I want to show things you cannot see with your eyes.
We do not see the world with our eyes so much as assemble it in our mind. While visual information is collected by the eyes and converted into nervous signals, that ‘data’ passes into various parts of the brain to be analysed and put together according to what is expected and our memory of the things we have seen before. Only about twenty per cent of what we perceive visually from moment to moment is actually passing through our eyes, the majority is constructed from ‘rules’ and information already stored in the brain that are triggered by the selectively filtered stream of visual data.
Photographs do not show the world as we perceive it. The camera freezes a fraction of a second and preserve it. The illusion of three-dimensional space is represented in a flat two-dimensional plane and removed from the fourth dimension, the unrelenting flow of time. We have learned how to look at photographs and understand their relation to the world we perceive. But this is an act of translation, not simply recognition.
It is these qualities of visual perception and photographic convention that the Swiss artist Dominique Teufen explores in her work. The landscapes she photographs are not what they first appear to be. The black-and-white environments are not the result of using monochrome film, but a constructed three-dimensional reality in which there are only shades of grey. However, her images are more than just a visual hoax. The means by which the images are made – the material substance in which the images are created; the technology of the Xerox photocopier; the gleaming surface of photographic paper; the nature of the pulse of light emitted by a photoflash, so quick that we cannot register what it reveals with the human eye – these are as important in her work as the texture and hardness of stone is to a sculptor. And, above all, the work is not only made with imagination, but it invites the imaginative engagement of the viewer. This creative conversation could be said to define the very nature of art: two imaginations meeting in the art object – the one who created and the one who recreates in their own mind’s eye.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Dominique: It all started back in 2010. I concluded my Master of Fine Art studies with an installation called ‘Afgelopen’ [it’s over]. The scenario was a room where a party had been. The people had gone, but the remnants of party were still visible: bottles, balloons, confetti and so on. I ‘translated’ this colourful scene into various shades of grey.
I recreated the objects using grey paper and spray paint. I used a black-and-white photocopier to make monochrome versions of the wine labels, cigarette packets and even cigarette butts. The installation became a giant, three-dimensional walk-through black-and-white photograph. To be in the colourless room was to be balanced on the tip of reality and illusion as the brain recognised objects that ought to be coloured but were as if in an old photograph.
After that, I began working with photography, continuing to explore this ‘grey zone’; not simply the grey of a photograph or a photocopy, but the visual ambiguity that disturbs our perception of what we believe to be real and what we believe is illusion. It’s a form of creative deception.
How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’?
I want to show things you cannot see with your eyes. I am searching for what could be, rather than simply photographing ‘what is’. I am curious about photography; I let it guide me and do not try to control it too much. My mind stays open for surprises! Where’s the fun in creating something when you already know how it will look in the end?
You are perhaps best known for your extended series of landscape images, ‘My Travels Through the World on my Copy Machine’. How did this series begin?
When I was using the photocopier to make elements of the ‘Afgelopen’ installation, I made a lot of experiments with different materials placed on the glass plate of the copy machine. One day, as the printed paper slid from the copier machine, I saw my first mountain. Wow!! What a surprise. I was fascinated and started experimenting. That was the beginning of my wonderful journey.
How did you craft these scenes?
I started with crumpled paper and then began experimenting with many other materials: plastic, Plexiglas, foils, flour, cotton wool, even coffee grounds. I never pre-visualise. I let the materials and the copy machine guide me.
The first step is always the same: I place some crumpled paper or other material on the copy machine and press ‘start’. I keep working with the materials – crumpling, shaping, adding other materials – until a scene begins to emerge. I can also control the exposure by opening or closing the lid. An open lid makes the image darker, while closing it makes it brighter. I keep making prints until I have the one I like best. Then I photograph the A3-size photocopy with my camera, just like a snapshot taken on holiday. After that, I destroy the photocopy so that all I have left is the photograph. The imaginary journey into a believable reality has begun. I can travel to distant lands and other times without ever leaving my studio!
