Artfacts interview with Andreas Gefeller - Incredibly close extremely high views
Dusseldorf-based photographer, Andreas Gefeller (b.1970), is an artist who gained international recognition for his large scale photographs depicting impossible yet true views of urban spaces. With his last work, The Japan Series, Gefeller pushed his research forward creating new exciting visions. His own perspective still plays the central role.
TM: Hi Andreas, and thank you for accepting our interview. Before talking about your last series, I would like to go back through your past work. You have always been interested in investigating how human beings interfere with the landscape: in your first series, Halbwertszeiten (1996), you documented the traces of nuclear radiations in Ukraine ten years after the catastrophe of Chernobyl. Then with the Soma series (2000) you moved away from the documentary style photography of your debut work, and you re-interpreted massive infrastructures and facilities for tourists on Gran Canaria creating dissonant frozen views of the tropical island par excellence. Finally your Supervisions series (2002–present) offers a bird’s eye perspective of spaces where the lack of human presence is traceable among the innumerable details left on the surfaces. Why do you feel the need to exclude the human presence in your pictures?
AG: That is quite difficult to explain. When I started my career as a photographer I used to portray people but soon I realized that it wasn’t my real passion, even though it made me get closer to strangers, which was challenging in a way. With Soma my aim was to create a utopian world somehow strange and scary, where urban spaces would appear artificial and false as in a movie set. It was necessary to exclude people because their appearance, clothes and colors of skin would have revealed too much about the place and the time of the scene. Also the absence of people in places that are supposed to attract masses of tourists causes an unsettling feeling. In Supervisions, I focused my attention on urban spaces, playing with reality and dimensions. The human presence would just disturb. Also, the absence of people reflects my negative view of the world’s future considering the irreversible damages caused to it. Therefore my photos seem to be taken from a point somewhere in the future, showing only traces of a recently vanished species.
TM: Then your investigation on human interference with nature is mainly focused on the negative effects of it?
AG: If my main interest were the destructive aspects of globalization, pollution, wars, species extinction etc., I would have focused on photographing other things like Edward Burtynsky did in his series Oil or Chris Jordan photographing plastic bottles. Torn between two sides, I am on the one hand fascinated by science and technology and—shame on me! —I like old cars (I'm a human, too!), and on the other hand I have a more pessimistic vision of our planet’s future. I photograph places where plants and anthropomorphized structures interfere, and where man exploits nature to his purpose. It’s always a fight between order and chaos. The relation between order and chaos became a kind of key aspect in nearly all my works, even in pictures which do not deal with nature at first sight: e.g. Untitled (Tree Nursery), Untitled (Chicken Raising), Untitled (Holocaust Memorial), Untitled (Office) or Untitled (Swimming Pool)—these works all have two layers, one is clearly structured (lines of trees, rows of feeding machines, concrete blocks, floors and doors, tiles), the other is devolving into chaos (natural growth, chickens, footsteps, damages on walls, water).
TM: I’ve read once about your passion in astronomy, which is inferable from the Supervisions series where the way your gaze move around different spaces is comparable to the one of a space probe, exploring earth’s surface from the high. What made you to decide to look at reality from this particular perspective?
AG: The idea of Supervisions came up in 1998 while I was having a picnic with a friend. I just felt bored, and I started taking pictures of the ground from every square meter while walking over it. I felt like a satellite moving over the surface of an extraterrestrial planet. Later I put the single photographs together for a collage using glue and cutter (it was still the analogical era). By assembling the cutout images, my distance from the ground became bigger and I realized that through this method I could “fly”.
|Andreas Gefeller, Untitled (Street), from Supervisions series, 2004-2006, Digital c-print, 125 x 275 cm|
TM: The technique behind Supervisions is pretty complex and it consists in several steps. Could you please explain us how you make these pictures and how you obtain such a high resolution able to disclose every little details?
