EDENS submission in fLIP27:CONNECTIONS
Artist submission into Themed feature on London Independent Photography Magazine Issue 27
fLIP is published three times per year and each issue has an overarching theme. Our primary aim is to showcase work from our membership of over 500 photographers, and to engage readers in a wider dialogue concerning diverse approaches to photography. The magazine is funded by member subscription fees and contains no advertising. fLIP offers a truly independent voice for photographic practice in London!
POLAR ESCAPADE, TATLER TRAVELLER INDONESIA
In conversation with Tom Yotes on my participation at The Arctic Circle Org Autumn Art and Science Residency, 2013
Travel to the Arctic with Kinez Riza
1. How long were you in the Arctic, when did you travel there, and with whom did you travel?
I was part of an artist residency program hosted by The Farm Inc, New York. The program is called The Arctic Circle Org and takes place on the island of Svalvard/Spitsbergen. In late September to early October 2013, we embarked on an 18-day sojourn into the High Arctic onboard a Barquentine tall ship, making regular landings in the wilderness. We also visited Pyramiden – an abandoned Russian settlement – and the Svedrup Science Station in Ny Alesund where the North Polar Institutes are (Chinese, Korean, Indian, French, Norwegian). We used our time during the residency to produce work and collect research material. There were 27 artists onboard from the US, Canada, Korea, China, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Also present to facilitate the residency is the director Aaron, 7 crew, 3 guides/polar bear guards and one of their beloved dog Nemo.
2. How did you get to the Arctic, and why did you choose the country as a travel destination/artist-led expedition? What made the Arctic so special?
My flight plan went from London to Oslo, then a short transit in Tromso before landing in Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard/Spitsbergen. Another artist recommended me the residency programme, it correlates with what I do in my practice that involves artist-led expeditions and location based production. My work explores representations of reality and identity in lesser-known belief systems and nature as an allegory to human experience. I have been focusing on symbology, iconology and mythology in my most recent works, so within the polar climes, especially those in the North, the prevalence of Inuit culture and its application was of great interest to me, particularly the relationship between the Sun and the Moon expressed anthropomorphically. Cultural productions in isolated environments fascinate me because there is a tension between the inner and outer worlds of men that speak of deeply rooted wisdom and poetry. Our engagement and disengagement with the environment suggest that a more abstract reality is present. Personally I have found a deep affinity with nature and romanticize it quite profoundly within my work. Last frontiers appeal to me very much, I acquired a book by Captain Scott titled ‘The South Polar Times’, which is fictional magazines created by Captain Scott and his crew during the harsh Antarctic winters, he highlights that ‘as the light diminishes outside, it’s time to look within’. Light it seems symbolically represents a huge influence in the emotive experiences of the Inuit, and there is definitely a more profound relationship with light emanating from heavenly bodies in the Arctic. The shadows there are blue, the sun sits low on the horizon and grows ever lower as the weeks pass into the winter months. Where the summers are bathed in the midnight sun, the winters are plunged into a darkness that doesn’t end until spring. I wanted to see light in the North.
3. What was the purpose of the expedition, and what were the highlights?
I had done some prior research into Inuit mythologies about the relationship between the sun and the moon. These were to be represented visually through my artwork that I produce during my time with the residency programme and afterwards. The residency allows you to engage with your ideas as well as discussing it with the other wonderful artists onboard. It was a very productive time, we had a few days in Longyearbyen before sailing to get acquainted to one another and have some homely comforts in very resourceful Longyearbyen before sailing north. Longyearbyen is a very peaceful place, flanked by two snow-capped mountains on either side and opens into the Krossfjord, every morning low mist would hang above the waters and suspend the town into a place sitting above the clouds. There are all the amenities necessary in Longyearbyen, the population consists mostly of scientists and university students. Most of my last ports before embarkation are never well equipped for last minute things I needed to get. Longyearbyen is traditionally a coal mining town, there were abandoned mines on several slopes on the mountains and some of us ventured up there to use as subjects to our work. When we finally set sail on the 3rd day, we got acquainted to the crewmembers of the S/V Antigua. Our captain was a captain at his best, methodical, precise, and efficient. He had two shipmates with him and the three of them essentially run the whole ship. The other four service staff kept to our quarters and filled our bellies with food, they were wonderful companions throughout the journey. Not least of all were the wilderness guides and our armed company in the event a polar bear becomes a hazard, these were Sarah Gerats, Ashild Rye and Theres Arulf. All of them were women, very competent, strong, humourous and alert. Sarah had brought along her husky Nemo, which was quite ironic to have an essence of the famous Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s 10 000 Leagues under the Sea on our ship.
