Imagining Photographic Beings

October 12, 2020
Author Maija Rudovska
Published in Interview from Latvia

About the exhibition ‘On Photographic Beings’, which is on display as part of the Riga Photography Biennial 2020 from October 3 to November 8, at the Latvian National Museum of Art.

The exhibition ‘On Photographic Beings’ was supposed to reflect on the relationships between photography, objects, beings and spatiality, but eventually it has become an even more complex encounter than was intended at the beginning. The participating artists, Tom Lovelace, Evy Jokhova and Ode de Kort, who were invited to take part in this project by the curator Paulius Petraitis, were not able to come to Riga to install their work, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Neither could Paulius. The exhibition was set up by museum technicians, the Riga Photography Biennial 2020 team, and by other collaborators who live in Riga. Thus, the whole experience adds almost another layer, the image of the imagination, which has become an unexpected actor, or maybe a being, in this show. I discussed the ideas, concerns and practical matters behind the artworks with the artists via email and other online platforms, compiled together in this collage of textual pieces.

Maija Rudovska: The exhibition ‘On Photographic Beings’ explores the relationship between image and objects. Paulius Petraitis, the curator of the exhibition, points to the influence of François Laruelle’s ‘The Concept of Non-Photography’, where the author states that photography is not so much tied to the physical reality of objects, but instead functions to suggest a perspective. Laruelle talks about photography as a philosophical perception-type. How do you see your work in the framework of these theoretical ideas? What is your take on the image-object relationship?

Tom Lovelace: My relationship with photography, in recent years, has moved from theoretical influences to psychological and emotional. For me, this is a complex relationship, where the object is divided into two, and also the image. Or at least there are two components for each. ‘I’ am one object. My body. And then there is the object world around, for example consisting of chairs, grass, water, beds and timber. There are also two types of image. The photograph is one. Although the photograph is always attached to an object, whether this be paper or a screen, for me it is always at the forefront of an image. And then there are images of the mind, the imagination. For me, photography is psychologically bound to the object world. The object world is always in flux, whether this be a landscape, a cloud, a river or a person. They all move, or have the ability to move, degrade, fall apart and die.

Maija Rudovska: Can you elaborate a bit more on your interest in the relationship between a photograph, a sculpture and a performance?

Tom Lovelace: My practice pivots on photography. It is driven by photography. I studied photography. I teach it. I am fascinated by its importance, intensity, and how it operates in the world. And this is not restricted to fine art photography: I view this zoom chat with you as photography. How lens culture works in the world, how it works in the visual culture: all this is extremely important to me. But I’m also very interested in collaborative histories of photography, how the photographic image interacts with other media, especially sculpture and performance. Materiality and the transformation of materials is quite simply engrained within me. My father worked with timber throughout his life. He was a boat-builder and a furniture maker. I grew up in spaces where there was a constant transformation of materials, and a deep respect for craft, and this has always stayed with me. The tangible space, the body, movement and the material world are what excites me. I’m interested in touch. And I’m interested in making sense of material encounters.

Tom Lovelace, Head, 2019. From the Body and the Building. Digital film. 5 min, on loop. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Evy Jokhova: Thinking about ‘photography as a philosophical perception-type’, as Paulius puts it, a piece of writing by the Japanese photographer Yutaka Takanashi ‘The “Landscape” Appears’ springs to mind. Takanashi writes: ‘Before a “landscape”, standing before it, the space expanding before the eyes, with as many angles as those of a variable lens, the camera is free. The time that flows has as many moments as times the shutter is released: within that limitlessness, it drifts.’ He concludes by saying: ‘What is up to the photographer to do with the “landscape” is to encounter it, destroy it, rebuild it, and then release it.’ To me, Takanashi’s entire writing is a musing on perspectives flowing through time and space, simultaneously co-dependent on and free of each other. In Japanese, the words ‘passing’ and ‘appearing’ share the same root as ‘standing’, through which their meanings are interlinked, as Takanashi points out.

My practice often employs photography, but I work primarily with space, creating ‘environments’ for various conceptual purposes. Alongside photography, I work with sculpture, performance, drawing, sound and various collaborators, all of which are of equal importance to my practice. My personal interest lies in the space inside the image, in this case inside the photograph, deconstructing perspectives and positioning the viewer internally, creating intimate experiences where the audience may simultaneously pass by and appear in the work. I work spatially, and frequently construct my exhibition and installation concepts as sets for an event, where a staged performance may happen, or the audience become performers on entering the work. An event becomes like an image, where endless possible perspectives can be played out within the frame.

