Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs / Onorato & Krebs: Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize nominees
April 2017 Interviewed by Zuzana Flaskova
Taiyo Onorato (b. 1979, Zurich) and Nico Krebs (b. 1979, Winterthur) have been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017 for their solo show Eurasia at Fotomuseum Winterthur (24 Oct 15 – 14 Mar 16).
After their first large-scale travelling project, The Great Unreal (2005-2009), exploring the American landscape, they trained their sights eastwards. Setting off from Switzerland in 2013, they drove through the Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia until they reached Mongolia. Working with photography, film and installation, they created an eclectic body of work, questioning the act of looking itself against the background of the vast, fast changing territory of Central Asia and Mongolia.
Below, Photomonitor contributor Zuzana Flaskova interviewed Onorato and Krebs to learn more about the background to this installation.
ZF: Let’s start with your current show at The Photographers’ Gallery. There are no photographs. How does it compare to the show at Fotomusuem Winterthur that you were nominated for?
TO: At Winterthur, we showed Eurasia for the first time. It was on a much larger scale, we had two rooms with framed photographs, another with film works and another included sculptures and a mix of photographs.
NK: Planning the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize show at The Photographers’ Gallery, we thought it would be nice not to have any static, physical photographic prints on the wall, and instead create a more ephemeral, immaterial experience, through slide and film projections.
TO: We wanted to have only light and machines.
NK: In a way, the experience you get from the show is similar to when you are travelling. You are surrounded by a lot of impulses at the same time, you get distracted from what you were looking at by something else, you turn your head.
TO: The different lengths of the loops and speeds of the slide shows also allow for new combinations of what you see on the wall at any one moment, it’s not a linear experience with one entry point.
ZF: The film portraits, entitled Faces, deal with a new subject matter, people haven’t featured in your practice so far.
NK: This happened through working with film, we never really made portraits before.
TO: We don’t necessarily believe in being able to create a portrait of a person through photography. But film lends itself much better for capturing a personality, the movement of the eyes, their breath. And specifically in this installation, the people in the film portraits become spectators as well. You are looking at them but they are also watching you, or looking at the other works.
ZF: I have always found it interesting how you manage to both construct and frame the reality in a rather absurd or surreal way, merging the fiction with the documentary. Watching the roadside wrestling matches you filmed in Mongolia, and judging by the lack of reaction of the passers by, it seems that wrestling has a similar social function and is as common place there, as having a cigarette is here.
NK: Yes, that’s how we got the idea, we just came across a lot of these men wrestling in the street. This was filmed in Ulaanbaatar, we were accompanied by a translator, a friend of ours, as the language barrier would make it hard to communicate when we were trying to ask to film them wrestling. It was very interesting and fun to observe these duels as they always combine a playfulness, with a strong physicality and certain aggression. And we realised that we can use this very special city as a background for the wrestling men.
ZF: Another interesting aspect of this installation is a sense of timelessness, or rather, historical ambiguity. You see an old guy on the deck of a ferry dancing in a rather peculiar style – mixing traditional folk dance with some suspicious contemporary references. You see a long empty boulevard in Ashgabat, and a gymnast performing in a typical (post?) communist interior. In black and white, and bereft of time specific signifiers, this could be an archive footage or it could be something that was filmed yesterday. I enjoyed the initial moments of uncertainty.
NK: Yes, the 16mm film naturally has an old feel to it, and has a very strong old aesthetic, and the ability to marry the past with the present, creating an irritating tension.
ZF: How was it, travelling through Eurasia and experiencing the clash between the turbo growth and progress in the urban areas and the remnants of more traditional ways of living?
NK: It was very overwhelming to be confronted with that kind of reality. It happens in a different pace and density to what we are used to. It was both fascinating and confusing, being able to cover a relatively short distance and feel as if you had travelled back and forth in time. We met nomadic herders, living very much the same lifestyle as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. But then they have the newest smartphones and satellite TV, watching Korean soaps. Then you drive into the nearest city and there’s streets lined with luxury brand flagship stores and on the same block there’s people living in the old soviet heating pipes, so they don’t freeze to death in winter.
ZF: With a logistically complex project like this, how much research went into its preparation?
TO: We actually made a clear decision not to over prepare and have an adventure. Whenever you decide to take one way, you will inevitably miss something that will happen on the other. We decided to embrace the element of chance.
NK: When we arrived in Georgia, we were told about an amazing Easter celebration that took place in a village not far away, but it had happened the day before! So, we had to come back the following year.