Every day of our journey was a highlight. Towering and thundering glaciers, some 400 meters high, flanked our anchor points. The wilderness landings and the subtleness of the tundra ecosystem made everything there move at a slower pace. Time stopped, the sun was elusive, hiding behind towering white mountains and giving us short bursts of luminosity in a day, and when she did the ice glowed crystalline. The ice have ages, old ice are the deepest blue, young ice that are ready to calve are lighter blue, inactive glaciers are grey, and 10 year old air bubbles trapped in them made their escape as they melted. At night when the ice melts the crackling sounds like a strange orchestra, and the occasional ‘BOOM, BOOM’ of the thundering melting glacier rips a course through the fjord. At night we can see numerous satellites and the International Space Station circulating the sky. The Northern Lights were shy, we were too far north to see them as frequently as we’d like to. When the snow came and everything dispersed into a white mirage the silence and the stillness was even more pronounced. The Arctic is a good place for light, for silence and for stillness.
4. How often do you travel in a year?
A fair amount, I plan and budget for at least one expedition and a maximum of three because it’s quite taxing in my brain to get all the post-production ideas together and represent it concretely in my work after each trip. This year I am planning on exploring the underground karst (cave) systems with the Acintyacunyata Speleology team in Central Java, continuing my work with the archeologists in the Geology Museum (Bandung), ARKENAS and the University of Wollongong on excavation sites in Sulawesi, and hopefully participate in a residency programme in Mongolia in the Orkhon Valley if I am accepted.
5. What was your first impression on the Arctic?
Human presence in the Arctic was quite prevalent surprisingly; they have very strict laws of conduct in arctic waters and land. The two settlements we visited aside from Longyearbyen were the Svedrup Science Station in Ny Alesund and an abandoned Russian socialist settlement called Pyramiden. There is an allure to the north and our territorial nature is shown by the various nations who have laid claim on settling there despite the obvious climate challenges. Svalbard is considered international territory, and the earliest recorded settlement was in the early 1900s. All this human activity was strange to me. When we sailed into the wilderness that felt more like what I had imagined of the arctic previously.
6. Where did you stay in the Arctic? How did you find the accommodation?
We stayed in a lodge in Longyearbyen then shared a cabin with a German artist Tina Kohlmann onboard the Antigua. It was far more comfortable than any of my other trips, we had three hot meals and tea time in a day, warm rooms, hot showers, a far cry from my jungle stint in Borneo. The Antigua is a tall ship and the sails were out occasionally, we helped Captain Joe, First Mate Mo and Second Mate Maarten put up the sails and dismantle them. I think the tall ship was very complementary to my romanticized venture into the arctic wilderness, it certainly provided a beautiful subject anchored off the fjords. The ship was well equipped, we had a Zodiak to get closer to the icebergs and glaciers, the protocol being that you cannot get closer than 200 m off the glacier in the event a block of ice decides to fall on top of you. The Zodiak facilitated all our landings as well. There is a main room onboard decked in polished wood with rows of books on the sides and glinting portholes where we would do our work. It was all old-world charm.
7. Can you share with us your itinerary while you were there?
We lifted anchor from Longyearbyen at 17.30 and sailed the Krossfjord to a luminous late afternoon sun, the landscape was still very much tundra and earthy soil can be seen on the grounds despite the patches of snow. We made our first anchor at a bay called Trygghamna, it was still light well into the evening and grew dark around 23.00. The colour of the light shifted between greys and yellows.
We slept moored off the bay in Trygghamna and did our second wilderness landing the next day, there was a curious ringed seal that would approach us within metres of the zodiac. We ventured towards the glacier on the other side of the bay as well. We lifted anchor at 13.00 and started sailing North for the rest of the day.
Captain Joe and the guides set us a route to Magdalenefjord, which was at one point a whaling station. There was a ringed seal again doing jumps a few metres away from the ship, it followed our zodiac during the landings too. Magdalenefjord was an interesting site, there were chain pegs stuck to the ground to rope off areas when people were buried on a sizeable mound a long time ago. These were off limits to us, partially because permafrost in the ground would push up whatever was buried to the surface, so in the abandoned whaling area you could see a bit of spine sticking up from the ground, as we were not allowed within the area of the human cemetery I did not see someone’s femur sticking out to trip over. The tundra ecosystem is so delicate and I started to fully grasp how fragile it was in Magdalenefjord. Where the old whaling station had been was covered in bright green moss, all the nutrients from blubber sucked into the ground and facilitated the growth of this bright spongy carpet that was soft to tread on. All small things were cultural heritage and we were not allowed to take them with us, may it be bones, antlers, feathers, or even rocks in certain areas.
