In a short time span of just five years, Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s photographic works have reached important international platforms for photography. This is particularly remarkable because her eclectic education did not include photography. She is, first and foremost, a sculptor who is accustomed to making concept-based works in series. She is also a researcher and a pioneer. When acquiring knowledge for one of her sculptural expeditions, she explores the depth, as well as the breadth of her subject. Scarlett Hooft Graafland is fascinated by those places on earth where the landscape is unspoilt and improbably vast, and is inhabited by people whose lifestyle is subordinated to it. Yet the beauty of such environments is never the main theme of her work, although it does remain a subject, taking its role as a setting for a sculptural intervention. Her arrangements fit within the genius loci and are connected to the location’s characteristics, either by analogy or by contrast. The relationship is never farfetched or complex. The cotton candy in the Bolivia series, for instance, constitutes a contrast to the salt plains in the desert. Thanks to this simplicity, the work is never in a state of conflict with nature. On the contrary, the beauty of nature permeates the work with a sense of the sublime and ethereal. However whimsical the attributes may be, harmony with the surroundings remains intact. Artists have frequently used photography to express their lasting alliance with nature. Richard Long, for one, has been doing so since the end of the sixties. But his appraoch to landscape it neutral (and minimalist, as he disregards human beings). In Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s photographs the characteristics of the landscape are articulated in passing. In doing so, she invests her photographs – which primarily serve to perpetuate a volatile composition or to document a performance – with the classic qualities of a photo souvenir.
In order to realise her projects the artist has had to face many challenges. She possesses the rare ability of seamlessly adapting to another culture: To the rhythms of Chinese family life on a hard-to-reach mountain top, where there is just enough food to survive; to improbably harsh circumstances at the edge of the North Pole; to the incomprehension of inhabitants in remore areas where their assistance is being requested for something they have never heard of - art.
Something from all these wondrous, exhausting and colourful experiences filters through into each photograph – a scintillating mystique, a light-hearted fantasy. Walter Benjamin is being refuted. These photos have not their aura, they are bringing it back to us.
Tineke Reijnders is an independent art critic and art historian who has published articles on contemporary art in numerous art magazines and catalogues.
Scarlett, the photographs in this publication are a selection of what you have crea¬ted at unique, remote locations around the world. Taking into ac¬count the difficulties of reaching these places and the necessity to temporarily join a local com¬munity, you have been able to produce a remarkably rich body of work. In the past you made use of a variety of media, especially in those ca¬ses where you were dealing with authentic characteristics of a particular region. Does this great productivity have to do with your decision to work exclusively with photography?
Scarlett Hooft Graafland
Almost exclusively with photo¬graphy. I have also done a large earthenware project in China. But you’re right, since about five years photography has been my main technique. In Iceland I did not even have my own camera. I was assisted by a photographer there. My idea was to do a performance that I could capture in a single still image, contrary to what I had been doing in New York before. My performances there have been documented on video. This time I wanted to make images that have some¬thing to say directly, in a medium that is interesting as a means of communication. It was not a conscious choice to switch to photography, I did not even have a fascination for it. I was mainly thinking in terms of sculptures. But it simply turned out that photos are the best medium. I’ve practiced with different kinds of cameras; I learned a lot from Jacqueline Hassink, a Dutch photographer whom I had met in New York. I now work with a medium-format camera that uses 6x7 inch negatives. It’s the best thing to travel with, it isn’t heavy and it’s user-friendly. The first series of photos I took were those made in the salt desert in Bolivia. Which is also where Gastón Ugalde, the Bolivian artist who enabled me to work in the salt desert in the first place, helped me.
TR The landscapes which you choose to be your working space do not only possess breath-taking beauty, they are also unforgiving and extreme. Even as a student you had travelled to northern Canada to be taught sculpture by Inuit craftsmen. What makes you set your mind on those specific places?
SHG What pushes me to explore remote places is my nostalgia for regions that are still completely natural. Places that are untou¬ched, where human beings have hardly intervened. I’m fascinated by how local people manage to endure and survive in spite of circumstances that are often rough and rigorous. It’s also fan¬tastic to experience the immense space, to be able to see so very far ahead of you. You get an indescribable sense of freedom.
