E-313, 1999

From Whiteout, looped slide projection with 49 slides, 2009-2011, dimensions vary according to space

Cheap & Plastique interviews Antwerp-based artist Geert Goiris for Issue 10.
See more of Geert’s work here.

C & P: Where do you currently live? Is this where you grew up?
Geert: I live in Antwerpen, Belgium. But I grew up in Bornem which is a small town about 35 Km. west of Antwerp.

C & P: What do you like most about living in Antwerp? Is there a large contemporary art/photography scene there?
Geert: My girlfriend and I came to Antwerpen after living for two years in Prague and two years in Copenhagen. We moved to Antwerpen when I was accepted at the HISK (Higher Institute for Fine arts). HISK is a studio-program for artists, with technical facilities and an international team of visiting tutors. The residency lasted for three years and was set in a fantastic place: an abandoned army base in the city. After HISK we stayed on and settled in Antwerpen.
Antwerpen is a quite lively city for its size. The fashion-academy is respected and draws talented young designers to Antwerpen. Also the music and visual arts scenes are quite vibrant, with a good infrastructure of institutions, some artist collectives and independent spaces as well. There is a photography museum in Antwerpen, which has a good library on the pioneering years of the medium, up to the 1980s–1990s. Recent and contemporary photography is not very well represented. Unfortunately, the program of the museum is a bit too populist and arbitrary for my taste, luckily a few individual photographers are trying to revitalize the institute.
Belgium is so small that it is easy to get around to see exhibitions or performances. Brussels is more prominent and cosmopolitan, with a strong contemporary dance scene, the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, and concerts and lectures all the time. Also Gent is an interesting place where things happen, and cities like Liege and Oostende have a lot of character and personality.
So I don’t want to be too chauvinistic about Antwerpen. What I like about the city is that the rents are relatively cheap, so it is manageable to find a good space to work and live, and geographically it lies well situated between Amsterdam, Paris and London. The living quality here is fine, just a pity that the traffic is so mad, and the air pollution it brings is heavy. The small size and layout of the centre would make it ideal for biking, but in the postwar period the whole infrastructure was directed to cars. The mentality is changing slowly, but we still have a long way to go.

Suspension, 2006

C & P: Do you mostly travel outside of Belgium to find subject matter for your photographs? How many trips (for the purpose of your photography practice) do you go on in a year, generally?
Geert: It depends, about 5 times in a year. I try to combine trips: when I have an exhibition or a workshop abroad, I often stay a little longer to make new work.
After a long or faraway journey, it may take a while before I embark on a new project, collecting money and finding free time can be a slow process. I teach at the Art Academy in Brussels, so I travel during the academic breaks or in the summer holiday. Most of my work is shot outside of Belgium.

Ecologist’s Place, 2006

C & P: You often shoot desolate, ethereal, sometimes sublime, landscapes in remote areas. Do you consider your experience of traveling to and photographing these remote places similar to an expedition?
Geert: Not really, I would say that my travels are more an exercise in wandering and improvising. Most expeditions have a defined objective.
I don’t always have a clear idea before I set out. Often the context (the characteristics of a landscape, the quality of the light on a specific moment, the spatial impact of architecture, etc…) directs my gaze, and I am responding to it. This method of working is exemplified in the Resonance series.
When I made Whiteout, (a projection piece for two analogue middle format projectors and a dissolve controller), I had the privilege to join the Belare (Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition) for two successive seasons. This mission was carried out by a large group composed of engineers, biologists, military mechanics and logistics specialists, a doctor, carpenters, electricians, a few mountain guides, and a bunch of adventurers. Heterogeneous as it was, we all had clear tasks and responsibilities, not in the least because the environment is so hostile. So we were structured as a genuine expedition, a group of individuals with an articulated sense of interdependency. When the nearest neighbor is so far away, survival strategies and safety regulations become tangible.
And for Adieu, the project I am currently working on, the method lies somewhere in between: I carry out a lot of research before I set out to photograph a specific subject.
I travel alone to make the Adieu photographs, but a lot of people are involved because I need to get authorization for photographing particular places or interiors. The preparation has some resemblance to a small expedition.
On the field I often meet people who show me around or open up the building they care for.
It is a privilege to have such local “guides.”