We conduct a pretty strict procedure during our landings, the three armed guides would form a triangle space where we were allowed to work. Sarah, Theres, and Ashild would position themselves to get a clear view of our working areas and they do a recon landing to check for polar bears before we proceed. If a polar bear is sighted during our landing we will efficiently make our way back to the landing point where our life preservers are to get on the zodiak, but if the bear would come closer within 100 metres one of the guides will fire a flare gun, if the bear comes closer to about 50 metres they would have to shoot to kill. The polar bears are highly curious, dangerous and will not hesitate to seek out a warm-blooded meal, especially if they are very hungry. Jane Isakson, an artist and Olympian who lives in the Yukon Territory is quite accustomed to bear tracks, she sighted a polar bear footprint on the sand. Her and I arranged to do an evening landing with Ashild to do our work, and after dinner the three of us set foot on Magdalenefjord again. This was one of my favourite moments there (even though there were many), the bird cries slowed and the ice crackling was better heard. Clouds covered the sky and then it was twilight. Twilight in the arctic lasts for more than an hour, we were suspended in all the deep blues of that magic hour and were wrapped in silence save from the wind and distant waves crashing to shore. The lights on the boat twinkled and reflected quite beautifully over the water. The three of us contemplated camping out there for the evening, even though we knew it wasn’t going to happen. We helped Jane set up her Ursa Major constellation on the ground using candles, and they helped me set up my tableaux vivant set. It was disheartening to return to the ship that evening.
The next morning was a glacier visit in Waggonwaybreen, we lifted anchor at 09.30 and took the zodiak in and out of the glacier front where icebergs the result of calving would float. By noon we set sail to Hamiltonbukta through Smeerenburgfjord and sighted our first polar bear from the ship at Laurentiusbukta. The bear was large, white, cuddly, and lazy. It slept on the rocks close to shore, and a good pair of binoculars outsmarted our best telephoto lenses. Bear sightings set all of us in frenzy, even though the bear wasn’t as interested. Seals were sighted during sailing, and a walrus in Sabinenodden. We reached Hamiltonbukta on the fifth day and made landings, a few of us went for a hike while the rest worked within the triangle space. By late afternoon it started snowing like mad and I spent a good useless hour on deck scrubbing the snow only to have it pile up again, it was just so wonderful seeing all that snow. We started collecting icebergs for drinks, as it seems to be the idyllic thing to do to have an iceberg cooling your drink. The ice pick axe was dented by the end of the trip, but this was mostly the first mate Mo’s doing.
The next day we reached my favourite landing site Raudfjordbreen, a low setting bay with a gigantic glacier and mountainous peaks circling it. I was in full gear by now and looked quite comical with my ski glasses, balaclava, hat, outershell and gloves. The snow was so thick and lovely, but mildly hazardous seeing as you don’t know where you’re stepping. I broke the ice on a small stream and would have got sopping wet if it weren’t for my wellies. The silence here was the best, visibility went down fast, and we were enveloped in a big swirl of falling snow. My equipment went through the worst conditions and stayed alright in the end, a lot of us who were using cameras were wary of condensation as we got back to the ship, this is very bad for your lens. We considered doing another landing after tea time but Theres and Sarah excitedly pointed out a large female polar bear walking around the area we were working on, she was huge and sniffed around. So we didn’t go back to land. The seventh day was awful for most of us, we were met with 7 meter waves and the ship rocked most of us to stupor and seasickness, so it was a quiet day on deck, everyone remained in their quarters. Lauren Portada, an artist from New York emerged with a small bucket in hand looking comically green, I didn’t have the heart to laugh at her expression but it was a good one. We arrived in Fjortende Julibukta in the evening and had a stable night’s sleep.
Fjortende Julibukta was also another excellent landing, there was a large flat plain of untouched snow and our triangle space was significantly larger than before. A few of us went on the zodiak towards the glacier, an English artist Chris Blade wanted to drill a tiny sculpture into an iceberg to have it float away and Captain Joe facilitated this by using the zodiac to steer the iceberg into drilling position. I think Chris described him actually setting the zodiak onto the iceberg. Our activities are so borderline absurd that I documented it and used it in a series of work titled ‘Expressions of the Monomyth’. We walked a bit ahead with Aaron to a site where he and Captain Joe found the wing tip of a German World War 2 plane that went down, Aaron guessed it was under fire and hit the top of the mountain before breaking apart. I didn’t realize the war reached the Arctic, it must be grueling to fly propeller fighter planes in this weather.
8. How did you find the locals, the wildlife, and the landscapes in the Arctic?
I found the locals have really good common sense, I suppose this is largely due to being in an environment where common sense is such a vital ingredient. The scientists at UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute are very lovely and friendly, they engaged themselves with us openly. There’s little nonsense in the Arctic. The wildlife was subtle in ways, we did see a variety of species in small numbers, a group of French scientists who were on an icebreaker at 85 degrees latitude saw a more significant number of arctic wildlife, we only went as far as 80 degrees latitude because our ship was no equipped for breaking packed ice. We got the full landscape experience, having the tundra in the first week then major snowfall by the second, it was a lovely cyclical change to witness.
