Texts (selection)

 

 

An Abundance of Caution

Sonja Braas

 

We live in an age of fear as a culturally conditioned habit - the tendency to consider practically all phenomena from a perspective of fear. Dangers appear to threaten us everywhere: in dark streets and inside our homes, with strangers and with those closest to us, in nature as well as in technology, inside our bodies as well as in external forces and through the unknown. There no longer seems to be anything that is really secure. In fear we are met by something outside ourselves, and what we meet is a negation of what we want. We fear the important things in life being destroyed or taken away from us, such as our freedom, dignity, health, social status and – taken to its extreme – our lives. We fear not only for ourselves but also for others.

A paradoxical trait of the culture of fear is that constant exposure to headlines proclaiming the dangers of modern life, ranging from crime to natural disasters, terrorism to disease and accidents, increases individuals’ concern over risks, even as the actual danger has fallen. All statistics indicate that at least in the developed world we are living in the most secure societies that have ever existed, where the dangers are fewer and our chance of dealing with them successfully greater than ever before.

A highly protected life allows us the time to fear all the potential dangers that may strike us, fear is something we all share, a unifying perspective on existence. Our fear, to an ever decreasing extent based on our own experiences, but rather on the visual and verbal depiction of dangers, becomes dysfunctional as disparity widens between fear and its object. It has become a culturally determined magnifying glass through which we consider the world, risks lurk around every corner that need to be eliminated with an abundance of caution. Politicians use fear as a tool for control, allowing unquestioned erosion of human rights, while scare-mongering media pander to their unscrupulousness, corrupting our understanding with sensationalized half-truths and by presenting potential dangers as if they were actual dangers. Fear is favored over genuine thinking, it has insinuated itself into every aspect of modern life.

An Abundance of Caution deals with this colonization of our lives by fear and the resulting sense of impending doom, the low-intensity fear that surrounds us, shapes our space of action and forms a backdrop of our experiences and interpretations.

The images suggest danger to various degrees; at times the danger is implied merely within the context of the other pieces or exists solely in the viewer's perception, based on the individual experiences. Containers, a pool or a hut are mundane objects that only become threatening when perceived in the context of visual memories provided by sources such as TV, social media or movies. Depending on the kind and level of visual exposure the pool might stand for accident, death or even murder; the hut might become a hideout and the containers a symbol for terrorism or the perceived uncontrolled influx of the “Other”. Or they remain the objects that are depicted. The series consists of images that are built as sets, staged or real to create a reduction of narrative details and thus a level of abstraction in the images that allows for either reading and a going back and forth between both perceptions.

 

 

 

 

The Beauty of Disaster

Stephan Berg, Kunstmuseum Bonn

Essay published in Sonja Braas So Far, Hatje Cantz (2013)

 

One need only look at a postcard of the Matterhorn to understand how artificial our relationship to nature is. On a postcard, the Matterhorn looks more perfect than it ever could in reality. This is not only true of the sky—which is, of course, always a deep blue—but it also applies to the shape of the mountain and its ideally positioned, sharp-edged silhouette. In a photograph, the Matterhorn poses for a camera that doesn’t merely reproduce it but recreates it in the form of an entirely new image—regardless of whether the resulting picture is analog or digital. We have long been aware that the image on a postcard has an especially tense relationship to the reality it seems to represent. The postcard’s image, more than any other kind of photograph, does not promise a mere reproduction of reality; it is, rather, an adjustment of reality the aim of which is to filter out every bothersome detail of the real situation until all that is left is whatever functions as an image of desire or longing. Interestingly enough, though, this knowledge does not hinder us from being disappointed every time the real view of the Matterhorn does not correspond to its idealized, photographic construct.

As far as perception theory is concerned (and referring once more to our relationship to nature), this means that nature, beyond its inarguable ontological existence, is understood primarily through its transformation into an aesthetic image. When we are out in nature we equate what we see with an endless stream of images of nature, images overlaid onto the experience itself, filling it with the suggestive power of the staged image. This was already true of seventeenth-century landscape painting, which emerged, first in France and then in the Netherlands, from behind the shadow of historical painting—then considered the supreme discipline—to later blossom fully in the nineteenth century. Here it is not only clear that painting has always presented nature as mediated and excerpted, but also that an artificial image of nature takes on, in a certain way, the task of constituting nature itself.

In this context, idealized natural idylls by Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorrain, for instance, become a blueprint for an understanding of nature no longer perceived in its original state but instead as a transfigured image of real nature. Thus, the English aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries went on Grand Tours through Italy with small, colored mirrors, so-called Claude glasses, which made the landscape look like it did in the paintings of Claude Lorrain. This certainly lends weight to the theory first consistently formulated by Joachim Ritter, a theory that maintains that the artistic perception of nature requires it to be transformed into a distant, aesthetic image.1 From that point on, it was understood to be primarily the image of nature, not nature itself, which determined its perception.

