Your latest work——Ghost Witness, was created in China, what drew you here to shoot it? In which cities did you travel to shoot?
I first came to China in winter 2018 to participate in the residency programme at Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. I had originally intended do a project about the Yangshan deep water port, but it proved too difficult to gain access. So already in the first week of the three-month residency, I had to change my plans. I started going on long walks, trying to capture the very special light that’s created by the smog and winter weather. I had never seen anything like it. From there came the idea of making a kind of ghost story about a country rushing towards the future.
That winter I also visited Shenzhen and Chongqing. I came back again in the autumn of 2019, visiting Beijing, Tianjin and Guangzhou.
What is your impression and understanding of the dramatic changes that have taken place in China in recent decades?
This is a big question. As an outsider, I have of course not been there to see these changes take place. I can only talk about my personal observations. But when exploring these large cities, the traces of the transformations are everywhere, especially in the architecture. What made the greatest impression on me is the sheer speed with which everything is being done, and the scale of it.
Photography has a magical power, you take a piece of the city, a graffiti ad, a corner of a tall building, instead of photographing the whole, why do you prefer to photograph parts of an object? What is your strategy?
That’s a really interesting point of view. I’ve never seen it like that actually. I see it as capturing ”the whole corner” of that building, not ”just the corner”. All of my images are whole, and whatever is left out of the frame is not interesting to me. I achieve that by zooming and cropping, leaving only the bare necessities. Photography is always a reduction, because the world is not a rectangle. My strategy is simply to embrace that fact.
Ghost Witness © Mårten Lange
Ghost Witness © Mårten Lange
Since your last work, the mechanism, you've focused on themes involving technology, surveillance and urban society, what is your focus (or what are you trying to say) in Ghost Witness?
The same themes are still there, but in China I found that these issues were even more present. What is particular about China is the speed and size of everything. I had a feeling that when change comes this fast, the past suffers somehow. That’s where the ghosts come in. It is said that if a person dies before they could achieve some important goal, they will remain in the world as a ghost. And I thought that surely some of these new shopping malls, office towers and apartment blocks must be haunted by whatever they replaced. I used the twilight of the smog sunsets, the winter fog, and reflections on glass and steel to connect with these ideas in my photographs.
Many people say that your photographs are like sculptures. Do you think there is a malleability between photography and sculpture? How do you understand the heterogeneity between the two?
I really like this comparison. The connection between sculpture and photography is not obvious, since one is flat and the other is three-dimensional. But there are many similarities. A sculptor starts with a raw material and shapes it into something. A photographer starts with the whole world and shapes it into a picture, by reduction. There is the light, to take into account how the volume and texture of something is represented. And there is the stillness. A sculpture can not be seen while in motion, one must stop and consider every angle. In that respect it’s very similar to choosing and angle for making a photograph.
Ghost Witness © Mårten Lange
All of your work is in black and white, what is it about it that appeals to you?
I like how the monochrome image is very clearly a photograph. I sometimes feel that colour photographs look too much like reality, even though that is an illusion. Black and white photographs puts more weight on the shape of things, their ”objectness”. I often feel that removing colour is like lifting a veil to see what things really look like.
In my observation, the two earliest works shown on your website, "Machina" is a photograph of a haphazardly interwoven apparatus and "Crows" is a photograph of a tree trunk, there seems to be a strong relationship between the two works, or one could say that Machina is Crows and Crows is Machina, is this correct?
This is a great observation. In fact, I was doing a lot of landscape photography at the same time as making Machina. I’m interested in how complex system can appear so chaotic. Every part of the machine is there for some specific purpose, just as the trees grow where the soil and light is right. But to the naked eye, it just looks like a complete mess. In English, the word ”jungle” can be used to describe something that is too complex to navigate. It’s interesting to think about our ideas of order and chaos, and the blurry line between them.
When I look at all your works, whether they are plants, animals, buildings, etc., they all end up being a still life that you have materialized and they stand alone.
Yes, I think this is a good reading of my work. I like to look at one thing at a time. This is a luxury that photography offers us.
I also sense in your photographs a rigorous sense of order and composition, especially in the series on cities.
For sure. I think one reason I was initially attracted to photography was that it offered me a way to relate to the world, to organise things and bring order to chaos.
At first glance, your photos appear to be images full of visual elements, but if you look at the books, it's easy to see that narrative is hidden in your work, although it's not as obvious. How do you see the narrative in your work, given that there are always various interpretations of such invisible narratives?
The narrative is always open to interpretation. There is no right or wrong, but I do of course try to guide the reader through my vision by editing and sequencing the images a certain way. It’s like poetry. It’s not there to explain anything, but rather to offer a new vision and hopefully evoke an emotional or intellectual response.
How do you edit a photography book, as almost every piece of your work has been published?
The editing is a huge part of the work. For this book, I had a raw material of about 9000 images. This was reduced to around 1200 after going through all of it. Then I started putting the images together in various sequences, based on intuition. I made notes of what worked and what didn’t, saving every version of the edit on my computer as I went along. I printed out miniatures of every page to get an overview. Later in the process, I had help from the publisher, Loose Joints. They had immense patience with me and helped me to arrive at the final edit of 127 images.
During the epidemic, people's homes were quarantined and human activities plummeted, so we saw the atmosphere become more transparent, the water became clearer, and the noise level decreased, but it was clear to us that as the epidemic came under control, the improvement in the Earth's environment was only temporary. As an artist who works around both natural and man-made environments, what are your thoughts on such a phenomenon? What did you do during this special year?
I think that what happened can give us a new perspective, and see that there is no division between the natural and man-made. If shutting down all the factories means a change in the natural environment, wasn’t that natural environment to some extent man-made? Everything is connected. The thinking that nature is ”out there” and we are somehow separated from it is the reason we have these huge environmental challenges now.
Personally, this year was just a lot less busy than normally. I haven’t travelled as much as I used to do, but it gave me a lot of time to work on the book. I’ve tried to slow down and enjoy the empty time, photographing in the city where I live and writing a lot.