9. Based on your opinion and experience, when is the best time to visit the Arctic in terms of weather?
I’ve only been in the fall and you do get a sense of the darkness coming, we lost 20 minutes of light every day. We had the beautiful tundra and then all the snow and ice, the wildlife started changing for winter, and the arctic foxes were white when we saw them. I hear that the summers are amazing under the midnight sun; there are other species of animals present. I had a look in the basecamp at Longyearbyen and saw the activities you can do throughout winter, walking on glaciers and travelling on skidoos seem very fun.
10. Tell us five things that our readers should bring or know if they want to travel to the Arctic?
A Canada Goose Arctic Program outershell, fleece lined rubber wellies, a good pair of gloves with liners, goggles, and an elephantine memory.
In conversation with founder Dhany Indra
Who is Kinez Riza , How do you see yourself?
Kinez Riza is in the process of shedding many selves, she does this at an alarming speed, partially because she’s attracted to experiencing a multitude of things all at once and being frightened of it too.
The extension of herself is visually represented through her artwork – from which she has obtained the professional word ‘artist’ – even though in earlier points of her life she wanted to be a veterinarian, a doctor, a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, a college professor, an archeologist, a writer, a conflict negotiator, a relief worker, an anthropologist et al. As you might be able to notice, the question of identity was an ever-present topic in her formative years, and being exposed to different notions about ‘reality’ nudged her to pursue her current interests in exploring these two things as the contextual study of her work. She’s found a deep affinity with Nature, and in this realm she finds the threads that sew the fabric of different worlds together. Worlds that are more primordial in nature in contrast to modern civilization, worlds that speak to her in poetry and deeply rooted wisdom. She expresses these ventures as ‘artist-led expeditions’, because she’d like to look at the wonderful things that fall out of linear time and space, things that have been here long before anything was and things that give glimpses of the shape of things to come. Things that resonate with her ‘self’ and things that provide a sense of connectedness between people from all walks of life. She’s done a lot of intentional wandering, places as north as the Arctic Circle and as old as a 130 million year old rainforest, as volatile as chasing whales with the traditional Lamafa hunters of Lamalera and as quieting as watching the heavens and the sea merge together as phosphorus plankton light the ocean at night. This process cultivates into her artwork, because she internalizes everything so much, something has to come out that isn’t borne from a negative expression and reflects a conduit instead of a grand social theory. She’s tentatively sharing more of her work (despite actually being quite private and obscure) because it would be nice to continue doing what she does, she hopes it would provide positive engagement from her audience, although she very much understands that everyone’s perception of reality is unique to their own.
What are you doing as of this moment ?
I’ve just returned from two incredible residency programs, one is hosted by The Farm Inc. NY and takes place in the Arctic Circle, we embarked on a Barkentine tall ship and sailed the High Arctic for two and half weeks, making regular wilderness landings and producing work. The other residency is a partnership with ARKENAS, The Geology Museum in Bandung and members of the University of Wollongong faculty that took place on archaeological and paleontological excavation sites around the Soa Basin in Bajawa, Flores. Both provided me with the incredible opportunity to work with brilliant scientists and artists in their field. The team in the Soa Basin included Prof. Thomas Sutikna, Prof. Erick Setiyabudhi, Dr. Gert Dirk Van der Bergh and Dr. Adam Brumm who worked closely with Mike Morwood for many years and uncovered Homo Floresiensis (the Hobbit man) in Liang Bua. I am attempting to represent my ideas visually after being on these trips, and they contextually range from the implication of myths as representations of knowledge in ‘primitive’ world views to the tension between evolutionary findings in Flores in contrast to the prevalence of Catholic and Muslim communities. Earlier this year I also spent some time with the Lamafa traditional whale hunters in Lamalera, Lembata. So having had such a phenomenal year on the field, it’s studio post-production lock down time. I’m working with Pak Bona Beding and Ivan Nestorman on his book ‘Jesus and the Three Fat Whales of Lamalera’ through an endorsement piece, cover art and my portrait of Pak Sangha (the chief Lamafa hunter) along with works from my Edens series will be exhibited during the book launch. I am also continuing my residency with the Geology Museum in Bandung by developing a few more series through the museum archive collection. My work from the Arctic Circle is nearing completion and it’ll be very exciting to debut this soon! I’m essentially ‘grounded’ for the next few months before I can wander off again.
What is the meaning of the word adult to you?