This is the context in which to consider the work of New York-based artist Sonja Braas. In the three large bodies of works she has produced to date, she has focused both on a way of dealing with nature that has always been culturally codified and on the effect this has had upon the visual representation of nature. The series You Are Here (1998–2000) combines photographs of real landscapes with images of artificial zoo landscapes and dioramas in natural history museums to create an idiosyncratic, changing atmosphere that fluctuates between the real and the theatrical. Braas works in strict analog, without any sort of digital intervention—a process that, interestingly enough, heightens the simultaneously real and unreal sense that the paintings are floating. Here, everything infects and infiltrates everything else. Under the light of the painted, constructed sets that form the dioramas and zoological landscapes, real nature looks oddly pallid and fake, while the artificial landscapes seem strangely familiar and believable. This is, in part, because the nature depicted in the constructed, painted scenes of the dioramas also blends imitations of real landscapes and invented elements. Like a Russian nesting doll containing increasingly smaller versions of itself, Braas’s series You Are Here conjugates the artificial natural quality of its scenes, through all levels, in a virtuosic manner.

Forces (2001–03) remains faithful to this main theme, but, as the title indicates, it directs more attention to the elementary forces of nature and hence to the natural zones antagonistically opposed by the human world. Once again Braas relies on a combination of photographs of real nature and constructed images of nature, which she has created this time in the form of large, handmade models. The result is an exciting obstacle course through icy, foggy, high mountain regions; thundering avalanches; vistas of white voids; and tempestuous waves crashing against jagged, dark cliffs. Each photograph is planned as a single image and, at the same time, has a place within the orderly context of the series. The thirty-three photographs that make up this series depict—without the assistance of any sort of narrative components—nature, in its elementary forms of water, earth, and air, as a kind of hostile rampage against mankind. With these pictures Braas alludes directly to Edmund Burke (1729–97) and his theory of the sublime. In Burke’s philosophy, the actual terror, which lies in the knowledge that nature is hostile to man and impossible to live in, is transformed into an enjoyable image of sublimity and, thereby, exiled to the living room. Keeping this in mind, one could say that those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings, with their remote, icy mountain peaks and thundering waterfalls, were distant predecessors of today’s disaster films, which also combine shock and terror with aesthetic relief. In this way, the sublime becomes part of an aesthetic strategy of appropriation that takes any sort of real nature experienced as inhospitable and hostile to humans and hypostatizes it as an image. As the philosopher Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann put it: “Only the image of nature perceived through the senses can be called beautiful; the reality of it cannot.”2

In contrast to the sublime images of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscapes, however, Forces argues from a perspective, an angle, which seems to literally draw the viewer into the image while at the same time keeping him at bay. The Romantic image of nature operates through a dialectic between near and far, assigning a location to the viewer—generally represented by a figure in the painting—from whence the sublime terror of the icy heights can be perceived and enjoyed from a suitable distance. Braas refuses the viewer any sort of fixed location. The only protagonist in the field of view is the camera, an incorporeal figure apparently immersed in events, moving through thundering avalanches and circling above mountain peaks shrouded in fog. The constant fluctuation between extreme close-up and relative distance reinforces the dizzying sense of placelessness that distinguishes all of the photographs in this series. In the same breath, the pictures also display the media theory at their core: these sites, as the entire series makes clear, are created solely for the camera; they only exist as images—and this is true regardless of whether the photos are of real places or of elaborately constructed models, of which, in the end, only a picture remains.

In the series The Quiet of Dissolution (2004–10) the view of nature is dramatized once again. Forces depicted the forces of nature in their elementary self-referentiality: hostile to man, but nevertheless completely natural. By contrast, The Quiet of Dissolution presents nature as exaggeratedly catastrophic: as red, glowing streams of lava, as a disastrous conflagration endangering a large city, as a landslide, a meteorite storm, or a tornado. However, this perception of disaster is created only because we—guided by the artist’s presentation—perceive everything that occurs in these staggering images from our own perspective and therefore see them as a threat to our human environment. Structurally speaking, the natural disaster is the experience that most clearly demonstrates the limitations of human plans and actions. It is the onset of the uncontrollable in a world where all strategies aim to put a halt to any sort of remaining risk. At the same time, this kind of disaster, like the rapidly increasing number of tsunamis and sandstorms, shows us the direct, ever-more-serious consequences of our irresponsible treatment of nature and its resources. Seen in this way, our attempts to get nature under complete control are precisely what unleash its untamable forces.

Among other things, The Quiet of Dissolution plays with this ambivalent view of nature: on the one hand, opportunities to have a pure experience of nature are increasingly disappearing from our actual lives, in the wake of human attempts to totally domesticate and economize it. On the other hand, this disappearance of nature reanimates it, in a certain way, but in a form that is increasingly destructive. And, at the same time, the series reflects the main mode in which everyone, except for those affected, perceives these catastrophes: as media images that immediately transform the incommensurable uniqueness of each disaster into endlessly repeatable loops of visuals. This is exactly the same way in which we perceive Braas’s photographic works: as part of an endless output of media images, into which is inscribed a certain sense of distance, yet which always seem vaguely familiar.

