Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Say hello to Chris Engman

DUST TO DUST, 2010, archival inkjet print

I think many folks might be surprised at the amount of preparation, calculation and determination required to create one of your photographs. Can you walk us through a piece
like Dust to Dust, from conception to completion?

Dust to Dust is a photographic diptych- on the left a photograph of a pile of gravel, and on the right a photograph of a very similar looking pile of gravel, sculpted from the same material, on the same spot of land, but rotated 135 degrees. Conception began with an observation about the way the sun traverses across the sky: that other than solar noon when the sun is the highest it will get, every other moment during the day has a twin moment when the height of the sun relative to the horizon is identical. From this observation I realized I could recreate a scene, including the light and shadows falling on it, by rotating an object and carefully timing my shots.

After selecting a site and material and finding a front-end loader operator I could work with, we got to work making the first pile. A radial map was drawn straight onto the ground using spray paint. A gravel mound was built and shaped on top. Referencing the map I had made I was able to draw a diagram of the footprint of the mound in its original position. The first photograph was made at 9:58 am the next day. The mound in its second incarnation was constructed using the footprint diagram and snapshots of the original mound as reference tools, first with heavy equipment, then with shovels and rakes and finally by hand. The second photograph was made at 4:04 pm one day after the first. Clouds had filled the sky all day but the sun broke about ten minutes before my shot, just in time. The entire process involved four trips to a site five hours east of Seattle.

I love thinking about how the material in this piece was used first to create one mound, then the second, and is now probably part of a road or the foundation of somebody’s house. In the same way the physical material used to make up my body is borrowed and someday will no longer belong to me. Same for you. Absolutely everything is temporary, and that is what this piece is about.

VARIATIONS, 2010, archival inkjet print, 52 x 44 inches

In addition to the intricate planning, many photographs seem designed to test your physical and mental limits; as if the art is a vehicle to create personal challenges. Your piece Variations required you to rearrange a stack of barrels 120 times over a period of 2 days? If you made one error, you would have had to start over - why put yourself through that?

The art is definitely a vehicle to create personal challenges but most of the time I enjoy those challenges. Variations was a pleasure to make. It was shot over two days, 60 pictures per day, each shot exactly 10 minutes apart, from 8 am until 5:50 pm on two consecutive days: May 22nd and 23rd, 2010. Physically it was actually less arduous than many of my photographs, and I took a real joy out of seeing a predetermined pattern play itself out in very slow motion over the course of two days. I worked very systematically to avoid any errors, and in truth I wasn’t worried about making any. If I had made a mistake I would have gladly started over. When I’m working on a project that I love working on it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes, in fact sometimes I regret when it’s over.

THREE MOMENTS, 2009, archival inkjet print, 48 x 38 inches

Pieces like Three Moments and Equivalence examine the intersection between past and present. What's most compelling about this convergence to you?

We only ever get to experience one instant of time at a time. The future doesn’t exist yet, the past no longer exists, and the present is fleeting and intangible. For the past there is only memory, and photographs provide fixed images for memory. In the piece Three Moments are three highly labored records of moments, each a month apart, each isolated and made into physical objects. The second moment attempts to recapture the first, while the third attempts to recapture them both. The result is meant to feel like a return to a place that may not seem to have changed, yet- since every instance of time and place is singular- it is perpetually and irrevocably being lost.

INVERSE NEGATIVE, 2010, inkjet print, 38 x 48 inches

You frequently work in rural and/or remote areas. Has anything unusual ever happened?

Well, I do sometimes work in very remote areas, and it enhances the overall experience for me to be so isolated so long as all goes well. However all does not always go well. The most frightening experience I’ve had on a shoot was the time I got my rental car stuck way way out on the Black Rock Desert, 31 miles from town. I spent an uneasy night in the car kept awake by the strongest winds I’ve ever seen or heard. The next day I walked out, completely exposed and feeling very vulnerable. If nothing else the experience gave me a greater appreciation for the power that the desert and the elements have over us.

EMPTY FRAME, 2010, archival inkjet print

You recently dipped your toe into the fashion world. How did that come about?

Last year I was invited to go to France to participate in the Hyeres Fashion and Photography Festival. Chauney and I went, and it was a lot of fun. We got haircuts and wore our nicest clothes but stuck out like sore thumbs just the same. Ten young fine art photographers were chosen from around the world, given an exhibition, and then basically they tried to get us to go into fashion photography. I could be working for Prada or Gucci! One art director, seeing that I was skeptical, told me she would just send me a dress and I could do anything I wanted with it, no restrictions. But the dress is a restriction, as I see it, and I don’t know how to make art about a dress, so I turned it down.

EQUIVALENCE, 2009, inkjet print, 38 x 48 inches

I don't think one of your structures would have felt out of place in this exhibition. Do you ever consider displaying them, either as a sculpture or as supplementary material? Or are they strictly a way to achieve the final photograph?

I hear that more and more. My projects really are designed to be photographs, though, which I think is something that makes my work distinguishable from, say, the earthworks artists. On the other hand I am more receptive to the idea than I used to be and I think it is very likely that in the near future I will be making work that is almost as much sculptural as photographic.


ABANDONED CRATES, 2007, archival inkjet print

In a recent talk, you discussed the idea of inserting your version of order onto nature's order. Do you have a desire to conquer nature? Or do you view it as working with nature, rather than against it?

Definitely the latter. In the case of Variations, there is a precise and detailed order to the way the barrels are arranged and rearranged. In the same way that a mathematician strives not just to solve a problem but solve the problem in the most elegant way possible, it was my desire to arrange the barrels in the most rational and elegant way possible. To find not my way, but the way. I see these photographs as attempts to bear witness to order that is observable but outside of myself, and much larger than myself. They are acts of appreciation and participation.


SENESCENCE, 2010, archival inkjet print

Art is traditionally considered an emotional pursuit, but your approach to art-making appears scientific/rational at first glance.

For me the work is emotive, because I experience the process and the unfolding of events as beautiful. But admittedly it is a cerebral kind of beauty that might not be immediately recognizable to the viewer. Rather it has to be discovered or deduced. When I talk about the work I talk a lot about the process because that’s where the art is, in the action, in how it was done. I had to figure out how to do it, and I enjoyed the figuring it out. The viewer, too, has to figure out how it was done, that is intentional, and I don’t always make it easy but I do leave clues. My hope is that the viewer will enjoy the figuring it out too, and in that process experience the work the way I did. It is a scientific approach, but it is very much an emotional pursuit as well.

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Chris Engman's Dust to Dust will be on display at Greg Kucera Gallery through December 24th.

4 comments:

shauniqua said...

amazing work and great interview

peter said...

I wish I could be there to see the show. Excellent and informative interview.

harold hollingsworth said...

well done, and great work from a great artist!

TROY GUA said...

Hear! Hear! Amazing!