What a question! Notions of adulthood are diverse: the general perception being that you enter a phase in your life to functionally contribute to society as a whole, another are more internal conflicts in undergoing conscious self creation. I consider myself as going through ‘early’ adulthood, that I believe is a tension between intimacy and isolation. I find the term ‘adult’ to be a confusing one on its own because I can’t quite fathom yet what it means for me personally, certainly we are granted with more freedom to do our bidding, but the pitfalls come at a higher stake. It’s risky business adulthood, I’d rather adopt the Aboriginal cosmology of seeing things four dimensionally, we are young as we are old at the same time, that way the constraints of a linear time perspective would be less of a deciding factor when you are going to make binding life decisions. Unfortunately our biology doesn’t see quite the same way. I am such a nerd.
Labels or Love?
Labels or Love…. it’s fair to say that everyone needs to have their basic needs met as some form of security, but love is pretty top on the levels of consciousness. I’m fond of material goods, and even though some would hands down prefer love over stuff you can’t underestimate your relationship with evocative objects, objects that you interact meaningfully with. I am familiar with the effect of a nice fitting dress, or something more abstract like an antler or a fossil (nerd). I exchange objects with certain people (yes you guessed it, romantically) that involves abstract objects, it ranges from a Borneo peacock feather to a whale vertebrae (yes I am still a nerd), and that’s provided me with an outlet for expression. Yes I do go shopping when I feel the need to look good, or to be prepared before going on a wander, and I’d rather have some cash prepared and available when necessary. On the other hand ‘love’ transcends all this and satiates your appetite for ‘stuff’, there is less wanting and more being. I could go full for ages on love, it has kept me running when everything else is low. Didactic questions are the worst to ask me (nerd) because I am such a nerd and I could never quite get out of a grey area. This has been both a good thing and a bad thing, as most things are. I don’t think I even answered the question, sorry.
How do you see your life 3 years from now?
I try not to over think the future because it has been an unhealthy habit of mine when I combine the word ‘future’ with ‘thinking’, seeing as I over think anyway you can imagine it’s the worst possible rut to be in. My prudent and wise family would say that having plans is a good thing, so within the range of where I’d like to take my work or the expeditions I’d like to go on this would be working closely with scientific, academic and art institutions on developing my work. I’d like to exhibit, get a book out, come to terms with ‘adulthood’, maybe make a few big decisions that I have no clue of what it’ll be at the moment, make more mistakes, fail a bit more and get back up from it too. Most of all I’d love to be able to ride it all out better, be good at growing, keep my limbs intact, and do more good for others.
Tell me the worst advice that someone ever gave it to you.
‘What you are doing and who you are as an individual is worthless to society as a whole, do something else, be someone else.’
Yeah that was harsh. Coming into your own takes courage and your journey is just as meaningful as anyone else’s. You’ll meet people that fit into your mould or those who don’t, but don’t be too bloody hard on yourself that you’d actually consider taking that advice.
Global Archive Photography (GAP) is dedicated to highlighting emerging and established photographers from around the globe and promoting their work to the widest possible audience through in-depth interviews about their practice and thinking. The GAP archive publishes recent projects to create new debates concerning the international nature of photography and its histories. It aims to provide an environment for research and critical enquiry.
GLOBAL ARCHIVE PHOTOGRAPHY
Niccolo Fano talks to Kinez Riza about her work
NF: Before discussing your photographic practice it is important to give our readers some background on your past and upbringing. Moreover, what made you decide to pursue photography and art as a career?
KR: I was born and lived in Jakarta until the 1998 crisis made it quite unsafe to live there as the situation was very volatile. My family and I moved to Singapore where I encountered an international upbringing for the first time. The cultural differences and the conflicts it often brought made the question of identity and reality an ever-present topic in my environment. I went to a school where its founder Kurt Hahn had a firm ideology in strengthening humanistic values starting from a young age. In this school I was given the opportunity to be involved in natural disaster relief efforts and conflict management conferences, I helped in post tsunami relief in Aceh and Pangandaran, facilitating conflict management conferences with Sri Lanka and East Timor as our focus, Merapi eruption relief etc. In these formative years I became very aware of the extent of loss and human brutality, with conflicts arising from differences in thoughts and beliefs. At such a young age and in the midst of a highly capitalist city, I had no inclination to really grow up, the polarity between great displays of wealth and great displays of sorrow made me pursue the ominous question of what is truth? My most rewarding academic studies were in literature and art, I found the nature of its expression comforting, different perceptions and perspectives were a conduit instead of having to define things in black and white; I didn’t really want to say ‘and so it goes’ to the things I cared about. I then moved to London to study in Chelsea College of Art and Design and London Metropolitan University for Educational Studies where Sociology was a major component of the curriculum. It was in this environment that my curiosity for perceptions in reality and identity was moulded into a specific line of inquiry. I found photography, art and literature a great outlet for the soul. I travelled extensively and sought interests in the natural and social sciences and built a body of work in the medium of photography and literature over the course of five years.