For The Quiet of Dissolution, Braas reinforces this dialectic by dispensing with the previous principle—her mix of reality and models—and basing all of her photographs on large, self-made models. This is consequential, because it makes obvious a fundamental paradox in the way that we deal with images of nature: depriving nature of its reality, in order to turn it into an image of nature whose staged artificiality appears more convincing, more virulent than real nature. In addition, the models allow the artist the opportunity to present her catastrophes precisely, with a perverse beauty that belongs to the essence of every popularly mediated disaster. Seen from the safe distance of a photograph, the terror is not only manageable but it is also even beautiful, in a certain way, because the viewer feels relieved not to have been affected himself. This apparently paradoxical correlation is already prefigured in the notion of the sublime, the experience of which is considered a connection between the contradictory feelings engendered by beauty and terror. Undoubtedly the series Forces and The Quiet of Dissolution play with the emotional formula of the sublime, not only due to their size, but also because of the way the images are set up, relying, as they do, on the fact that the events are visually overwhelming and immediately powerful.

It is important that in both series the artist clearly makes intentional additions of small, disturbing elements that make it possible to figure out that they involve models. Accordingly, Braas’s pictures are not about deception, but about un-deceiving, about making it possible to see the constant behind perceptual theory—that we ourselves (want) to believe the images when we actually know that they are lying. This is also why the artist presents her investigations of the status of nature in images in the form of large photographs (even though, structurally speaking, they also participate in the fields of sculpture and painting), because, regardless of our knowledge about the untruthfulness of the medium, we are only too glad to pursue its original promise of sober, documentary-style faithfulness to reality. With her construction of worlds that oscillate between being realistically overwhelming and revealing of their artificiality, the artist also moves a bit toward the baroque idea of the world theater. As in world theater, the world in her photos is transformed into a stage behind whose elaborately produced, luminous stage magic we no longer find any authentic, non-circumnavigable substrate but, quite simply, more constructs.

In The Quiet of Dissolution, artificial models of settings create a convincing image of nature that no longer functions as an Arcadian, paradisiacal alternative image to an increasingly self-consuming, civil alienation, but as a consequential extension of it. In the suggestive models, culture and nature do not appear as opposites, but as two sides of the same coin. Just as the catastrophic in nature is, in reality, the result of a civilizing perspective and treatment of it, the natural itself only appears to be visible in the visual surrogates of it that we create.

Notes

1. Joachim Ritter, “Landschaft. Zur Funktion des Ästhetischen in der modernen Gesellschaft,” in Subjektivität, Ritter, ed., (Frankfurt am Main, 1989), pp. 143–63.

2. Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann, Die Philosophie des Schönen (Berlin, 1924), pp. 479–80.

 

 

 

Elements of a Vision

Diana Edkins

Essay published in Sonja Braas So Far, Hatje Cantz (2013)

Sonja Braas’s photographs transport viewers into ambiguous, evocative, surreal environments. Landscape and nature—wild, tamed, or manufactured—are Braas’s prime subjects, approached in viscerally charged pictures that depict nature as it unfurls in abstracted and, at times, chaotic splendor. So Far is a chronicle of her career, highlighting her series You are Here, 1998–2000; Forces, 2000–03; The Quiet of Dissolution, 2004–10; and Passage, 2009–12.

Central to Braas’s work is the artist’s self-described interest in “the genesis of perception, its causes and consequences, particularly in the definition of self and other.” She is interested in subtle changes of perception, whether naturally or artificially induced, and, most importantly, in the role that images, and particularly photographs, play. Few artists have been able to capture landscapes with the same elegance, force, precision, and sense of abandonment and create astounding reproductions of untamable, unpredictable, and, therefore, unknowable nature. Braas sees with the eye of a photographer, a sculptor, a painter, an architect, a philosopher.

Most photographs deal with meanings either somehow intrinsic to their subject matter or at least firmly attached to it by association or tradition. Braas’s work deliberately challenges an old understanding of photography as a recorder of reality or impartial witness. From the moment of its invention almost 175 years ago, photography has proven adept at depicting the solid, the concrete. Some examples are Boulevard du Temple, 1838, an ordinary street corner in Paris, one of the first daguerreotypes by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre; the iconic Torn Movie Poster, 1931, by Walker Evans, revealing layers of movies gone by; and William Eggleston’s landmark color photograph, The Red Ceiling (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973), with its iconic bare lightbulb. Such things are the very stuff of photography and the desire to hold on to them is the same impulse that led to the birth of the medium itself. But another tradition exists, a parallel history in which artists have attempted to describe by photographic means that which is not so readily seen: thought, time, ghosts, God, dreams—forces beyond our control.

