Interview by Marina Caneve for CALAMITA/À
Matthieu Gafsou (CH, 1981) lives and works in Lausanne, Switzerland. After university education (master of arts in philosophy, literature and cinema), he studied photography at the School of Applied Arts in Vevey. Since 2006 he participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions and published four books. He received in 2009 the famous “Prix de la fondation HSBC pour la photographie” and was selected in 2010 in the exhibition reGeneration2. Since 2012 he teaches at the University of Art and Design Lausanne (ECAL). In 2014, he has is first solo show in a world-class institution, The Musée de l’Elysée with the Only God Can Judge Me series.
CALAMITA/À: You started out by studying philosophy, literature and cinema. What made you shift towards photography? How do you think these studies influenced your photography, which are your most important references?
Matthieu Gafsou: It wasn’t really a shift. I discovered photography as an amateur during my studies at the university and my hobby became a necessity. It was obvious that I wanted to be a photographer. I think I was lucky to study other things than art or photography because it gave me a background that is not directly linked to my activity but can nourish it. On the other hand artists were really sacralized at the university and it was really hard for me to consider that I could be one of them. Also, I wasn’t a very practical guy and had to learn to be one. My references are different for each project (I like to do research, it reassures me). But to me it was really essential to study philosophy: I believe it helped me to learn how to read, how to prepare a project.
A/À: As you may know, our site specific project is located in the Dolomites so our focus is mostly on mountainous landscape. Making reference to ‘Alpes’, what attracted you to mountains? How is already possible to work in connection with the sublime? There are so many relevant photographic works concerning mountains (landscape, energy, tourism…). Which are your favourite ones?
MG: What attracted me was maybe the challenge of being confronted to a very popular subject, which is part of the cultural identity, of the place I live in. I also like this idea of the «classical subject». But I had the idea of the project in… Scotland during holidays. I felt that my presence and the presence of other tourists was threatening what we were looking for: a lonely and «authentic» (is this a myth ? A commercial aspect ?) experience of the landscape.
Regarding the sublime, well, it is of course a theoretical concept but first of all it is an experience. As being a user of the mountains I had this strong feeling that my feelings were jeopardized by other people, by the crowds around me. But I also wanted to believe that something pure was still possible, that moments of a real landscape experience could be possible.This was the conceptual starting point of my project, those two contradictory arguments…
I had a lot of artists in my mind while doing the project. Of course the romantics ones (Turner, Friedrich, Carus, Cozens,…) but also many photographers. For example some swiss artists of my generation had been working on the subject (Benoit Vollmer, Yann Gross, Raphael Hefti, Joël Tettamanti,…). But I was also influenced by the landscape theories (Alain Roger, Michaël Jakob, Augustin Berque, Marc Augé) and I really tried to deal with them in my project. Of course I had Walter Niedermayr or Martin Parr in my mind but it’s so obvious that it may not be relevant.
A/À: Is there an attraction to geopolitics, politics and economics in your choice of subjects? Which is the place of religion?
MG: I have to admit that the way I choose my subjects is not totally rational. There is a part of elective affinity of course, then I have to consider the visual potential of the project and then I stop the fantasies and do some research. I read, try a first picture (often I don’t even reach this stage of the process) and doubt, hesitate,… To answer your question, well, everything is related to politic. Some of my projects are linked to an attraction for geopolitics, economics and so on. But it’s not a necessity. Regarding religion, let’s say I think there is an analogy between art and the sacred… That’s why I made a specific project related to the catholic church in a Swiss canton, Fribourg. But all my projects deal directly or indirectly with the issue of the sacred and of its disappearance.
A/À: About your work ‘Surfaces’ I can read Matthieu Gafsou seeks coherence in the incoherence of a country (Olivier saillard, in the book Surfaces, edited by Actes Sud and Prix de la fondation HSBC pour la photographie). I’m really interested in this point. I mean coherence but mostly incoherence is really important in photography.. How do you approach to a territory, at its hidden histories and incoherences?
MG: The risk, when doing a project is that the seek of coherence (in terms of style, subjects, aesthetics) makes it look uniform. And I really like this idea that you can never reduce anything to something simple. The more you dig, the more things look complex. Incoherence is a philosophical matter. The world is absurd, incoherence is what we daily experiment. I need this to be part of my projects. While working, I just try to be honest, to admit that my natural inclination – making things look homogeneous – is wrong. I struggle against strict linearity. But I also need the project to be coherent. It’s a delicate balance. For example, in the Surfaces series, I used tones schemes. The white for the modernity irruption. The grey for the ruins and the yellow (desert…) for the silent and strange places.
A/À: In your last projects you started to collect objects next to people and landscapes. Which is the relationship between memory and objects? Which is the reason that made you start photographing objects?
