can create its own visuals and allowing these materials to speak for themselves. What made you go down the path of these abstract approaches? What was one thing that you think making these works made you realize about art or the making of it? It is in many ways quite different reasons that underlie these two works. But on a more general level, I am interested in cutting out the unessential and get into a kind of core. If we were to talk about a basic substance within photography, we could easily talk about light. What is light? Why can’t we see light? Or why can we only see when there is light? The theme of light is central in both of these works, but in “Silver Migration” it is also interesting to take a closer look at what actually creates the image. Because in that piece, it is quite literally photography’s degradability that has created the motif. All I have done is leading the paper down into a developer and fixating it afterwards. The title of the work, “Silver Migration”, stems from the way which the silver bromide crystals turn into silver ions, hence becoming unstable and starting to move around on the paper. But still, I myself don’t really see a big shift from my previous works to this more abstract approach, as you write. What the works have in common is the way that I examine a specific problem, question or phenomena, looking for an answer that is both more abstract and universal. To me, an artwork truly “lives”, when it opens up for bigger questions than what was the immediate focus – and in that way creates a dialogue between itself and the spectator, but also a dialogue within itself. 11. I think, from what I could learn from looking at your work as a whole is that you have a great curiosity which seems to be the driving force in your work and why many of your projects also have elements of science and history in them. It seems that you have a genuine need to learn and explore these notions and then express them in a visual way for others to be a part of your experience. Do you think that would be a good way to describe you and your work process? Do you think this attribute is important for artists to share? I’m probably not the right person to answer that. But for me, working with art is a way of being in the world. It is a way of making demands and creating dialogue. I am curious and investigative of nature, because that is how I feel present in the world. To me, it is absolutely crucial that my work leaves the studio and enters into the world. This makes it possible for the work to stand as an independent unit and become more real through the reading of others. If it was just sitting in the studio, without anyone seeing it, it would in my opinion cease to exist. 12. What might have been your biggest struggle as an artist over the years? What advice would you give young artists reading this interview? My advice would to keep your eyes on the road as well as on the goal. As previously mentioned, the process and the constructs surrounding an answer can sometimes be as interesting as the answer itself – and the same goes for the artistic practice. 13. Lastly, with the current pandemic, first we all hope you are doing well and all are healthy! But I was curious to ask, as it seemed like a subject matter that might fit within your overall art approach – the notion of how the pandemic affects us all on a global scale, if it has affected your art practice in any way? Did it change anything for you? How was your experience during the pandemic as a practicing artist? Thank you for asking! We are luckily alright in my family, although I lost my stepfather this summer. Sadly, due to the current circumstances with the pandemic, we were unable to visit him during the last months of his life. My stepfather died of old age, not of COVID-19, but I feel sad about how it still affected his final time. And to be honest, I have in no way felt inspired by this damned pandemic. The situation has stood in way of many things and has in my opinion created insecurity, loneliness and a greater distance between people. On the other hand, I have an exhibition at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which explores epidemics through a historical perspective. So, in that way, I have – without quite wanting to – opened up to the subject and explored it throughout the last eight months. So I guess that you could say that it has after all been inspiring to me.