This interview with photographer Goran Bertok is primarily about his new piece Hunger but also about his entire body of work that dates all the way back to 1990. Since then many things have occurred in Bertok’s artistic practice – there was a continuity, as well as many changes. In the past thirty years, Bertok has relentlessly explored themes of fragility and ephemerality of human body, and finally, the body at its utmost end – physical death. In his early career he produced staged photographs displaying scenes of violated bodies and unconventional sexual practices, while in the past fifteen years he has been profoundly exploring the phenomena of death or closeness to death. In his recent series Hunger he focused on the phenomenon of anorexia. The interview was filmed live and was later transcribed and edited for this purpose; however, it wasn’t edited too strict in order to retain its colloquial edge.
[Miha Colner] Hunger is a series of photographs that you conceived and produced after some years of inactivity. It seems it takes ever more time, or you can afford to take ever more time, for you to produce a new piece. How do you work?
[Goran Bertok] I agree that a lot of time has passed since I introduced a new work. Many years. I could say this is concerning. But I remember that at the time, when I started working on the Survivors series, in the period 2012-2013, three years have passed without me taking a single photograph. I was almost terrified of the fact that for such a long time, I did not do anything. But at the same time I realised, I did not feel bad about it. I had a feeling that I am pretty much done with photography. So I simply broke off with my work and with photography.
But that is not new. It had already happened before, that many years have passed without moving on. And the question is, why is it happening? It is important to know that I only work on things and themes that I believe in, and these themes are usually heavy to bear. I do not enjoy when I work on my projects. You know, photographers often speak about how much they love to take pictures, how much they admire photography. But I have noticed, and also articulated, that I actually suffer when I work. One reason for it is this terrible coercion to work with technology, with the camera and studio equipment. For me, that is very unpleasant work.
One the other hand, when I research a chosen theme or a motive which I believe I have to address, it always happens that these are unpleasant, very painful and tiring themes. When I work, for instance, with corpses or with anorexic people, it is always about effort and suffering. But these themes are very familiar and, moreover, I am very involved with them.
Is aforementioned unpleasant and painful sensation also a prerequisite that you are going to deal with particular theme?
No, not at all. I am interested in themes that really attract me, but when I am deeply into these themes, I always suffer. But more painful and tedious the process is, more I know that I am on a right path. I can’t imagine myself enjoying in doing that work. However, I feel very involved with most of themes I address; be it sadomasochistic practices, dead bodies, or death. In the Survivors project I dealt with survivors of concentration camps; that was slight bypass from my usual themes, but I think I have a very strong feelings for concentration camps.
The feeling that is repulsive?
I suppose so. But, to go back to photography, I probably enjoy in some other things. But it is clear. Photography is my profession and my focus, and in the end, it also becomes an obligation of some sort. It doesn’t feel the same as it was thirty years ago. But I guess I have to persist with photography now, when I mastered metier and technological aspect of the medium. In that sense,yes, it is inevitable to work with photography. People know me as photographer, and I invested so much, time and work, in that. But I therefore know that the pictures I make are well done. But if I want them to be well done I have to struggle and suffer. That’s how it is. Maybe some artists work with pure pleasure, but I don’t.
When longer period passes by without me being productive, it usually means that the issues I am researching and dealing with in order to create new work, are very specific. But I often feel I have to do it. It is not that I want to do it; I have to do it. My choice here is very narrow. Sometimes I also have to admit that I simply don’t have any new ideas. Some people have plenty of ideas all the time but I am not among those. I have very few ideas.
If I go back to the current series Hunger which is a metaphor for anorexia. Anorexia is a phenomenon that leaves visible traces on a body. Why were you interested in it?