Melting Snow, 2005

C & P: Is the idea of an expedition important to your photographic practice?
Geert: To me it represents the romantic embodiment of discovery, self-realization and curiosity, and I am quite sensitive to this kind of mythical fictions. The classical rites of passage during a long journey are separation, initiation, and return. And usually the person that returns has “changed.” Travel is often defined as a freeing and transformative experience. And I can relate to this concept of “inward” travel at the same time it is obvious that many historical expeditions had imperialist or colonial agendas, and the heroic rendering of expeditions in popular culture can be a misleading façade covering the violent realities of these intrusions. Expeditions were always symbols of restlessness and ambition, this applies to an expedition into the heart of darkness, as well as to a journey to the moon.

C & P: How long do you stay when you travel for a photographic adventure? When you are shooting are you usually alone or do you have a guide with you? How do you get around in these empty places? Is there ever a fear of being threatened by wild animals when you are in extremely remote regions?
Geert: Usually, I don’t stay very long, and when it is practically possible, I prefer to be alone or with just one friend.
I walk, but not very far. My equipment (large format camera, tripod, film and lenses) is a bit too heavy to take long hikes. So I always end up driving a lot.
I like to move around in open spaces such as the tundra, the desert, salt plains, or ice fields. Not many animals live in these unsheltered environments. In Norwegian Lapland I was once attacked by a bird. I must have come too close to its nest, so it was diving straight down towards my head to scare me away (and the bird succeeded).
So injury is more likely to come from the land or climate than from animals: dangers like flash floods, rivers becoming unpassable, pitch black moonless nights where one might stumble and fall, or the freezing cold that numbs face and fingers.
Respect is important, so I always pay attention to the advice of local people—they know.

C & P: Many people are afraid of the “big city” and the dangers associated with city living (crime, etc…) I feel the opposite of this, nature (and its disorder) is what terrifies me. Are you ever fearful when you find yourself so far removed from other humans and urban “civilization” and immersed in nature?
Geert: I haven’t been totally on my own in very remote areas, so I can’t tell. During the Antarctic expedition, we sailed with a Russian icebreaker from South Africa to Antarctica. From the second day on we were so far away of all usual shipping routes, that it made us very exposed. Sharing this vulnerability with everyone on board made it more bearable.

From Whiteout, looped slide projection with 49 slides, 2009-2011, dimensions vary according to space

C & P: You state, “The romantic notion of exploration, the sensation of seeing something for the first time, not only as an individual, but also as a society, is a big part of my work.” Could you discuss this further…
Geert: An explorer is always an individual, being confronted with something for the first time.
But when returning to civilization and sharing his or her witness account, the new discoveries enter into collective consciousness. Discoveries are made by a small group of people, but eventually they make their way into a larger society. A new discovery can cause a paradigm shift.
An example is Pale Blue Dot, the name that was given to the photograph taken by the spacecraft Voyager 1 at its most remote location where commands from earth were still possible to be received. Capturing the earth from this distance placed humanity on a scale that was never seen before. This image isn’t really about a discovery, but was more a realization that came about through visual proof: society seeing something for the first time.

From Whiteout, looped slide projection with 49 slides, 2009-2011, dimensions vary according to space

From Whiteout, looped slide projection with 49 slides, 2009-2011, dimensions vary according to space

