Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin / Bandage the knife not the wound
November 2018 Interviewed by Gemma Padley
As creative partnerships go, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s is one of the most prominent in contemporary photography. Aged just 20 when they met as students in Wuppertal in South Africa’s desert Cape, the pair has been making work together for more than twenty years. Their wide-ranging projects have covered subjects that include photography’s role in the ‘war on terror’, surveillance culture, and the connection between photography and racism, but a constant thread that runs through their entire oeuvre is the desire to question the role of images and image-making in today’s society and in history. “Our lives are so consumed by images that it’s important to understand the way they work: emotionally, politically, culturally, economically,” Broomberg told The Daily Telegraph in an interview five years ago, a statement that rings as true today as it did then.
Their recent exhibition, Bandage the knife not the wound at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, is a continuation of the duo’s endeavour to try to understand the way images ‘work’. On show in September as part of fig-futures, (a series of quick-fire exhibitions each one week-long), the exhibition presented work from their on-going series comprising overlaid photographic prints. This ‘visual exchange’ involved delving into their extensive archive and printing and re-printing photographs (their own and found photographs) onto pieces of cardboard, which were installed as photographic sculptures across the gallery’s ground floor exhibition space.
At its core, the project is about photography, Chanarin says, when we speak on the phone, but it is also about the nature of collaboration or exchange – the exchange of ideas – which has always been integral to their work. The duo no longer shares a studio in London – Broomberg is now based in Berlin – and yet collaboration remains as important to them as ever, says Chanarin. Here, Chanarin discusses the thinking behind the project and explains how making the work was an opportunity to reflect on their photographic career to date.
Gemma Padley: How did you become involved with fig-futures?
Oliver Chanarin: We were part of fig-2 in 2015 [in which 50 projects were shown across 50 weeks at the ICA in London]. There’s a speed to it and an urgency that is quite refreshing and liberating. One show is taken down and the other is installed and opens the next day. There’s very little time to reflect. At Kettle’s Yard we installed the whole show, went for lunch and then came back and thought, ‘this is wrong.’ 50 per cent of it changed in the two hours before the opening. In a world where everything is pre-meditated and you get to edit your life to such a degree, there’s something really refreshing about the spontaneity of the fig-futures approach.
GP: You’d shown the work before, is that correct?
OC: We made it for a show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg earlier this year. It began very much with our interest in a printing process using a UV printer – our starting point was a process and not so much an idea. The printer was originally developed in the eighties to print onto CDs, but it’s become more sophisticated. It uses UV ink, which goes onto the surface of the material, e.g.: the plastic of CDs, and is immediately ‘cooked’ by UV light. What’s remarkable about it is you can pretty much print onto any surface you want. It’s extraordinary. Adam and I are photography professors at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK) and [we have access to] one of these printers. We wanted to experiment with it, essentially. It started with printing onto cardboard because that was the material available at the time – the chemicals and printing paper for the university’s analogue darkroom are delivered in large boxes.
GP: In the exhibition you make a feature of the three-dimensionality of the boxes, they are so sculptural…
OC: The sculptural part is really important. The way the images get dissected by those lines and folds is lovely. Something Adam and I always enjoy is when other forces shape our work. The material imposes something onto the image. Once we started experimenting in this way we realised it was very liberating to print onto cardboard. Cardboard is such a cheap, throwaway material and it is ubiquitous. One of the things we noticed initially was how the brown tones of the cardboard came through the highlights in the images and created quite a muddy, muted tone that felt at once nostalgic because it’s sepia, almost, but at the same time very contemporary because it was suddenly an image that didn’t feel precious. The thing about a photograph when you print it – a traditional photographic print – is that it’s a very fragile thing. You have to pick it up between two fingers and never two hands because it can kink very easily. And then you have to start again. But when you’re printing onto a piece of cardboard you don’t feel that same attachment. In a way, the more beat up it is, the better. Some of the boxes had dents and tears, they were not perfect by any means, and we really embraced that.
GP: The imperfections say something about the life of the image as an object. It has its own history, it travels, and every time it’s installed another layer of history is added…
OC: I think that’s a lovely way to put it – thinking about the biography of the image. There’s something about making the image physical in the way it sits on the wall or floor – it’s undeniably physical. And I think that rubs up against the notion of the digital image. Digital images move around the world in a frictionless way – they’re kind of ‘liquid’ images. So as a kind of gesture against these frictionless images we wanted to present these cardboard prints that are [inert]. We were compelled to make this work really as a response to [what it means to be] a photographer in the age of Instagram. That sounds grandiose, but as a photographer it’s quite a confusing landscape to know how to navigate, to make sense of.