MG: To be honest, I don’t think that I started to collect objects having in mind a concept like memory. A photographer should be interested by this question but I am not. For me, it was more about documenting objects that are related to a certain kind of ritual. Even a garrott is linked to a ritual and this was essential for me. Because from the religious fact to drug addiction we are always seeking for structure and for sense. Objects also have a rhythmic function in my series. I recently became more interested in the way a series can work and it was essential for me to deal with different typologies of photographs. So objects do also have that practical function of breaking the linearity of a series based on landscapes and portraits.
A/À: On October 9, 1963, at 10:39pm 260 million cubic meters of rock broke off from the top of Monte Toc, on the border between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. It fell into the reservoir of the Vajont Dam, producing an enormous wave of at least 50 million cubic meters of water. The dam, completed in 1959 and one of the biggest in the world at the time, did not suffer any serious damage. However, flooding destroyed several villages in the valley and killed almost 2,000 people. A third of the population of Longarone, the largest village downstream of the dam, perished. (from ‘The Environment & Society Portal’).
In ‘Terres compromises’ you write «these countries seems to have no history». Concerning Calamita/à, our statement says that Vajont territories are frozen in an eternal present. How do you approach at Trauma?
MG: There’s a lot of aspects in your question! This idea of an eternal present fits our time and especially the occidental time based on consumption. The historical fact becomes entertainment and it doesn’t really have huge consequences on our daily lives (financial crisis have incidences but they are recurrent and now sound like a fatality of the time, a norm). It’s really odd but I feel to live in an unhistorical moment of history. Regarding the trauma, even if I wasn’t thinking of my project Terres compromises in that way, I have to admit it may be a very strong idea. I had the feeling that a specific part of Israeli society lives in a nihilist world where fun, pleasure, beauty, feast are essential. But it may be a way to flee from an anxiety linked to the war. Palestinian people who are more directly confronted in their daily life to the war do not have this strange relationship to the world. Well, it’s the way I saw those countries and I do not pretend to say any truth.
A/À: Tourism is often present in the places of Trauma. Do you have some considerations to share with us about tourism that you’ve found – and of course photographed – in the Alps or in Israel and Palestine?
MG: This question is more relevant of course for Israel and Palestine. Tourism reveals the pure absurdity of this war. People are dying but we still visit those places as if we were in a peaceful place. Things seem quiet and normal. To show tourists in my pictures also helps me to remember who I am: a stranger. A stranger to the cultures I meet. To the daily life of the countries I visit. So I have to keep in mind that my feelings could bend me to wrong directions. When I’m there I am a tourist, even if I also pretend to be a photographer or an artist.
A/À: One of the pictures of this project represents the Wailing Wall, that is a kind of simulacrum. How do you approach at this kind of objects? Why was it so necessary to insert this picture in your work?
MG: It was for its symbolic value. Almost everyone is able to recognize it, to identify it. But my point of view makes this place look like a stage. So the symbol becomes as you say a simulacrum. I like this idea that we cannot really catch what is real or what is not. This place is also a touristic highlight. And for me it was important, as absurd was one of the main themes of the Terres compromises project, to remind that this very symbolic place, a few steps from Temple Mount (that crystallizes war between Palestine and Israël), was also an entertainment object. Mass tourism annihilates the symbolic values of things.
A/À: Today, it seems to me that one of the only possibilities to talk about difficult situations and to escape reportage is to aestheticize. Please tell us your opinion about this point.
MG: Well I think you’re right. But it is a very complicated question. For example, considering my Surfaces series, even if I don’t totally reject it today I have to admit that my aesthetic choices made the images fit a dominant scheme that may be linked to globalisation. I wasn’t aware of following the bright, white, clean visuals of firms like Apple or Swiss banks for example. For me white was the way to show the simulacrum, to express that the reality is contaminated with fiction. So yes, to aestheticize is a good way to isolate certain things from chaos but we need to do it with caution. Another example: in my last series, Only God Can Judge Me, which is about drugs addicts and their world, I chose to decontextualize the portraits and give them a pictorial character to remind humanity of the models. But I was attacked by some people thinking I hadn’t the right to show them that way because the truth (what does that mean ?) is too different. Because drug addicts should have been shown in a poisonous environment.
A/À: La Chaux-de-Fonds is a city devastated by fire in 1794 and after reconstructed on the grid-model of american modern cities. The city had the possibility to have a second life. In your opinion is it possible and important in photography to talk about history? In this case, how?
MG: In this case, I refused to show the grid. Or just very discreetly. I also avoided the Le Corbusier houses (he was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds and built his first projects there). Today the city is in a very peripheral position and struggles with unemployment. I was more curious (and moved) by the geometrical sadness of this city and by the strong Uncanny feeling I had being there. So in this case it’s more about experience than history. But knowing the history of the city helped me to show it in an unhistorical way.
A/À: What are you currently working on? What is in store for you in 2015, photographically or otherwise?
MG: I’m working on a project that may take 2 or 3 years to be achieved. Right now I’ve made some abstract pictures of light trails and contrails in the sky… But I’m not yet really dealing with the core of this series, called Ether. It is a prologue. It will be about science and the fantasies that it induces today.