Anderson & Low / Voyages
May 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have been collaborating as Anderson & Low since 1990, and are known for bringing drama and mythic qualities to their wide-ranging work. Recurrent themes and concepts bring unity to their output as a whole, while stylistic shifts allow them the best expression for each new project.
Voyages, the latest project by Anderson & Low, is currently on show in the Media Space within the Science Museum, London. In this photographic series, Anderson & Low have dramatically reimagined the Science Museum’s collection of historical ship models. Below, Christiane Monarchi asked the duo about the background to this compelling series of photographic works.
CM: Encountering your atmospheric photographs in the Science Museum, the viewer is transported into a realm between vision and dream, looking at the images you’ve made with the museum’s collection of model ships. Could you tell us more about how you got involved in this project, and what your departure point was, for how you wanted to resolve these images visually?
A&L: We were exploring the gargantuan storage facility for the Science Museum when we came across the museum’s enormous collection of model ships. The models were all in crates, and the plastic covering the open sides and ends of the crates seemed to transform these models. When we saw them, we were immediately struck by something quite unexpectedly cinematic, heroic and mythic. Suddenly, we felt that we were looking at real ships at sea, on heroic quests and mythical journeys. We realised that the plastic had removed all sense of scale, and that these models now resembled real boats and ships. It was as though the plastic had re-focussed the models, revealing their souls instead of their structures. These romantic, painterly qualities felt inescapable.
We knew that we wanted to give full expression to these dramatic, previously-hidden voyages that were contained in these incredibly detailed ship models. We started to think about myths, legends and depictions of boats in all the arts: literature and music just as much as paintings. We felt that we were being whispered to by the ghosts of maritime history, and by countless artists who have been inspired by seascapes before us. So, in Voyages, one can hear as we have heard just as much as one can see as we have seen. There is some inherent sense of an artistic world that we all have come into contact with, a world that stretches back over 2000 years, and which depicts the relationship between humans and oceans and skies and the depths.
CM: Thinking about Voyages in the context of your previous practice, perhaps this is the first time you’ve worked with a set of objects in a collection? Certainly your treatment of this collection of ships sets it apart from documentation and into the realm of fantasy.
A&L: Actually this is not the first time that we have stepped into an alternative reality; that idea has run through many of our projects, and we use it to challenge the viewer’s “certainty” about what they are looking at, and about what a photograph “is supposed to be”. We did it with Chrysalis, Manga Dreams and On the Set of James Bond’s Spectre. We are also questioning the idea of what a photograph is “supposed to do” – where does reality end and where do the workings of the heart begin? And which of those is more truthful?
CM: Looking at these works, not photographed to scale, these ships often take on much larger haptic shape and seem to have been imbued with mystical properties, emerging through possible mist or fog into their own adventures. Where do these ideas come from?
A&L: Ideas of the heroic and the mythic present in Voyages occur in a lot of our work, for example series involving sport, as can be seen in Athletes, Gymnasts, Athlete/Warrior and ENDURE – An Intimate Journey with the Chinese Gymnasts, as well as in Manga Dreams. And there is a heroic look to much of our architectural imagery, whether it is of Battersea Power Station or the Spectre sets. So, with Voyages, we could see these beautiful, majestic journeys, filled with magic and fantasy, and at times with foreboding too. That was what we wanted to express.
The most amazing thing to us is this: that these inner passions and dramas were always there, inside these models, waiting to be found. We were simply the ones who discovered them, and who set these boats free to roam the seas and gave expression to their inner lives.
CM: Turning now to my physical encounter with the works in the Science Museum, the dark walls and extremely fine-tuned lighting heighten the theatricality of presentation, for me, almost as if in a hallowed sanctuary, or chapel. When I get close to a work, however, rather than delivering more detail, it appears to dissolve – as if these were watercolour works, or perhaps printed on a translucent surface. Could you tell us more about the physical creation of these images and your decisions in presentation of the prints?
A&L: The properties that you describe are inherent in the images themselves. But it is certainly true that we worked very hard on the final printing, in order to achieve full expression of each image’s essence, and to create this very painterly result.
We do also care a great deal about the presentation not only of an image but also a whole body of work. For Voyages, we did want to create an exhibition presentation that would allow the passion of these images to come alive. And we worked very closely with the fantastic design team at the Science Museum in order to achieve this.
There are also literary quotes on the walls of the exhibition. The quotes were very carefully chosen, to mirror our ideas and sentiments as we created this body of work. But these are all placed on the reverse walls, so that you only see them on your way out, giving the visitor something else to take away from the experience that was not immediately visible at first. Hopefully people will leave with the idea of looking at photography, and the world, in a different way.
We think that this has helped visitors feel a sense of mystery, that everything is not revealed at first sight. And that, of course, is exactly what we felt as we created these images: these really have been magical voyages.
Anderson & Low
Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have been collaborating as Anderson & Low since 1990, and are known for bringing drama and mythic qualities to their wide-ranging work. Recurrent themes and concepts bring unity to their output as a whole, while stylistic shifts allow them the best expression for each new project. They were official artists for the London 2012 Olympiad with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and more recently were invited to create an art project based around the James Bond film Spectre. They were commissioned to create images for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Voyages is the latest project by Anderson & Low to stretch the normal expectations of “what photography is supposed to do” but it is not the first work of the duo to do this:
Chrysalis, premiered in 2007 and widely collected by museums, is a radical artistic metamorphosis that created abstract, colour works derived from Anderson & Low’s earlier architectural works, now translated into radical new forms. Primarily instinctual and emotional, the images and ideas have still been honed, worked, re-worked and fashioned with a series of rational principles – yet for all this rigour they remain more instinctual than constructed. Referencing nature, mathematics, colour theory, world cultures, art history, modernism, literature, music, as well as their own previous work.
The project Manga Dreams (also widely collected by museums) was exhibited in the 2011 Venice Biennale and different countries. It is a ground-breaking body of work, drawn from contemporary youth culture, around the concepts of identity, culture, costume, perception and video that explores a hybrid art-form involving photography, graphics, digital painting and calligraphy. It pushes the limits of photographic portraiture and has been widely lauded for its originality, artistic content and execution.
Anderson & Low are the only people ever to be given unrestricted access to collaborate with the elite Chinese gymnasts and coaches training in Beijing. This resulted in the extraordinary project ENDURE – An Intimate Journey with the Chinese Gymnasts, released in 2012.
Their works reside in many public and private collections including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; National Portrait Galleries of both the UK and Australia; The National Gallery of Australia; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Baltimore Art Museum; Akron Museum, Ohio; the US Olympic Center; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, UK; the Southeast Photography Museum, Florida; Museet Fotokunst, Denmark.
Voyages, an exhibition of photographic works by Anderson & Low, is currently on show at the Science Museum, London until 30th July 2017. The publication Voyages accompanies this exhibition and is available in the Science Museum shop and online.