“It is about expressing an idea freely. As soon as you say you’re a photographer, you’re immediately blocking yourself inside a medium or a technology. “
Michael Salu Interviews Peter Puklus for #UnseenASX, September 2015
MS: I really enjoy what you’re doing with self portraiture as evident in the campaign image you produced for Unseen this year. The stages of the process being as much of the strength of the final image and how you seem to look at yourself through a historical frame, from the temporality of the sculpture to the permanence of the final image. Is looking at yourself through a personal history something consistent as your work develops?
PP: Yes, these histories of my family and more broadly of Central Europe are in my processes. In Central Europe people used to move around a lot. I myself was born in a different country and moved here [Hungary] which is quite a normal thing to do in this part of the world. As you may know Central Europe is also called A Melting Pot of Nations. My family is considered to be Hungarian but they have roots in Slovakia, while I was born in Romania and moved to Hungary. So I consider myself a Central European ‘somebody’. So there is a mixture of everything and there are no pure nations here and this is somehow represented in my newer works. I used to say that I do not consider myself a photographer, but I do consider myself an artist that is mostly [but not always] using the medium of photography. It is about expressing an idea freely. As soon as you say you’re a photographer, you’re immediately blocking yourself inside a medium or a technology. An artistic idea shouldn’t be blocked by technology or tools and I believe that all the tools are available to me and I choose the ones most suitable to transmitting a message or idea.
MS: I saw a little bit of a connection between the Unseen image and your project The Epic Love Story of a Warrior and I wondered does the way you move freely between these associated ideas help you to understand more broadly identity that has traversed ideology and landscape?
PP: I believe there is no road or rule I should present in my works. I propose a solution or a possibility to maybe understand what I’m doing, but if the viewer is interested, they are free and welcome to interpret my messages or to even change my sequence of ideas. What I’m proposing is my understanding – something I addressed in Handbook to the Stars – but with the new project it will be much more visible. Your interpretation of what I am trying to say is also important and you are free to create new passages of your own through my work. Imagine an exhibition hall for example. On a website its a little different because it is a fixed space, but I have a solo exhibition at C / O Berlin next year and planning to create connections between the images and objects in the space. The connections will happen through several sequences not just one, so you’ll be free to connect anything to anything because this is how the human mind works. If I look at you, you’ll connect me to a memory and the memory to a colour and the colour to a smell and the smell to another object. So then from you, I arrive at an object that is not immediately connected, but will be because of my imagination. So this is what is going to happen in my new project, at least this is my plan anyway.
“This is how the human mind works. If I look at you, you’ll connect me to a memory and the memory to a colour and the colour to a smell and the smell to another object. So then from you, I arrive at an object that is not immediately connected, but will be because of my imagination.”
MS: You seem really comfortable with allowing these ideas to move and mesh together. Do you ever struggle with what aspects of a work to control? Are there parameters you place whether materiality, time or similar?
PP: Well yes, sure. With my daily practice, I’m trying to be more professional, but it’s about growing up right, so you have to. When I am handing something over, I am always pretty aware that is done, it is a finished work, or at least I believe it is. It is important that what I might leave out of a work, or what I send over is personally the best I can offer. What happens after that, I don’t know, I can’t really control that but I’ll know I did what felt right.
In regards to my private life, or the person that I am now, it is funny what happened to me recently. My son is one and a half years old and since his birth I don’t really care what others think of me as a person. It’s a complete change. The image of the artist is different.
“because when we make associative thoughts in our consciousness we do it in a way that relates a smell to an image, or whatever and a pattern emerges and I was thinking that with tagging, it is principally an artificial way of doing the same thing.“
MS: Your work is very personal which I imagine can only have a limited impact in a digital context. Going back to what you were saying about how the human mind processes information and how we associate ideas within our consciousness, I wondered if you ever thought about how we try to mirror this, albeit crudely with the way information moves around the internet. For example, I think about the way tags work as an associative method of a kind of consciousness. In your work I see how you move through moments and ideas quite instinctively, but we also have systems of algorithms, through tags and other connectors that can group images without an immediate ‘association’ but they’ve been linked and contextualised by a tag. Its kind of like a mirror of our own associative methods. Does that make any sense?
PP: Hmm, yes. What you’re saying is very interesting. This is like an enlightening moment for me. Thank you for that.
MS: Ha! No problem.
PP: It is interesting because when you were talking about this, an idea immediately switched on in my mind and of course it is about tagging. You can create stories behind each image and you can always find relevant tags that can help you to jump from one image to another.
MS: Indeed, because when we make associative thoughts in our consciousness we do it in a way that relates a smell to an image, or whatever and a pattern emerges and I was thinking that with tagging, it is principally an artificial way of doing the same thing. An individual process. If you’re tagging an image it is based on your idiosyncratic perception of that image and someone else might use the same image differently.
PP: When I was explaining Handbook to the Stars, I talked about how it illustrated the way the human mind works and how we jump from one idea to another whilst just waiting for the bus for example. What you are saying with algorithms, make this thinking much more relatable to reality or materiality because now I can understand what I’m talking about with this work.
MS: Well I’m glad that helped!
PP: I think I will include this the artist’s statement.
MS: Moving on, I see a quiet introspection to your work, but it isn’t dour or melancholy. You seem to enjoy being around yourself? It’s just an impression I get, but you seem to enjoy your own company.
“I suppose if the work can carry more layers of interpretation both visible and beyond, then it leaves many avenues for engagement. Everything inspires me. As soon as something catches my interest, it often stays with me and can act as a starting point.”
PP: Yes. This is a short answer. Though I understand what you’re saying and I’m glad you said it. Ok, next question!
MS: The lines between your sculpture and the environment are often blurred and rather subtle which for me creates a powerful and enjoyable fiction. Are there literary inspirations with your work?
PP: I suppose if the work can carry more layers of interpretation both visible and beyond, then it leaves many avenues for engagement. Everything inspires me. As soon as something catches my interest, it often stays with me and can act as a starting point. Last week I saw some rubbish at a bus stop and I quickly took it back to the studio to photograph, because something about it resonated with my work. I guess it is easy to say everything inspires me, but its true. I don’t have a library with which I store up ideas or references, I absorb everything and consequently pull out results when they’re ready. That said, something that does inspire me are photographs over time that I see of artists in their studios. To see the processes and half finished works are moments much more interesting to me than final works that end up in museums.
MS: Do you think photographers need to work a little harder to create stories now? Isn’t our perception of ourselves today too nonlinear for ‘documentary’?
PP: When I started out with photography, I won a scholarship in 2004 to study as a documentary photographer. During that time I went to a fair in France and whilst wandering around I took a photograph of a couple of young boys around the age of ten maybe. This was a time when paedophilia had made some waves through the media and was present in the thoughts of many. The mother of the boys went ballistic and caused a huge furor and a crowd formed and was very aggressive towards me. They even took my camera. After this terrible event, I gave up on the documentary idea and shooting without permission.
As an artist the most important thing is to try to understand things and pose questions. The discipline isn’t that important, just the idea and more importantly the questions.
Peter Puklus will be speaking and exhibiting at Unseen Photo Fair 2015, 18-20 September. American Suburb X are an official content partner for Unseen Photo Fair 2015, with exclusive interviews, features and galleries as we continue to champion photography as a conduit to exploring our wider culture, bringing you our distinct, fiercely edited take on Unseen’s look into the future of photography.
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Michael Salu is a writer, editor and creative director. He is a director and partner at American Suburb X.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Michael Salu and ASX. Images @ Peter Puklus.)