This is a photograph and a portrait. Who is he, and what is it about?
This is Piet, a friend of mine from Antwerp (Belgium). Piet is not an artist, but he is a good example for artists. He told me that he wanted to stay abroad for a longer period, but that he was not sure how and where to travel. I asked him to send me about ten pictures from his destination as an 'evidence' of his trip - without telling me where he has been. Piet agreed to the 'deal' and bought a digital camera especially for this purpose. This self-portrait was the first picture he took, in order to test the camera.
So you had arranged a 'deal'... - In a recent Re-Institutionalize project, you declared your own evening walk on a cemetery in Finland to be an exhibition. Now the event is even more 'remote', for the photographs were taken by someone who is not an artist. In what way is it art, then?
I think that the notion of a deal is crucial for a definition of art and of that what is not art. Everything can be recognized as art if the work succeeds in making a deal with the artworld. Yet there is a difference between 'being art' and 'being recognized as art'. Not to mention the problem how to determine relevant, interesting and good art. In this case I would say that I am speculating on art by making this deal with Piet. Like the other Re-Institutionalize projects, this one also takes place independently from any art institution and tries to generate art and art institutions "out of nothing". But to come back to the question, I think that this deal is an artistic deal, because it aims at giving the production of images a symbolic value. The artistic quality of these photographs mainly relates to a conceptual switch prior to their creation and perception. The photographs challenge to find out something specific; and the deal behind the pictures informs the spectator of an artistic strategy.
Has art disappeared in order to re-enter in disguise?
Of course the idea of disappearing in order to re-enter disguised is appealing to me. I think it's a good strategy, enabling art to express certain things again -- romanticism, passion and idealism, for example --, without having to adapt to certain codes and clichés. This strategy might already be outdated, but I think that it's working pretty good in this particular case.
A hotel room, maybe? It's a hint, isn't it? Why did he take this picture, what do you think?
It's a backpackers' place. I like the name "Cat and Moose". There is for sure a clear hint: that water is announced to be short in this place. I presume that Piet liked the name too and the very practical instructions how to save water. Actually, we have never really spoken about the pictures he sent me, so I don't know much more about them than you.
This picture is empty and very full, at the same time. That's quite vague, but presumably Piet intends to tell something. - Why don't you just pretend that you took the photographs? Then it would be art...
It's a strange painting, somehow 'oriental', but it looks wrong. And it doesn't really fit in with the elements in the room. I'm sure that there is a story behind this painting and behind the fact that it's there. I like this 'potential' in a picture. - But I totally disagree with your idea about authorship. It would be stupid to pretend that I took the pictures. Although it might be easier then to say that it's art -- because a trained artist released the shutter --, it would be very bad art. Now it is much more challenging to consider this as art, exactly because the photographs have to be regarded from a totally different point of view.
A single piece of a lonesome something: Someone offers what he has seen, for observation. I have a good reason to be occupied with that. If I can name it, it becomes a part of the world I am living in.
I agree with you that a gesture offering a personal experience to be shared with other people is important, but it needs more to attract my interest. I mean, a lot of people produce tons of snapshots and make hours of video recordings of their holidays, and nobody would claim that that's a reason to look at all of that. I think that this picture is interesting exactly because of the difficulty to name and understand the depicted object. The interest lies in the object itself, and the photograph is focused on it in a very efficient way. Even when you understand what you see and the way it was made, the object still remains interesting, and that's a genuine quality, in my opinion.
This is, presumably, a place where tourists are guided to take pictures. Oddly they seem to photograph the photographer... I feel as if I have seen it before. - The photographs are adequate to different categories: still life, portrait, landscape, etc., and they are 'psychological' in some way. My impression is that Piet took quite clever photographs on his journey, the way he realized the deal you set up.
I totally agree with you.
On the way. Moves fast. - Maybe we should talk about your idea of 'institutionalization' now. Is it coming into force as soon as the action is published and communicated within an artistic discourse?
