Past abstraction and rationality – interview with Kata Geibl
15 • 04 • 20Edit Barta
We last met in May 2019, at Fototreff in Mai Manó House, which was organized by a team from Berlin, and you showed frames and sketches from the series you are still working on. The pictures of There is Nothing New Under the Sun have since been presented at Unseen, and have been published in several international photo magazines. What was the series’ state of progress in May, and where do you stand now?
I started to dig into the problem that also appears in the series in 2018, at around the time of my last exhibition at MOME, but I ended up doing something else for my diploma, which was Sisyphus. At the time I didn’t know how the individual pictures were related, it only became clear later on. I only had visions, specific images in my head, which I knew I wanted to make, just as I knew they were centred around the same subject, while I would have been hard put to explain to a third party what the series was about. Einstein said if he couldn’t explain the theory of relativity to a cleaner it meant he himself didn’t understand it. That’s more or less how I think about this series: until I have two very simple sentences about the work which everyone can understand, I probably still need to work on understanding it myself.
How much of the series can now be seen on your homepage?
I’ve made sixteen pictures, but I want fifty in all. I’d like the series to end up in a book. Since I envision the series as a continuous story, I have a feeling it would come into its own as a book. I’d like a story to emerge from the images. For the same reason, they were installed at Unseen in a grid, close to each other, because one picture follows from the previous, and none of them can stand without another. The meaning unfolds through the connection of two to three images.
You’re currently studying in The Hague. What are you doing there, and how does it relate to your current work?
I took a gap year after MOME, spending a lot of time on getting the picture on MA courses. I tried to establish that year what I wanted to be, where I wanted to study—whether I wanted to go on learning, and if so, what the field should be. And then I read an interview with Adam Broomberg and Donald Weber, in Der Greif, and what they said meshed in with what I think about art. The fact that I don’t want to be a “mere” gallery artist who makes beautiful pictures, but want what I do to produce a result. I want to create something that has value, that can generate change, that has thought behind it. I checked out the university in The Hague, and realized they had the course I was looking for.
Photography and Society is a new programme, my year is the second to have started. We have professors like Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, and Donald Weber. When I got there my first class was with Adam Broomberg, of all people... I immediately discovered a new outlook, new examples, a new way of thinking—different from what I had inhabited, and I find it inspiring. The programme was created because its founders, Rob Hornstra and Donald Weber wanted to challenge the current trends. What they saw was that for a photographer to be successful, she has to win prizes, be represented by a gallery, have pictures sold. Generally, these are the criteria of success. They, on their part, wanted a programme that was socially committed. They want us to go beyond the aesthetic and consider what effect our work may have on society. Thus the pictures do not exist for their own sake but in a larger system, a kind of ecosystem.
Are all the participants of the programme photographers?
No, we’re a completely mixed group. There is someone with a degree in gender studies, there are anthropologists, and graphic artists. What we all share is a past in photography, but not necessarily a BA as a photographer. There are documentary photographers in our year, multi-award-winning and World Press Photo award winning photographers. What the programme’s title refers to is that there is no photography without society. Our professors do not want the programme to produce a unified style as is often the case with universities of art.
What are the teaching methods, and how are they different from those established in Hungary?
Like I said, everyone is treated as an individual here, everyone has their own goal, and we are made very conscious of it. We need to reflect on ourselves all the time, to see what we want to attain as artists, where we want to belong, what we hope to get out of these two years. The teachers adapt to these plans. The course comprises different but interconnected classes that are like workshops. The purpose of the first year is to question yourself as an artist, and examine whether you have been heading in the right direction. The second year is about working on your diploma piece. Sometimes this work involves studio-related tasks, but only so that you can decide whether you really want to do it. My diploma piece is There is Nothing New Under the Sun.
Abstraction and rationality can no longer properly answer my questions. I wanted to make a series that was easier to take in, was warm in its tone, while it looks at serious questions—something lyrical and poetic.
Can we talk about the new series? Why did you give it a biblical title?
Wow, I need to go back further a bit for an answer. I spent two years on my previous work, Sisyphus. It was a very conceptual work, with sterile, cold images. I took most of the photos in labs. When I was finished I felt I would never want to make a series like that again. I felt that the way I had practiced photography could no longer accommodate the subject I was interested in. Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia is probably closest to how I felt. There is a scene in it in which Kirsten Dunst’s character can sense the impending end of the world before everyone else, and replaces, in the library of the family, the albums with abstract paintings with those with figural oil paintings. The blue squares are replaced by a Caravaggio or a Bruegel. That’s the kind of transformation I sense between Sisyphus and There is Nothing New Under the Sun. Abstraction and rationality can no longer properly answer my questions. I wanted to make a series that was easier to take in, was warm in its tone, while it looks at serious questions—something lyrical and poetic. I checked the origin of the expression, what it refers to in the Bible, and I realized it would be the most fitting for my series.
What is your subject?
If I wanted to use a single word, I would say it’s the Zeitgeist. I’d like to hold up a mirror to our time, show what’s going on in our society. A completely new age has dawned. It effects everyone’s life, and fills people with anxiety. We find it difficult to imagine what the world will be like in 50 years, or whether we will still be around. This is what I want to talk about, through sub-subjects, in a manner understandable for others. Concepts like the Anthropocene, neoliberalism, capitalism or eternal return have become pivotal for my thinking. I’d like to present these topics, in a manner that is not objective and dry, but is like reading poetry or watching a film. Nor do I want to offer specific answers to the viewers, and want them instead to put the story together for themselves.