GP: You’ve spoken about how on one level this work is about what it means to collaborate. Could you say something about how the work reflects your relationship as artists working together?
OC: Our relationship, how we produce work together, is a very important topic. How two people author a practice is a really complex thing. We’re at a really interesting moment right now in that we’re not living in the same country anymore – Adam lives in Berlin. We shared a studio for almost twenty years and now we’re in a long distance relationship, so this work is a response to that in the sense we made it in absence of each other. I would print something on a piece of cardboard and leave it for Adam in our office at the university, and he would collect it and print something else on top of it and then leave it for me – like a gift almost. These things were passed back and forth between us. What we’ve enjoyed about that process is there’s no editing, really. The thing about working in a partnership is it’s always difficult to know how to deal with consensus – how an idea comes into being, progresses, and then becomes a piece of work that ends up in a book or an exhibition. That whole journey requires the two of us to have consensus, but in this case what was interesting was that we didn’t really tell each other what to do. We let each other respond in a very instinctive way, which really reflects where we’re at with each other and with our practice. There’s a kind of openness there that comes from a place of strength, of confidence.
GP: The works are very layered, literally and metaphorically, and there are what seem to be visual motifs or symbols – open and closed eyes, a death mask, hands, for instance. There is also a sense of the grotesque, of dreamlike perhaps nightmarish undertones, violence and death… Did you set out to explore certain themes or was the work quite serendipitous?
OC: There are many narratives and in a way it’s very open. The intentions and themes are not really set out. There isn’t a touchstone to work with in terms of interpreting the work. Hopefully what happens is, as a viewer, you find your own narratives, connections, and meaning in the work. Having said that, there are certainly recurring themes, which emerged from the material. We delved into our personal archives as well as our professional archives, and also explored research and reference material we’ve gathered for other projects. There are pictures taken over the years in many different formats and at different resolutions. The themes that come to the surface are I suppose the things we’re drawn to and interested in, and if you look back at our past works, a lot of the themes are there… For example: the colonial gaze and the relationship between Europe and Africa, the notion of the portrait and this new era of portraiture where the relationship between the subject and the photographer is severed by technology. […] The notion of consent, of ‘the institution’, of the individual and the relationship to power… There are many concerns.
GP: What about surrealism? The work seems to slip between the real and something that feels like it might have come from the subconscious…
OC: We did a project a few years ago in Egypt, which involved ‘unearthing’ an Egyptian surrealist movement from the 1930s. From that came a lovely phrase, ‘a knife without a blade that’s lost its handle’, which is like a motto. There’s a connection to the title of the Kettle’s Yard show, which also comes from a Joseph Beuys quote. For me, ‘bandage the knife not the wound’ suggests let’s look at the causes of violence and not the result, in a way. How do those phrases and this dreamlike state all connect? I think the work is very much about memory and the deception and distortions of memory, the fallibility of human memory, and exploring our own past of course, but also the way photography solidifies around things that have happened in the past.
GP: This project seems to be quite personal to you both, but it’s almost as though you’re using the personal to allude to something much more universal…
OC: Our families [appear] in the work – Adam’s mother is there and my father crops up in one image where he’s holding a Hasselblad camera and taking a picture of himself in a mirror – so yes, our personal lives definitely leak in. That was quite fun for us because we’ve never really allowed that to happen in our work. Personal stuff has to remain outside our practice because it doesn’t really fit, but in this case we let those things in. These are images that refuse to disappear, in a sense. These are the images that haunt us and that we care about. It’s a very instinctive body of work, very fluid. Ultimately, there is a conceptual question in the work, which is to do with pushing back against the digital image and asking questions about what’s happened to the image in an age where images are essentially used as tools for corporations to do market research – the data shadow that hovers behind every image is more important than the image itself and the way these images circulate in our lives is quite worrying. So the work isn’t really about Adam and I, it is about photography, and that’s something we’ve always made work about.
A publication, fig-2: 50 Projects in 50 Weeks, is available from Black Dog Press
fig-futures exhibitions continue this month (November 2018) in The Gallery, Leicester and Karst, Plymouth in March, 2019. For more information please visit: fig2.co.uk