All these (thirty) years I have been exploring notions of human body – tormented body and body that is subject to violence, pain and pleasure. So I didn’t start exploring anorexia from the perspective of a disease or disorder; on the contrary, my starting point was body. For most of us, if we come across such body, we would fell pain and discomfort, we may associate it with suffering. And this has been the focus of my work in the past thirty years. I must say that after more than two years of exploring that motive, I am still not a big expert in anorexia, despite the fact that was reading about it extensively, more that I would be otherwise. I tried to penetrate the theme as much as possible, but I am still focused mostly on body; I could say that I sculpt with body. But when I work with a body, whether that may be related sadomasochism, death or anorexia, I still have to know what am I dealing with.
So anthropological aspect is of lesser interest to you than the visual appearance of anorexia?
It is nevertheless my work, and in the end I have to know what it stands for. I have to know what anorexia means to me, but that’s an outsider’s view. I followed two principal approaches that showcase my view of the theme. That is probably obvious at the exhibition. I do not show only starved body. Starved body may look very similar even if I presented an image from a concentration camp, but there is of course a huge difference. It wouldn’t be right to address those two contexts in a same way.
Anorexia is probably a choice, while being in a concentration camp wasn’t a choice that one could make for him or herself.
There is certainly a big difference between suffering from anorexia or being transported to a concentration camp. But maybe that is the problem with anorexia – you have the possibility to start eating, it is your choice; but is that really a choice? I didn’t find the answer to that.
I could approach my exploration of anorexia in a more documentarian manner. I could try to enter intimate space of anorexic person, I could do (visual) diaries. But I was limited, as I always am, to a studio space, and I deliberately avoided being documentarian – despite the fact that I address issues that are real.
Now when you mentioned studio: you worked with a model; what were the rules and who was setting the rules in such professional relationship?
The rules are set by everyone. So on the one hand, it is the model who sets rules (I don’t like to call them models, I rather use the word collaborators). I simply have to figure out where are the limits of my collaborators. If I work with somebody who practices sadomasochistic sex, I have to know enough about it not to push into things which are not appropriate. So collaborators set their own boundaries, and on the other side there are my expectations. I am always ready for anything which means, collaborator has to set the limits. I will then work within that framework. I think my role is similar to a sculptor. Flesh is my clay. If there are many people involved, my role is similar to a theatre director who prepares overall compositions.
What about editing process and selection? I assume that such photo sessions produce lots of materials.
The selection is always mine. But if a collaborator doesn’t want certain photographs to go public, I always respect the decision. But I never let go of aesthetic decisions. I always keep that to myself. That is the principal deal. If photographs are sensitive, I ask if there are any objections. And usually there are none.
Let me go back to the fact that you haven’t been working for a while and that you come to hate photography, as you said. Do you think photography limits your creativity? Can you express everything you desire by using photography?
I wouldn’t use the term hate. I just want to say that I don’t like photography so much. But whichever medium I worked in, I would eventually run into certain limits. I would come to things I don’t like, but I have to either overcome or accept them. On the other hand, I do not really hate photography. I like to consume it very much. And that is also the curse of photography: most of people admire photography and they love to consume it. They like to consume photographs, more than they like painting, for instance. Nowadays, for most of people, photography is the most acceptable visual medium; they can recognise some kind of reality in photographs and therefore they don’t feel uncomfortable. It sometimes happens that people who are not experts in art feel uncomfortable in front of a painting they don’t understand. Discomfort is commonly related to that.
You mean that people would often feel (intellectually) small in relation to art works?
People may think they are stupid, and sometimes they take a defensive stand because of it. That’s why people tend to say that a certain painting is just a filth. Painting nowadays often demands some expert knowledge. So, photography, on the one hand, has limitations but it is, on the other hand, also attractive and fascinating. The advantage of photography is that it is always dealing with reality. Photograph can be taken out of the context, or it can be manipulated by the framing, it can be made in a studio, or it can be computer generated… but it is still real.