Ode de Kort: For me, the camera is a colleague, a presence in my studio, and also a tool. As I see in your question a suggestion about perspective, I connect with it from my practice; it relates a lot to looking and being looked at. How an image is made, and how you create an image, and how it’s looked at. I look at photography as a very performative medium. By doing my first performance a couple of years ago, and by expanding my practice, I can say that all my works build on previous ones, and many ideas are taken along that road. By making a performance, and by photographing it, and by looking at it, there’s a constant interaction taking place. Through that process, my body increasingly becomes part of the work. It is me working in the studio, so it’s also personal, when I photograph my legs, for example, but I’m not sure if it’s important, because ‘me’ also becomes an image. Next year, I’ll be doing a project in Belgium, where I plan to do a bigger choreography involving other people, using other legs to walk around. That’s the next step.

Maija Rudovska: In the exhibition text, the curator Paulius Petraitis suggests that the artworks that are included in this project ‘… challenge the notion of what a photography exhibition is or can be, opting to discuss the photograph as a shifting lens and a notion that is primarily cultural’. Please elaborate on your piece that is presented in ‘On Photographic Beings’.

Tom Lovelace: My contribution to the exhibition consists of three parts. Firstly, I shall be showing a film titled Head. The work is site-responsive, and was filmed in the actual gallery space, last November. It is an exploration into the relationship between architecture, the body and minimalism. The film is slow and often static, depicting my body moving through the space, and almost being at one with the building. As there is not much movement, it becomes almost like a photograph, at points appearing as though the film has been paused.

Secondly, I am displaying a set of small black and white photographs (sixteen in total). These pictures are made in response to the glass floor in the adjoining room. The work is titled A humble type of minimalism. I created a replica floor structure in London, and the pictures depict a body (which is me) deconstructing this structure, and essentially playing with it, spending some time with it. The work is very much about taking monumental forms and breaking them down, physically, metaphorically and psychologically. I am interested in minimalism, but as humble forms. Hence the title.

Lastly, and most excitingly for me, I have made a large white print, a form of collage, which is four by two metres, titled Cascade. This is made in parts, and will be hung across a beam in the gallery, essentially creating part curtain, part wall. Visitors will be able to ‘look’ at this image, but also have the opportunity and option to touch, explore and walk through it, and respond to it with their body. The print is unexposed photographic paper. So, technically, it is a photograph; but, significantly, the ‘image’ comes from and is dictated by the visitor, what they do and how they act. It is my hope that it collects dirt and traces from visitors as they explore it.

I am interested in the continuing influence of minimalism in my work. If you think about it, it is primarily associated with American minimalism from the Sixties and Seventies; however, I think this movement still offers exciting and meaningful possibilities today. I recently did a podcast on nothingness. What happens when one experiences art, and simultaneously experiences and encounters a form of nothingness? I’m interested to make an artwork that requires the viewer to really engage, respond and react to these questions. All of the artworks I have made for the show in Riga (the film, the photographs, and the large hanging collage) attempt to entice the viewer, hold the viewer, and almost interlock the viewer within physical, visceral interactive artworks.

Evy Jokhova: The notion of a shifting lens as a cultural prism engages me on several levels, which is why the main work that I have developed for this exhibition is a sculptural piece that acts as an architectural intervention and draws on set design, preserving a certain type of anonymity and universality in its form. The materials of the work are rather ambiguous: pink fur to suggest a sensual, bodily fetish; and tinted mirror, to reflect the surrounding space and audience; situating one within the other. The film work that accompanies the sculptural installation explores reflection, mirroring, symmetry, and duality through sensual encounters using analogue footage shot in Vienna during the lockdown.

When we first started developing this exhibition nearly two years ago, my first plan was to create a work that was entirely site-specific, and dictated by the space that it was going to be shown in; a sort of architectural intervention. Drawing on the idea of the mirror in a reflex camera, two identical modernist pillars running floor to ceiling and referencing Sixties Baltic design were meant to be installed side by side on the fourth floor of the museum. That space had a glass floor, through which the museum collection displayed on the floor below could be seen. One of the pillars was to be made entirely from mirror panels, and reflect what could be viewed through the floor on to its canopy that spread at a three-metre radius across the ceiling. The other pillar was to be made from pink fur. But due to the pandemic, our exhibition was rescheduled, we were given a different space in the museum, and the work had to change and adapt.