I moved back to Indonesia in 2010 and eventually approached D Gallerie to see if my work could be exhibited. Having such a positive response from my first exhibition, my career as an artist began. Living in Indonesia was surprisingly perfect for my line of inquiry, I found the diversity in thoughts and beliefs in over 300 tribes in Indonesia a great field for study, it was ironically very accessible to reach these disconnected communities and environments. Despite the fast development of Indonesia as a country, the wilderness was very much there, and the final frontier was everywhere.
NF: Most of your projects are deeply embedded with themes that are determined and inspired by your surroundings. Your chosen locations and groups are rarely documented and showcased within the fine art photography realm, falling more frequently in the naturalistic and anthropological genre of the medium. What pushes you to focus on these particular places and groups?
KR: I had a ‘moment’ in the semi-desert of Little Karoo, South Africa, where the San people were traced back to have originated from. The land is very ancient, visible in the fossils dating back to the Cambrian period of about 570 million years ago, that well known phrase about Africa: ‘the Dawn of Man’ was most profound there and the familiar feeling of having been there before came to me. It was then that I thought the best place to start was at the beginning, where the extensions of man in the form of technology had not taken great effect, there was only the complexity of nature and the vital ingredients necessary for survival. In these places I found the human spirit to be more pronounced, and in the realm of the human spirit I discovered the things that bind people to together: our levels of consciousness. My interest has always been connectedness between all living things and the poetic nature of photography in the fine art realm allows for a different expression of my contextual findings. I could write a paper or I could tell a story, what tugs the heart strings more? Romance, freedom and adventure. How could I express purity and danger in a way that does not disillusion the need for growth? By bringing out those innate childlike qualities in us that once looked at the world with so much wonder, by highlighting those instinctive sovereign traits that enhance the mode of life within and through my fascination of those living in the same world with an entirely different perception of reality.
NF: Etherworld is an elaborate and striking body of work. It required you to travel in very particular conditions for a lengthy period providing you with a vast range of material to visually expand upon. Tell us about your journey and the focus of Etherworld.
KR: My work is based on artist-led expeditions, I embarked on a trip to the Kayan Mentarang rainforest in June 2012 with the intent of exploring one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Members of the Dayak Lundayeh tribe accompanied me throughout this journey, and their presence was integral to the underlying context within Etherworld. Their perception of the world was revealed to us very subtly over the course of many days walking through the forest floor. For example, their common sense and intuitive nature was expressed over the way they paced themselves in the forest, quietly alert and swift on foot. Their senses are heightened, listening for game and fell trees. They are also highly aware of people’s true characteristics, which became even more evident in the face of such an isolated environment. Our fears have a way of showing themselves, our dreams became more intense and elaborate and we started sensing the presence of ‘others’ who reside in the forest. It was bewildering to encounter strange things, but in many ways we welcomed it. Had we decided to shut ourselves to the things around us, our trip would have taken a different course entirely. I did have some preconceived notions that I wanted to expand upon while I was there, and certain ways in which I would like to explore visually. These did not turn out as I expected, ‘expectations’ were mostly obsolete, and constructing a narrative paled in comparison to what was actually there. I wanted to portray the tension between fantasy and reality, and instead of this being expressed as visually constructed narratives, the experiences themselves portrayed that tension. If anything, the ‘documentative’ approach in the work I produced was more relevant in the portrayal of that tension.
NF: It is evident that a great deal of preparation is required before embarking on a project like this. What are the steps you take whilst constructing the research and practical framework?
KR: Contextually, my work explores notions of reality and identity in relation to nature and lesser-known belief systems, so the framework itself was already quite a specific line of inquiry. I was given books titled The Pagan Tribes of Borneo written by Charles Hose and Home-Life of a Borneo Headhunter written by William Henry Furness published around 1902. It gave me detailed insight of their beliefs and their life a hundred years ago. Much has changed since then, but there are distinct parallels to their beliefs then and now. They are strong animists by nature, but monotheism by way of believing the ‘One Great God’ a hundred years ago has allowed them to ease themselves to their current Christian beliefs. From this, I was able to gain an understanding of how they perceive reality and identity. However, it is important to not abide by a grand social theory, in my work I aim to convey the human spirit, the intimacy between people and their environments and not their psychological or behavioural makeshift.
NF: Your presentation at Art Dubai included a sound installation and transcriptions from your journals alongside the images. How important was it for you to give the viewer extensive material as additional tools for the comprehension of the work?
