Martin Newth / Rezension
March 2018 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Martin Newth’s artistic practice considers the material nature of photography; his photographic, video and sculptural installations explore and emphasize the processes, materials and apparatus of image production, both historically and as a medium of the 21st century. Newth’s current exhibition at the MEWO Kunsthalle in Germany, Rezension – Skulptur, Object, Apparat, is the result of a three year period of research that has focused on a collection of late Gothic, painted, lime wood sculptures, made between 1440 and 1495, which are housed in the Strigel Museum in Memmingen, Bavaria. Below, Christiane Monarchi asked Newth about the background to these works, for an insight to his practice in advance of his latest exhibition opening at Photofusion, London this week.
CM: Looking at your recent multimedia work ‘Rezension’ I am struck by the presence of late Gothic sculptures, quite unique at this moment in the photographic arts, I presume. Could you tell me how you were interested in these works of art, and the ideas of ‘seeing’ them in their time, which seem to have inspired your current visual investigation?
I became interested in these specific sculptures after visiting the small Bavarian city of Memmingen, where Rezension is taking place, in 2015. I was shown round the Strigel Museum by its director, Axel Lapp, who oversees both the historic museum and the contemporary Kunsthalle in Memmingen. The limewood painted sculptures in the museum, made by the workshop of the Strigel family, were unlike anything I had seen before, and certainly not like the kind of religious sculpture and carving found in the UK. They are about one-third life size and, like a lot of Catholic sculptures of saints in central Europe, include symbolism such as Mary standing on the face of the moon. I was very impressed by the sculptures and surprised that they weren’t better known than they are. So, the idea of taking a much closer look at them, and specifically deploying photography’s ability to scrutinise, was very appealing to me. I quickly became very interested in the idea of ‘seeing’ them in their time. I’ve always been fascinated by the moment of the encounter with a work of art, and considering the conditions that make that encounter special. I wondered what the nature of the encounter might have been like when these sculptures were seen in the 15th Century compared to what it is to see the sculptures now.
CM: Could you tell me more about these sculptures?
MN: The four figures that I have included in the Rezension exhibition were made between 1420 and 1495 and would have been installed in altarpieces in churches. At the time, they would have been quite something to witness, to the point that there would surely have been an element of shock for the onlooker. Firstly, this period marks a time when depictions of the human form became much more lifelike than they had been previously. Instead of the rigid, statuesque figures that came before, the contrapposto forms and the life like features, that appear to show human emotion, must have had an enormous impact on the viewer, making the sculptures of Mary, Jesus or the saints appear almost life-like. Secondly, the fact that they were painted in bright colours would have further animated the sculptures whilst at the same time making them appear almost otherworldly. In a world with very little man-made colour the brightness and life of these sculptures must have had a huge visceral impact on the onlooker. Of course, this is only possible for us to imagine. The context within which these sculptures was designed to be viewed cannot be experienced now, mainly because the most active aspect of that context was the time in history. So, the project started with me wondering how I might change the way we encounter these sculptures. Not to replicate the nature of the encounter in the 15th Century but, instead, to shift and amplify some of the aspects of looking at the sculptures so that they can be encountered afresh, with something close to a contemporary equivalent to the impact of the encounter in the 15thCentury.
Even without any of the photographic and sculptural elements that make up this exhibition one fascinating aspect of the show was what happened to the sculptures when they were moved across Memmingen from the Strigel Museum to the Kunsthalle. This short journey, from a historical museum to a contemporary art space, radically shifted their context. On its own, this gesture meant that the objects changed from being historical artefacts to being works of art, transforming the nature of the encounter. But although this move was always planned, it only happened in the last days before the show opened. The two-year period of research that led up to the exhibition first involved designing and building cameras, which were specifically constructed to make unique c-type, negative photographs of each sculpture.
CM: A fascinating history these sculptures have, in the tradition of applied arts and artefacts having new interpretation in this way. Indeed they need to be seen anew in this context. Could you tell me more about your decision to do this making unique C prints and constructing very sculptural boxes with multiple viewing trajectories?
MN: For years I have been building simple cameras, often built very quickly from very rudimentary materials such as cardboard. And, at times, I’ve turned buildings into cameras using simple lenses such as spectacle lenses. In this way, my work has often privileged process as much, if not more than, the final product. I’ve deployed hands-on processes to allow the way the photograph is made to become part of the way the work is understood. I have become more and more interested in the kind of performance that goes on when I make photographic images in this way. Until recently, the cameras I built were not shown, but were left to be described or imagined. I wanted to find a way that the whole apparatus of the performance of making my images might become a central part of the work. Normally, in photography, the apparatus is the invisible element. It is essential but it is back stage. I wanted to flip this around and allow the apparatus to be a vehicle for a close look at the nature of the object being photographed as well as giving access to the theatre of the work’s production. So I came up with the idea of making cameras that were specifically designed and built to only ever photograph one thing. In this case, the Strigel sculptures.
CM: Could you tell me more about the physicality of these cameras, the materials you used?
MN: The work started with me making cameras that were almost as simple as they could be: cardboard boxes with spectacle lenses. Then, in order to try to make close up, 1:1 scale photographs of the sculptures it was clear that there would have to be several box cameras. Through a process of drawing both the sculptures and the camera boxes, I designed the multiple cameras and the sculptures to be in dialogue with each other. The cardboard constructions were designed to echo the limewood sculptures. There is a kind of play on history here. As well as the project being about looking back over 500 years at the religious sculptures, the process I have used traces the history of photography back to its most basic roots.
