At times, photography can seem a bit claustrophobic. It’s a quick, two-dimensional medium that must stay with the confines of a documentable physical reality. At least, that was my occasional sentiment until I came across the work of Dutch photographer Katja Mater. Katja’s photographs are clever, poetic, and push the edge of what the medium is—one of documentation or one of creation. She works with the concepts of information, form, and how those two things manipulate and interact with each other, via the photographic medium. The following interview took place via email from March to July of this year. Katja’s work will be on display in Principle Matter, a solo exhibition at V&A New York, opening October 15. For more information, visit katjamater.nl.
1. A Medium with an Experimental Soul
This is That: Your work operates on many levels for me, and you capture the core intent when you say in your artist statement: "The work is about looking, seeing photography, and at the same time experiencing one’s own perception." Another phrase that caught my eye is this idea of your approach as "semi-science and romantic mathematics." It strikes me that you're taking photos about taking photos, a kind of meta-photography, that is—as you say—both rigid and dynamic. Can you talk a little about how such "science and math" informs your attempt to reveal something about photography itself? Why this approach?
Katja Mater: Photography absolutely amazes me in many ways; I feel inspired by the medium itself. My interests lay with photography as a medium with an experimental soul, the poetry of trying and failing and the magic of the medium itself. I feel the tendency to take it apart, like a little kid, that wants to see “what’s inside.” I am taken by the technical aspects being in an extreme contrast with the magic of the process. The fact that I was never schooled in photography enabled me to be inquisitive and explore photography from an informal angle without the confines of conventions. Of course, it is impossible to use a medium for four years intensively and not get a hang of it and understand its processes—I do now. But this start gave me a lot of freedom.
The work can be formal by subject and in the way I talk about the medium itself, but at the same time I talk about escaping and breaking this technical context: I aim to trick the camera into recording non-existing scenes, I try to capture phenomena, moments and things which you could consider impossible to be photographed. Creating more space to look at the medium, and focusing on photography as a creating medium more than as a documenting medium. Instead of looking through a photograph, this being a more or less transparent thing, I want to make my viewers look at photography.
TisT: I love your amazement with photography as a medium—the “magic” of it—and I think that this sentiment is very apparent in your work, and it ends up evoking a similar feeling in your viewer. For me, when I look at your photos, I am reminded of the idea that photography is a kind of freeing, expansive medium. It's funny—shortly after getting your reply, I read an article in Frieze with Shirana Shahbazi. The first line is a quote of hers, saying: "Photography is a simple, stupid medium." What's interesting to note is that her photos tend toward showcasing the limits, or blindness, of photography (she focuses on reproductions, banal images that seem like stock photos, etc.). She definitely shifts the perception toward the "stupidity" parts, for better or worse.
The connection I made here is that, even though your work is not necessarily overtly emotional or personal, it resonates with something very intimate and evocative of how you see the world. Your response to question one touches on this fascination you have with the medium, and how it gives you a certain freedom. Can you talk about how your series are manifested from this feeling? What is the process of your taking that magic and translating it into a two-dimensional photograph?
KM: It is a very interesting thing, the way photographers (and artists using photography) think and talk about their medium. I am very aware of the limits of photography and how they can be very problematic and narrowing. I think every photographer is—it might be part of the fascination. To me this is exactly what challenges me. By thinking, for example, about digital photography and how everything became possible, it moved toward painting. There are no limits, and if there are, it is a matter of time for them to be solved by computer technology. Analog photography has more clear rules; there is a given standard to work with that is not subject to change. This system to me functions as a grid in which I like to try to prove it wrong.
2. Bending the Grid of Photography
TisT: Tell me about the series Remission. How did it develop for you? One thing that sticks out for me is that you categorize this as a photographic series, even though they are photos of two-dimensional objects themselves. Going back to the first question a bit, how does the act of photographing something change or influence the subject itself? Is this something you like to play with?
KM: Remission, should actually have “work in progress” as a subtitle, as it is not a finished series. It is something I have been working on in between projects for the last few years. Whenever I need inspiration, I go to the main library in Amsterdam; where I spend my time going through science books. The Remission series are pages taken from these books where I pull the texts toward me, for example, in the image, ‘hey, help me to make a landscape photograph,’ I remission a text about something absolutely different to talk about photography again, either in a romantic or a technical way. How the act of photographing literally changes the subject makes me think of the series I am presently working on, called Burning with Desire, which is relevant to both Remission and your question. In this series I take a picture of the complete content of a book, shooting all pages on one negative. I show the entire content, and erase it again by doing so. A summary, ending up in a book-shaped blur. The books I use for this project are books that have been important to me in my thinking about photography.