KR: I was attempting to express the instantaneous nature of the experience in a multidimensional platform. This refers to our relationship with technology, where ‘no detachment or framework’ is possible. With the swift advent of technology in the past few decades, the world that we live in is increasingly smaller, our notions of distance and communication experienced a paradigm shift, we now become more aware of others and that awareness has a sense of detachment to it. My work attempts to portray this relationship with technology although I am not trying to convey the skepticism surrounding technology’s negative impact on our lives, I feel that our relationship with technology is a conduit to better understand our nature. I found art to be the best discourse to dispel myths about that skepticism; through art we can express our human characteristics by using technology as the various extensions of man. With this in mind, the visual expression of subjects that fall into the naturalistic or anthropological genres of the photographic medium are adjusted and divulged through transcripts of my journals and the sound installation. I attempt to convey that, through meaningful interaction with others, we are able to get to know ourselves and through looking at the world, we are able to look within. The journal transcripts are the extensions of myself manifested in my work and an expression of the mode of life within, as is the symbolism of the deer.
NF: Tell us about the deer, its symbolism and the spiritual and physical manifestations of this particular animal in relation to your experience whilst creating Etherworld.
KR: This part is funny, I met a man who was sensitive to all sorts in Bali; we were talking about the ritual of Ayahuasca, something he had previously done, and his propensity to hearing word associations or visualising images when he comes across people. He saw a deer flash across his mind when he met me, something he didn’t express at first, so after a while of getting comfortable talking about these things with each other he told me what he saw. ‘It might’ve been because you went to Africa though’ he said. I looked up the notion of spirit animals without putting too much weight into it, that is, until I was in the forest and the deer became an ever present symbol for me during my time there. It was absolutely everywhere, we hunted deer for food (we did not pack meat into our supplies) and I heard its bark, a calf crying for its mother, its terrified squeals after being caught. It was very much a strange feature of my time there, walking through the forest did not feel frightful or disconcerting in the slightest. I found my steps to be quite nimble and felt completely at ease, walking through this harsh terrain felt natural to me. We would cut ourselves on sharp barks and got bitten by leeches, we slipped on rocks and were pricked by nasty thorns, we bled to the forest and the forest bled for us when we caught a deer. It was an oddly intimate way of consumption, we were lucky to have deer for dinner and the process takes great effort and patience; bringing it down the mountain to camp, washing, skinning and cutting the meat, just moments after it being alive. Every deer we caught tasted like the life they had, one was scentless, another had a strong gamey flavour, it turned out that one of the deer was lactating with breast milk, they were either tender or muscly, each and every one brought their own character and story to the way they tasted. The deer’s presence became the symbol for all that is real to me and despite the goriness of it all. I acknowledged the divine in nature through this animal.
NF: You are showcasing GAP some new images from your project Edens, is this body of work now ’closed’? How do you envision the presentation and showcasing of these photographs?
KR: I never get to a point where I consider a series completely finished or ‘locked down’, it always connects to the next one, there is always a timeline that binds the works. Most of the prints are on diasec whist two are on duratrans lightboxes. The nature of them being such constructed narratives with a composition and structure that doesn’t feature juxtapositions and relates prevalently to the wide-angle landscape aesthetic made me decide to present them this way.
NF: The deer, its spirituality and symbolism provides a perfect segway to my next question and topic, your long-term project Edens. When did you start this body of work and what is thought process behind it?
KR: I didn’t realise for so long that symbology and iconology, metaphors and allegories are consistent traits in the way I think of and see things. It’s funny how I pick up on very specific symbols when I’m out exploring, nothing is ever an anomaly and this is something I learned whilst doing this project. Everything has a meaning to the people in question from the manta to the shark to the deer. One of the groups I focus on in Edens call themselves the Lamafa hunters; I wouldn’t describe them as traditional fishermen as they are much more feral and vicious in their approach, the simple fact that they leap off the end of their boat holding a four meter sharp tipped bamboo stick to kill their catch gives you a glimpse into their approach. They believe that everything they receive from the sea is ‘knato’ which means subsistence, a gift delivered by god.
NF: This term and concept is very interesting to me and ‘Knato’ seems the driving dynamic in this project. How important is tradition and what are it’s day to day manifestations?
KR: The day to day manifestations are extremely interesting… You go out to sea and it is vast and volatile, currents flowing in and out. It’s also very deep, almost 2500 meters. You’d imagine that in these conditions it would be extremely hard to catch anything especially because the whales, oceanic sunfish, mantas and dolphins are very smart and elusive. Instead, as a surprise to me they seemed to pop up next to our boat. The surfacing and proximity of the animals reinforced and exemplified the idea of ‘knato’, interpreted by the Lamafa as a sign that this was indeed a gift and that the animal had readily given itself up to be hunted. ‘Knato’ is strongly tied in with their belief system; they seem to have an interpretation for every single movement the animal makes, something that is then translated and tied into an ancestral narrative or story in order to assign meaning. I actually just met with one of the Lamalera’s representatives and he told me that the other day there were so many whales out at sea that the they could actually walk on top of them from one boat to the other. It must have been extremely beautiful, but at the same time he told me that one of the hunters had speared a whale in proximity of his boat and when the whale thrashed he was catapulted onto the boat and broke some ribs. Their translation of this accident was fascinating: what happened was not considered accidental but was traced back to a mistake made by his ancestors and interpreted as a painful retribution for what had occurred many years before.