ZF: There are quite a few bizarre objects in the images, presented in an anthropomorphic way. What is your interest in material culture and what is the significance of these artefacts?
NK: Travelling through Central Asia, we noticed how ordinary objects are used in different ways, not in their original function. For instance the car mechanics in Mongolia wouldn’t have a whole set of various tools, but if they needed something they didn’t have, they would just weld a piece of metal to make an impromptu tool. And we’ve seen a lot of objects of everyday use to have this dual function, an improvisational quality. So we became interested in looking at objects and at how people work with materials. In Mongolia, materials are really scarce. Everything is collected and recycled in terms of function and usage. So all these objects tell stories about how people live and organise their lives.
TO: And in terms of museology, we were interested to see what objects are being collected from a specific region. Whilst we travelled, we visited the museums there and were curious to see what was taken out from the different cultures and put into a vitrine. After the first trip, back in Berlin, we went into the archives of The Ethnological Museum and saw what has been collected over the past 150 years from the regions we travelled through. Looking at the archives, a lot of new stories were cropping up.
NK: We found a bread stamp, made out of feathers, which has two functions. To make holes into the bread dough to prevent the middle from rising, but also, each has a specific pattern, like a label, to mark the bread so you know where it comes from, who baked it.
TO: The Ethnological Museum has over a million objects, living there ‘imprisoned’, released once in 25 years for some temporary exposition. It was a very intense experience. Being in the rooms – they have a very strong, strange energy. Some of the artefacts are shamanistic or sacred, grouped there together, outside their original context. So perhaps, part of our idea was also to photographically bring them back where they come from. The Manchurian steppe, for instance.
ZF: How about the sculptural object that was included at Winterthur? It reminded me of the modernist modular sculptures by the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, who just died 100 years old in January.
NK: In the former Soviet republics, we encountered an interesting mix of brutalism with Central Asian architecture, very different from what you’d usually see in the west. Then we came across some packaging from consumer goods, like TVs, lying around. There was a striking similarity between the Styrofoam insulation bits and the building elements of brutalist architecture. So we molded the Styrofoam parts and cast them in concrete, and assembled the parts into sculptures which we were then able to insert into the images, in a similar way to making a diorama. Using the right angle and perspective, and playing with proportions created a perfect illusion.
ZF: Working with analogue technology on the road, there is the distance of some 15,000 kilometers that you’ve covered, but also the long distance between the moment you took the images and the moment you were finally able to see them.
TO: The limitations of working in an analogue way help us to focus on the image. Having less possibilities can be actually very productive. You teach yourself to film what is essential, you end up with one hour of film instead of 5oo hours.
NK: But, by the same token, you miss a lot of stuff. Whether because you are not able to capture it with the technology or are just not fast enough. Still, the analogue process is really important to us, as we are both quite tactile and like to handle material with our hands, to get a direct connection to what we are working on. For the four months that we were photographing we weren’t able to develop films and look at them, so we didn’t really know what we had.
TO: John Cage said: ‘Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time.’ I find it very productive, to keep the distance between the moment of creation and evaluating it. You just leave it to rest for a while.
NK: The first step is always gathering the material, but it is the editing process that brings out the body of work. What I find interesting about different ways of sequencing is that maybe when you see a tighter narrative you feel that it guides you to read the work in a certain way, and then this becomes disrupted, and you, the viewer, need to find your own way again.
TO: Sometimes the narrative is tighter and sometimes less so, it comes and goes in waves. It keeps your attention, and won’t satisfy you in a way of offering a definitive answer. The photograph is there and everyone will see it through their own experience. It’s always an encounter between the image and the viewer. It’s important to us that each viewer will take away something else from the work.
ZF: What is the nature of your collaboration? You made the first trip together and then you each returned individually. In terms of the body of work you produce together each of you is an author and a viewer at once.
TO: Indeed. You know your own work so well that it is blinding. Images are about communication, and the only way of finding out whether they work or not is by showing them to others. When we produce our books, we collaborate with our friends, designers Megi Zumstein and Claudio Barandun (www.hi-web.ch). The four of us are equal, we wouldn’t be differentiating between us being the artists and them the graphic designers.
NK: But it’s also about learning about your work anew. You look at the body of work differently when presenting it in a book format.
ZF: Speaking of which, I am looking forward to seeing your latest book Continental Drift which has just been published by Edition Patrick Frey.
The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017 exhibition will be shown at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until 11 June 2017. The prize winner will be announced on May 18th, 2017.
Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs are represented by Sies+Hoeke Gallery, Düsseldorf.
Interviewed for Photomonitor by Zuzana Flaskova, Spring 2017.