C & P: How did you first go to Spitsbergen, Norway, in the Arctic? What made you want to shoot a series there specifically?
Geert: My girlfriend is Norwegian and her sister is a geologist who has lived and researched many years in Spitsbergen, together with her husband. This gave us the chance to go visit them and see this miraculous place. The landscape type on Svalbard is Arctic desert: dry and cold. There is a continuous permafrost, along the coast this frozen layer is 10 – 40 m. deep, but in the highlands it can reach up until 450 metres. An effect of this permafrost is that any trace imprinted in the landscape will remain for a long time. I saw a photograph that was taken in the 1980s of the tire tracks made by a German Luftwaffe plane when it landed on one of the islands during World War II. The tracks were still clearly visible after 40 years. The enduring cold acts as an archiving agent, and every imprint made on the land remains like a scar or scratch. Such metaphors are often used, defining the place as a kind of virgin territory where visitors are interrupting the sovereign wilderness. Confronted with a place that is so foreign and hostile to human settlement, feels almost like trespassing.
On top of that, there are few bacteria, so the decomposing process of organic matter is slow. Leaving a simple item behind, such as a cigarette butt, will have a profound effect, as it will remain for a very long time. Every single object added to the landscape becomes pertinent and stands out as an anomaly. The cold also extracts moisture from the air, so the atmospheric perspective drops. This makes it possible to see clear for about 80 Km. or more. Distances are hard to judge, and the outline of mountains and the horizon seem unusually sharp.
All these spectacular features make the place feel like a prehistoric, ancient land that has come to a slow standstill. I felt totally overwhelmed by the landscape, and the anachronistic qualities it possesses has been a returning theme in my artistic work since.

From Whiteout, looped slide projection with 49 slides, 2009-2011, dimensions vary according to space

C & P: Many of your images convey a sense of loneliness and the idea of man lost in a void, your images from the Whiteout series especially come to mind. Could you talk a bit about the experience of photographing the Antarctic locations in this series? How did it feel to be immersed in these vast landscapes, experiencing the void? Did the fact that whiteout conditions are very dangerous and could have led to your demise effect your mental state?
Geert: Safety regulations on such an expedition are strict; it is not permitted to wander alone or lose contact with the camp or the team members. During the two “whiteouts” I’ve experienced, I was driving in a convoy of three Caterpillars traversing the ice to pick up supplies at the coast. The only time I could photograph the phenomenon, was when we stopped the vehicles to refuel.
So I was only able to make a few photos of the actual phenomenon. In these cases, the photographic film recorded something my eyes could not perceive at the moment. All I could do was position the camera and press the shutter release without looking through the viewfinder as there was nothing specific to see. When I would point it towards a person or vehicle, these artifacts stood out clearly, the rest was a void of bright white light.
I had been reading about the whiteout optical effect and the desire grew to join an expedition to photograph this elusive phenomenon. Once I got there, I was very lucky to be exposed to a full whiteout, but found myself in great difficulty capturing this alienating sensation in a photograph. As Hamish Fulton said: “an image can never compete with an experience.” But I wanted to communicate this experience, and ended up presenting a seemingly empty frame which still carries the suggestion or trace of that sensation. In the images taken during the “peak” of the whiteout, there is really nothing to see, I might as well have photographed a white sheet of paper. But it is a reproduction of a lived event. This is part of the magic of taking pictures, no?

Near Hekla, 2000

C & P: I was just reading about an installation in Chelsea, NYC, by the artist Doug Wheeler and it made me think about your work. Are you familiar with his work?
Geert: No, unfortunately I have never seen his work in reality.

C & P: Wheeler creates disorienting environments where the viewer is immersed in pure white light upon entering an installation, the walls are curved and there is no “edge” in the space. Wheeler wants people to experience light and space in a more direct way than is normally possible in the day to day. It would be interesting to compare one’s experience of Wheeler’s constructed “whiteout” phenomena, in a gallery, to the experience of an actual whiteout, whilst alone, amongst nature, in a freezing cold and snow-covered Antarctica. Would the person’s experience of each instance be completely different or somewhat similar? Also do you think that the experience of gazing upon one of your photographs of a whiteout in a gallery setting might elicit a similar response/feeling within the viewer as with these other two scenarios? Would you like the viewer to get “lost” in your photograph?
Geert: Whiteout consists of analogue photographs made on the location by myself. When presenting them as a continuous slideshow in the gallery, this follows a familiar logic of display and presentation, and there is no disturbing or novel aspect in the presentation of the work: a slide projection in itself is a well-known medium or interface.
I am interested by the work of Doug Wheeler, and judging from installation view of his work Infinity Environment, the effect must be stunning. Also Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssen, has built spaces—on a smaller scale—where viewers lose all visual anchor points (L’Espace Infini, 2002).
But in the end I present an image, rather than a physical experience. When exhibiting a photograph, I offer a visual experience which opens up a space for the viewer to negotiate, rather than manipulating the apprehension of that space. The artifact and document value (the fact that I was there, that I recorded the phenomenon on a piece of film, which is then projected again in a gallery space) is also important. Looking at photographs in an exhibition is a conventional ritual, and the viewer is not destabilized by it. But the abstraction lies more in the fact that these images depict a real event, which doesn’t seem to have a clear visual referent (in fact some images seem to be “empty”) and in the transformation of matter into light (the optical phenomenon of whiteout) and light into matter (the projection of the slide film: light passes through the film material and casts a ephemeral image unto the screen).