AG: I work like a scanner. First, I determine the margins of the space I intend to photograph and I orientate myself through already existing concrete slabs or other symmetrical and parallel patterns on the ground such as rows, fences, crosswalk lines, all traces of human’s obsession with control and prevail over nature. If there is no reference point, I fix strings on both sides of the area. Then I put my camera on a sort of tripod that is also attached to my body, with the lens orientated vertically down to the ground and I walk in straight lines taking pictures every single meter. I take some hundreds, sometimes thousands of pictures (it depends on the size of the space) that are blended together in post-production in only one large image. This is why you can see so many details, even though the single shot has a normal resolution.
TM: Everybody talks about your talent in ”flying” over the ground, I would rather think about you as a walking artist. Exploring the space not only with your eyes and camera, but also with your feet, means that you experience the space physically other than mentally. I think it is important to stress what’s behind your photographs in terms of time and physical effort. Aside from any virtuosic purpose in your work, what brought you to challenge yourself in this way?
AG: Supervisions hides a quite abstract procedure. Normally as a photographer you should be able to transfer the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional sheet of paper. Supervisions actually consists of four dimensions, the three dimensions of space plus the dimension of time. Since I can’t have an overview of the respective area, I need to add various sights of the ground (by walking on it) to create a single picture in my mind. Next to that I have to consider time because the shooting process can take hours (sometimes days or even months) and light changes all the time. Sometimes I try to avoid any changes of light, some other time I welcome exactly this effect as you can see in Untitled (Parking Site 1) where the tree shadows move on the ground, similar to a sun-dial. It is a very long process with many steps but every step is exciting and challenging. As I never know the final result while photographing, I really need to believe in my work until I get the final print. It is fun and exhausting at the same time
|Andreas Gefeller, Untitled (Chicken Raising) from the Supervisions Series, 2004, Digital c-print, 160 x 253 cm|
|Detail: Andreas Gefeller, Untitled (Chicken Raising) from the Supervisions Series, 2004, Digital c-print, 160 x 253 cm|
TM: Supervisions is a tricky series that lies at least on two levels: first the pictures seem to be taken from 30 meters from above, but the camera is positioned only two meters distance from the ground. Secondly the photograph as we see is not a single image but is the product of numerous shots that have been blended together digitally. But at the end the image is totally true because only the perspective has been manipulated. Is the intention only to play with viewers’ expectations, or is there something more behind the aim of creating “impossible” views?
AG: You are right and wrong at the same time. Supervisions is both true and untrue as a conventional scan but in larger dimensions. When creating a Supervisions work, I am the scanner, which enables me to represent the insides of buildings as well as open outdoor spaces. Everything is true—I don’t delete or add any objects, neither do I change their position in space or their proportion among one another—but the seemingly three-dimensional perspective is a construction. Also looking at our environment from above is pretty threatening, as someone is watching us from a perspective that is not humanlike. The apartment depicted in Untitled (Panel Building 1–5) reminds me of a rat cage, where we, the human beings, turn into laboratory animals. Today everyone is controlled and supervised by technologies we cannot see. This brought me to the title “Supervisions”.
|Andreas Gefeller, Untitled (Panel Building 1) from the Supervisions Series, 2004, Digital c-print, 110 x 131 cm|
TM: Let’s move on to The Japan Series created during your stay in Japan between March and April 2010 within the “European Eyes on Japan | Japan Today” photography project. What is this project about?
AG: It is a project organized by the EU Japan Fest, a non-profit institution that invites three or four European artists each year to create photographs in a specific prefecture. Within the project they publish a catalog and organize exhibitions both in Europe and Japan. Most of the photographers who take part in this project create images showing aspects of Japanese culture and landscape off the beaten tracks revealing daily Japanese life and customs. The aim is to show Europeans as well as Japanese different and new perspectives of Japan.
TM: In The Japan Series you focused your attention on the power cables close to the Tottori Prefecture of Japan. Through your perspective looking up from down below, and by isolating the subject on a white or black background, you raise the electricity cable to a precious tangle of wires, which is chaotic and ordered at the same time. How Japan environment inspired you such alluring visions?