Roland Barthes understood photography as a medium that not only captures reality but is also characterized by an implicit tension: “The image is not the reality, but at least it is its perfect analogon and it is exactly this analogical perfection, which, to common sense, defines the photograph.” For Barthes, the perfect replication of events leads to a particular kind of madness, described in Camera Lucida, “here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries, but with the Photograph my certainty is immediate, no one in the world can undeceive me. The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination, false on the level of perception, true on the level of time, a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest share of hallucination, a mad image, chafed by reality.” It is this feeling of uneasiness, this tension, that leads us to a new understanding of photography, something at the heart of Braas’s stunning explorations. She creates images that call into question the very “thereness” of things.

Braas, born and brought up in Germany, became interested in art through the influence of her father, an abstract painter, and her home environment. When she and her sister were very young their father involved them in his painting process. He would ask the girls’s opinions—what did they like, or think—and would even use some of their color choices in his work. The family went to museums frequently and always had art books around the house. Braas says, “I wanted to be an artist as long as I can remember.”

A long generation ago, photographers still worked underneath great black focusing cloths, cloths that hid not only their faces but also, it seemed, their magic secrets. They smelled of hypo, and had fingernails black to the cuticle, and were surrounded with an aura of esoteric alchemy. But despite this material mystique, the basic techniques of photography were never terribly difficult and they have now, with the advent of so many new technologies, become very easy. Like belles lettres in a land of universal literacy, the art of picture-making is now open to anyone. It is quite simple to make pictures that are as intelligent, cultivated, and original as the person who makes them—who remains, of course, the most interesting and dependable link in the system. Braas deliberately makes the process much more complicated. She is invested in the notion of craft not in itself but strictly for the purpose of achieving the results desired. The quality of her concept and a characteristic, careful honing of each project and each piece within each project is, in this sense, anachronistic. She uses medium-format and, recently, large-format cameras in order to capture each detail and express the nuance of her constructions.

Yesterday’s vision of the world was far more local, far slower. One assumed that the achievement of true quality, as it pertained to a particular thing, required an informed process. There was a fundamentally different respect for time simply because we related it to the accumulation of knowledge and experience. Then, more time was invested toward analysis: the management of facts, both material and spiritual. More often, and maybe more importantly, critical thinking was a process—one that always led to more experimentation. Generally speaking, it was a world where the destination was presumed to be a vital expression of the journey.

Braas has pursued her work with an acute intelligence and deliberately chose to work with traditional analog photography. Everything is done, composed, and considered before the exposure is made. Braas works with the assumption that a photograph is inherently truthful. Such a belief, such a method, takes a great deal of time and effort and often at a great expense. Braas focuses on scene setting and directing to meticulously construct her environments. She builds her own sets and places lighting as would a stage director, in order to produce a negative so clean and preconceived as to avoid any retouching. This kind of precision requires a very high level of expertise and becomes the basis for the assumption that the “imagined” image can be created masterfully through a rigorous commitment to the entire process and circumstance. Photography is also used for the way it “gets in there” and participates in daily life, unfolding, close to it in its messy truth, exposed and vulnerable. It is not virtual in any sense. On the contrary, it is more real than reality.

Braas’s series You are Here (1998–2000) comprises images of the “manufactured” landscapes of zoological gardens and museum dioramas interspersed with photographs made of “real” landscapes. The series was triggered by time spent in Central American rain forests. Braas says:

I went with a clear set of expectations I wasn’t aware of and soon found myself slightly disappointed. The forest was not as dense, dark, and populated by animals as I had come to expect based on the information I had gathered before the trip. I only realized this clash when, watching a couple of macaws fly by, I caught myself thinking “who let them out of the cage?” Even though this moment lasted only a split second, it made me aware of how important and influential images and information were in forming my reception of a real, experienced place. I became very interested in the idea of the original and the copy and the fact that one first experiences the copy in the form of pictures, film and exhibitions, before experiencing “the original.” I considered the effect that this has on our perception, on how we have clear visions of what to expect from a place before we ever go there and how we then try to find exactly that…I wanted to recreate this experience in You are Here by placing fake landscapes alongside real ones. I wanted the fake landscapes to express different levels of artificiality, so I photographed in zoos and botanical gardens—spaces with real plants and birds living in man-made environments—as well as in the completely artificial worlds of museum dioramas….I needed the dioramas; I wanted to stretch the artificiality as far as possible and still have the viewer believe it at first.

The images in this series are, as Braas observes, “windows…I wanted the viewer to still be aware of it as a picture.” At first glance, these are photographs of simple things, images of lush landscapes sometimes filled with wildlife and other times, just landscapes. But they are not so simple. She says of the dioramas, “I wanted to stretch the artificiality as far as possible and still have the viewer believe it at first. That is also why I never shot larger animals than small birds—it would immediately destroy the suspense of disbelief. I wanted it to be a slow process, that then leads to the distrust of the ‘real’ images as well.”

