“There nothing more boring than, lets say, a picture of a chair and everybody looking at it thinks, well, thats a chair.”
Like many, I first came across the work of the Swiss duo, Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs through their acclaimed book, The Great Unreal (2005-2009). An apt title for their experimental, fictional reality which could only have come about through an incredible openness to the world and a desire to play with the photographic medium, its characteristics and the limits of its perceptive qualities. The result was a kind of dream, a story of the American road, where the familiar is transformed into a heightened, super-reality.
Nominated for the prestigious Deutsche Borse Foundation Prize this year for their second major project, Eurasia, they’ve done it again. This time they travelled eastwards from their base in Switzerland through Central Europe and into the Asian subcontinent to Mongolia and then returned. In a similar way to their US trip, they saw the opportunity to question their own preconceptions – this time, of the oriental myth and western perceptions of the East. Their vision and faith in chance encounters continues to produce results that have many of us in raptures about their work. I caught up with Nico over email.
Sunil Shah:’The Great Unreal’ surfaced at a time in contemporary art photography when notions of fiction were gaining some ground. I was a big fan of ‘Fauna’ by Joan Fontcuberta and Walid Raad’s ‘The Atlas Group Archive’, however, your work was an alternative, more open form of fictional imaginary, less about subverting fact and the idea of documentary and more to do with exploring ones own notions of place with a playful, experimental approach. I wanted to start by asking you about road trips, chance and “the unknown” and how important these are to you both. Are these fundamental ingredients in your practice?
Nico Krebs: A lot of what we do is based on the question “what if..?“ Next to curiosity, chance has always been a very important element in our practice, just because it keeps life exciting and unpredictable. The roadtrips were a intensified way of following the elements of the unforeseen, the unknown, the chance, because every moment of the journey embodies the notion of chance. So in short, yes these are fundamental ingredients.
SS: With your work, there might often be a desire to pre-empt production technique, which is a line of enquiry some might take. Personally, I find keeping this a mystery a more pleasurable way of engaging with your work. So without prying too deeply into the ‘how’ of the works you create, I’d like to consider ‘site’ as space for encounter, and the unpredictable elements that come into that space during a road trip or in the studio, which itself is a site of production. Can you reflect on working in these seemingly opposing sites, or spaces, the former being completely unfamiliar and unknown and the latter being super-familiar, and yet of course both come together in creating the finished work?
NK: Over the years we realised that our work mode would move a bit like a pendulum: after longer periods of intense studio work we felt the need to go outside and refresh our minds with new influences. Also after finishing a photographic series we usually moved on to use different mediums, be it sculpture, film or installations in order to find new ways back to photography. I think in our case, the studio space that surrounds us always influences the work made to a certain degree; I remember when we moved from an apartment size studio to a factory sized studio in Zurich many years ago, we immediately started working in a much larger scale. Later in Berlin, we had a studio in a pretty run down old building and made a lot of rather rough and improvised stuff, then moved on to a cleaner and more organised space, and our work became more detailed and defined. The work is often also a mirror of not only the space that surrounds us but also the life and the feeling that comes with it; sometimes theres a need to get things under control and theres phases where theres a need to let go and get flooded.
Going on a roadtrip was definitely the moment when we needed to let go, leave the known behind and get flooded with new inputs.
“A lot of what we do is based on the question “what if..?” Next to curiosity, chance has always been a very important element in our practice, just because it keeps life exciting and unpredictable. The roadtrips were a intensified way of following the elements of the unforeseen, the unknown, the chance, because every moment of the journey embodies the notion of chance.”
SS: So let’s talk about your trip, in fact when we last spoke in Barcelona in 2013, it was then you mentioned the trans-asiatic trip as your next project. How long were you away for and how much of a plan and schedule was there or was it just; point eastwards and go?
NK: The plan to drive eastwards was around for a while but became more realistic around the turn of the year 12 to 13. First we had the hallucination to drive as far as possible, so the Chinese coast was the primary goal. After a bit of research China turned out to be very complicated and horribly expensive for self-drivers. So we re-scheduled our goal to the magically sounding city of Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia.