It’s exciting, you take risks. I depend on people helping me. It is radical, especially as a woman alone. But you always find people who open up their houses to you and who start to think along with you.
TR What is your way of discove¬ring that those places exist? Do you read National Geographic?
SHG It often happens that I hear about something and then start looking further. Mostly you hear things through the grapevine. For instance I heard a rumor about an artist who used a green lake as an exhibition space and invited artists to take part. I thought that was a wonderful idea – artists who do something in such a faraway spot. It took a long search before I managed to trace that artist. No, National Geographic is too pretty for me. I prefer to go to the library or consult the Internet.
I had read about those small sheds in Iceland that rural fami¬lies could sometimes afford to add to their property after a rela¬tively prosperous year in a book titled Independent People (Salka Valka). The book is about the strenuous, meagre existence of farmers and was written in the early 1930s by Háldor Laxness, an Icelandic author and Nobel Prize winner.
In Iceland the roofs have dif¬ferent colours. When you look out over the roofs in Reykjavik, you experience them as colour planes in a painting. So for that reason I was also looking for coloured roofs on the empty plains outside Reykja¬vik. Although the vegetation is multi-coloured, with the green moss being very conspicuous and the lava beaches having multiple hues, I was looking for the colour accents of the roofs.
I wanted to show human vulnerability against the overwhelming nature of Iceland and in those circumstances the most natural way to present a vulnerable person is the nude. It was an intuitive decision. Those performances to me were pure sculpture and I took the cold for granted. I saw those little man-made houses as a kind of pedestal, a plinth for my body. Simultaneously it was an allusion to architecture, establishing a contrast to the safe abode you expect such a house to be. The safety now has to be provided by that body on top of the saddle roof.
TR One of the works you made in the salt desert, Vanishing Traces, consisted of a spiral of balloons. You told me that Robert Smithson originally had wanted to create his Spiral Jetty, which is now in the Salt Lake in Utah, right there in Bolivia but experienced great difficulties.
SHG To be honest, at first I didn’t know he had wanted to work in Bolivia. I’ve always been fascinated by Smithson’s work – images of the Spiral Jetty are in the back of my mind. The Turnpike in New Jersey is not far away from New York, and during the time I was living there, I felt a strong involvement with that work. To me, the way in which these artists worked, including also Gordon Matta Clark, represents the fundamentals of sculpture. The large-scale approach is very American. There is so much space there; during the seventies the artists used it as if nature were inexhaustible. You could put your mark everywhere. That would be not possible any more. I don’t want to burden nature with the materials I use. The weather balloons dissolve with time. The title Vanishing Traces leaves little doubt as to that, I’d say.
Ana Mendieta is another artist whose work intrigues me. I love the way in which she managed to speak a very powerful language by placing her body in nature, very intimately, discreetly and in ways that are almost endearingly direct. Mendieta did her performances without an audience, just infront of the camera’s eye. During that same era, her male colleagues were producing grandiose works of Land Art. I feel a certain affinity with her because her work was temporary and ephemeral. Yet whereas she was driven by a deep anger and sense of displacement, I am motivated by a desire to embrace and celebrate nature.
TR The first time you visited the salt plains high up in Bolivia you went there with Gastón Ugalde. Each time it was quite an expedition, on which you brought all kinds of props. Do you embark on such a trip with a clearly defined plan?
SHG You never know beforehand which intervention or performance will work well visually. Sometimes your plan will have to be changed around completely. Contrary to expectations, the green inflatable boats we brought did not have the desired effect against the background of the green lake. I was later able to use them in a different way. Many ideas simply emerged on site. A lot depends on the weather conditions. I prefer great clarity and cloudless skies, but those aren’t always available. Then you have to try again later. I usually stay in a particulair area for several months. There’s a period when there’s a layer of water on the salt in the salt desert, which produces a fascinating reflection. At some other point I had a stroke of luck when a flock of flamingos flew over. If you manage to capture those birds sideways, every body gets a kick out of it. It was an event we really celebrated.
