Hi Odo. Firstly, congratulations on winning our Human Body theme! You did so with an arresting cropped portrait in which our judge saw a struggle – against ageing, against our inevitable mental and physical deterioration. How do you react to those comments?
It shows that, in her interpretation, Alison Morley does not bring to bear deciphering hermeneutics but offers an interpretation that makes available the joy in the image and experiential potential of this work. Subsequently, as is also the case here, the interpretation may absolutely vary from the “real” events of the image, as although the eye is that of a woman, the face belongs to a man. But there’s potentially a struggle against ageing in this combination too, of course.
The image is from your series ‘EPI’ – in which you create surreal-looking ‘skinscapes’, pairing organic, human details with man-made surfaces. Can you tell us a little more about the series, how it came about, and what you hope to convey?
I did work on a project on the Human Body theme before I started work on the series EPI. Here, too, my concern was already the de-automation of visual habits, but I was trying to achieve this purely at the level of lighting and the perspectivation of skin. But I wanted to go one step further, and so I had the idea of hybridizing body structures using elements that are alien to the body. So I began to construct a world that shows reality as a self-referential system, in which man constantly examines, feels, and steps into himself, walks on his own objective trails and, in the coincidence of spatial body and body space, is confronted with having to process the increase in information.
Many of the images are somewhat unflattering, and along with the introduction of man-made textures create something a little unsettling, uncomfortable. I’m drawn to contemporary themes of human augmentation, android technologies and the ‘uncanny valley’ – the human 2.0. Are those themes of which you’re also conscious?
Those themes definitely play a role. I would almost describe my works as works derma-concretizing ones. Eternit-armoured foot claws, facial fragments with planar distortions and chest pads with cladded façades arise in them, for example. All elements of how one brings to bear modern relations of production and genetic creation fantasies which already pre-formulate the reality of tomorrow, or, respectively, already partly correspond, today, to the alien-like manifestations of some successful breeding programmes by modern geneticists.
And on that same subject of working with, or embracing, a certain ‘ugliness’ – is it a conscious push-back against normal notions of beauty? Do you feel that depictions of traditional ‘beauty’ have been taken as far as they can go?
Defining notions of beauty in general terms is extremely difficult, as deviations from the standard have always been present in tribal cultures and modern sub-cultures alike. The desire for difference or the embedding of religious rituals has always turned the skin’s surface into a stage for self- performance, for example through the application of decorative scars, so-called scarification. Forms of tattooing are a subjectivized contemporary variant of this. Nevertheless there are, of course, conventionalized patterns of portrayal of dermal beauty. These days, skin beauty is often associated with immaculateness and smoothness. The same digital tools with which I, too, work are used for the same purpose at the same time. For the purpose of manipulation. The outcome, however, is a totally different one. In both cases, though, a reality is constructed, while construction, in the one case, allegedly strives for reality, whereas in my case, reality and its duplication is ruled out.
In that sense, my constructions are also deconstructions of ingrained ways of seeing and subsequently, they absolutely do problematize categories such as beauty and ugliness. For beauty is often not true, and the truth is often not beautiful. Or, as Nietzsche radically put it: “The truth is ugly: we have art so that we do not perish by the truth”.
You refer to your search for ‘new ways of seeing’ and of a combination of digital and analogue methods. Can you describe your process for creating the images for ‘EPI’? Do you work with found elements, or is everything self-generated?
I do not really work with analogue methods in this project, but I do have recourse to darkroom techniques which I used to make my first photograms and double exposures in the past. I don’t use any templates but I do produce all images from which my compositions subsequently arise myself. Most images from the Object World arise in urban contexts. In this case I always had my camera with me on journeys, or I moved through Cologne, the city where I live, always on the search for certain textures. With time one often develops a feeling of what textures work at the visual level. For the most part I acquired the people for my project from my immediate surroundings. I then scanned their bodies from head to foot for structures that were peculiar to them. I then brought the various planes together in Photoshop. This process was sometimes very laborious and complex, but sometimes immediate as well.
The images certainly aren’t straight-forward, but they are not totally de-contextualized nor abstract – it is possible to identify a certain body part or feature in almost all of the images. Was this a balance you were aware of, to present the human surface as something strange and new, but still very much human?
It’s definitely important to recognize the human aspect in the images, but less at the level of purely identifiable human excerpts than in their coupling with the object world. In this fusion, the human quality of being able to get away from objects and recognize form unfolds independently of the objects’ normative attribution. As in a poem, in which one senses the meaning but without necessarily being able to explain it.
The final work is 42 images, all in portrait format. Is there some logic to this?
The upright gait conditions the portrait format. If we crawled on all fours, the landscape format would’ve suggested itself.
And has ‘EPI’ impacted the way that you look at your own body, or others’ relationship with it?
Conditioned by the circumstance of having misshapen so many bodies, one begins to doubt one’s own form stability.
How did you get your start as a creative artist?
I performed my first artistic analyses in 2001 during a stay abroad in the Netherlands. I lived there for 4 months at the home of the wood sculptor Hans Groenveld and familiarized myself with the latter’s animistic way of working and living. In order to deepen the experiences I journeyed through Ireland in 2002 and visited, among others, the artists Niall Walsh (www.niallwalsh.ie/) and Michael Warren. (http://michaelwarren.ie/). I summarized these experiences in a travel reportage that was published in various magazines. My first tentative steps with the camera were thus simultaneously publicized. Enthusiasm for the medium of photography occasioned me to take up an assistantship with the photographer Wolfgang Zurborn. The latter’s way of freeing the image from its content-based conventions was a decisive experience in being able to take a different perspective on art photographically as well. My first experiments in the darkroom began at the same time.
