Depart is a bi-annual magazine for the arts, out of Dhaka, Bangladesh. During CHOBI MELA Festival, I sat down with the editor Mustafa Zaman for an in-depth interview:
Emotive freights from an in-between space – an encounter with Boris Eldagsen
Mustafa Zaman: Let’s begin with the idea of spectrality, which we encounter in your work – especially in the composite work that is part of Chobi Mela IX. I can see that it is one of your recurring themes, and in the work entitled ‘How to Disappear Completely’, we see its appearance across numerous contexts. The video in which an absent man’s head is being caressed by a woman is particularly noticeable. Why do you need to construct such imagery? What is your project?
Boris Eldagsen (BE): I am interested in the unconscious mind. How it works and how I can produce images which affect the viewers at unconscious level. As dream is the language of the unconscious, many of my works look dream-like – including the video work you describe.
The work is also spectacular…
B E: Thanks! I take it as a compliment.
A piece published in Burn magazine says that you work at the limits of your vocabulary combining street and staged photography. Is this your main strategy – combining the staged with the given, or are there any other means through which you also work?
B E: I have been doing this for the last fifteen years.
You were doing something else before this? I am curious about when this shift took place – when did you begin to answer to the unconscious?
B E: I started photography when I was eighteen years old, and went to art school when I was twenty and since then I have continued my practice. But it was seven years ago that I began what you now see. I became aware of what was already underlying in my practice. I went to a botanical garden and there I found a Chinese garden where all the Yan elements and the Yin elements have been listed. And the Yin was the night, the moon, the female, the water and so on. I realized that this was already in my photography. At that point I had spent five years on night photography. And I said to myself ‘how is that I am only interested in Yin?’. I studied philosophy for six years and I had an idea what Taoism is about from university. I was trying to find a western context of Yan and Yin and then I ended up with Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychologist. For him the Yin was the symbol of the unconscious. Then I said, well, if this is it, I need to dig deeper and try to go there consciously.
You studied art in India, Hyderabad to be precise – your time spent in Sarojini Naidu School of Fine Arts and Communication. I was thinking that a Northern European man coming to India to study art – it is an interesting converging point. How did this happen?
B E: Well, I studied art in Mainz which is not a big place – it is a small city next to Frankfurt. Me and my partner wanted to have a semester abroad, we wanted half a year spent in another country.
When was this?
B E: It was in mid-1990s. So in 1995 we travelled to India. It was my partner’s idea since she travelled to India two years before and she just loved it. I had this book which helped me find out where I could study art in India and I wrote fifty letters and Hydrabad was the only art school that replied and accepted me. I was a student there for one semester and my teacher was professor Laxma Goud who is still around and he became famous or notorious for mixing traditional Indian drawing with erotic themes. That was my teacher… he had some experience of having been to Hamburg, Germany, where he spent some months. So he understood where I was coming from, and that was really helpful. It was an interesting phase, because I guess it was also the beginning of my night photography. I was not trained as a street photographer and you know I am 190 cm tall and I understand I cannot hide myself in public – people come to me, talk to me… I cannot remain unnoticed while observing. I couldn’t work with that. So, I decided to work at night. I picked it up years later in Australia and continue to this day.
You lived between Berlin, Prague, Paris, Hyderabad and Melbourne– the experiences of these cities, they must have seeped into your system?
B E: Of course they have. Usually people are surprised to find that I am German, but I am not doing German photography and I don’t have German name. I say I don’t care about German photography… I am more like a bastard of times and places. I have always been interested in the links between the cultures and the things they have in common, that is why I probably ended up with a huge interest in the unconscious. I also am interested in the great mystical traditions of world religions. And I just enjoy travelling – so everything sort of coalesced in what I do now.
You have travelled across most of Asia and Europe as is claimed by a writer whose piece I came across on the web…
B E: I travel minimum once a month.
You live your life like a nomad!
B E: Sort of.
You studied philosophy in Cologne. What is it all about – an artist working in multimedia studied philosophy… a man whose focus is on photography and who must also have harboured a dream to become a successful artist, what was a photographer doing in a philosophy class?