At least people can immediately recognise images of a person, body, skin and object. That makes photography attractive but, on the other hand, it could also be – in comparison to painting, again – a handicap. In photography there is a wide range of possibilities, from framing – photographing bodies in a studio – to staging a film scene for the camera. There is a huge range of approaches but the result is always an image of recognisable object. In that case photographer’s imagination is limited. Painter, on the other hand, can start a process with a blank canvas; painter has a privilege, or a burden, to start from nothing. In photography the artist always starts with something, already existing.
I agree, photography is always a document even if it is staged.
Yes. We can talk about the perfect, correct or decisive moment, but I still think there is much smaller investment to only frame a motive with a camera than to paint a canvas or sculpt a statue. Photograph is just a fragment of reality.
I will go back to the Hunger series for a moment. You said that you were interested in anorexia, but not as a disorder, while in your practice we often see images of unconventional bodies. Do you also explore other bodily deformations and disfunctions such as obesity or self-imposed damages, consequences of lifestyles?
I was actually thinking about obesity but I think I won’t explore that issue. Years ago, I actually photographed somebody big, but I wouldn’t call it fatness or obesity; I was just fascinated by the monumentality of that body. I may be interested in a body that is damaged because of an accident, a body that has scars, but I will definitely avoid obesity, simply because it’s not close to me. I can see myself working with wounded bodies but not with the obese bodies.
Do you see a difference between obesity and anorexia, or do you think these just two sides of the same coin?
I don’t know. The title of the series is Hunger; some people who experienced anorexia themselves said the title is good and that it sums up the experience well. Other people said that it is not good and that it doesn’t reflect their experience with anorexia. They said anorexia is not so much about hunger; it is more about discipline and self-control. What also relates me to anorexia is my own experience of my own body from the teenagehood. At that time, my own body seemed very alien and hostile. If I look back, I simply wanted to subdue and control my own body. Human body is changing in puberty and I felt I had to control it. I felt anger, sometimes I was torturing my own body, cutting myself. I think that’s might be the reason why I feel close to anorexia.
But on the other hand I don’t feel close to obesity at all. I always work on things that I can relate to and themes that involve me very intimately.
In your artistic practice, in the past thirty years, you have always produced portraits. You portrayed human beings and human bodies. What is so fascinating in humans and human bodies?
I would say I have never portrayed people in a classical way and that I am only dealing with a human body. But then if I really think about it, it is true, I did portraits in many of my works, like Visitors (2005), Post Mortem (2007) or Survivors (2013). Also in the Hunger series, there are couple of portraits. But I can say that from the early beginnings of my creative work, I have always been interested in human body.
Earlier I said that I explore phenomena that concern me intimately. But am I more concerned with my own body and with bodies of others, or let’s say with artistic exploration of world’s ecology? Ecology inevitably concerns me in a practical sense, in everyday life. But I must say that it doesn’t concern me emotionally… but human body does.
There must be some kind of obsessiveness about human body, partially because of personal experiences from my childhood when I had some severe diseases and injuries. I therefore follow this very narrow interest in human body and violence against body.
But isn’t a body always subject to some kind of violence? If nothing else, it is a subject to a violence of ageing…
Absolutely. Ageing is a good point. According to most of people, death of a human being is a natural occurrence. But I claim it’s not natural. We are not natural. Above all, I feel that human kind is more of a product of civilisation than it is of nature. Maybe that is the reason why I feel that death of a sentient and conscious being is always violence. And violence doesn’t have to be physical. Everybody is a subject to social violence. Society is always stronger than an individual. Society can easily control an individual.
We all live within a system. When you are born you are helpless, then we all go through educational system that enforces its own rules on us. Space for our free choice is thus very limited and it is only possible within a framework, defined by society. In this context, we could see body as a metaphor. I am not interested in a body just because of visible physical and/or psychological injuries – it could be seen as a metaphor for violence. Or to put it this way: I made a series of photographs of survivors of concentration camps but it wasn’t about the history. It was about the present.