NF: Give us a backdrop to where these images were taken.
KR: I went to the Lesser Sunda islands and started out by going to the Komodo Islands. I then moved east to Maumere and continued towards Solor and Lembata where I stayed in a Lamalera village with the Lamafa hunters. The Lamafa hunters are very unique and I was very lucky to be introduced by them to a completely different and singular view and approach to the world, especially because of the difference I found between their animist faith and the prevalently Muslim and Catholic communities of the region. Arriving at the village was a unique experience, nothing had changed from the images I studied of the same village taken decades before. The place itself was dauntingly beautiful, the sea changed from green to misty grey depending on the shadows of the overcast and crashed violently onto the volcanic rocks that shaped and characterised the surroundings. It was very strange… Arriving there, when I looked down at the sea from the boat I could clearly see hundreds of skulls and bones from their catch, littered on the seabed and beach; they were everywhere. The most interesting and humbling aspect was their lack of attachment to material possessions; the term ‘knato’ similarly to the catch was also applied in principle to the land and the sea. Nothing in nature is yours or mine; it’s simply gifted by god. This doesn’t mean they don’t protect their way of living and traditions, they do; fiercely. In essence the material that I had viewed and looked upon whilst doing my research could have never really prepared me for what I encountered. All the preconceptions that one might have are instantly nullified by the personal and physical experience of this place. The only leg I had to stand on was my studies on structural functionalism and myth analysis developed by Lèvi Strauss.
NF: Some of these images are shot underwater. How did you approach this and how did you prepare?
KR: I have a very elaborate underwater camera case, being a good diver helps and was accompanied by a very experienced diver who had been at those sites before. We agreed with the hunters that we would jump in once the catch had been speared; lengthy discussions ensued between the hunters on how this was actually going to happen. Once there, after the catch was speared and I was in the water, the whole thing became both electrifying and scary at the same time. Whilst they were hunting with a spear, I was hunting with a lens. We were in open water in the middle of the ritual for almost half an hour, the sea was very rough and the boats moved menacingly with the waves as did we with the currents, the light changed rapidly with the passage of clouds making the whole situation extremely tough to photograph and quite frightening. Underwater I had no sense of gravity and nothing to hold on, visibility was poor and in the back of my mind I knew that something could come out of the dark at any point. The varied ecosystem and wide range of shark species made everything even more daunting, I felt helpless, disorientated and excited.
NF: How was your presence and role perceived by the Lamafa?
KR: I’d say they were diffident at first. When I got there I didn’t feel very welcome, no one knew why I was there and what I intended to do. This originates from the recent exposure the village has received in the past few years where the tribe itself, its traditions and methods have been heavily questioned. Cruelty and violence in regards to their approach to hunting have been called into question making them extremely protective. The ice was broken one evening soon after my arrival when we all sat down and I had the chance to have a long chat with them about my intent, practice and persona. We ended up talking extensively on a vast range of topics, once they understood that I was there as an observer rather than an active disruptor everything seemed to get better and my presence there was accepted and embraced. They were as fascinated by me as much as I was for them. They were amused by this ‘small girl’ coming from the outside and diving in the open sea with bulky equipment and surrounded by a trail of blood during their hunt. They were confused to say the least but comfortable with my presence.
NF: All your photographs in Edens are tied together aesthetically by the green and blue hues, a low saturation and the animals as central figures in the composition. How much, if any post-production is present in your work?
KR: Quite a bit, in the sense that my initial photograph is different from what you see in these final images. In the beginning I had a very naturalistic approach to photographing, what I shot in the moment was intended as the final image; I wouldn’t intervene on the photographs in order to leave them untouched and natural, reflections of my surroundings. I sensed that this approach, although extremely faithful to the ‘truth’ about the place and people I photographed, did not convey the narrative and personal experience I longed to express. I am heavily inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and their masterful use of cobalt blues and dark colours employed to convey their stark romanticist moods. This reference enabled me to achieve the right balance between dark and light, mystery and allure. My presence as an active creator in the image is very prominent. I’ve decided not to distance myself from my photographs by consciously engaging the timeless issue of the operator’s interference with the subject of the investigation, something that in photography is rarely eluded. The consistent repetition of the deer, as you can gather from my previous description in Etherworld, is the perfect example of my presence in the work, the visual evidence and symbol of my personal journey and experience.