Braas’s process of constructing sets started to play a more significant role with the series Forces (2000–03). She says,

Once I have established the concept, I make sketches of all the images, composing a kind of storyboard before I start with the first piece. This is necessary, as the series as a whole is as important as every single image. I want to avoid repetitions in form and content. In each series I then approach the image trying to figure out what materials I will use and how to technically achieve the image envisioned. During the process of building the set the image continues to change from the original sketch. Sometimes chance plays a role and I end up with something quite different than originally planned…It usually takes three to six months, sometimes longer, to finish an image. The entire process is analog—not only because of its formal qualities but also because, as in film, the creation of suspension of disbelief is critical. To attract and seduce a viewer into wanting to believe the image and then to eventually turn it around and create doubt makes it necessary to play with the inherent belief in the truth of the analog medium. It becomes necessary to keep some of the imperfections that suggest authenticity as opposed to creating sleek, perfect, and detached images. Once I finish the image, the model is destroyed, and the final result is the photograph.

Forces is composed of photographs taken in nature as well as of constructed sets. The works are much bigger in size than those that make up You are Here and “thus are perceived in a much more immediate way, less like pictures, more like something actually happening in front of you.” After becoming emotionally involved in the large, dramatic images and wanting to believe them, the viewer slowly finds that what he sees is not based on expected reality, as the models are built in a way that makes exactly this kind of realization possible. Devoid of human figures, these constructions invite viewers to project into and inhabit these new spaces. Many meanings are attached to these ice formations, for example, meaning having to do not only with geography but also with beauty, dream state, meditation, isolation, and loneliness. Most pictures of glaciers or ice formations touch on such generic and inherited meanings as grandeur, the awesome, nature at its most pure. This series points to a state of mind, or instincts, or the emotional life of the viewer, as much as it describes an object or a site. Here Braas seeks to trigger an emotional response to her natural world. The viewer is suspended in a half-recognized, half-truth that appears to hold the contour of truth—not a common truth, but a truth specific to the shape of the particular moment crafted by the artist—until some complete realization sets in and doubt in the source of the images and in the images themselves, independently from their origin, descends. It is this seduction, achieved through the beauty and drama of the images, which causes real emotional involvement. It is this “doubt” that leads to a detachment enabling a more intellectual and analytical approach.

The Quiet of Dissolution series (2004–10) addresses the representation of natural catastrophes through media that use nature as a stage for dramatic effects. Everything in these pictures—the cityscape with its myriad of lights, fiery rivers in the lava flow, the whirlwind of the tornado’s enormous force and magnitude—is not only seen but are also so vivid one can feel their mightiness. Here, each work is carefully mapped and painstakingly built. This series deals with the ambivalence inherent to the understanding and perception of nature in the highly charged form of the “natural catastrophe.” Braas says “an irrational romantic perception of nature takes place; that of a raging, avenging being that strikes back, as an opponent, who needs to be restrained.” This perception is at the center of the work. Alfred Stieglitz was perhaps the first to really insist that a photograph could have several meanings when he called his late photographs of clouds and other common subjects “equivalents,” suggesting that they held optional, equal, alternative meanings. It is clear that we are being shown a true and terrifying fact of nature: the irreversible and unrecognizable conflict that shapes the surface of the world. Mystification is reconstructed and broken down.

In general, photography has not been especially generous to those possessed by the romantic imagination. The romantic temperament is distinguished by its haste to find universal meanings in specific fact. Braas’s photographs speak of the beauty and uselessness of the quest for the sublime and the extremes between meditation and incredible formal control. In the image Tornado, for example, Braas achieves a paradox—a large-scale act becomes treacherous through its sheer physicality. One feels both utterly helpless and totally immersed in emotional sensation until the size of the image allows the discovery of details that betray it is not based on reality.

You are Here, Forces, and The Quiet of Dissolution form a trilogy. The Passage (2009–12) grew out of those previous works yet goes in a different direction as, Braas says, “nature is completely reduced to being the stage for a fictitious journey through fictitious time and space,” completely free of the presence of the mundane world, yet leaving a souvenir of time. The elements are minimal; the sense of time is fluid; and it is only the technology of photography that fixes these images in time. Their emptiness threatens to dissolve the psychological and cultural compass points by which we navigate. These photographs have gravity and a weight absolutely free of irony. Mutability, evanescence, and infinitesimal changes of appearances challenge us to capture something of the flow and passage of time. These are explorations of time and physical boundaries as much as an exploration of the phenomenology of the picture plane. While the images seemingly follow a linear time model, they, in fact, represent not only the moment depicted but also, through the suggested chronological succession and the “authenticity” the medium of photography implies, the duration and distance between them. This series has no discernible beginning and end and thereby lies a potential suspension of the perception of “time.” The Passage does not try to document linear time flow as, for example, Eadweard Muybridge or Dr. Harold Edgerton attempted in their serial photography, but rather to approach time that is dependent on the viewer and his frame of reference, something subjective. Braas says “assuredness in defining a position in time and space is replaced by assumption and interpretation. Through the gradual realization that the images do not meet the expectation of authenticity or one of a chronological flow, space and time become abstraction, pure illusions, that are no longer independent from the viewer but on the contrary completely based on the viewer’s perception and entirely defined by him.”