I have become very interested in the apparatus of obsolete technology. A previous project involved using 2nd World War pillboxes that were never used and I love technologies such as WWII sound mirrors and Japanese War Tubas, technologies made obsolete almost the moment they were constructed due to the advent of RADAR. I wanted my box cameras to have a similar feel. They both seem strangely like robots perhaps, or a kind of an idea of the future made in the past. And the use of spectacle lenses heightens this sense of looking as well as anthropomorphizing the objects somewhat.
In drawing and designing the cameras so that they might photograph the sculptures from head to foot it quickly became apparent that the 1:1 images would mean the cameras would be much larger than the sculptures they are designed to photograph. Again, this flips the normal relationship between the apparatus and the object and adds to this sense that the sculptures are being closely inspected. And at a time when you might argue that photographs are becoming less and less about material my project becomes ‘super-material’, emphasising every aspect of the photograph’s material nature, from the way the cardboard cameras are constructed to the material of the negative c-type images, simply pinned in place, using the same pins that pinned the paper inside the cardboard cameras.
CM: Laying bare the creation of mechanism of the creation of these images is critical to your work, what do you feel about your physical interaction in that process, would you ever choose to make that visible or performative to an audience?
MN: For this series, I have chosen for the work to be performative rather that actually making it a performance. In the past, I have made work where the audience engages directly with the projected camera obscura image. For example, in a project entitled Solar Cinema I turned a marquee into a camera obscura, which projected a large, bright image onto a suspended screen. The audience was able to walk around, touch and move the image to make it drift in and out of focus. With the photographs made for Rezension, even though I hope there is a sense of the magical transformation that takes place through making the photographs, the nature of the process is actually rather tedious.
Firstly, because I am using colour c-type photographic paper most of the process takes place in total darkness. Unlike black and white photography, where you are able to use a red ‘safe’ light, the sensitivity of the colour paper means that it cannot be exposed to any light at all. I have to take each sheet of paper out of its light proof bag, carefully pin it into place inside the cardboard camera and then tape up the camera, a rather lengthy process that involves literally fumbling about in the dark. Once the images have been exposed I then remove them from the camera, put them into another light-tight bag, pack them in a suitcase and fly back to London where, several days later, I put them through a colour processing machine.
This process, which takes place over a long period of time, is completely at odds with the instantaneous gratification that digital technology allows. I want there to be an echo or trace of the lengthy process, one in which I have relinquished a lot of control about how the images finally appear. And I want the element of performance to be transferred into a kind of awareness of the performance of viewing the work. Having the sculptures, the cameras and the images within one space, presented in roughly the same place as they would have been when they were made, means that the viewer moves between each element and becomes aware of their own position within the physical arrangement of objects.
CM: Pinning these works can signal visually that they might be considered sketches, maquettes or perhaps not ‘object quality’ prints destined for museum glass and bespoke frame. Clearly as unique works they are very much valued objects. How do you feel about the presentation in this way, breaking the surface with the pin?
MN: The pins have become an important element of the work for me. I started using pins as simply the most efficient way of sticking the photographic paper in place in the dark. I had previously used tape, but after nearly wrecking a processing machine because the tape got caught up on the paper, I realised I needed a better solution! I now pin the photographic paper directly into the camera. This means that the shadows of the pins appear on the image. I love this small gesture, which is a trace of the hands-on process that has been used. For me, it is like a searing of the reality of the process directly onto the photographic image and the photographic material. Most photographic images are designed to be read off the surface of a screen or paper and don’t directly engage with the physical nature of the images. The pin marks draw attention to the materiality of the photograph and act like a clue to how the images are made. It then seemed only natural to use the same pin marks to display the photographs. This further emphasises the material nature of the photographic negative image.
I originally studied painting and I have always been interested in the relationship between a photographic and a painted image. The pins and shadows are rather like the brush marks on a painting, but for some they might also connote the kind of display used in natural history to present insects, butterflies or spiders. As you imply, installing the photographic images in this way suggests something provisional as opposed to a final product. But at the same time, the images are carefully framed, creating a kind of tension between the preciousness of the images and the more precarious, uncontrolled nature the process. This is also why I have chosen not to put the images behind glass, so that there is as little as possible between the photograph and the viewer.
CM: Could you tell me a bit more about the three channel video work as part of your Rezension installation?
MN: The three video works are the most recent development of this project. They are almost an accidental bi-product of my working process. In this project, I had been experimenting with using collages of two or three colour filters in front of the lenses. The reason for doing this was to try to achieve something equivalent to the shock of witnessing the sculptures for the first time in the 15th Century, which I discussed earlier.
Using the filters means that the colours are distorted and made less natural, taking them one step further away from the current reality of the sculptures. This resulted in the rather toxic pinks and yellows of some of the images. I had photographed the negative c-type images and put them through Photoshop to further play with the colour of the images. These videos are simply images of the photographs where the still image is transformed, moving through every colour of the spectrum. The shift is extremely gradual. At first you feel you are looking at a still image on screen, but then notice that it is changing very slowly. As the image moves through the blue end of the spectrum it gradually flips from negative to positive. Aesthetically, this transformation evokes very early experimental photography, appearing to resemble solarized images of Man Ray or others.
I like the way these works relate to the birth of photography but, through deploying simple digital technology they also appear contemporary. This tension is something that I feel is within all my work. It has its roots in the early experimental use of photography but, instead of being nostalgic for the loss of analogue, I use an engagement with the way photographic images are made to try to explore the conditions that inform how we experience images and objects now.
For further viewing:
Martin Newth. Rezension – Skulptur, Objekt, Apparat continues at MEWO Kunsthalle, Memmingen, Germany until 3 June, 2018.
Martin Newth: Re-View will be exhibited at Photofusion, London 28 March – 30 April, 2018
Artist’s website: www.martinnewth.com