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Noora Sandgren. Publicity photo

Photo paper like skin 0

An interview with Finnish photo artist Noora Sandgren

Laura Brokāne

Noora Sandgren is one of six Finnish photo artists whose work can be viewed at the Fluid Matter exhibition at Art Station (Mākslas stacija) in Dubulti until January 15. The curators – Maira Dudareva, Tuula Alajoki and Inga Šteimane – based the name of the exhibition on Sandgren’s photo series Fluid Being, which unites old and modern photography technologies. The series is inspired by Julia Kristeva’s idea that the human being is a stranger to himself, uncharted territory, and this idea is enhanced by Sandgren’s unusual technical approach, which envisions a deeply personal involvement and spontaneity of the process.

In addition to an abstraction of philosophical ideas about fluid identity and meetings with the foreign in both one’s self and the world around us, Sandgren’s work also contains a very specific invitation to participate and empathise not only in the context of human beings. She sees this question of people’s openness to new knowledge in all of the work presented at the current exhibition in Dubulti, both her own and that of the other participating artists: Noora Isoeskeli, Hertta Kiiski, Sara Hornig, Riina Rinne and Kaisa Rautaheimo. She believes that the venue itself offers a new experience, because it is more open than the typical sterile, white, cube-type gallery. Sandgren’s solo exhibition Fluere opens in Lahti, Finland, on November 14.

Noora Sandgren. Work from photo serie "Dialogue"

Please tell us about your work Fluid Being, both in the conceptual and technical sense.

I’ve been working year round in the family garden. I started this project in 2015, and it’s still on-going. This is a durational project; I will go on with this project until I run out of material. I’m working with found material that used to belong to my father, so it’s outdated paper from the 1960s and 1970s and also large-format film. My father used to be a photographer, and I found a box of this material at our cottage, by our garden, which is located in another city further away from where I’m currently living.

I was curious about this material, so I decided to start interacting with it. At first I experimented with plants, but then quite quickly I felt that it’s not enough, and I replaced the plants with my own body. I wanted to put myself inside my own image, immerse myself inside it. My working process is super-slow, and I only produce one, maybe two, images a month. But I try to go to this special garden space every month. Because I’m working outside, the seasons change and affect my images, of course, which is also part of the point. If somebody would ask what this project is about, then I would say that it’s much more about the possibility – about what the process of becoming is – than about any specific topic. It’s much more about metamorphosis...

About my process. So, I go to this garden space to interact with this outdated material, which is unpredictable, so I can’t know if it’s reactive or not. But I’ve created for myself a performative score, which I repeat every time I’m there. The score is quite simple: I walk in the garden and stay there for 30 minutes, just sitting and breathing. I guess you could say I’m sort of breathing an image alive. This means intimate contact; just laying the weight of my head directly on the paper for half an hour. After that I place the sensitive paper in a black box to protect it from more light. It can sometimes take a month before I get around to scanning it, which is the second exposure. The light of the scanner is quite aggressive for the paper, which is not developed or fixed with chemicals. So, while the scanner is working on the surface of the image plaine, it’s sculpting the image visible for me for the first time, but paradoxically it’s also destroying the living image at the same time. My original images always stay in the state of becoming, alive, inside the protective black box.

At my solo show taking place in January at the Gallery Hippolyte in Helsinki, visitors might be able to see these originals, so I invite them to also experience the performative part of my process. Cyclical processes interest me, and the vulnerability of images. What role does the original material play in this process? I’m working with outdated found material, sensitive photo paper and film. Of course there’s the underlying goal of creating a sustainable process, so I try to avoid buying new materials. People have also donated materials to me, but for this Fluid Being series I’ve so far only worked with my father’s old material. Because I don’t use chemicals in my photographic process, that adds to the sustainability goal, too. Materiality itself, and the cameraless process related to it is at the same time archaic (when thought about from the history of photography and the human urge to make a mark) and gentle anarchy (if you think about the issue of control that has always played an important part in the field of photography). Because this is a much more unpredictable process. There’s also the time scale of this process, which is slow, unlike the super-fast circulation and attitude that is dominant in today’s world of photography.