B E: I did not consider myself a photographer, I still don’t do today. I consider myself an artist as I do many things including drawing.
Oh! I am sorry, you studied art.
B E: For me art and philosophy seem to be the two different ways of understanding the world, of getting the answers to the big question – why am I here, what is this all about. So I decided that philosophy and art can tell me all that I wanted to know. Now I know that with philosophy I am able to form more precise questions, but I still don’t get the answer.
‘How to Disappear Completely / THE POEMS’ – interesting theme. The work was the 2013 Voies Off award winner. Would you please tell us a bit about this event and the award?
B E: In Arles you have two photo festivals; both are interwoven with the city’s cultural life. Voies Off is the festival for newcomers. I received an award there which was very helpful for me in getting into the scene and in developing what I do. The French have been the first to pick it up.
French! They were the first people to appreciate your work? Also I was wondering whether you have gallery representation as an artist.
B E: I have one in Lisbon and another in Paris which had to move as the rent agreement expired and they are now looking for a new venue.
You also work as a lecturer.
B E: I am teaching since 2004.
How does that come into play?
B E: I love teaching and it helps in my own creativity. It speeds up my thinking. You have just seen me with one of my students here – I needed to find a solution for him, to analyze and understand what he is about looking at his images. And to do this on a daily basis – I consider it, yeah, a good training.
Going back to the theme again – How to Disappear Completely. There is this interesting novel by a poet by the name of Joy Goswami who turned to writing novels at one point in his life. In his 1994 novel entitled ‘Shei Shob Shealera’ the protagonist – a man – during the entire length of the novel tries to disappear and finally succeeds at the end of the novel – that too on a Kolkata street. He wanted to get out of a life which he thought was a lie. I find an interesting analogy here. Your series also takes an appendage – POEMS.
B E: How to Disappear Completely is an umbrella for many works I do. At some point in my life I realized that people want to step out of their lives – forget who they are from time to time. They find many kinds of solutions by becoming one in a big crowd, be that in sports or religious events. From drugs, love, sex, dancing to numerous other ways that mankind has invented to make themselves disappear –this is something that interests me. The poems are like subchapters to that theme. Normally in photography it is everything about the story, it’s about telling what has happened at a certain time and place to some people. In my work it is the opposite, I transform time and place into timeless images. I call them poems to show that they are not stories, they are much more open to interpretation and to get to the narrative you would have to enter it yourself and finish it yourself.
In the work that you have displayed at Chobi Mela – the events it documents, or I don’t know whether I should call it a document of events… you can sense that something is unfolding, but you can’t pinpoint what’s going on. The pieces in this particular work – in one you have a crowd under the glare of a strange light, you have man with fiery eyes, and there are only two images where the setting seems natural, no uncanny source of lighting is there. Are these staged events? Do you project the light or you just take the opportunity to capture a moment which is dramatic?
B E: I will explain my way of working and this will answer all your questions. One way of working is to go out alone at night. Like a moth, I am looking for light sources. Sometimes If I am aware of events that use unusual light source, I just go there. And then I see how I can transform the actual space, people, event into something else. I work more or less like a street photographer, but I am disinclined to show what is happening, I hide it by transforming it into something else, one that fits my interest. Sometimes, if what is happening is not enough, then I can return with a model.
You take your model to a venue? So you insert a person into the scene.
B E: Yes! I come back with a model. When working with a model I follow a strategy I developed of mapping the unconscious of the model. For the last five years I used Tumblr as a social media image platform, which is not censored, while partially trashy, to find out what images I react to unconsciously. When I have a break I scroll down to find out an image that touches me, interests me, then I just ‘like’ it. It’s an intuitive process. Every two months I have a look at my ‘likes’ and analyze them to find out what is the recurring patterns – are there some categories? I download the images and put them in categories. I have perhaps fifty of them.
That’s your research phase?
B E: Yes, the titles of my categories might go like desert, mask, fire, rain, etc.