Ultimately, Sonja Braas’s work expresses the way images redefine the way we perceive the world, alerting us that every assumption regarding the world we live in needs to be reexamined, recontextualized.

 

 

 

 

The Passage

Sonja Braas

 

The series The Passage suggests a journey through a minimalist landscape reminiscent of the polar regions. Fifty two images that each imply a weekly photograph create the time frame of a year as in a time-lapse. It is however a journey through fictitious space and time, neither the landscape nor movement or time exist in the suggested form. All images are based on analog sets, that through a reduction in detail and color as well as the denial of spatial orientation, stress not narration but the abstract correlation and experience of space and time, and that of change and movement as representations of the passing of time. Movement connects space and time, space becomes the geographical location of temporal passage.

The chronological succession is implied by the continuously changing sky and the change of source and intensity of the light: a temporary, “seasonal”, gradual darkening from nearly blinding daylight to almost absolute darkness, that only the light of the moon and the stars interrupts. Changes in the landscape lead to the perception of movement. It is not a directed movement: the last image connects to the first, perhaps one arrives at the same location the journey had begun. The implication is that of a loop – the journey might not begin or end but repeat itself.

The images represent not only the depicted moment but also, through the suggested chronological succession and the authenticity the medium photography implies, the duration and distance between them. In the exchangeability of beginning and end point and the absence of causal correlation lies the potential suspension of a linear perception of time. The serial depiction of frozen moments allows the viewer the simultaneous gaze into past, present and future. The viewer defines the direction of movement and thus frame and direction of time. „The Passage“ aims to approach time that is dependent on the viewer, as a subjective dimension. Through the gradual realization, that the images do not meet the expectation of authenticity and the resulting dissolution of the illusion of a chronological flow, assuredness in defining a position in time and space is replaced by assumption and interpretation. space and time become abstractions that are no longer independent from the viewer, but are on the contrary completely based on the viewer's perception.

 

 

 

 

The Quiet of Dissolution

Sonja Braas

 

The general interest in nature is focused on a greater efficiency in its utilization and control. This perception of nature as a controllable entity leads to an increase of human influence to the point where control achieves the opposite -, the partial or complete loss of control, disaster.
The fascination evoked by disaster is proportional to the damage caused, and is indicative for the way we perceive nature, ourselves and the place of science, about what both excites and horrifies us.
Every society puts up clear boundaries, borders or categorization to define itself: to define and separate the normal from the abnormal, edible from inedible, clean from dirty. We are alternatively fascinated, horrified or excited by the breakdown of these borders and their inherent structure and security and by the possibility of contact with what is "other", with what is on the other side of our orderly world and out of our control. Overall, culture becomes in many ways a symbol of control over nature - nature becomes its Other, against which society, technology and science are to protect us.
The transition of the perception and reverence of nature as a sublime power to a feared, since destructive one is subjective and dependent on whether it is based on a voluntary and temporary experience as with disaster tourists or television viewers or an exposure that is forced as well as unpredictable in its duration and consequence, as is the case for the victims of such disasters.
Unless directly affected one becomes a detached spectator, enjoying the fascination of nature’s spectacle and the shudder created by, for example the repeated presentation of a seemingly all-devouring wave. Media serve this large fascination for earthquakes, fire, floods and storms; natural catastrophes and their consequences turn into entertainment in films and television. The suggestion of omnipresence inherent in all media coverage, demands ways to depict the elusive, unforeseen catastrophe, which by its nature is unpredictable and thus leads to the reoccurring absence of media at the moment of disaster. Authenticity which is subsequently also missing from the coverage is pretended through the constant and repetitive use of amateur footage or sometimes by a complete lack of descriptive imagery as in the case of earthquakes, when the recording of the jerky movement of surveillance cameras are meant to document the event. These images do not really serve as information, they are too limited temporally and locally, but evoke emotions that range from voyeuristic horror to deep felt solidarity with the victims of these disasters. They allow for dramatic scenes of human courage against the backdrop of cataclysmic destruction by earthquakes, tornadoes and floods, the confirmation of the final victory of man over nature, culture over chaos. Just as fast and intensively as the coverage begins it ends, until the next time.

 

 

 

 

Forces

Doubt as Option

Thomas Seelig, Fotomuseum Winterthur

Essay published in Sonja Braas Forces, Kerber (2005)

 

FORCES. Roaring water envelop a boulder.