Is that how you made ‘Glacierlake’?
Yes. It is just various pieces of crumbled paper and plastic, one of which was singed with a flame. Yet the ‘scene’ feels majestic and tranquil. It reminds me of my childhood when we went hiking in the mountains… in early spring when the snow was still high but already beginning to melt.
What is it about a scanner that you prefer to a camera – at least for the intermediary stages in the process of making these images?
A copy machine works very differently from a camera. It has a short depth of field. Materials that touch the glass plate are light, while those a short distance away appear much darker. I never simply scan the materials direct to my computer. I always make a paper photocopy, creating a flat image which I then photograph with my camera. I enjoy that I cannot control the process. The copy machine transforms these simple materials into something that I could not intentionally create or even imagine. I can only guide the process, which makes me not so much the maker of my art, but a witness to its making.
For example, I made ‘Watercave’ just using wet cotton wool and some scraps of paper. Very simple materials. The result was a total surprise – wild and mysterious! I never would have guessed that these materials could be so beautifully transformed by the machine. I only had to make slight adjustments and the ‘scene’ was finished. In my imagination I was already paddling a boat in a cave with wild rocking waves. It gives me goose bumps imagining myself on that journey.
What makes this ambiguity interesting for you?
I don’t see the point of showing things that are already there. In my work, photography accurately captures every detail and yet those details come together to create a new visual possibility, another reality. Things that you believe to be familiar are revealed as illusions and the brain sounds an alarm. These images challenge the way we perceive reality simply by the way things appear to be. You cannot believe that you are being deceived, even when you know you are.
How do people respond to this deception?
I remember, when I was exhibiting the very first ‘landscapes’, there was an elderly couple looking around the show and muttering. They thought my landscapes were technically bad and wished I made photographs of nature that were smooth and nice. They thought the landscape were of real places! I was very happy about this remark, because it showed me that the illusion was indeed perceived as reality.
Later that evening the couple came back to speak to me. By then, they had discovered how the images were made. We ended up having a lively and inspiring chat about the project. For me, that is worth much more than simply hearing someone say they like it. I think these images get deeper than that, and they make a longer lasting impression on the viewer.
You began your artistic career studying stone sculpting. While your recent work uses materials that are much less substantial, I sense an ongoing interest in the materiality of things. Is that the case?
After stone sculpting, I move on to work with plaster, clay, wood, and a lot of other less familiar art mediums. I made sculptures or installations using these materials, I gave them form and meaning. Working with photography, my approach has shifted. Now, I am more interested in exploring the materiality of the things I use. I sculpt with light and shadow, but unlike stone carving, I do not have the finished artwork already in my imagination. It is the device [the photocopier] that transforms these materials. I can only guide the process, searching for the visual qualities which I then show you in the form of a photograph. Through the medium of the photography, I can show you what I see and how I experience life much more directly than I ever could in my stone sculptures, installations or drawings.
One tends to think of photography as the capturing of something that one sees. But in the case of the ‘Blitzlicht-Skulpturen’ [Flashlight Sculptures] the thing seen was only ever possible to view in the photograph.
That is true. Photography was invented so that we could immortalise moments we had witnessed and keep them forever. But how would it be if a photograph was able to capture a moment that did actually exist, but for such a short time that it could not be perceived by the human eye. I found that idea intriguing and inspiring. With my training in sculpture, I had the idea of creating a ‘light sculpture’ that would only exist for a fraction of a second. In my flashlight sculptures I shift the ‘decisive moment’ from the photographer’s keen eye to the specific characteristics of the camera apparatus. [Documentary photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson believed that there is a specific moment in any unfolding scene when the essence of the scene reveals itself. The skill of the photographer is in capturing the exact instant. He called that instant the ‘decisive moment’.] Made by the flashlight, too brief to be registered by the eye but captured by the camera, the photograph becomes the only witness that the ‘flashlight sculptures’ existed.
How they were made?