TisT: The images from your new series strike me as really getting to this core question around photography as a medium that both reveals and obscures. You touch on it a bit in your response when you say: "I show the entire content and erase it again by doing so. A summary, ending up in a book-shaped blur." You play with this idea a lot, in series like My Portfolio, or The Dancers, where, by photographing certain subjects, you're actually making their content more ambiguous. Did you initially work with this, or did it surprise you, one day, that you were actually losing or changing the content of your subjects?
KM: It actually did surprise me. It is not something that I consider part of my initial intent but I think it is part of the bending of the grid of photography. While I try to put the recording of a frozen moment back in time, it is photography itself refusing to function like that, or at least failing in documenting. It is reminding me of its borders, but that’s exactly where I want to be.
3. Photography in Physical Space
TisT: I'm interested to know how you exhibit your work—the size, framing, etc. For me, the physical presence of the photographs plays a large part in what they ultimately convey. Does each series require something different for you, or do you showcase the work in the same manner?
KM: Ideally I want my work to relate in a physical way to the viewer. I want my audience while looking at my photographs and videos to become part of them, in the same way a person occupying a room becomes part of the scene. The sizes and presentation are different for each project, and within a series even for each image. I believe there is probably one best size for each image, it's sometimes a struggle to find it, but it's there.
Framing and presentation are totally depending on the content of the work. To give an example: the series "celebrating RGB colour space," where all images have different sizes and are quite small, averaging 40 cm x 50 cm, are framed in dark wooden frames without glass. Because this series is referring in a way to colour theory almost explaining how things are, it could be that I found it fitting to present them in a classic, conventional museum display style. The series The Dancers I printed big, 130 cm x 105 cm, and mounted on MDF; they are hanging so that people can relate to them. Even though they are smaller than for example I am, they have a human size to them as if one can step inside.
TisT: I'd like to know a bit about where your inspiration comes from, and where your interests lie (both in photography and non-photography fields). What are you reading? What artists catch your attention? Etc.
KM: My inspiration comes from various sources; libraries are good places to find inspiration. Art museums, science museums, and natural history museums have the same inspiring effects. In the Netherlands, my favorite museum is the Teylers Museum. It is the oldest museum in the Netherlands, open to the public since 1784. The museum has an amazingly beautiful oval room, presenting a very large collection of fossils, minerals, and 18th-century scientific instruments.
During my stay in Los Angeles I fell absolutely in love with the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is more a work of art in itself than a museum. I suppose you will know the museum, so you will understand why. I had read the book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder about eight years ago, and I have always been wanting to come over to see this museum, and so I did on occasion of my 28th birthday last year. It is absolutely amazing!
I get inspired by the work of artists, for example, like David Claerbout, John Divola, and some of the work by Johnathan Monk, and Hans-Peter Feldmann. I remember the first time I saw work by Hans-Peter Feldmann—a series of pictures of car radios "while good music is playing." I was SO taken by them. To discover his work has meant a great deal to me. And of course I get inspired by a variety of web blogs, like yours, and just browsing the internet.
4. Making Art with a Clock
TisT: You touched briefly on the new possibilities that have been provoked by digital photography. Though this may seem like asking a bit much of you, I'd like to know your thoughts on where you think photography is headed in the future. How has the presence of digital opportunity and technology changed things? Where do you want it to go?
KM: More than other mediums, photography is very technical, Photographers, filmmakers, and video artists are therefore closely connected to technology. It is interesting how we make ourselves dependent on such a complicated piece of equipment, as if you make art with a clock. As opposed to painters, who in theory can produce all their own materials, photographers have to depend on an extremely technically advanced industry that is responsible for maintaining all technical aspects of the medium. And it is only recently that digital photography has come of age!
At this point working with digital photography does not particularly interest me. Most of my subject matter is based on the analog processes in a self-reflecting way. I find there is something magical about analog photography, something I don't find in pixels. But I don't exclude digital photography for the future.
TisT: I like what you've said about being challenged by the boundaries of photography, that because it is so rigid in a way it becomes that much more flexible. Can you talk a bit about where your work is headed? Aside from the new series you sent, where do you see your images going?
KM: I want to create work that will extend beyond the flat surface of the image.
Recently I have become interested in perception as part of my subject matter. At this moment I am planning to realize a research project on the phenomenon of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurologically based condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. The senses are cross-wired: sight may mingle with sound, taste with touch, etc. There are synesthetic persons who experience pain in colors, who hear odors, hear tastes, and taste sounds, persons who feel sounds on their skin, hear images, and taste images. This phenomenon is an abstract and mind-blowing idea for non-synesthetic persons. The idea to do work on that phenomenon is challenging me.
I feel my work is successful when it manages to exceed the medium and at the same time concerns the medium. Therefore perhaps it is better to say that my work should reach a point of being “extra medial,” where within the boundaries of the medium there occurs something new and unexpected. I hope I can keep up this experimental attitude.
I'd like to thank Katja Mater for her generosity in participating in this interview. All images courtesy Katja Mater. For more information about Katja's work, go to katjamater.nl.