Ice floes collide against each other. A shimmering expanse of drifting ice, dirty and gray. Fog, stone, and ice obstruct the horizon. Cloudy structures are passing by. Cold ice. Rubble is coming off. Fog shrouds a mountain. A massive rock expects the approaching darkness. A gigantic monolith in the twilight. Dirty traces run through the valley. A glacier is breaking apart. Cold air above eternal ice. Rocks are falling off the mountains. Plants resist the cold. The mountain is quiet. Snow is piling up. Passes and mountain peaks are blurred by the snow. An avalanche goes down. Dark fog is creeping down the valley. Snow and stone, stone and snow. Furrows inscribed on a glacier. The wind is creating fine lines. Dusk takes over from the day.

FORCES, the title of Sonja Braas' latest group of works, describes primeval forces and outlines an elementary approach to nature. Something unique and violent reverberates throughout these representations with their serene sublimity and an aura that seemingly could not be have been created by human beings. The FORCES are not humbly understated. No, they are brimming with spontaneity and energy, and overwhelm the viewer with their sheer physical presence. Raw and unbridled, they approach us and develop the acuity of their content only slowly and subliminally in the subconscious of the viewer. It starts to unfold when the elements of nature become "Nature" in the perception of the photographer and the viewer, a constructed form, a representation of nature.

The FORCES are sublime. Encased in heavy wooden frames, they face the viewer with their imposing pictorial plane. Some of the motifs appear abstract at first, yet they are sketched out in minute detail. Boulders and rocks are enveloped by water in the different aggregate states, like spray and mist, frozen or condensed. The different elements become one harmonized surface, even if the forces of nature represented in the photographs repel each other and stand in an elementary opposition.

The square rock insistently resisting the roaring water, which has probably already engulfed him for centuries, in FORCES # 01 (page 15) is exemplary. Only two decades after the invention of photography, around 150 years ago, Gustave Le Gray represented a similar scenario in his famous photograph "The Great Wave, Sète" from 1856/59. Le Gray captured the decisive moment when an enormous wave burst against the rocky beach of Sète. In the 19th century, a great technical knowledge was required to create such an image as the contrast of the sky and the darker water had to be balanced. Le Gray resorted to a simple, but decisive manipulation by combining two negatives in a single albumin print.

Braas established another correspondence to famous images of art history in the cloud-covered sky in FORCES # 13 (page 21), reminiscent, for instance, of John Constable's "Dark Cloud Study" (1821). Paul Graham used a similar motif in his project "Cease Fire" (1994), when he took pictures of the sky above Northern Ireland during the numerous cease-fires in the mid-1990s. And yet each of the three artists had something different in mind: John Constable achieved the formal reduction of a dramatic cloudy sky to a small, barely letter-size canvas; Paul Graham commented on the political stalemate in Ireland with his "figures of thought;" whereas Sonja Braas' FORCES are pointing to a state of mind, or instincts, or the emotional life of the viewer.

Starting out from a documentary tradition, Sonja Braas has already used the transitory qualities of the medium for a number of years and soon realized that every image is basically a construction and accordingly connotated. The very title of the series "you are here", the precursor of FORCES, outlines the ambivalent attitude of the artist who refuses to determine her photographic point of view. In this series, too, different levels of reality found their common denominator. Photographs of a museum of natural history, for instance, in which she represented stuffed animals in theirartificial environments. The museum exhibits are literally compressed in the two-dimensional photographs, and hence condense the pictorial space she created. The hand- painted background blends in seamlessly with the austerely arranged landscape of bushes, in which the birds are placed in almost too perfect a manner. In a zoo, Sonja Braas took photographs of living animals in man-made replacements of their natural environments, once again a simulacrum, in which the living creatures look displaced. The artist combined these artificial scenes, always already intentionally framed for a viewer, with images that she found and photographed in real nature. This exactly triangular deconstruction of realities makes obvious that the foundation of their photographic reception is not the belief in, or the certainty of, authenticity. Sonja Braas uses photography for a postmodern turn to refract the real with the surreal, or to bring fake closer to truth. Whereas Le Gray did everything to cover his manipulation, Sonja Braas moves in the opposite direction. The ambiguity of true and untrue is intentional and, as in Le Gray's case, masterfully executed.

Today, we are living in a time defined by the rapid transition from analogue to digital representations of the world. Most of us have still made experiences with analogue visual media: 8mm-film cameras, 35mm-still cameras and, even earlier, pocket-size cameras have accompanied us throughout our lives. But the next generation will already have a merely historical understanding of these machines and the processes inscribed in them. Photography is undergoing a paradigm-shift, that we may have grasped on a technical level, whose vocabulary we yet have to learn.