Noora Sandgren. Work from photo serie "Dialogue"

How did you discover this interesting technique? 

Like I said, at first I was experimenting with plants. And, of course, when photography was not yet called photography, when several inventors were experimenting with light-sensitive material, there was also the founder of the negative-positive process, Henry Fox Talbot – he was also experimenting and called his first results ‘photogenic drawings’. At first he could not make the image the sun created on sensitive paper to stay, so those images were more like ghosts – appearing and then disappearing. He wrote about this process in his book The Pencil of Nature more than a hundred years ago. He admired how incredible it is that the sun would draw these images...

So my process is inspired by this, too, and what I do is I kind of strip photography to its very basics: the light-sensitive material, light and an actor. I’m not doing this from scratch; similar processes were done at the beginning of photography, and I’m sort of reflecting on the history of photography. However, I’m also adding to it by combining this new digital technology while also using a scanner. Artists who use a scanner to create art – scanographers – draw with the light of the scanner. To me it’s interesting to think of the specific time of the scanner – it has its own time, which is different from the time of the photograph...

My works consist of many layers of time, also the time of the garden and the light of the sun. It’s magical how the sun draws the outlines of myself. I consider my images to derive from closeness, and direct contact, which is perhaps many times not the case in photography, when often a photographer observes the world from a distance, sometimes with a wish to capture something. I guess sometimes photography can be quite ‘colonising’, if there’s the will to take – to own – whatever is composed in the maker’s frame... So definitely, I try to create something that could be called anti-colonising photography. My process is more about co-existence and co-creation.

I also consider photo paper analogous to skin; it’s a living, sensing and recording material, just like my skin is sensitive to the atmosphere. I’m interested in sensing, for example, how can you see with other senses, instead of only with your eyes? My practice is about seeing with all of the senses. It’s about close interaction with photographic material and the whole surroundings. During the exposure of these cameraless images, insects may walk on the same surface and leave their traces, sometimes also snow or rain leave their marks. The wind is always moving my hair. So I invite these seasonal changes and the whole environment to co-create these images. It’s about sharing the space and creating space for encounters.

Mostly I listen. Some could say that these photographs are blind photographs, because there’s no before-composition gaze behind the lens, there’s nobody arranging and making precise decisions beforehand about the desired outcome. Instead, there’s a lot of air and space for chance. That’s what you have to do if you want to cooperate and experience ‘with’ – you must give up some of your control. Photography has always involved the issue of control as a medium. There’s a lot of technique to be learned, and sometimes the situations seem to call for the photographer to organise and even dominate the happenings and actors. For me it’s more important to be free and perhaps even unlearn these rules. I guess if you want to invent something and want to find some new knowledge for yourself, that means accepting the fact that you might not know your outcomes beforehand. For me it’s about developing your senses and being more open to the dialogue. It’s about presence.  

Noora Sandgren. Work from photo serie "Dialogue"

You’re inspired by the theories of Julia Kristeva and her concept about identity that’s always in process, never completed. How do you use this idea in photography?

My background is in social psychology and psychology, so the viewpoint to Kristeva’s thoughts is psychoanalytical. If I’m sure of anything, then at least I’m sure that we are all strangers to ourselves. This is one of Kristeva’s topics, too. How can you relate to anyone else unless you recognise the other inside yourself? How can you learn to have empathy even in relation to the non-humans around you unless you’re aware of the other? Therefore I’m interested in this forming of a dialogue with the other, with the stranger. My process is about the state of being in flux, when the inner and outer world are experienced as being in flux. I’m aware of the magnitude of things I don’t know about myself and my surroundings. Be it, for example, the viewpoint of a squirrel: what is the world of that creature like? And how do the plants I’m growing experience these same surroundings? Certainly there’s a lot of knowledge that I don’t know, and I’m just trying to open up towards that direction, towards the unknown. It’s about opening up to the other, to one’s surroundings and inner geography. 

In some sense this is a political statement, too. 