Ode de Kort, LL, J #3, 2020. Installation with tripods, white and black paper background, black rubber boots, metal, rubber circle. 2 x 2,90 x 3,80m. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Ode de Kort: Over the last few years, the letters O and U (shapes, sounds …) have been my collaborators. A couple of years ago, I made my first performance, where I walked with a big U, a rubber object (a big, thick string), and I re-photographed myself in those positions, which afterwards were made into photographic sculptures, cut-outs from my legs and the U. I have focused on my legs and my feet for a long time, and I had a pressing feeling that I wanted to work with boots, with rubber boots; they fit into my rubber collection (I have a collection of rubber circles, bands and strings in my studio that I often work with). The boots became a new character for me to work with. In the exhibition UU TWOO (a solo show at De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam, 2019), I made one single perforation in the paper, a space for my arm to go through and perform a slow exercise with an O (a rubber circle, attached to my arm). For this show in Riga, I am elaborating and expanding on the perforations, making them double, and combining white with black paper, creating some sort of depth in the work, and a movement like an illusion of maybe eyes moving around, or some kind of depth looking through. There will be one bigger sculpture and one smaller one. They both play with this black and white paper, the perforations and the boots.

Maija Rudovska: Where do O and U come from? Why did you start working with these particular letters?

Ode de Kort: It happened quite organically. When we talk as humans, we use language, and letters, but for me these shapes or signs are something more. Over the last year, I have explored more the linguistic side of it. I studied photography in Ghent, and at that time I was mostly making temporary sculptures and collages, with materials that I found on the street or in nature, for example, a piece of wood or a stick; and I found rubber bands everywhere, rubber circles. In the first video work I made, called Suspension of a Circle (2016), I was holding a rubber circle with a stick, basically just playing around with it. It was the first time that the playfulness from the studio came through in the work, not knowing it but just playing, and the material guiding me, its possibilities, its weight and size. All these things became more and more part of my work. A couple of years have passed, and I’m still working with these characters. Now with the boots, the title of the work is ‘LL, J #2’ and ‘LL, J #3’, when you pronounce it in French, L (elle) means ‘her’ and J (je) means ‘I’, and this idea of the self and the other is a big part of my work.

Maija Rudovska: You worked on the artworks for the exhibition ‘On Photographic Beings’ during the pandemic. How has this unusual situation affected the production of your work? Have you faced any challenges or discovered anything new, important to your work during this time?

Tom Lovelace: I was lucky enough to have made most of the work, or the significant parts of the work, prior to the onset of the pandemic. Collaboration has become key in my work. I have gone from one extreme to the other. At the start of my practice (ten years ago), I did everything myself, and was only interested in the ‘solo artist’ way of working. And now I am the opposite. Every opportunity is essentially an opportunity for collaboration. A key element to the final work mentioned, Cascade, was a scheduled performance work by me, during the opening of the exhibition. I was going to respond and react to this large image on the opening night and weekend, as a live performance, and also a gesture to the visitors of how they might approach the work. This has now had to be cancelled, and I am currently trying to find a performer(s) in Riga who can do this for me. So it will be a remote collaboration. I will most likely never meet the performer, so all communication will have to happen remotely, and I will not be there myself to witness it. This, on the one hand, is strange, disappointing and upsetting. On the other hand, quite exciting. Lastly, regarding the pandemic, I have never been so busy, and never been so productive. I have produced lots of small projects, with quick timescales. And I realise now, as an artist, this suits me best.

Maija Rudovska: How do you see the exhibition coming together in this odd time when none of you, including the curator, can be present to install it?

Tom Lovelace: It’s a really interesting exhibition, because we all have been working on it for one and a half years. Paulius approached us last January, eighteen months ago. It is interesting that as being part of the Riga Photography Biennial, the focus is essentially photography; but Paulius’ interest lies in the potential of photography, and what photography is. For me, the most interesting part is that, although it comes under the category of a photography exhibition, there will be very few photographs on display. In terms of my work, the frustrating part is the hanging of the exhibition, and the artists not being present during that process. That’s when interesting dialogues and decisions happen. I’m aware of where the work will sit, but I suppose until the work is in the space, and until it’s hanging, it’s one of the beautiful unknowns.