Despite the fact that more than seventy years have passed since the end of the World War Two, the people didn’t change much. If the circumstances allowed such developments again, we could easily face very similar atrocities in our current societies than these people did during the World War Two. We saw that after 1991 in former Yugoslavia, that was already a big victim of the World War Two, but the history has repeated itself. I am therefore interested in dormant violence which is looming under the surface. I reflect it on a body. I think a body is very suitable for that.
In the Survivors series it is all about the faces of survivors of concentration camps. What do these faces testify about their experience? Isn’t it unspeakable? How can you reflect on this matter by only using photography?
That’s the question. What is the difference between a face of a concentration camp survivor and a face of somebody who doesn’t have such experience?
Or what is the difference between a face of former inmate and a face of former guard of concentration camp?
Back then I decided that people I portrayed in frames of the Survivors series won’t show any signs of their experience; no number plates, no tattoos, no inmate’s uniforms. It was only about a living proof of what has happened. When these people die, things won’t be the same again. We will have written and visual sources, but we won’t have living witnesses. That is why the text is often so needed to explain photography. I remember this Richard Avedon’s photograph of a black man from the USA that is equipped with the text telling viewers that the man on the picture was born a slave.
Apart from all that, these former inmates were people that didn’t end up in concentration camps coincidentally. They were sympathisers or collaborators of the anti-fascist resistance. It means they had a clear stance towards that matter; they knew they would be deported, if they were caught, and they knew what are they going to go through. At the photo sessions I talked to them and tried to extract some memories from them but that wasn’t included in the project.
But I agree, it is hard to recognise signs of their experiences on their faces. Many of the portrayees have their eyes closed because it resembles the moment when one tries to bring memories to light. But it can also mean something else. It is not only about what is on the portrait. For instance, I had issues with the technique of the photographs. First I wanted to do the series in colour so one could clearly know that the pictures were taken in 2012 and not in, let’s say, 1970s. And I simply wasn’t satisfied with the results, so I switched to black and white photography which also didn’t work.
Black and white photography could be timeless but it could also suggest that the pictures are from the period of World War Two. I imagine the World War Two in black and white. In the end I used a particular black and grey technique which led to very dark images. And this drowning in blackness gave the photographs right meaning and edge. If these were just portraits of any people I don’t think I would have a reason to use this technique. Maybe this was a good example of how to merge right technique with the right content.
You said you were talking to these people, concentration camps survivors, but you didn’t used the testimonies. Many photographers, who work in gallery context, use texts to support the narrative of their images. You were not interested in that?
There would be nothing wrong if I also filmed the photo sessions and interviews. That would surely be very interesting. I saw works of photographers who also portrayed survivors of holocaust and they added texts. It could be good, but I simply thought the images were enough. There was only a portrait and indication of the concentration camp where they were detained.
Do you think concentration camps have connotation strong enough so there is nothing to add?
Let me go back to the 1990s when you worked on the series about practitioners of unconventional sexual practices, i.e. sadomasochists. How can you get close to such groups if you are not the practitioner? Did you have to become a protagonist?
I was very interested in this scene, or maybe even more than interested. But again, I didn’t create a series just because of my interest in BDSM practices. I was looking for real violence. At my first exhibition at Škuc Gallery in 1990, I showcased images in which I staged the violence for the camera. The model is not tied with a rope because he would really want that, but because of the atmosphere. So the violence was acted, as if we were in a theatre play.
I hit the limits of such expression very early on. I could continue doing body paint to resemble injuries but I didn’t think that is the point. So staged photography was not enough for me any more. I couldn’t get what I wanted. And on the other hand, actors suffered while the shooting was taking place. It is not easy to be in a weird position for hours.
In the end, I started looking for people who really want to suffer. It took me years, but slowly I found people who practice BDSM. I had unlimited possibilities to show violence against the body, to the point that I sometimes had to stop the shooting because people would go too far. I avoided life-threatening situations. But in the end, these were the conditions I needed.