How would you describe your style? How has it evolved during your career?
As I’ve said, my first experiments in the darkroom began in 2002. Double exposure, sandwich techniques and photograms were created. In the meantime, though, I’ve been trying out numerous other artistic techniques, with regard to both form and content. Every phase of life, every place, every encounter, was and remains an occasion for self-examination. It’s all about transformation: running all influences through the filter of the self and seeing what happens. Interestingly, in my current project EPI I transfer the techniques that occupied me 15 years ago from analogue photography into my digital pieces. In the broadest sense a circle is closing here, as the design vocabulary for this piece was laid out at an early stage.
What themes do you explore in your work?
There’s no big all-consuming life theme I’m working on. If I’m able to make out anything fundamental, then it’s that, in all my pieces, I endeavour to find a form that has such a high degree of autonomy that it seems to be new to me. A certain inventor’s spirit comes to bear here, and a sense of a refusal to repeat myself and society. I constantly feel challenged to explore myself and my surroundings afresh. Accordingly, I prefer to occupy myself with as many different systems as possible. Understanding the conditions of other systems helps you to interpret your own systems in a wholly different way. It makes you more independent of normative readings and opens the door to new things.
What attracts you to your medium/media?
In a certain way, the work EPI lives off its medium, since only the techniques that PS provides you with enable this precision in the hybridization of various forms. The exciting thing about this process is seeing what forms go together. Sometimes you’ve got 20 different visual planes condensing into one hybrid, whereas in other works, 2 visual planes are sufficient for generating a new hybrid. The other exciting thing about this, for me, is having recourse to the original darkroom techniques. The mystery that I was steeped in there, as a primal experience, provides work on the PC with a persistent link to more analogue methods.
Is there a piece you are most proud of or that best exemplifies your current practice?
There’s not really “the one piece” where I would say it’s significantly better than the others. The work functions very well in its seriality and becomes clearly legible in this serial form. All pieces contribute to the quality of the other pieces. They may function as individual pieces too, but they are stronger when taken together.
However, if you wanted to pick out a piece, it’d be “Picture Epi 8”. It’s perhaps the most polymorphic piece, because here the physiognomy is also rearranged and the most confrontational offer is made to the beholder, as the person has difficulty in withdrawing himself or herself from the immediacy of the facial arrangement and additionally the direct gaze.
What inspires and motivates you as an artist? Do other artists influence your work?
The breaking open of the normative surfaces of reality, the de-automation of visual habits and the uncoupling of the redundancies of media representations is a basic principle of my artistic works. Various techniques come into play to question all these supposedly security-generating principles, to offer new ways of seeing. In order not to have to sail with the wind in the normative fairway of the factual, motivates me to a confrontation with myself and my environment on a constant basis. It forces me to subject the conditions of my own “cognitive distortion” to continuous examination and to recalibrate the “default” status.
Fundamentally, the works of other artists are always a motivation for my own projects. There are numerous artists who’ve inspired me. One of them is Hans Groenveld, with whom I connect my first artistic experiences. Furthermore, Nial Walsh, and Michael Warren, Wolfgang Zurborn, Jens Hauge and others.
Well-known artists whose works I admire are Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Jonathan Meese and, in the field of photography, Hiroschi Sugimoto, Nadav Kanda and Asger Carlsen, among others. But the list could go on and on.
What has your practice taught you about yourself?
That there’s no workflow at the touch of a button. I really work in intervals. When I’m working on a project, most of the time it happens non-stop. This workflow, this form of obsession, is highly intensive but in most cases it’s also combined with a period afterwards, during which a certain distance is required in order to find enthusiasm and, above all, new ideas for new projects. Generally these ideas can’t be forced out, but will show themselves in some form. This can be in a really clichéd way, from revelation in dreams through to key perceptions or experiences where it’s obvious straight away that they’re an approach for new works.
What is the best part about being an artist and/or working in the arts?
Life as an artist is extremely direct and enables one to react to influences without any mediation. The possibility, or practically the compulsion, to build oneself one’s own reality and to confront it with the existing reality is extremely fascinating. The alternative concept as constant challenge and the tracking down of new forms often has a very liberating effect.
Did you do any research prior to creating this series? If so, how do you approach starting a new project? Do you have a specific process, workflow or methodology you can share?
For this work I’ve tried to combine as broad a spectrum of physical forms as possible with a broad spectrum of urban forms. Accordingly, I’ve always got my camera with me when I leave my domestic context, in order to record certain forms that I wouldn’t find there in the urban context, in
order to try these out later in PS. The same applies to the persons I photograph in the context of this project. Here, too, it’s exciting to photograph people from various cultural contexts and of different ages, in order to mirror urban textures in their different physical surfaces, which become new memorable hybrids.
Where do you create your work? Describe your surroundings and the mood you set for yourself.
My studio is in the back room of a vintage clothing store – so the subculture of the front room continues at the back. Many people from different genres come in and out of the shop and provide opportunities for pleasant interaction.
What has been your biggest art “faux-pas”?
There are so many and the biggest mistakes often lead to the best pieces.
What is the most important issue facing the arts today?
The same as yesterday. Stay tuned!
What makes an artwork successful?
Success is a category that I wouldn’t apply to an artwork. You know, it’s more interesting to ask at what point an artwork functions as such in the artist’s view. Whether there’s a market or something for it depends on so many factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality or originality of the piece.
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
It’s not so much any piece of advice that’s been of help to me as the experience, at 25 years old, of having met artists who’ve gone their own way as artists. The degree of their success varied fairly widely, but the self-willed nature of their life plans was identical. Their freedom and the unconventionality of their life stories was highly inspiring at any rate.