On the Doorstep. A Conversation with Johannes Gramm by Sabin BorşThe interview on Anti-Utopias
Sabin Borș: Your photographic art is marked by a constant reflection on self-definitions and the idea of identity. You always get involved in this process, and you become the subject of your own subjectivity. Why did you choose this approach?
Johannes Gramm: Not all of my works are of
such kind. But maybe nearly most of them are. The main reason for creating
images is the desire to know what something looks like.
Sabin Borș: Self portraits are not an ordinary construction, since the constitution of the photographic subject involves the destitution of the photographer’s own presence, observation, and representation. You are the photographer and the subject of your photography at the same time. Do the portraits coincide with the vision you had before taking the photograph? Are you the same you pictured yourself to be, or is it another image of yourself?
Johannes Gramm: As someone who is working
with self portraits in a wide variety of forms, you often get suspected to be
an egocentric freak. Self-images (I am always careful with the term “portrait”,
because it describes just one kind of conjuring-trick – a fake) are
nothing but a bemused look into the mirror in the morning with either a smile
Sabin Borș: Your photography is a constant quest for self-differences, self-errors, self-declinations, self-diversions, self-separations… How many images can one subject have, and where does the subject lie – in the difference instituted through photography, or in the absence that constantly avoids the subject’s presence?
Johannes Gramm: Each image is a subject itself. I think this is a slightly erroneous question but will try to answer nonetheless: you do represent a subject as an object in your thoughts. But it is a process: my self is just like a beloved landscape. Images however offer the illusion that a form or an abidance in this steady flow is possible. But they themselves are a process.
Sabin Borș: One of the most interesting aspects of your work is that the body is always very pictographic. Where do you find the difference between pictography and photography, and why did you choose the body as a photographic subject?
Johannes Gramm: To start with, pictography seemed to me very close to our language. Perhaps this assumption tempted me to choose that subject? Photography is a technique which I can use among others. It is not about its content, but a methodical choice. With the possibilities that digital technique has to offer, my photos are often closer to a musical composition than to “clean” photography… The annoying fact is that they are not audible for musicians, not brushed-up enough for painters and not documental enough for photographers. So they very often stand on the doorstep but are not allowed in. These are technical difficulties, which I have to fight here. In paintings of fine art, depicting the body or a person in a specific situation is probably the most beautiful motif you can deal with. It displays or tells so much, because we ourselves are human beings inhabiting human bodies. We are what we are, and we look as we look, so it’s the perfect and most beautiful occasion for: “What would it look like if…?”
Sabin Borș: Photography is supposed to unveil the evidential nature of our presence. Many times, this presence is hidden from our own view. Yet your art is never about the evidential. It speaks more about that which deserts the evidence. How does this relate to your concept of art?
Johannes Gramm: The belief in the
authenticity of photography is still unbroken. It so often has to serve as the
idolized witness, even though we usually return to graphical representations
when it comes to important tasks such as building homes or finding
Sabin Borș: Would you say your photographies relate to subjective expressions/states, or subjective acts? I sometimes see your images as lost acts, missed chances, missed roles…
Johannes Gramm: I can’t tell. In the manufacturing process that might not even matter. I guess that the “what, if…” feels so incredibly similar to the “What would it look like, if…” and so that is why this question comes up. And the images change according to preferences (language, images, cooking etc).
Sabin Borș: There is a strong and profoundly personal approach to the “attributes” of your subjects. In the Betteri series, the King, the Queen, and the Jack reveal a multitude of facets and expressions. You explore every reaction and try to understand the inner state of your subject…
Johannes Gramm: Yes, at least as far as the outer appearance of this approach is concerned. It is tricky to show the difference between a work of art that displays sympathy for the outer circumstances and an artist who creates images and understands the circumstances as a human being. As an example: A person thinks or acts in awareness of a political state of affairs AND creates art that may or may not be politically influenced.
Sabin Borș: A defining element in the Betteri series is that power and strength are always wounded. How did you reach this vision, and how do you see this outside your work?
Johannes Gramm: Power and strength combined with responsibility make one vulnerable. But not every scar gives evidence of strength and sense of responsibility! But this “being responsible for something” can be a reason to lose out – sometimes even a whole arm. And how do I conceive these ideas? All you need to do is to grow older and more experienced.
Sabin Borș: How close does reality come to our ideals? How real can our self-images become?
Johannes Gramm: I am convinced that all we
want is really possible – all what we opt for under will… An ideal that
is independent of the will is worthless to me and merely tolerable if at
all. Our self-image determines our reality and is shaped by it. But pictures
are always authentic, always reality because we create them!
Sabin Borș: You see the subject as playing out various scenes. We play a role. We hide behind an imagistic mask. Do you see this as a role play, or rather infinitely reflected images of ourselves? Do we come to understand ourselves by playing this role, or do we get lost in the mirrored reflections of ourselves?
Johannes Gramm: This is another question is directed towards the pictures, but ventures clearly into the realm of my private world. Every individual will find a different answer to the question in order to evaluate his or her own personal masquerade, not really revealing any more truth behind the masque. Masks can withhold or reveal the truth, depending on how they are used. Masks in the world of art are wonderful though, which is probably why I love clowns so much.
Sabin Borș: There are two more aspects I’d like to discuss with you regarding your approach. One of them is the naive facial expressions you involve. There is humor in your photography, yet it always points to something critical, even tragic at times. How do you understand the relation between humor and tragedy?
Johannes Gramm: Again it is a reference to the great clowns: George Carl, Oleg Popov, Grock, Charlie Rivel, Don Martino, Jango Edwards, etc.! Their kind of humor and comedy oscillates between sadness and joy or pity and mockery. However, the clown can embody even terror, as in Stephen King’s It. The great fascination of both love and suspense is possible failure. Humor and tragedy are based upon another and even justify each other. Humor, like love, is a form of this triumph over failure, without the power to eradicate it completely.
Sabin Borș: The other element, one that I’ve always found fascinating in your photographic art, is the irony… Art reveals a certain irony of the way we try to see or picture ourselves. What does irony mean for you?
Johannes Gramm: This question is indeed based upon the last one. Irony is a rhetorical form and all forms are fundamental elements of making art. This irony appears – a typical character trait of the people from the region I grew up in – often to be in very close proximity to cynicism. But we don’t need mockery in order to see or show something clearly. A clown’s heart always carries a strong love, thus lending the necessary energy to any particular form.