What do you do with the downloaded images, do you ever use them, repurpose them?
B E: When you have the titles of the categories you, as my model, choose five of them, and from the five categories I would choose maximum twenty five images I have downloaded, and send them to you. So in your email you have twenty five images, and you have to return the images you have intuitively reacted to. When I get these images back from you it is not only about copying those images, for me these are triggers to create a new picture. For example I once had a photographer who showed a burning book and a Christening scene in Texas where one person is holding another person in water. So in my head those two became one. I visualize what happens when the person whose head is under water is holding up the burning book above the surface. And so my project begins – from there I just trust my intuition and the process.
So unrelated images become your starting point.
B E: They aren’t unrelated because I have first chosen them for you and you have later chosen them for me. Because there is something in your unconscious mind that relates to them and because of that the same pair would also be open for other people.
In the current constellation of photos there is this man with fiery eyes in a particular image, also a woman carrying mirror – the shape of which seem like an protruhenrance of the mouth – almost like a mask but reflecting a man, all these images are developed using the same process? By sending them to people?
B E: Yes! The woman holding up the mirror is one of my friends and the person in the reflection is her mother.
With new media taking centre-stage your stratagem segues well with the emerging art scene in Bangladesh. Your work is entrenched in what we refer to as New Media, or photomedia… the visual overload being dealt with both critically as well as non-critically. You also use social media as part of your research – without social or new media for that matter you won’t be what you are today. Some people find this mediatized environment problematic. Contrarily, this spirit of going back to nature which is very alive in Bangladesh, and in Europe too… what is your take on this dilemma? My question is how do you place yourself between these two different concepts of life and where do you see your work amidst this visual overload?
B E: I embrace the mediatized environment and the new technologies. I am not using all the available tools in my artwork, because I know technology has a short lifespan – but principally I embrace it and for me it is just an extension of the human mind.The human mind needs tools to survive in nature. From the philosophical point of view the issue of nature vs. culture can always be seen in light of the fact that pure nature is hostile. The only way for humans to survive in nature is to build tools and to build shelters to get around this and all of the things that are happening today in the digital age is just an extension of this.
You capture an in-between space – you said that in an interview. You are interested to show the unconscious reality beyond time and space, how do you link your work with art history – especially with the idea of transcendence in the western art context? Do you have any link to the Romantic era painting – works of Casper David Friedrich et al?
B E: I am close to what they did. But I am not really interested in the history of transcendence from a pure western perspective –the wastern perspective is important for me as well.
I was trying to refer to the idea of the sublime.
B E: Let’s talk about Casper Friedrich, his landscapes are not nature – they are developed from sketches he used to put together to develop an artificial landscape. He once said that if a painter cannot paint what is inside of him, he should not paint the world that is in front of him. I work along this line with photography today.
The layers you apply, why are they there? Sometimes even the images overlap – why do they?
B E: Installation for me is like a cluster. It’s like memory – emotions and memories. I deal with artworks that have some emotional qualities – things that are attached to me. And additionally there are of course references to other artworks in the installation and to art history which one can decipher if one has the knowledge – but you do not need to.
The presence is good enough for you – the presence of the imagery?
B E: If I get to express a feeling that is good: Yes! I always prefer work that gives a certain feeling to conceptual art which is more head than heart. As an artist I would like to employ both – but emotion comes first for me.
‘And all the rules are there to be broken, for me the bits and pieces are enough to construct your own world’, as you just said to a student of yours at Pathshala. Would you elaborate?
B E: For me it was a long journey – fifteen years of overcoming certain conventions. I had faced some problems in the past – I did street photography and staged photography, I could not imagine how those two can become one. Now I have managed it – it is like rivers flowing out into the sea. With some images it is obvious to define which is which, but the majority of the works cannot easily be deciphered as certain types of photography. I am really happy to have received great response in Dhaka from the audience. It tells me that what I am after is working. They admire the work, they take selfies, come up to me to shake my hands – the response was amazing.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Boris Eldagsen.