Manifesto of slowness. Agata Mazur talks with Elina Brotherus

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Elina Brotherus
Elina Brotherus

From 1960s photography has worked hard to become an independent medium and it succeeded to be no longer in the painting's shadow. You play on with the relationship between photography and painting. Should we follow the title of the series presented in Poznań - is photography the new painting?

To put it shortly, I think in the end of the day the medium is not so important. The important thing is the image. And I think that either with photography or painting, or drawing, we can achieve equally important results. It is just that I was trained as photographer and not as a painter. To go into it more deeply, I think that photography as a medium is wonderful. There are things that we cannot capture with our eye, but we can capture with photography. For instance, there is one perspective picture in the exhibition, the very dark one, which was taken at night and the horizon is defined by white line. I couldn't know that while making the picture, because it was pitch dark. I couldn't see anything, I even couldn't focus the image. The white line of the horizon actually was made by a boat passing by, it was travelling through the whole field of the image and the light of the boat was drawing the line. Obviously you cannot see this kind of things with your eyes, but they can appear in a photograph. Another example is an earlier night-time picture of an illuminated pedestrian bridge. The length of exposure was not that long as with the boat, where it was about half an hour, here maybe five minutes. But during this time there were several people who walked across the bridge and yet in the photo the bridge is empty. The people did not spend enough time on the bridge to be fixed on the film. These kind of things are like magic to me. Photography can give us another perception of the world.

So for you it is not a matter of discussion between the mediums? You don't claim that photography has replaced painting?

This is exactly the thing I don't want to say. Many painters were upset by my choice of title for this cycle. They think, quite wrongly, that I am claiming that photography is something more valuable, that painting is old-fashioned and photography has replaced it. By no means. I think that painting is quite all right and I hope it shall be all right, (laugh) I see no reason why it shouldn't. And personally I love painting, my work is more like a hommage to painters.

There are in fact many signals for the viewer that you make relations to paintings -similar titles, scenes. Of course it is never the exact setting taken from any particular canvas, but looking for instance at ‘Der Wanderer' we have the idea of your inspiration by Caspar David Friedrich works.

Friedrich is maybe the most direct reference I have in my whole series, the idea of the Wanderer is obviously borrowed from Friedrich, just in my version it is a female character and the landscape is less spectacular. And there are other things, for instance there are two shots of the Wanderer where we have the same mountain view, but we can see time passing. They were taken during one summer night in the north of Norway, where sun never goes down, just kind of goes around a bit. The one with the blue coat was taken before midnight. In the second photo, with the pink pullover, we can see that the mountains have turned red because the rising sun is illuminating them. Everything is in the colour of the light and that's something I am deeply interested in. So this is an issue that I am interested in: How can one show the passage of time by the means of still photography.

What about the way you come across the idea for references to paintings?

It's something intuitive. During the years I've been a practising artist I have seen so many books, exhibitions, in a way there is a huge image bank in my head. I don't think about it, I do not decide that well, like now I will take certain painting, then I will find a proper setting and space where I should do my version of it. It's just like places where I live, where I travel. It comes very quickly and intuitively that this place looks interesting and I could do something. It's always in the eye, the visual trigger that makes me stop for working.

While talking about Suites Francaises you said: " Language is a way of creating order out of chaos. We give names to objects, classify and categories things, analyse phenomena. Language makes thinking possible." Do you think that photography is also capable of it, as a language?

In one sense when considering creating order from chaos, I do think so. I said that about Suites Francaises when I was in the very beginning of my life in France, when I didn't speak French. I was just starting to learn, so it was a very urgent need for me to get a grip of this language to communicate with the world around me. But I do think that there is so much visual chaos all around that it's quite a hard task to frame something meaningful out of this chaos. That is perhaps one of the reasons why I did minimalistic landscapes, where I really tried to take out one orderly, coherent bit. The question is: how little can you tell and still have something meaningful. The picture "Vue 3" shows morning mist where you have just very little detail in the foreground, you see little houses, trees, and then the rest disappears in the yellowish mist. I love this picture because it tells so little but still for me it's enough.

What is the relation between the photo and the viewer then?

In a way I would like to quote Agnes Martin, who said that the artist has no responsibility for the spectator or his reactions. Artist is just doing art for his or her own reasons and then the spectator is an independent creature, who responds to the work of art in his/her own way. Sometimes it is nice to talk to the audience to hear what they feel, but that should never be the primary interest of the artist. Of course there are no answers in the photos. I don't tell any stories either. I am an image-maker, not a story-teller. The story is in the eye of the beholder. My way of making the picture does not include any particular reading for it. Any art work is read by the viewer through his own life experiences, whatever has happened to him. If you get a relationship with an art work then it is something that resonates in you. Some people may have completely different feelings about the same work and that's fine.

