in conversation with
Elisa R. Linn
Elisa R. Linn – The first thing the viewer often notices upon encountering your work is a dramatic tension between floating objects that are captured in a seemingly neutral, uninvolved way, and a sort of magic that stems from the physical impossibility of the displayed narrative. Could one interpret this as an interrogation of photography’s historical and quasi-mythical “truth claim” and its function as a medium of representation?
Alwin Lay – Well, personally I totally believe in this old myth and I think for good reasons photography can hold this “claim of truth,” despite all the changes that it is going through. My work is concerned with a very active way of observing, so I also believe in its function as a representational medium. I’d like to look at my work more in terms of challenging common sense. You can look at reality in a very fictional way. Essentially, my work is all about how we look at things.
ERL – The arrangement of objects in your works bring up the idea of scenography, which is the organization of space for performance. What is the inspiration for your photographs, as well as in your video works?
AL – In general it is the same approach for both video and photographic works. Some photographic works were meant to be videos in the first place, and vice versa. I do quite a lot of snap shots and archive those. So some works have their origin in a specific detail that I observed somewhere. At the same time I am always collecting other footage. At the moment, for example, I’m working on a new artist book and for this project I’ve been collecting instruction manuals for large format photography.
ERL – Could you talk about the role of research in your work? Where does a project begin?
AL – It’s hard to say where something begins. It’s a lot like the question of which came first: the egg or the chicken? So I believe in an ongoing process in my artistic practice. I would not call it research, but I keep myself occupied with material that interests me, as well artist books, catalogs or reviews or simply the news but also very specific technical things for example.
ERL – Would it be fair to say that the viewer is somehow manipulated or tricked by your works? How important is revealing the fallacies in your work to the viewer?
AL – I would like to offer a specific view on a process or an object, so I see my work as an invitation to the viewer. Most of the time this specific view is not what you would expect and indeed I like the idea of artworks that challenge the viewer at some point. To the viewer every artwork has an entrance (when you see it the first time) and an exit (when you stop thinking about it). I try to offer a very hospitable entrance with my work and I would never try to kick somebody out.
ERL – Do you keep the work’s overall process of its genesis always in the dark?
AL – Yes.
ERL – Why have you chosen to portray mostly inanimate objects over human beings?
AL – Even when I did work with people in my images, they appear more like artificial additions or props than humans. Maybe I simply find it more interesting to speculate on what my toaster would do in the kitchen when I’m on holiday.
ERL – Why do some of the objects in your photographs look like they are installed in an exhibition environment or positioned on a pedestal?
AL – Martin Kippenberger once said, “Making exhibitions is the artist’s running gag.” For a lot of art, the environment where it is presented can be as important as the work itself. So it’s a good idea to be very clear with the context in which I see my works, and I decided to include parts of the environment in my works.
ERL – To what extent do your works have a sculptural quality? Does that result in treating the image as a compositional concept, or bringing up the preconditions of photography?
AL – I think that when you go back to the roots of almost anything, it is there that you find the most interesting things about it. And in my work photography is always there as a condition but not as a topic.
The relation between the image you are looking at and its referent is not based on the idea of indexicality, and the subjects in my works appear as objects. To me these objects become free in terms of their role in the “real world,” and working with objects in this way is in some ways similar to a sculptural approach.
ERL – When talking about your work, the metaphor of the “laboratory” comes up frequently (predominantly in video works). What does this term mean to you?
AL – In science, when you plan an experiment, you should first have a hypothesis. So you usually want to prove what you claimed in the first place. I also know my thesis upfront and then try to find a way to prove it visually. This process can be compared to the working conditions of a laboratory. Nonetheless, surprises are possible along the way.
ERL – In your video works, what meaning do repetition, looping, and the film still have for you? Can these elements be read as a gesture of preservation, or rather as one of resistance to historical documentation and archiving?
AL – A photograph represents a document attached to a specific moment in time that has passed, but photography is in itself a very fragile and ephemeral medium. When you work classically, photography is a physical object, but it can never last as long as a painting. On the other hand, a photo can be very immaterial when you look at it on your smart phone. In both cases, however, it has the advantage of being reproducible.
The form of presentation I choose puts my video works on the same level as my photographs. As I do not distinguish between photographs and videos, to me the video loop is about continuously showing new prints of the same photograph. The reproducibility of the photograph is what makes this medium timeless. I would like to look at the videos in the same way.
ERL – Are you interested in the material character of photography and on the other hand in its detachedness from a device, its immaterial circulation?
AL– The physical side of photographic tools and processes are both a source of inspiration and a material source for my work. On the other hand, I’m very interested in the immaterial side of photography, especially when it can work as a language. These days, I think photography is more an accelerator of communication than anything else. This idea has lead to many works in the form of postcards, posters, or artist books. But at the end art is about showing, and in an exhibition it comes down to a decision about a material, a form, or a device.
ERL – Can you describe your thinking or process behind the works you’ll be showing in New York, the video piece “avantgarde 40mm Germany,” and the photographic print, “Black Pine II”?
AL – Earlier, we spoke about origin myths and the question, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” The work “avantgarde 40mm Germany” is about the question, “what came first, the egg, or table tennis?” The photograph “Black Pine” was a starting point for many other works. Somehow, it has become my personal blockbuster. I thought that like with any blockbuster, there should be a “Part II.” Both works will be shown for the first time, so this is all I can say for now.