The basic structures use mirrors along with mirrored cubes and pyramids to construct geometric forms stacked in a corner. Viewed with the eye, these structures do not look very interesting. It is only in the moment of taking picture – the moment the flashlight illuminates the structure – that the complex light reflections create a brief new reality. The pulse of light bounces back and forth countless times, and the overlapping play of light creates an immaterial symmetry like a Rorschach inkblot. Even when one knows how the image was made, it is impossible to deduce the path of light that created these luminous new forms.
‘Gefaltete Schatten belichtet’ (Folded Shadows Exposed) also plays with reflection, but this time the illusion is multiplied through the process of copying and recopying.
The idea picked up on a theme I had been working on back in 2011: the paper trompe l’oeil. My intention was to ‘mislead’ the spectator by creating the illusion of a third dimension where there are only two. To some extent, that is true of any photograph – it represents three dimensions in a flat two-dimensional print. However, I wanted push this to an extreme by reducing the complexity; by showing something very simple that still maintains the illusion of three-dimensions. I think these optical illusions beautifully illustrate the disparity that can arise between appearance and reality.
Your wider artistic practice spans more than just photography, to include sculpture, drawing and installation. While much of that work sits outside the focus of this magazine, I would like to discuss two installations that build on your photography and which situate your ideas on reality and illusion in three-dimensional space. First is ‘Het huis achter de heuvel’ (The House Behind the Hill). How was it made?
This installation was created for the thirtieth anniversary of De Fabriek, an art project space in Eindhoven [the Netherlands]. During a one-month residency, I lived in a tent in the middle of the exhibition space. During that time, I made black-and-white photocopies of all the things I used, transforming everything to a grey monochrome. At the end of the project, I even photocopied the tent, creating a same-size replica. Over the period of one month, my temporary home and everything I used there was piece-by-piece transformed into a three-dimensional black-and-white photographic memory.
Returning to the landscapes that we spoke about at the beginning of the interview, the other installation I would like to ask about is ‘Selfiepoint’. First, can you describe how this works.
The ‘Selfie Point’ installation is based on the picture called ‘Glacierlake’ that I described earlier. That picture forms a backdrop. It is big – four metres high and six metres across. There is a notice on the floor in front of the picture that marks the ‘selfie point’. The visitor stands there to make a selfie on their cell phone.
What ideas were you exploring in this installation?
In today’s age of smartphones and never-ending self-expression on social media platforms, the selfie serves to showcase one’s lifestyle: they prove we actually visited this place or ate that meal or danced with those friends. I wanted to create a critical and, at the same time, ironic reference to these social phenomena. Here the selfie becomes a deceptive proof that this wondrous landscape actually exists, and we were there. It is an illusion; but does the selfie make the fiction more real, more true?
What have you learned in the process of making these images?
I call it the double-click effect. We live today in a world of fast consumption and overwhelming visual impressions. To absorb all of this, we generally engage the world as ‘first click’ consumers who perceive and operate only on the surface of things. Through my work, I want to provoke the ‘second click’… a deeper thought, something that requires more than just a glance. This double click effect leads to a more complex consideration and a deeper perception. In the West, we live increasingly in a world of fake news. In this situation, double clicking – thinking deeply and beyond the surface of things – becomes essential. Just consuming information is an obsolete strategy without a future.
Dominique Teufen was born in Davos, Switzerland, in 1975. She first studied stone sculpting in Zürich, before moving to Amsterdam where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in sculpture from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 2002. In the years that followed, she worked and exhibited in Melbourne, Zürich, London and New York. After moving back to Amsterdam, she attained her Master of Fine Art in 2010 at the Saint Joost Academy of Fine Art and Design in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. She has won several awards including the Association of Creative Photographers Young Talent Award for Photography, Zürich, in 2103. In 2018, she received the international LensCulture Emerging Talent Award and in 2019 the HSBC prize for photography. She lives and works in Zürich and Amsterdam.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was ‘ways of seeing’.