I am asking about the relationship with the viewer because there is something ambivalent in your photos, especially in these, where characters stand with the back to the viewer. On one hand we feel as a part of the scene, invited to join the person in front of us and we want to follow her to feel and see the same. But in the same time we have the impression of a kind of isolation, as we shouldn't disturb the scene, go into it.

Well, I give you now my personal version which is just one among many other possible ones. For me this figure who is turning her or his back to the spectator, it represents tranquility and calmness - a contemplation and not a confrontation. She is watching something that she has chosen. We also happen to know that this is the artist herself. We know that the artist has chosen this particular view for us - the spectators - to look at too, together with her. We can watch it together, but we are not disturbing each other. It's interesting what you are saying about this feeling of isolation because after "The New Painting" series I continued more or less in the same aesthetic, the same thematic, but I did also pictures with two figures... "Deux personages au bord de la mer" or "Green Lake"

Yes, and others too. And some people told me lately that they feel that when there is just one figure, then the spectator is invited to join, but when there are two figures then they feel like they are left out.

Did any photographer inspire you ?

There are some photographers whose work I admire. To name one, particularly for his landscapes, I would say the German photographer Elger Esser. He often photographs after the sunset, using very long exposure times. He then makes the actual print much lighter than the real-life situation was. So this kind of darkroom manipulation, not computer manipulation, makes it look like it was made in the daytime, even if it was taken in the evening. That produces very unusual colours - yellows, pale pinks. And long exposure time smoothes the surface of water for instances.

What is the importance of working in series to you?

I think it is a typical way of working for a photographer. For me the older I get, the longer the series get. "The New Painting" was four years, between 2000 - 2004, and since then I have been working on next series "Model studies", which I started basically in 2003 and I am still working on it and I see no end to it. Besides that I am doing a series that I even haven't found name for yet. So these days, I do exhibitions without knowing what the title should be. (laugh) I should just name them "Elina Brotherus: new work" because I have no proper title even though I see that it is a series, they all belong together. It's impossible to tell everything in just one image. I think I am interested in these large topics and I cannot empty them with just a few pictures.

But most of them can function as separate.

Yes, they are single images, but during the exhibition you play with the images, how to juxtapose them, what to put next to what. There are for instance the horizons, which I like to put next to each other on the wall, so that the line continues.

You mentioned the landscape - what is it's role in your photos?

These horizon works are the simplest landscapes you can imagine - it's just a line on a surface. For me they are the ones that get closest to geometrical abstraction and the point of my interest lays in the fact that with a quick look we could almost mistake them for colour field paintings, like Newman or Rothko. But then, when we look more carefully, we can see that after all it's a photograph. It's almost magical this tie that connects the photograph to the real world. It's both the curse and the enchantment of photography, that it is intimately tied with the outside world, even thought it can approach abstraction. So that was my primary departure point. Then, the second important thing, we were talking about it already, is the passage of time - how can we show it with the photograph. These are two important elements I am most interested in the landscape. Actually, I started to make landscapes quite early on, after one of my very first exhibitions, more than ten years ago. I made a mistake in a rather big exhibition to only show self-portraits. The eyes were staring at you from every direction, and that gave such a claustrophobic feeling for the viewer that I realised that one needs to have windows.

To take a breath?

Exactly. It's like a comma in the sentence. Since then I never did an exhibition without landscapes (laugh).

In one of the books on contemporary photography your photo "Der Wanderer I" was located in the chapter about landscape and it was somehow misleading for me, because landscape in your photos is just a means to pay attention of the viewer to something else than the landscape itself.

That's true. For those pictures with a human figure in a landscape, I think the landscape in a way is an excuse for the figure (laugh). The figure's relation to space is the most important. I think that Caspar David Friedrich was primary interested in landscape, and he might have added the figure only to legitimize his interest to the landscape. In my case it is quite the opposite: because I have done so many pictures with myself, sometimes I need a kind of an excuse in order to legitimize my being there (laugh).

For me the most interesting is the relation of the figure to the landscape.

Indeed, I think that the contemplation is essential as a concept. It's something that we need more and more in our hectic world.

When one looks at your photos, there comes to mind concepts like solitude, contemplation, vast space, sense of alienation, melancholy - element that we can find in works of artists who come from the North. Do you think that there is anything like a "Nordic aesthetic"?

I think that the world today is so globalised, also the art world, that the artists are pretty much aware of what is done in other countries. So I think that the virginity of local schools is no longer possible. However, in the North there is so lot of land, lot of empty space. Traditionally people lived quite isolated. So I think that in every Finn there is an urge to go somewhere alone and there are moments when you don't need anyone else. For instance every second Finn has summer house, where he or she can go, hide inside nature and play old rural life. I do it myself very much. Artists perhaps also tend to work while being in this kind of environments. It's also a matter of ability to look for the open space to find tranquility among the chaos.