Again, I feel very intimately close to this theme. It made me remember some scenes from my childhood, like watching films such as Conan; there were nudity, violence and binding. This kind of things have been close to me in my intimate life; but never in a sense to become a member of some closed and exclusive club.
But you had to work with people who are members of such clubs?
Yes, I did. I even made great friends among my collaborators. I was also very personally involved with these practices. I was definitely an insider. There was a lot of merging: I was interested in this scene, I worked with it, I was dealing with the imagination of these people, I was preparing props that would later be included in their rituals. There was a mutual interest.
I heard that you brought a couple from that group to the opening of the Omen series at Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana to perform a BDSM sexual act in front of the audience. How did people react?
In comparison with many other photographers dealing with BDSM, I actually try to hide things. I am definitely not very explicit. I didn’t show the most classic relationship in BDSM: domina and slave. And what this glamour BDSM photography represent is a lie or at least a misunderstanding. Therefore you can’t find a woman, a domina, on my photographs. If I wanted to do BDSM photography, I would have to approach the theme from a different perspective. Instead, I was interested in human body.
These rituals were taking place on their own, I wanted them to take place, but I was constantly staging my own part. So I didn’t really documented these practices. I staged them and still I wanted to keep relationships within the group genuine, but all the photographs and compositions on the photographs are staged.
If you were, in the 1990s, interested in wounded or deformed body, you later switched to its ultimate end. In 2005 you premiered the Visitors series of photographs where you presented images of dead bodies. You were depicting a moment of cremation and thus the photographs are eerie but at the same time very real. What brought you to exploration of death?
It was a coincidence. I was intensifying my exploration of violence. I remember that I seriously started to deal with death in the early 1990s. I really wanted to photograph corpses. But I didn’t get any answers; neither negative nor positive answers to my request to photograph corpses. Where ever I came and wanted to get a permit, they would send me somewhere else.
Everybody suggested somebody else to turn to. One of these guys was very worried about my endeavour and he told me that the life is beautiful and I should picture it as such. That guy worked on autopsies in the pathology department. I think this was very natural path and when the first opportunity appeared, I took it immediately.
But what you achieved with the Visitors series, were completely aestheticised images of burning bodies that appear almost surreal but yet they are very real…
Soon after I started working on the series, I noticed that most of the motifs from the crematorium seem very non-aesthetic for most of the people. Body doesn’t turn to dust in a very pretty way. On the contrary, strange things are happening that are mostly beyond our comprehension. Cracking of the flesh and other very surreal scenes. Most of the motifs were therefore useless for what I wanted to have on the photographs; unless I only wanted to shock and disgust people with morbidity.
But at some point I started observing skulls and what is going on with them when they burn, and I realised that I have a portrait. It was very fascinating to realise how a skull and bones change in that process, how they become soft, how they change shape. And if I waited long enough to get a good shot I could get personalised expressions on the faces of burning skulls, such as happiness or malice. That was the thing I was interested in. So I got portraits of burning bodies and portraits of burning bones. All the motifs and all the photographs are strictly portraits.
You say that the photographs are aestheticised, but you also made a film with the same motif. The film was showcased many years after the series of photographs and it was, unlike the photographs, extremely explicit, with moving image and sound. What is the difference between your approach to photography and to moving image?
I wanted to hide the process how the film was made. The film can be great addition to the series of photographs, but only if the process of cremation is hidden. When I made this film, there were actually two films, I didn’t want to select the most horrifying motifs. I rather focused on the motifs where the body is opening up and is ripped apart. I was looking for moments where cremated body takes certain shapes, like plants, ponds, geyser, the hot water is splashing.
I was looking for moments where human body wouldn’t necessarily be recognised. The whole footage becomes some weird abstraction for which one may wonder what it is. The footage is, above all, weird. If you know what it is you can definitely recognised body parts but somebody else might not recognise them…
But I guess this realisation, that we are watching burning human body, makes the work. It is a shock that people often experience when confronted with your work. And that is the question: is shock and disgust the effect you want to achieve with the audience?