Sonja Braas' work is situated exactly on this membrane where trust in the medium still seems to be a given, and doubt still remains an option. The refraction of the real and the manipulated becomes an issue at latest on a second glance at FORCES. Looking more closely, the appearance of an idyllic and untouched nature disappears. For instance in FORCES # 09 (page 25)when the mountain massif turns out to be a fake background. Or in FORCES # 10 (page 54) where the pack ice is so perfectly lit that it appears to be unreal. Sonja Braas staged about half of the photographs in her studio and worked for months on her props. She tested different materials and various types of artificial fogs to create a "broken" image in a perfect balance between appearance and reality. Common to all of the photographs is a narrow range of color and form. Their dark and light gray hues are the decisive parameters of color. The pictorial surfaces are mostly structured without a horizon. Bright parts are lost in the artificial fog and harmonize once again.

FORCES consists of 33 works set in a clearly defined relation to each other. Each photographs fulfills the criteria of an autonomous single image. Every image is self-contained and suggests a possible narrative, a mood, or describes an original state. We can understand the installation of FORCES in a spaces as a striking statement of its own, in which Sonja Braas combines the evenly staged and evenly presented images in an auratic overall statement.

Speaking about his installation "The Mediated Motion" at Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2001, Olafur Elisason polemically asked the architect of the building, Peter Zumthor: "What do you think happens when the visitors move about the rooms? What do they see? Do they see themselves–are they inspired by the environment to perceive their own presence? Or do they forget about themselves (and their bodies) in a kind of non-presence caused by a room lacking any relations?"

This might be the question with which to approach the entirety of the FORCES project. Urs Stahel gave a possible answer when he talked about an "erosion within and in front of the image." If this were the case, Braas would move in an immediate discourse with Lewis Baltz, who was granted new open spaces and other qualities by the apparent end of photography. But whereas Baltz is searching for an answer in documentary photography, Braas pursues a variety of other options with the same technical means. Beyond the membrane, her photography is almost painting, acts as an image in three-dimensional space and approaches us simultaneously as argument and seduction.

 

 

 

You Are Here, Sonja Braas

Paul Quinones for flashart

 

Quoting Herman Melville at the beginning of her catalogue, Sonja Braas reminds us that "true places" are never to be found in the maps that reify them. Before identifying the place that any photograph presents us with, we undergo several imperceptible phases of establishing that a "place" is what actually lies before us. Once we arrive at this subtle but miraculous ground of assumption, we move deeper into the space of where we are and the suggested movement of what is happening. In this way, both "real" and "virtual" locations are preceded by grounding belief, suspending disbelief, or cultivating a measure of indifference. The narrative gravity of all that follows is conditioned by this initial delirium of establishing a somewhere or "place" more primary than any identity.

Looking at one of Sonja Braas' prints is like stuttering in and out of this delirium. Seamlessly weaving photographic and painted space, she creates idyllic landscapes that never let us assume the perspective of any location. They rather prolong the process of believing (or suspending belief) in the possibility of what lies ahead of us. In one of the more explicit examples, a desert landscape is sprinkled with patches of green and jagged rocks, while a winding river guides the center of our perspective. The horizon is an almost symmetrical division between photographic and painted space. I say 'almost' because no line can be drawn: we begin at the bed of our perspective and slowly move towards the vanishing point. Along the way we encounter dirt, roadrunners…a perfectly rendered tumbleweed. Without any trace of altering, the rocks begin to lose their edges, phase into more oblique shapes and tones of gray, and eventually morph into what looks like a generic movie-set.

These imperceptible lines restore a restlessness to the act of looking. Our eyes slowly traverse the contours of a nullity: a vacant and uninhabited terrain that provokes nothing but the possibility of having slipped back into a delirious mirage. In another idyllic landscape, the perspective is framed at the edge of a cliff: relying on the confidence of a few perfectly rendered branches that reach out into the shallow field of the picture. Behind them is a gaping valley that seems to combine strange and vibrant mixtures of painted green and photographed space. The hills are saturated with the light of a morning sun, and the branches are lit from the opposite direction. Our impulse to believe in the space is meanwhile caught between conflicting sources of illumination; reduced to a fluttering and ambivalent leap that recoils at the impossibility of the image. The motion that is here "captured" and divided is more palpable than any photographic claim to "truth". Its a documentary of our impulse to discern reality.

In many subtler prints, Braas seems to be working with a division of time that is completely outside of real or fictive spaces. Landscapes that are seemingly composed entirely of photographed material, nevertheless glisten with an impossible texture. In one photograph of lush green forestry, the sunlight seems to be so omnipresent, and the leaves so saturated with color that their edges can be discerned only with strained attention. The simultaneous quietude and restlessness of this frozen moment has more to do with our indecision than any allegiance to the force of reality. This has a way of tripping and slowing down the narrative velocity that we bring to the image. Unlike much of the one-step trickery of photo-realism, Braas' work wants to unfold in a space of constant ambivalence. The difference between real and fictional space is, at most, secondary to the exigency of being somewhere.