Evy Jokhova: As the pandemic spread across the world, and our exhibition was rescheduled, this exhibition was given a new space in the museum. The original work became entirely irrelevant in this space, and the whole work needed to be completely re-planned. Due to travel and budget restrictions, neither I nor the Estonian production team Valge Kupp could come to Riga to install my work, so we meticulously made a manual, a booklet, which gives step-by-step guidance on how the work should be installed. When conceptualising and fabricating the work, we worked from photographs of the space, without architectural CAD files, relying on measurements that the museum staff sent us. The manual was passed on to technicians from the museum and Riga Photography Biennial 2020 team, who were not familiar with the work. For me, it’s interesting, because I usually spend a lot of time in the space in order to visualise the work. To be honest, I don’t have the capacity to visualise things from just seeing a picture. For me, the process has been like this: going from drawings to photographs and describing it to myself in words, how this image could look or should look. To me, it feels like constructing a piece of philosophy. It’s possible to do; but I also ask, is it something I want to do?

Maija Rudovska: It seems that this situation is not only about restrictions and limits, but also about opening up new layers in thinking how to work and create work?

Evy Jokhova: I remember during the first lockdown, so many people were offering online content, it seemed too much for me. Many people, galleries and institutions were posting several times a day. I simply turned off my phone for a while for this reason. I think we don’t necessarily have to create more. With this exhibition, I keep thinking, and this is almost a metaphysical, philosophical question that is asked in schools: when a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to witness it, did it really happen? This exhibition almost feels that way. Everything is by instruction. Everything is done remotely. Did it actually happen? I think an alternative format for me personally would be away from the screen; perhaps I would watch some artworks in digital format that require a longer time of engagement, but I am mainly interested in things happening more locally, more intimate, indoors or some public interventions, something quite the opposite of screen-based experiences.

Since we had this interview, the team at Valge Kuup and I were thinking that what we should have done was to make a miniature limited edition of a one-to-ten-scale version of the sculpture, with its own assembly manual that could easily be shipped anywhere in the world and installed without our help. Maybe this is the way we can create future works during these strange times.

Ode de Kort: When we visited the exhibition space last summer, I mostly noticed the presence of the guards in the rooms. How they were slowly walking, or sitting on a bench. Some visitors were passing by. It made me think a lot about all those legs and feet standing and walking around, and eyes gazing. So the idea to work with rubber boots really fitted the space and its inhabitants. As many eyes and legs move through these rooms, the new works operate, in a way, as a stand-in. As transformative bodies, they guide our attention towards ideas of presentation and representation. Initially, I was planning on making accessories for the guards to wear, to accompany some ideas in the sculptures. I was also going to perform in one of the sculptures. Unfortunately, both these ideas need a human presence and interaction, something we all crave so much in these times. So much of the work and its process happens when physically being in the space, when talking to people … All of this is missing now. It’s quite abstract to write guidelines for an installation, so many things that come naturally to you as an artist during the mounting now have to be written down carefully, and talked through on Skype. It’s a real exercise in letting go.

The Riga Photography Biennial is an international contemporary art event focusing on the analysis of visual culture and artistic representation. The biennial covers issues ranging from cultural theory to current socio-political processes in the Baltics and the wider European region. Using the format of an art festival, the Riga Photography Biennial attempts to record changes taking place all over the world and invites us to collectively interpret them – something we not only need to see but also imagine whilst translating the complicated and oversaturated contemporary visual language into meaningful relationships between our daily reality, the camera lens, historical material, contemporary art, technologies and the future. The first Riga Photography Biennial took place in April 2016.

Ode de Kort, LL, J #2, 2020. Installation with tripods, white and black paper background, black rubber boots, comma’s. 1,20 x 3m. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Evy Jokhova, Mirror Image, 2020. Tinted acrylic mirror, nylon fur, wood, metal, rope. 3,05 x 3 x 6m. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Tom Lovelace, A humble kind of minimalism, 2020. From the Body and the Building. Sixteen Photographs, Black and White hand prints, unframed. 20cm x 29cm. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Visitors at the exhibition opening. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Evy Jokhova, Mirror Image, 2020. Tinted acrylic mirror, nylon fur, wood, metal, rope. 3,05 x 3 x 6m. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Ode de Kort, LL, J #3, 2020. Installation with tripods, white and black paper background, black rubber boots, metal, rubber circle. 2 x 2,90 x 3,80m. Photo: Kristine Madjare

Evy Jokhova, Mirror Image, 2020. Super 8 film digitally transferred. 2 min, on loop. Photo: Kristine Madjare