I want to achieve that spectators would feel pain and discomfort. At the same time, because I do want to provoke, but I have to be aware that provocation is not enough. Let me put it that way: more than I work on touchy motifs, more I have to watch myself to always present works with proper dignity. And when I provoke, I know exactly why I want to provoke. I want to wound or shake people, I want to throw them from the usual everyday life and from their comfort zone. But I always do that with a clear message. And this message is never to shock people for the sake of it.
Do you therefore want to make people think?
I want them to experience catharsis and fear. I often think of the term “tragic”. The notion of “tragic” may be the common thread of my works; the common thread of exploring human body and transience of body.
The other series, where you dealt with death was Post Mortem where you photographed frozen corpses in a morgue. But you photographed only parts of dead bodies. Is that the dignity you talked about: you tried very hard to conceal the identities of these (dead) people?
Yes, the unrecognisability of the corpses was the starting point of it all. I arranged and staged these bodies, but here as well, I had certain self-imposed boundaries. I always have limits with the arranging and staging.
And where is that limit?
Despite saying that I work with a body and that body is my material, my clay, I have certain boundaries that I would never cross. In this particular case (Post Mortem) I believe I had some kind of meditative closeness with the leftovers that I was working with. Then, at some point, I suddenly hit the end and stopped. Some pictures that were even more arranged were never showed publicly.
I remember the premiere opening of the Post Mortem series at Photon Gallery in 2007 and let’s say a third of people left the space immediately. They didn’t stand to look at the flesh.
Oh, I didn’t know. This sounds like a great success.
And there was another occurrence that happened at that opening. Just before the opening started, two people entered the gallery claiming that on one of the photographs they can recognise their father, who had passed away just before that. But they pointed at the picture of anatomic specimen in formaldehyde which was at least thirty years old – the only such image in the show that you sneak in. It was interesting realisation that dead bodies are reduced to a level that they look alike and that people can recognise their loved ones in the anatomic specimen from the Medical School.
One option is that people, who are not old enough, who are not elderly yet, think that all old people look quite similar. In this exact case, I think, we had a situation of a very dark picture and the head was photographed in profile. And in profile the nose is the most significant feature. We have pretty much four types of noses. When a person is very old, losing also other characteristic features, one may be focused on the nose. And they probably said: that’s it.
But the interesting thing is that people stand in front of a very big photograph but they would only see what they want to see. And at the same time, they don’t see three fourths of the picture. If they looked more closely, they would know that it is completely impossible to see their deceased father on that picture. It is particularly fascinating how we look at and how we overlook things. When we look for something we tend to overlook crucial things which are just in front of us.
When we talk about your works that explore death, what is your relationship with death? How do you perceive death?
After the Post Mortem series, my very tactile conclusion was that death doesn’t exist. It is only the end of life. It may sound like a play on words. But if we try to imagine death, what is it? It could be that medieval motif of the skeleton with a scythe. Therefore it may be also pointless to explore death. Because to die is I guess this very short moment after you stopped living.
The death, the end or the limitation of our lives, seems utterly tragic thing. Human being is conscious of his or her finality, and everyone is convicted to death. The ones who think that death is something normal – it is indeed normal but I also think it is not natural – don’t get the entire thing. It is not about the end of life, it is also about decay of a body that always leads to physical degradation and disintegration.
The question is, does a piece of flesh still have attributes of a person it used to be? I think a corpse completely loses these attributes. And the question is, is that tragic or not? Is it natural? In any case, I think death is not at all pleasant. So when I think of my own finality, mortality, I don’t feel any particular pleasure.
What about a social construct of heroic death which has been repeating throughout the history? Heroic death as an act of willing death for the bigger causes? What is your position on that?
I think this is quite common practice. War creates very interesting conditions. All of us, who live in Europe or in the Western world, live a very privileged lives, because our lives are not endangered. But on the other hand, that means something else: it means that our powers, bodily, mental and unconscious powers, are not 100% awaken and utilised.