Considering your previous series, they were mostly autobiographical. Why in "The New Painting" you as a figure are less visible?

My very first series was autobiographical and that has been a problem for me ever since, because people tend to read my new work through the old. They think ‘she started talking about herself so she is continuing to talk about herself'. Well, I went through what I needed to in that particular moment. I was studying academic stuff and when I went to art school it was great liberation for me, because I discovered who I really am and what I want to do. And by the process of starting to do art there rose many issues that I needed to treat. But once it was done, I could move forward to other, more formal issues.

So the first series of photographs were a kind of catharsis, you reached for the camera in important and difficult moments to go through them with the help of photographing, you needed photography to struggle with some points of your life. What does photography give you now?

I think I maybe got more relaxed. I can look at my work more detached, with a bigger distance than before. I have worked already for some twelve years and I think I had my lesson, I take art less seriously. (laugh) In fact the struggling never finishes, because I am still interested in the same themes as during "The New Painting" and now I am concerned if I am not repeating myself. That's a question I am asking myself all the time - whether the photos are "new" in a sufficient amount. That is why I am trying to make variations of the themes, for instance adding the second figure - it's to test what happens, how far can I go. I am also changing the scale, for example in some works that I made last year the figure in the landscape is very little, while the space is huge.

You focus on topics which are quite universal, so it's difficult to say that you are repeating.

I also like to think about what my professor Jorma Puranen used to say, that he always works a long time on one series and then when he finishes, he exhibits it in different countries. And he doesn't care if the works are, so to say, old. In the art world people tend to ask for novelty. You should always have the newest photos. I don't believe in this. I think that when I am now for the first time in Poland, the images are new to the Polish audience who has not seen them before, and the photos are not less valuable because of the fact that they are eight years old. I would like to make a manifesto of slowness, to say stop for demanding the newest, for the cult of new. Works live on and they are not getting old fashioned after ten years.

What about your practice? How do you work?

I don't work very much. I work with large format camera which is very heavy to carry. I work when I go to some place - often when I am invited somewhere to do an exhibition, I take my equipment with me. Sometimes I go to artists' residencies, which are wonderful, because all your responsibility is to think about art, not to care about daily life, so you can get really devoted to work. During a year I might go three or four times on trips like this. Though recently I did some photos in my new home, too.

Is slowness important in the process of making photos?

Yes. There are so many things associated in producing the exhibition print - the actual photographing is maybe only some twenty percent. To develop the films, look at the contact prints, to make model prints. When I get an exhibition invitation, I choose which photos I shall produce. That is not that easy at the moment, because my prints are made directly from negatives and more and more traditional labs are closing, because people use so much digital now. But do you think that the slowness and tranquillity which are inscribed in the process of taking photos, because of the heavy equipment and long exposure times, can they be seen in the final photo?

Yes, especially because of the use of traditional camera I think, the only type you use.

Up to now I think that digital cameras are not good enough when compared to large format film. I have heard that new models should be rather good, I might try one day. But the thing is also that if I go for a one week trip and may not have access to electricity, my camera is mechanical, so it's totally reliable. It's really funny that it has become such a big issue - analogue or digital? The revolution has been so rapid. At the time when I started to study, digital technique was not used and nowadays I feel like dinosaur, people keep asking me ‘why are you still doing this?' and they don't know anything about the analogue process.

Finally I would like to ask, what are you working on at the moment? Could you tell us something about new projects?

I am participating in three summer exhibitions in Finland and for all of them I am preparing something new. One of them is in the Finnish Museum of photography in Helsinki. We have a fantastic group, we meet once or twice a month, eat well and discuss the photos of one of us. The group was created by another one of my old professors, Timo Kelaranta - he asked old students and colleagues who could be interested in participating in this kind of a project. Then I'm making an exhibition with my colleague Hannele Rantala for Photography Gallery Hippolyte in Helsinki which is run by the association of photographers in Finland. It's their thirtieth anniversary year and they asked four artists to collaborate. My turn is in June/July and I asked Hannele to be my partner. We decide for some topic, we both make a picture and then hang them next to each other. One of the themes is related to art history, another to colour theory. Then the third exhibition is in a village called Mänttä, it's one of the largest and oldest summer visual art festivals. The curator this year is Tuula Karjalainen, the previous director of Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. The title is "ecology of emotions" and I will show my new landscapes which I made last year in Japan.

Photo: Maciej Kaczyński

Elina Brotherus, New Painting, Centrum Kultury Zamek, Poznań, 20.1 - 22.02.2009

Elina Brotherus
Elina Brotherus