We prepared about 3 to 4 months, raised funds for the trip, bought an old Landcruiser, equipment, learned Russian, and studied the maps to figure out which roads to take. In May 2013 we started driving from Switzerland eastwards, stopped close to Vienna for a 4×4 crash course and then headed out into the unknown. We only had a very rough plan of where we would go, everything else was decided on the way.
The journey took 4 months. We also had to organise all the visas on the way, which was very time consuming. Also the eventual car troubles joined in and there were times when making work became more of a background task. We parked the car in somebody’s yard in Mongolia and flew back home. In the next two years we returned twice for one month journeys around the country, also a trip to Georgia and then in 2016 a trip by train to Mongolia and another 4 month journey driving back.
So all in all we spent 11 months travelling. For the work it was important to have these times in between, to make prints, edit the film material, sit in the studio and reflect over what we were doing.
SS: Looking at the resulting work, it’s easy to overlook the practicalities of travel and day-to-day existence, but yes of course the realities of being on the move presents opportunities and has a defining influence, no doubt. Traversing some of these former Soviet states and certainly visible through the content of the book and the films there are elements of that past, interspersed with local cultural traditions and a clearly visible project of modernisation too. However, the entire experience must have presented many possibilities, so how were you able to decide what to pursue in terms of subject matter?
NK: The only thing we knew we wanted to pursue from the beginning was to find the remains of brutalist architecture, which is to be found in all the countries we travelled through. We made a map with buildings and sites we wanted to go visit. Apart from that, everything was developed on the way. Sometimes we’d be hit by a detail and started to be more attentive to it, only to discover it everywhere.
When you travel through places you’ve never been before you usually have what you can call the virgin eye, an unspoilt curious look on things. We wanted to work in this mode and often went for walks to photograph whatever caught our attention. By working with analogue photography, you don’t have the possibility to look through what you just photographed: on our first journey, we only saw what we had worked on 4 months later. This choice also generates a certain freedom of creation, the phase of analysis only comes much later. The phases in between the periods of taking pictures were very important, we edited, looked at pictures and tried to find ways of continuing the project.
While travelling we started to focus our attention on makeshift tools (spending a lot of time in car workshops) and everyday objects. Simultaneously we visited natural history museums in towns and cities, to see what kind of objects were being preserved. Back home, we went to see what the ethnological museum in Berlin had stored from all the regions we had travelled to. Our curiosity brought us into the gigantic museum vaults and after some negotiations we received permission to work with their collection. Thats how the photographs of objects came into the series. Finding subject matter is usually a long chained process.
“We dont have a protocol when it comes to differences in opinion. Mostly its the time factor that solves it, one of us starts to change his mind or then it ends up in oblivion. Collaboration is a very fluid process and like in every relationship theres ups and downs and a lot of unforeseen sideways.”
SS: Thinking about the wider context of this project leads me towards the geographic and anthropological surveys of 19th and early 20th centuries where photography played a large part in not only shaping the western perspective of far off lands but also helped maintain exploration through the “collection” and presentation of cultures, artefacts and objects of the Orient. What I find interesting in your work is how you move between exploration and discovery of objects on the road and a re-discovery of ethnographic objects in museums both in the western metropolis (Berlin) and in cities en route – and merge these as visual reconfigurations in a new set of subjective relations. I like the idea of this re-configuration, perhaps it’s important even in historical terms? Although I can’t imagine the above interpretation is an underlying thread you consciously followed, or is it?
NK: No, it wasn’t a thread that we followed while making the work. But its great when the work opens up doors to thoughts and new discourses. There nothing more boring than, lets say, a picture of a chair and everybody looking at it thinks, well, thats a chair.
SS: What is it that draws you towards certain objects and the possibilities they hold? In your constructions there is a sculptural element to your work where the object undergoes some level of transformation, so for you, at what stage does a found object become a finished work for you? I also saw that there were some sculptures incorporated into exhibitions recently. The relationships between sculpture/construction and photography seem very closely related in your practice.