AG: First, when I arrived in Japan I was impressed by the traditional Tatami mats on the floor of the Japanese guesthouses and I decided to photograph Tatami rooms in the Supervisions style because I thought they reflect the mentality and culture of this country. Then, after working on that subject for a while, I realized that beside the constructed perspective, the pictures were a 100% cliché. So I looked for other inspirations and finally I found the electricity poles, which are widespread in many other Asian countries. The technique of Supervisions was a good base from which to create this new body of work. By looking up from below, the sky becomes a white (or black at night) neutral background that separates the object from the environment. The electricity cables and power poles become autonomous objects as if they were shot in a studio or manipulated with Photoshop. This abstract view elevates poles and cables to metaphors of communication, networks, the internet, and energy and raises doubts about man’s capacity to control the chaotic proliferation of modern technologies. Of course I couldn’t foresee the tragic disaster of Fukushima and I wasn’t thinking about nuclear energy when I took the photos, but when I look at the pictures now, I am surprised how the power poles are connected to the current issues of nuclear power plants.
|Andreas Gefeller, Poles 31, from The Japan Series, 2010, Pigment print on fine art paper, 100 x 100 cm|
TM: The Japan Series also comprehends portraits of plants that, as embroidery frames, spread their branches all over a wall restrained by a grid. How did you come up with this idea?
AG: Well, plants on grids and cables are spread all over Japan, especially in Tottori, which is well known for its pear cultivation. It came naturally to me to photograph grapes, pears, cherry trees as well as electricity masts and communication cables. But they are not necessarily represented with a grid. Untitled (Plant on Wall) for example shows a plant that grows on a white wall without any restriction. This work provokes an irritating feeling because at first sight it symbolizes natural growth, but at second sight you realize that the plant is totally domesticated and the white background, which looks like the sky, is here a concrete wall. Opposing to that, Untitled (Grape Plantation) shows grape trees from below, against a white sky with a metal grid that is fixed two meters above the ground. This photograph is a key work for me. It is both very aesthetic and brutal. The grid molds the shape of the tender grape’s branches in a way you would never see in nature. It’s like bending a human knee into the wrong direction. The cold metal grid, which reminds of millimeter paper used by architects and engineers, symbolizes man’s intention to organize everything into rows and lines. By photographing plants and the power cables in the same way—the background a white or black sky—I reached a similar formal quality. Cables look like branches, branches become electrical cables. Take a look at the connecting elements in Untitled (Pear Tree) and Poles 31, they look the same.
|Andreas Gefeller, Untitled (Pear Tree) from the Japan Series, 2010, Pigment print on fine art paper, 150 x 150 cm|
TM: The images of the electric cables from the Japan Series are real abstract compositions, with a musical rhythm that is reminiscent of Kandinsky canvases in a way. Also, the pictorial texture of these objects contributes to emphasize their indecipherable appearance. What did you intend to stimulate in viewers in terms of emotions?
AG: You are right. The thin lines and the subtle colors remind of drawings and some cables look like sketches. A rolling cable seems to visualize electromagnetic waves, in other words: light. I like the metaphorical aspects in the series as well as the aesthetic qualities. This work aims to give a critical view of man’s blind belief in technologies and at the same time wants to reflect on the photographic medium as well. Even though I don’t use any Photoshop tools to obtain a painting or drawing effect (I only use Photoshop for the composing part), these images resemble paintings more than photographs due to the reduced background and the particular choice of fine art paper.
|Andreas Gefeller, Poles 07, from The Japan Series, 2010, Pigment print on fine art paper, 150 x 150 cm|
TM: What are your plans for the near future? Any upcoming exhibitions, new projects or publications?
AG: Parallel to Supervisions and The Japan Series I have been working for a few years on a new body of work that also deals with man’s perception, modern technologies, information flood and issues concerning the various technical possibilities in present photography. Even though being different, this new series is a logical continuation of the previous ones.
My work is currently included in two group shows, one at the Kunstmuseum Dieselkraftwerk in Cottbus and the other at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. From the middle of June I will participate in two more exhibitions taking place in the Art Foyer DZ Bank in Frankfurt am Main and in the Art Sensus Gallery, London. Regarding catalogs, the Hatje Cantz Publishers who already published three monographs of my first series has just edited another book entitled “The Japan Series” with texts by Celina Lunsford and Christoph Schaden.
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