C & P: Has the work of any of the Light and Space artists from the 1960s/70s, such as James Turrell or Robert Irwin, influenced your artistic practice?
Geert: I admire the precision, poetry and singularity in Turell’s work very much.Through his work and interviews I was introduced to the concept of Ganzfeld. So, I can say I was influenced by James Turrell in an indirect way. But I would never dare to present a work in relation to his.

Sphinx, 2004

C & P: Your images are not a document of a specific place and time but instead they capture a feeling. You say, “I like to create works that are otherworldly and strange, I don’t see any point in presenting an exact reproduction of the facts as they occur.” What draws you to make an image of a certain place/object? What makes a place special and worthy of being photographed? Could you speak about the term “traumatic realism” which you use when referring to your own work.
Geert: I think I photograph the way I approach a place or what I project into it more than the actual place itself. The approach is conditioned by the history of that place, my personal affects or attachments, the nature of the light on that particular moment, etc. Even sensory qualities that never make it into the image, such as cold or silence, can play an important role.
I use traumatic realism not in a psychological way (unresolved and painful past), but rather in the medical sense of it: a fracture or breaking point. It’s the moment where fact (the place) and fiction (my projection) meet.

C & P: How do you scout out locations for future photo series? Do you research places on the internet? Do you ever randomly travel somewhere hoping to find something interesting to shoot?
Geert: I used to think of it in terms of serendipity only, to be on the road with a camera encountering people, places, and phenomena. In recent years, however, I have come to enjoy research and started planning my trips more efficiently. By getting older, it feels like time becomes more precious.

C & P: Many of your pictures are people-free, do you prefer to photograph places that are void of people?
Geert: There isn’t a deliberate plan or agenda behind this, but maybe by not depicting people in the image, this leaves the viewer more free to create a narrative for him or herself? Often when people are depicted in a landscape photograph, the figures become principal characters, and the reading of the image gets narrowed down to a few plausible story lines. When the space before you is blank and devoid of people, the viewer himself becomes the one that is “in” that place, and the photograph can function more as a self-reflexive tool. Like a mirror? I don’t know, this is speculation, but showing the space empty might invite the viewer to consider what she would do in such a place, when she is there alone.

Abyss, 2000

C & P: Your images are very painterly (partially because of the long exposure times you use when capturing the image to film) and the landscapes in many of your images bring to mind Caspar David Freidrich’s paintings. Is he an influence on you?
Geert: Long exposure is something inherent to photography and therefore hard to perceive by the human eye. Caspar David Friedrich could see different things in different moments and bring them together in his atelier whenever he liked. His work appears realistic but is in fact pure fiction, drawing on memory and imagination. As a photographer I have to deal with the actuality and singularity of the location, to which I add fiction. The painterly strategies I use are duration, hierarchical compositions, overall sharpness, and I ignore legible time references such as clouds or heavy shadows. By avoiding those, I get into a timeless time, which one could experience as a painterly quality.
Caspar David Friedrich continues to have a strong impact. His paintings have the quality of ideograms: they communicate very strongly, and are remembered instantly. The atmosphere in his paintings, his treatment of light and the dramatic compositions are exceptional, and I think they still have a huge influence on image makers today.