This project seems to be really 'self-institutionalized'; from the beginning (the deal) to the end (communicating the project). I'm afraid there is no escape from this conclusion. The crucial moment was the deal I made with Piet, which resembles pretty much an agreement between an art institution and an artist. In this case I play the role of the institution and the curator, while Piet plays the role of the artist - whereas in reality I assume the role of an artist and Piet doesn't. I hear and read a lot of comments from very institutionalized artists and curators, saying that whether art is produced inside or outside art institutions has become totally irrelevant, and that the only relevant question is the question of the capability of art to transform society... To me, this sounds like self-indulgence. A bit like "now that we have succeeded in our careers we need higher goals and a quiet conscience to stick together" - a clever way to consolidate the existing power structures! That is not only a hypocrite attitude, it is also dangerous to pretend to ignore that institutions are instruments of power. Especially if you have the aspiration to transform society through art!
Let's come back to the photographs... This one is strange, too. Somehow meaningful? But also very banal, almost nothing. Anywhere, any place on earth. The context is dissolved. Maybe there is an expectation that photographs have to be documentary in any case, that one is always able to know what they show, also when the pictures are poetical or mysterious or fake. - The shadow looks female, because of the curves, maybe a woman took this photograph, or Piet wants you to believe that?
The context is quite dissolved, nevertheless the pictures are not indifferent. They seem to be aware of their function, and this makes them interesting. In this photograph it is curious how the two stones in the shadow seem to be alive. And you're right about the shadow: Actually Piet's girlfriend Sylvie joined the trip, and this must be her shadow. Maybe we should consider the possibility that these photographs might have been taken in fact mostly by Sylvie and not by Piet...
Birds in the afternoon make me feel melancholic. In the morning they make me feel happy. Long shadows, a short day. Is there anything we have not mentioned yet?
There is for sure a lot that we haven't mentioned yet, but it is amazing that we have already talked about so many topics! Did it occur to you that Piet might have sent me just some found pictures by e-mail, and that he might not have been gone away at all? Naturally, I don't think so, I trust him.
The character of a photography can be transformed easily by the viewer's mind. Since you publish these photographs without knowing much about them, they remain something very private. At the same time, they are charged up with a specific meaning that we try to decipher. But that's just in our imagination then, isn't it?
Yes, exactly. And that's what all these photographs are about: imagination -- and how our imagination creates meaning.
The place where Piet was staying is exactly defined here. But I can't figure out where this signpost stands... Information doesn't help, and, maybe, it wouldn't be important at all?
I appreciate that Piet sent me this last photograph to give us a chance to figure out the mystery. But my geographical knowledge is too bad, and somehow I also like the idea of not knowing more. Like this, all these photographs keep their potential, and my interest in them remains intact.
Interview: Heike Wetzig & Kristofer Paetau, june 2005
In the photograph above is pointed the way to an old burial ground. What does "Vanha hautausmaa" mean? And how is it possible that the ground is blazing that way in winter? What's your idea about this picture series, and why does it belong to the _Re-Institutionalize _project?
On the sign is written in Finnish and Swedish: The Old Cemetery. The writing is made in high reflexive colours, maybe this confused the adjustment of my digital camera. The photos have very strange and varying colour shades already in the original version, but I pronounced the colour differences a bit more to create certain moods. I got the idea for this documentation on a night walk on 25 December, 2004 in Lovisa in Finland. I wanted to regard my walk at the cemetery as an exhibition. The former Re-Institutionalize projects have also been closely related to gestures, yet gestures with a concrete artistic reference each time: to place an object somewhere, for example. This time, the gesture is to experience and to look at a specific site.
Do you show, with these images of a cemetery at night in winter, anything of that artificial calmness Baudelaire described as his ironic attitude, or is it a melancholic collection of pictures? The cold light of the lanterns, the lights on the snow-covered graves, heaps as of burning coals - lights trying to substitute in vain the light of the moon, the sun and fire, those are illustrative symbols. But maybe something different is important. I understood only on closer inspection that the photographs are in a progression, not just pictures of the place and a subject. Can you say what you describe, and which feelings or thoughts participated in the creation?