NK: From the beginning we were always building parts of the photographs we made: sets, backdrops, props and objects, as well as the cameras we sometimes worked with. It merged with the idea that when you build something, you’re also the first one to photograph it.
When we made exhibitions, we started constructing environments for the photographs, installations and objects that would stand in a dialogue with the images. It was more challenging for ourselves to see how the perception of a photograph changes, when you accompany it with objects or make it part of an installation. This question already starts by how a photograph is shown: the piece has a completely different tone if its just paper glued to the wall, mounted on a metal sheet or framed in a wooden frame. We were always interested in the sculptural, three dimensional possibility of a photograph.
Working with found objects, like the ones from the museum collection is a different story. We knew we wanted to work with them but had to appropriate them in a different way than just to reproduce them photographically, so we used our own images as backdrops. The idea of the diorama, this artificial, almost illusionary technique of creating three-dimensional showcases always fascinated us and seemed to be the right way to add our own layer to the objects. We combined two very separate objects, in this case the museum artefact and a photographic print into a new piece, merged together and flattened into one photographic dimension, and thats when it became a finished work.
It happens that we also make sculptures that exist as objects in the first place and only later eventually become parts of photographs. The big concrete object in the Eurasia exhibition is such a case. While experimenting in the studio, we were struck by the odd resemblance of pieces of styrofoam packaging, mostly from consumer electronics, with the brutalist architecture, that we had photographed in many former soviet countries. We liked this strange meeting of form, coming from two very separate vantage points, so we continued to pursue it until it became a sculpture made from steel enforced concrete and assembled with golden screws and bolts.
SS: The book Continental Drift, another release on Edition Patrick Frey with whom you have a long standing relationship. Can you tell me a little about its production and how you came to decisions around it’s format?
NK: At a very early stage of the project we decided to make a book with the work. Together with the designers Megi Zumstein and Claudio Barandun, whom we made all our publications with, we started talking about which direction it could go and what influences were important on the approach. We had a small collection of books, mainly ethnographical photography titles from the 40s to 70s, that we had found over the past years, some of them soviet productions acquired in antiquariats and bookshops on the journey. We wanted to treat our photographs more like raw material than reproductions of works or plates, allowing a different selection, new combinations and crops than we would do in an exhibition. Through making first edits and dummies we came to a rather large format with foldouts, that would generate a generosity to the spreads and transport the vastness of the landscapes we had travelled through.
We chose a quiet thin paper, so the volume of the book would not be exaggerated despite the number of pages. Also the inclusion of the 16mm films was a big challenge. Over the course of a year we met several times in different locations, usually bringing in hundreds of laser copies, slowly working through a selection and creating long snakes of images over furniture and floors. Since we worked on several books with the same designers, we form a group of four voices who all have the same rights. Theres no authors against designer struggles, its more like 4 friends making work together, everyone brings in inputs, opinions and has vetos. So at the end of this group process we come to an agreement, which is the final book. In between we met a couple of times with the publisher and discussed the state of things and decided on the final production line. Also we were lucky to work with a young and enthusiastic group of guys in Berlin who did a great job with scanning and lithography work and the fantastic printers in Altenburg who did everything so the printing and binding came out perfect.
SS: It did indeed. I can see how collaboration is part of your ethos as practitioners, not only as two artists working together but well beyond, into the peripheral processes and production of making work. I think this possibly adds layers of dialogue and decision making into the work that just makes it stronger or more nuanced. However I’m sure there’s not always consensus on decisions, is there an approach when things result in differences of opinion?
NK: We dont have a protocol when it comes to differences in opinion. Mostly its the time factor that solves it, one of us starts to change his mind or then it ends up in oblivion. Collaboration is a very fluid process and like in every relationship theres ups and downs and a lot of unforeseen sideways.
Edition Patrick Frey
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs.)