Futuro, 2002

Eugene’s Neighborhood, 2002

C & P: You have photographed forgotten structures that are (now) emblematic of the death of the utopian dream (of the 60s), such as Futuro—the prefabricated, transportable UFO ski cabin, now deserted in the forests of Finland. What attracts you to these structures? Are you interested in these objects as architectural oddities or are you more interested in what is left behind after the failure of an idea? Are you disappointed that the present time does not look as many imagined what “the future” would look like in the 1950s and 60s?
Geert: These structures were once vessels for the imagination, symbolic objects, and I believe they still carry that function. Even though the positivist belief in the future as a time where technology would solve most problems and bring comfort to all, has proved too optimistic, the gesture these objects present is something that I would like to honor.
Without wanting to be nostalgic, there seemed to be a window that enabled for big and generous thinking, this I value. There was a belief in transcending the limitations of the epoch, and a positive projection into the future. Many people now see this as hopelessly naive, but my feeling is that a skeptic or cynical outlook isn’t very constructive either. My intention is not to present them as failures of ideas, but as modern ruins, the embodiment of a past way of looking into the future. Even as they might be chronological remote, I think we can still connect to the bold spirit of progress.
The photograph of the Futuro has different layers for me. About ten years ago, Phaidon published a book called The Sixties, which focused on the design, architecture and fashion of that era. I looked through it and came upon a photo of the Futuro. Immediately when I saw this image, I remembered that I have seen that exact same photograph in a magazine when I was about 10-11 years old. My spontaneous reaction was: I wonder if it is still there? After some time I visited a friend in Finland, so I asked around and located the Futuro. We went on a search together and managed to find the plastic pavilion just before it got dark. The whole trip was like an adventure little boys have. On the other hand, when I show this photograph, everybody goes: “oh yes, a UFO”. Even though very few people would claim they ever saw a flying saucer, it has entered our language and consciousness through popular media. I am interested in how knowledge and awareness is shaped and mediated through fiction in cinema, TV, graphic novels and other sources. When I was young, television was a major input. Literature and music came later. So in a way this photograph is also a retracing and revisiting of images that were important for me then.
It is an endless loop: set designers develop models being used in cinema, SciFi authors have draftsmen compose space ships for their stories, a Finnish architect takes this archetypical shape as the basis for his real 3D design for a transportable cabin. Then forty years later a photographer passes by and renders this object flat again.

Liepaja, 2004

C & P: Could you tell me about the Liepaja image (from the Resonance series)? How did you come across this building? Do you know the history of the building? Is this a subject that you sought out or did you come to find this randomly?
I stumbled upon it accidentally when I was traveling through Lithuania with a friend.
Geert: The history was told to us by someone, but I haven’t verified it. It seems that this building was a bunker of the Red Army defending the port of Liepaja. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and Lithuania reclaimed its independence, it took a long time for all the troops to return to Russia. It was a painful episode: many Russians were assimilated and had build up close relations with Lithuanians over the years. A lot of families suddenly had to be relocated. When the Russian troops finally left the defense line to the Lithuanian army, the foundations of this bunker were dynamited, so it was severed from the land and it is slowly sinking into the sea.

C & P: What is your preferred way to show your work? When your work is shown in a gallery how important is size, scale, and sequencing?
Geert: The exhibition of my work is a specific situation where the parameters you describe are of utmost importance. I like very much to present the photographs in a dynamic tension with each other. The notion of images resonating, or different visual “force-fields” interfering with one another, is important in my approach to exhibition of my work.
In every exhibition I try to include at least one new work that hasn’t been presented before. And I deal quite specific with the architectural space and the flow of the spectator through this space. When it is a solo show, I always build a scale model and play with different selections and set-ups for some weeks. It is equally important as the editing process of a book I guess, and I like it a lot. Thinking out an exhibition gives me a lot of pleasure. After that, the practical and logistic side of organizing the works to be packed, shipped and installed is less stimulating.
I don’t have a preferred way of showing. Some pieces have their own form (like Whiteout, which is an analogue two-projector loop), some images exist only as a large format wallpaper, claiming a more monumental presence within space. And still other photographs are presented in a more traditional way: framed Lambda prints of about 100 x 125 cm.

C & P: Where can we find your portfolio website?
Geert: Here.

Palanga, 2000


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