My intention was not just to make a picture series of a cemetery. I wanted to communicate my experience -- the emotional and the mental disposition during my walk. I was on a night walk on 25 December because I felt very sad and wanted to compose my thoughts outside in fresh air. Then, somehow, I ended up there, and that place seemed to me wonderfully extraterrestrial... Baudelaire's "spleen" hit me really strong, and suddenly I reached quite another mental disposition. This experience was very strong, like visiting a beautiful exhibition. And then I thought that I should try to retain this experience as an exhibition and pass it on to others. I went home quickly, took my camera with me and returned in order to reconstruct my experience through photographs. So it was not a live report but a reconstruction or sort of a "re-enactment" in pictures.
Is there a mission in contemporary art that you want to fulfil, or are you interested in outlining a distance from certain phenomena? Is it necessary for the viewer to give up his/her associations and to understand the whole thing as a provocation, as a look out of another world in which time is withdrawn -- a world that is as real as the circles of hell Dante passed in his "Divine Comedy"?
For me there is something like a mission of art. I come from a family with several priests. One of them, Kurt Paetau, was even a poet and a priest. And I think that preaching is a very interesting form of communication... I myself am not religious at all, but I appreciate the art that is able to take over some kind of religiousness. On 25 December, a lot of people visit the cemetery, many of them just this once in the year. When I was there, I didn't see any people there any more, but the candles were still burning. The feeling of timelessness was very strong. The snow also participated in the forming of a sleeping dream landscape.
Maybe the photographs present a single opposite: the human loneliness; or its mirroring or mask or parable. More or less like Arcimboldo, in the 16th century, painted allegories of summer or winter: portraits composed of the adequate living beings in a certain rich totality (presenting thereby his artistic imagination, too). Or, vice versa: In Arcimboldo's work the transient, the returning, life - here: the past, the unknown, death.
I regard allegories as very important and hope that I will work with allegories more in the future. But one has to develop - constantly - new appearances of allegories. In this case, I didn't intend to make an allegorical work, and I am not so sure whether the project is actually presenting an allegory. But it has allegorical tendencies... If it is able to express my "spleen" of that evening in the year 2004, I am satisfied for the moment. Yet one shouldn't forget the other components of this work: that it is a reconstruction; and that the work appears as a documentation, together with this text. And that the cemetery here mutates into an art institution, into a place of artistic encounter.
Is it difficult to choose the human being in his/her appearances and their pictures, copies and fakes -- or, as you do it here: in his/her non-appearances -- for subject, isn't it a very fundamental, wide, very great demanding?
Perhaps, but this is the subject I am interested in. And it is a very wide subject -- fortunately! But the demand isn't given with the subject, it depends on where you set it up, and with which demand you approach some given subject. My greatest demand is, presumably, to think that the work I make is interesting for someone, and that, therefore, I want to turn to as many people as possible.
Do you think it is necessary to react on phenomena as the globalization and the Internet, political and technical changes? Are these phenomena so meaningful? How do they change the aesthetic concepts of individuals and of groups and institutions? Or should I ask whether they change the image that one has of him/herself?
For me, it seems to be meaningful to work that way. But I do not believe that I react directly to the phenomena you've mentioned -- although these phenomena act on me each day, for years. At some point they became an integral part of my life, and they continue to influence the way I think, communicate and make art. So they might well change our view on aesthetics as well as our understanding of groups and institutions. This means that we have to adapt ourselves to our view on the world again and again -- and that changes our self-image, too. However, I wouldn't exaggerate the importance of phenomena like the globalization and the Internet. In the end, we are standing in front of the mirror each morning, wondering who's looking at us there and what on earth we should undertake with him/her.
The first photograph, pointing the way, reminds me of William Turner's "Fighting Temeraire". There is the well known legend about Turner -- and of another artist as well -- that he spent time in a snow storm in order to study the power of nature as a more profound impression than the human sphere. Do you see yourself in such a tradition?
Turner's painting "The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up"* is a very beautiful and important -- political -- allegory! But actually I can't see myself in the tradition you've mentioned -- although I remember very well how my fingers were getting frozen while I was making those photographs at the cemetery...
Interview: Heike Wetzig & Kristofer Paetau, February 2005