“A terrible beauty is born”, a conversation with Martin Kollar

by Mara Sartore
December 14, 2015
Mara Sartore
Kollar Martin

When, a few weeks ago, I visited Martin Kollar‘s exhibition “Field Trip” in Bratislava National Gallery, I immediately wished to speak to him about his work, which I found so fascinating, mysterious and beautiful.

Mara Sartore: You have been living in Israel from 2009 and 2011 which is quite a long time to take part of the project called “This Place”. I would like to ask you to tell me about this experience.

Martin Kollar: One day, quite unexpectedly, Frederich Brenner, who is behind “This Place” project, proposed that I participated at it together with other 11 photographers. He said that there were two conditions: the project should be developed inside Israel (doesn’t matter if in Palestine or Israel) and the second one was that we were supposed to stay in the country at least for half a year. There was also a third condition (very important for us) – all the money to fundraise the project was not supposed to come from Israel. All photographers were from abroad so our vision was an “outside in” and not “inside out” perspective and everybody agreed that it was a good concept for us. Many photographers from the project are experienced masters, and it was overwhelming to be on the same list with Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall, Stephen Shore, Joseph Koudelka and so on. The final result was not only a catalogue of the twelve projects together, called “This Place”, but each photographer published an individual book with his work, as well. The last show is scheduled for Brooklyn Museum on February 2016. So if the project started in 2007, and the last show will be in 2016, it makes it basically 10 years!

MS: How was living in Israel? Actually you stayed more than half a year…

MK: Yes, my plan was to work really slow, because I felt I needed time to try to understand the place while dealing with such a complicated country as Israel. I planned to stay a year, but actually I stayed longer, from November 2009 to February 2011. Israel is not that far, so I would usually go back to Europe for a few days quite regularly. It was helpful to have time off.

MS: I read a sentence in your book where you say that you wanted to “make photographs that are still comfortable to look at but somehow absorbing the tension of the place”. When looking at your pictures, I had many times the sensation to see something like a film. But this wasn’t a film even if some pictures look as you built the scene, and this made me feel mystery, ambiguity …so my question is: how you worked to shoot these pictures?

MK: Most of my work is based on observation. The pictures you’ve seen are not staged at all. And speaking about the connection to the cinema… it’s hard for me to avoid it. I studied at a film school and am strongly influenced by film narration. And besides being a photographer, I still have been shooting films, as a cinematographer, but also a director in the last couple of years. In the pictures, many situations happening to people are happening repetitively, I often returned to the same location several times, tried to get what I was looking for.

MS: There are some pictures that really impressed me. These images are striking because they both really seem a set (see images).

MK: Yes, they are set, but luckily somebody great set up those construction for me. The first picture is from a military training camp in the desert inside a military training facility and the second one is a street scene front of my studio in Tel- Aviv.

MS: It was these scenes built actually? Did someone put this on the street?

MK: I found them. I tried to make unclear for the viewer if the street scene is belonging to a conflict or if what is happening is only in your mind. But when you look at the picture you immediately understand what it is. Have a look and tell me what you see.

MS: Actually, I don’t understand really “perfectly”. But for me the fascination of the scene is the suspended time. You can’t understand if something has just happened or is going to happen the second after. So it is like something suspended. It creates a certain anxiety. You feel that nothing happens but then suddenly there’s something. At the same time it is also ironic because, you know, if you are in Israel and you’re taking photos you’re not showing conflict or violence but the viewer knows that there is because you know how the country should look like. It’s a matter of pre-concepts and I think you images are playing with these pre-concepts.

MK: I wouldn’t call it ironic. But at the same time, this is one of the most over photographed place in the world. I was always asking myself: what can you bring from this complicated and over-loaded place? I come from Slovakia and we were separated with Czech Republic in 1993. In my personal experience, I passed through this idea of two countries separating more or less painlessly. In Israel, on the other hand, you realize that separation defined by a fence and a wall. I asked myself: What if I stayed only in one part and focused just on one side? That’ s how I decided to work only in the Israeli part – which is closer to my cultural background. In terms of pre-conception: when I thought about the history of the country, I wanted to take distance from the conflict we all know from media. Later I realized it might be more interesting to deal with the future. Once you work in training facilities, you see that the training is about possibilities eventually happening in the future. To be prepared for something what might come.

MS: It’s like living in an island surrounded by a sea full of sharks.

MK: Yes, exactly.

MS: Another image I was curious about is this (see image). I saw it while I was visiting the exhibition with a couple of friends. When I saw the image my interpretation was that there was a holy text on the table and that the man standing was shouting a path of the Quran to the hears of the other man.

MK: You’re not far from the point. What I enjoy most when I do pictures is to put enough information into them to get the image, but at the same time, leaving a little hole, a missing bit. Something you don’t get without guessing. It is something that requires your co-operation to get a full picture.

MS: So what is it?

MK: We have to use our imagination, our culture and life experience to fill the gap. The universal sense is not needed because what matters is your interpretation. So back to the picture, I thought : what is a direct channel to get into a person’s mind? Hypnosis.

MS: So this image has to do with hypnosis? Is the man already hypnotized? And why does the man talk in this tube?

MK: That plastic home-made thing is an invention of the guy to absorb ideas directly into his brain. He is an amateur TV hypnotizer, though I’ve been told that hypnosis is not legal in Israel. The pictures are not too direct, but you understand almost everything in this diptych. Almost… Photography is a very limited tool: it can be very illustrative, but I’m not really interested in this illustrative form. So I was experimenting with using photography to be narrative but not illustrative. This is also the reason why I didn’t use any text to describe the images…You wouldn’t have called me if you’d read the caption!

MS: Well, for some pictures I had no clue to understand (for example, see the image). This image is striking because the violence is shown through the animal; the photo seems to represent a form  of religious symbolism. In this scene there’s a sheep, a woman, a frozen watch on the wall, there’s a hole even here, in the body of the sheep which could represent also the gap of comprehension. It seems so real but at the same time so cinematographic so I thought “this guys is a real artist, a genius in finding the perfect set!”.

MK: Unfortunately, my imagination is not great enough to be able to invent those kinds of situations. And also, I’m not a big fan of those kinds of pictures, the positions of photographed people look like forced and uncomfortable. But on the other hand, I always enjoyed to blur the reality, having the audience not understanding what exactly is happening and having them asking themselves if “it is real?”.

MS: Boundaries among you pics are really interesting. In some of them there are, I would call them, artistic artificial gestures. I’ve been reading about some of your other projects, could you tell me about the Elisée Prize.

MK: Musee Elisée is a photography museum in Lausanne. They established a new photography award, this year being the first edition, which works more like a grant. The committee preselected 8 finalists, than we had 5 months to prepare a more precise draft of our project proposals, resulting a show and catalogue. Finally, a jury selected a winner to carry out the proposed project and co-produce a book. I was lucky to be selected and will have almost a year to finish it. Their point is not only to focus on the winner but on all the participants.

MS: What was the project about?

MK: Provisional Arrangements is a project concerned with situations which contain an element of uncertainty and mystery… I’m looking forward to this project, as it will become my biggest project without a link to any territory. The exhibition and a book will be shown at the museum in September 2016.

The quote in the title is by W.B.Yeats

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