A Surrealist on the salt plains

Scarlett Hooft Graafland will go long way for an image, finds Alastair Sooke.

If you had to guess what kind of art Scarlett Hooft Graafland made just from listening to the sound of her soft, floating voice, you might suggest delicate pastel drawings or gauzy sculptures of fairies. You’d be way off.

This 33-year-old Dutch photographer creates work in some of the most inhospitable spots on Earth, as it testified by the spectacular photographs in her show at London’s Michael Hoppen gallery, opening on April 19- her first solo British exhibition. The series was shot over three trips to southern Bolivia since 2004. There, she captured the kind of limitless landscapes that even the most macho traveller would think twice before tackling. Every images is faultlessly composed, so that expanses of land and water play against azure skies like weighted bands of colour in an abstract painting.

Incredibly, though, Graafland does not tinker with her images on a computer. ‘I like the fact that my landscapes look as though they have been manipulated.’ She says. ‘But they’re real. Everything I do is analogue, not digital. Certain colours are stronger if you use real film.’
Her photographs come in editions of eight, priced individually from 3500 pound. They are not simply exercises in composition: they are also saturated with a distinctly Surrealist aesthetic. In one, black hats erupt from a ravine and hover mysteriously in the air (in fact, they are held in place by wires). In another, two pink legs (Graafland’s) are wrapped around a monumental cactus. In a third, white balloons spiral across the surface of a lake. This last photograph gives a clue to Graafland’s inspiration. Called Vanishing Traces, it alludes to Spiral Jetty, the gargantuan earthwork sculpture that the American artist Robert Smithson made from black basalt and earth in Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1970.

‘I shot Vanishing Traces in Laguna Colorada near the border of Chile’ Graafland says. ‘Smithson originally wanted to make Spiral Jetty there, but it was so remote he decided to find somewhere closer to home. Unlike Smithson, I wanted to use the light, temporary material that could get blown away’.

Indeed, not all Graafland’s balloons did exactly as they were told: on the right of the image, a rogue one gusts off to freedom.

It took days of tough driving before Graafland reached the lake, even though she was travelling with a bunch of seasoned Bolivians led by the Latin American artist Gaston Ugalde, who used to hang out in Andy Warhol’s Factory in Manhattan. On the way, the group got lost and almost ran out of petrol and food.

‘By the time we got there, the men had all grown big beards’, says Graafland, who studied sculpture in The Hague and has also made work in Iceland and China. ‘When they tried to blow up the balloons, their beards made them explode. So I had to blow them all up myself.’
This was no mean feat, given that Graafland was at an oxygen-depleted altitude of nearly 4600 meters. But it was more enticing then preparing for Flash, for which she wanted to shoot a llama with balloons sprouting from its head on a Bolivian salt plain so vast that it can be seen from the moon. ‘We were of the middle of the desert and the store in the only town we could find did not sell balloons’ she recalls. ‘So we had to buy condoms and blow them up instead. But they work well: I like their shape.’



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