TR In 2006 your stay at Ineke Gudmundsson’s Chinese European Art Center resulted in a totally different set of photographs. In China too, you were looking for primordial characteristics and for nature-related ways of living.
SHG I was at an artist-in-residency in Xiamen, which, although it is a relatively small city, has a strong urban character. I soon wanted to explore the rest of the province. In Fujiian there are still a lot of classical roofs. They reminded me of boats. Thinking of my Iceland series, I wanted to place girls on a roof like that, making it seem as if they could paddle away any minute. Besides, I made a lot of vases. I worked fireworks into them and made them explode in wet clay, which resulted in unpredictable shapes. Of course, that is not a very customary way of working in a Chinese porcelain factory. My most unique experience were the weeks when I was a guest with a potter family on a remote mountain. Having breakfast with the family at six-thirty in the morning was an adventure because you witnessed how the members of such a family treat eachother and how they are satisfied with the limited, scarce meals of fat and a kind of grass. You get a better idea of what it means to be in China. During all my travels, I prefer staying at people’s homes, so that you get an impression of their daily lives. I try to adapt and be as undemanding as possible. And if there’s no food, that is simply bad luck. If your intentions are not pure, you won’t pull it off.
TR You left for the North Pole area with an orange colouring agent, among other things. What did you have in mind?
SHG Just like the salt desert, the polar plain near Igloolik is a completely colourless environment. This provoked fantasies about temporarily investing the place with colour. Making a coloured igloo was my greatest wish. The first time I went there in vain, but the second time I was eventually successful. I received a lot of cooperation because of an almost fatal event that brought me closer to the Inuit community. This happened when the boat in which I was under way with two seal hunters got lost when the fog came down and the wind changed direction – a phenomenon caused by climate change. It makes it impossible for the Inuit to orientate themselves. Fortunately we found a cabin, and a Hercules rescue plane came to drop food. After the fog had lifted we were saved by the people from the settlement. This was a turning point in how they looked at me. As for myself, I felt a strong urge to get to work right away. That’s the time when we took the photo of me being hidden under a polar bear skin. The polar bear is an animal that is finding it increasingly difficult to survive. The bear had been shot by a female hunter, who allowed me to borrow the skin for the photograph. You can see my bare legs, which could freeze any moment. To me, this photo is an icon of vulnerability. The intense experience I had when we drifted astray will always remain a gauge for my life. My father is close to me in moments like that. He died while I was in China three years ago. I take consolation from being able to talk to him in those circumstances.
TR Did you make the orange igloo yourself?
SHG Building an ice igloo is quite difficult – few people can do it. It was made by older men who knew the tradition. At first they refused. They did not see the use of it. They asked: Will you live in it by yourself, then? So we agreed that the orange igloo was going to be placed close to the school so that the children could come there to drink lemonade. It has stayed there for a long time. Normally the block for an ice igloo are cut from the sea ice, but for this one we used wooden moulds covered in plastic. We then poured water with the food colouring dye into them and took out the blocks when they had frozen. The local TV channel made a documentary about the ‘orange juice igloo’. As it was broadcasted several times, every body knew about it. It made it easier for me to come back.
TR Do you always manage to make people believe in the images that exist in your head?
SHG Art is a thing of vanity. Once in a while I have to drop a plan. But when I am convinced it is a good idea, I want to persevere. Not every one understands you when you say your aim is to make a beautiful image, to invent and realise it all by yourself.
TR Now that your work is increasingly shown within the context of photography – such as Paris Photo and Arles – you must be relating to the ideas of writers who published texts on photography.
SHG What I find interesting about photography is that, as Walter Benjamin put it, a photograph – which is in fact a mechanically reproduced object – does not have a pure presence. The power of photography is that after all it retains a certain volatility. Even if a photo is perfectly printed and framed, it can never compete with the status of, for instance, a sculpture consisting of ‘permanent’ materials. In her volume of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that while land-art works by Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria have mainly become known as photographic documentation, this does not lead us back to the original experience, although it may appear that way. So the photographs of such a work come to constitute a reality – the staging – but the independent reality of the photograph is the aim right from the start.
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