And it seems to be working, because there was recently a portfolio review at the KABK, where I talked with all kinds of people about the series. I asked the reviewers to tell me what comes across their mind when they see the pictures. And they went through them one by one, telling me what they thought each showed, and what could probably be behind each. Everyone constructed a different story, but the end result was the same, they understood what was at stake.
I too had the impression that this was a heterogeneous material with a fairly broad set of themes, such as monumental office buildings, skyscrapers, athletic bodies, large, strong animals; they are powerful images that suck you in, generate different emotions in you, and make you wonder what the line that connects them all will be. Do I get it right that these pictures will provide the subsections of a future photobook?
That’s correct, though I don’t want to treat the individual themes in different chapters – say, put Dachstein’s melting glaciers or the extinction of bees in a section of the Anthropocene – because these problems are closely related. Rather, it is my hope that juxtaposing the images will produce a compact story.
How did Leni Riefenstahl enter the picture? You specifically refer to her film, Olympia with your images of athletic male figures.
Everyone would love to ask that, and I always wonder how I could evade the question... (laughs) Seriously, she didn’t invent these male figures, but adopted this kind of representation of men from the ancient Greeks. Think of the statue of the discus thrower. Leni Riefenstahl and Nazi propaganda merely appropriated these figures, yet my pictures remind only a few people of Greek or Roman representations of sportsmen. This tells a great deal about collective memory, and how an ideology can appropriate a mode of representation. Greek and Roman statues were my inspiration, and though I remembered Riefenstahl’s film, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem... Was I wrong... (laughs)
Do you want to link your pictures with today’s cult of the body? Or what’s the motivation?
I started to deal with these figures because I wanted to take pictures that are charged with politics, but not in a direct manner, like pictures of Trump would be. I was looking for a metaphor, without having to talk about politics specifically. Sport and races have always been connected to power, sport and dictatorships have always gone hand in hand. The Olympic Games and all the international competitive sports are about nations contending with each other, in some civilized settings, which are not war, while the sportsmen try to better their own best physical performance.
My photographs are like the frames of a film, and I hope other people also find that to be the case. Also, I tend to draw inspiration from films, and try to avoid photos because I find they greatly influence my outlook.
When one looks at your works, the essential experience is that of watching a film. It’s as if one got into the middle of a story, whose precedents and end are unknown, yet there is a scene one becomes part of, a scene that sucks one in. How the pictures are related often remains mysterious, impenetrable. Do you think this mode of visual representation has anything to do with the fact that you attended ELTE’s film programme?
Though many found it questionable, the film programme (and the aesthetics course) proved to be time well spent for me. It defined my outlook, provided me with good foundations. When I’m considering a series, it’s always a script I envision; I always want to tell a story with a series. It is true that my photographs are like the frames of a film, and I hope other people also find that to be the case. Also, I tend to draw inspiration from films, and try to avoid photos because I find they greatly influence my outlook. If I draw my inspiration from some film, I have more latitude. However, photos have this quality that make them so unlike films: they are silent. This may have been the very reason why I have stuck with photography: I value its silence. Evidently, for the same reason, it is more difficult to tell complete stories, because you only have visuality at your disposal.
Let’s talk a bit more about the work that made you known internationally. How did you become interested in the relationship of science and photography?
I’ve been collecting scientific images for a very long time. For years, I’ve saved screenshots from my laptop and phone when I saw a science-related image. For example, humanity first saw a black hole a few months ago. Photography, in other words, has reached a point no one has ever imagined would be possible. I was absolutely fascinated by this kind of knowledge, the unprecedented possibilities of learning that photographs enable. Slowly, the problem sucked me in. Whilst making the series, I thought I would get closer to answering the big questions, but in the end I was further from them, I think, than ever. There was a reason the series came to be called Sisyphus.
Several of the pictures in the series were taken in laboratories. How did you get in these places?
I started the series in Hungary, at ELTE’s Faculty of Social Sciences. It was very difficult to get inside the laboratories, and it usually took some friend’s friend of a friend, some student or young researcher. Later I studied for a semester at the Aalto in Helsinki, with a Campus Mundi scholarship. The Aalto is based on the American model, with all the faculties of art and science on the same campus. They also had labs of this kind, and they would let me in without any fuss, I could take photos everywhere. I had a great deal of freedom, was given a free hand.
Both series are marked by your penchant for mixing genres: buildings mingle with portraits and objects, black-and-white film with colour, in the same series. How do you start work on some new material, and what happens prior to realizing a specific picture?
It always starts the same way: when I get interested in a subject, I start reading a lot on it, and watch films. When it starts to solidify and I know more about the subject, I start writing my artist statement. This is also to clarify for myself what the series will be about. Then come the pictures themselves. They sometimes come out of the blue, sometimes I take inspiration from a film. I have a sketchbook in which I collect such images from the net which look similar to what I will make. (If, for instance, I have a strong mental image of a horse with its eyes covered, I look for such a picture on the net, and put it in my sketchbook.) I paste in the pictures in approximately the same order as I’d like them to connect in my future series. Then I check whether they have cohered into a series, whether it is comprehensible for others, whether the pictures connect visually, and start drawing them.
I sketch the images, imagine the colours, the illumination, the effect I want them to make, etc. Then begins the actual photographic work: you have to make arrangements for the model, the location, the perfect illumination, you need to get the props, etc. It usually takes three weeks to take a picture. However, the picture with the horse, for instance, took two months of organization before the shot could be taken.
What would you like to do when you complete the course?
I’d really like to do my DLA at MOME. It’s one of my dreams to teach at a university, while doing my own things. I hope these two things can go hand in hand.
Translation: Árpád Mihály