I would even say that most of the people in the West live their lives in half-sleeping state. And also the society expects us to live half-sleeping lives. If we compare a human being to a wild animal, we see that wild animal have to use all senses and potentials in order to survive. But with humans, it seems that a very common way of survival is to make them (metaphorically) asleep. Otherwise you can go crazy, you are expelled from society or something may happen to you. So death which is completely senseless must be even more tragic. A death with sense, or like you said, a heroic death, may be some kind of an attempt of giving sense to death.
I want to ask you about interpretations of your works. Often artists have very clear idea about how their work should be interpreted. But on the other hand, audience has the same right to interpret any work of art in their own way. Do you have specific ideas about how your works should be interpreted? Would it bother you if your works were be interpreted in a “wrong” way?
I believe my works don’t inspire comfort, they are not so easily digestible, it’s not so easy to consume them. Or maybe it’s not pleasant to have them displayed in your home. The intention is to inflict pain. But I am judging from my experiences and expectations. As a spectator of a film, I know – if the film is good – that in the end I won’t see a happy ending. I know that the film will hurt me. And I always take that in consideration with my own works. I think that is the best way to describe my work.
I have chosen to always try to draw as close to extreme as possible. I am simply attracted to extremes. So, it happened that somebody said, I like your works. But would you buy them and have them in your home? The usual answer was: no. But that is bad for the business, of course.
In your practice you always strive to create a integrated ambience. For the Post Mortem show he entire gallery was covered in white fabric and only the photographs, or the flesh on the images, were standing out. In the case of the Hunger show, the space is dark and photographs are under spotlights, and there is a classic music playing in the background. What is the added value of ambience in relation to the narrative that you want present?
What is the the essence of art? Why art? Art proves that there is at least a possibility of a different way of life. That’s why I want my works to throw a spectator out of a comfort zone. I want to throw a spectator out of everyday routine. And now we have a gallery space. And gallery is not a friendly space for an artist or art. It is a sterile and castrated space that is, however, optimal for its technical preconditions.
The works can be presented properly in a white cube, on white walls, with good lighting. But that is not necessarily good for art. Photograph, a picture in a gallery, is the same as the lion in a zoo. People can admire a lion there, it’s safe, there is no direct contact. So then, there are two options: the optimal is to build the entire space, within a gallery, for the audience who feel safe there. You enter, you pay the entrance fee, and you are assured that all will be fine and that there is no danger.
I think it is good to guide audience into a story. An exhibition is like a story and you have to guide people into it. And space, or ambience, have to be compatible with a story. So, you can create a space, but on the other hand, you can also find a space that fits the idea to throw spectator out of everyday routine, where conventional rules don’t apply any more.
But if we talk about that particular case, the Hunger show, I think presenting the pictures in the dark space with the music in the background is optimal way to present the story. Why? It is an intimate story which requires some kind of dignity. It means that you may expect silence and very intimate contact with pictures. If possible it is great to have as few people as possible in the space at the same time. That’s how you can very directly confront the pictures and the story.
But it’s interesting. I could argue that a very good photograph doesn’t need anything; you just put it on a white wall and that’s it. It works. It has to work. You can put more photographs on one wall. But let’s say you take these pictures from this wall and transport them to a different space. In that process you can’t establish the same ambience but the exhibition may still work, if the pieces are strong enough.
I remember my exhibition Caligrafia Obscura in 2003, where photographs were showcased at the end of a 250-meters long tunnel, in the public shelter under the castle of Ljubljana. The photographs, that would otherwise be shown a conventional gallery space, had a very special ambience there, in the shelter. So my aim is to create overall image or overall ambience. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it exhibition. It is something different. Sometimes I want to create sacredness and to create a notion of a ritual in order to pull people out of the very safe gallery space.
© Miha Colner, June 2020