Yes, why not. I’m pretty sure that the way to go forward is not only human-centred; we need to expand our understanding of knowledge, and for this we need flexibility. This can be thought of as an existential question. My philosophy is not only human-centred; it’s a curiosity towards other ways of knowing and experiencing. In all ages some have been curious about the way knowledge is constructed and have created practices to research this. My artistic process is a self-invented repetitive and durational practice for that. I use art as a research tool. Of course, this could be seen as a philosophical and ecological statement.

Also I’m interested in the materiality of the photograph and the whole medium of photography. During my career and studies I have explored different genres of photography and the theory, practice and philosophy related to it. I have walked many circles with photography, and now I’m at this space where I’m mostly working without a camera. It’s also freeing that there’s nothing between...there’s just me, the sensitive paper, the surroundings, the change. It’s a more direct way of sensing.

How did you become interested in photography? 

I suppose my father had a big impact. He’s a photographer, too, and always had that role in the family. We have a huge family photo archive, and at some point I will definitely do some project with that. So I have this experience of my father looking at me kindly through the lens, appreciating me with the act of photographing. I guess that for me the camera has always been a symbol of contact, and of curiosity about experiencing the world. My father always took me to all kinds of art exhibitions, not only photography but everything. So later I went to university, first to study social psychology and psychology, which I consider a good background to come to the area of photography. Because there’s a lot of dealing with the processes of interaction with others. Thanks to this background, I’m quite aware of, for example, the power structures existing in the many processes in photography. Therefore I can also think critically on its themes.

Since 2011 I’ve been studying at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, majoring in both art education and photography. Within these studies, I’ve been curious about gaining understanding about many mediums, not limiting myself to photography, but also working with, for example, painting, sculpture, performance art, installation... I would label myself as a visual artist using photography. My long-term, ongoing Fluid Being project consists of cameraless photographs as well as photographs created with camera, scanographs, sculptures, installation and sound. This project is constantly taking new forms.

Noora Sandgren. Work from photo serie "Dialogue"

How do you see yourself in the context of this Art Station Dubulti exhibition?

It’s a great honour for me to be exhibiting together with these artists. It’s also an interesting architectural space. We’ve been installing our works there with Hertta Kiiski for some days now, and I really appreciate how this art space is so alive; there’s a flow of people because it’s also a working train station. So Art Station Dubulti is definitely not a common white gallery with specific audiences. This gallery is a more hospitable place for anyone to enter. On the first floor is artwork by me, Hertta Kiiski and Noora Isoeskeli, and I feel that we make a really strong combination, because each of us has a different, very specific language and viewpoint, but we share an interest in the complicated relationship between the human and the natural environment. We all have different ways of researching this same theme. It’s a good ground for exhibiting together.

And on the second floor is the artwork by Kaisa Rautaheimo, Riina Rinne and Sara Hornig, which is overall more concentrated on documentary photography. I guess that when the curators named this exhibition Fluid Matter, it combines the different ways of using photography. The second floor is different than the first floor, but there are still some similarities to be found, if your think, for example, of the bigger theme of human nature and the ways of relating to one’s surroundings. We are six female photographers, but, as I understand, the curators selected the artwork only by its quality, so it’s just coincidence that it’s an all-female show.

Do you see any trends on the young Finnish visual art scene? 

I would say that there is still quite a strong emphasis on documentary photography, and that documentary is now also being exhibited in art galleries and museum shows more and more. Right now at the Finnish Museum of Photography there’s a great exhibition about abstraction in Finnish photography over the past one hundred years, 1917 to 2017. I’m happy to have one of my works exhibited there, too, in the great company of many imaginative artists and even some originals by masters like Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. If you go there and look at how artists have been experimenting with the medium of photography, you’ll see the variety. But I think in general there’s still less abstraction and more documentary, in one way or another, and, of course, conceptual projects.

My own work is about creating a unique method, and I’m quite sure that in terms of process and aesthetic it’s located on the margins of Finnish, or any other, current photography. But thinking of abstraction, in general I’m not so interested in categorisation, and I think that all photography is inherently a sort of abstraction of the world. Documentary photography, too. I’m not so keen on genres or the urge to categorise things in general. My whole work is about the opposite of this. But if you ask about current trends, I would say that the documentary and conceptual ways of using photography are perhaps more common.