BEAT STREULI INTERVIEWED BY ALESSANDRA PACE

From 'Portraits', exhibition catalog GAM Torino / hopefulmonster publishers, Turin 2000
By Alessandra Pace



AP: Human beings have been the focus of your work until now. What do you find in people's faces?

BS: It seems so obvious that for everybody and at all times the human face is one of the most important and interesting 'things' to look at, that I find it hard to answer this question more specifically. Rather I'd talk about how I find these faces. Today, we were in the market area at Porta Palazzo, looking at all these people walking by and trying to decide who to ask whether we could photograph them. At one point I started wondering once more what it is that actually makes me pick someone specific amongst the hundreds of people walking by, in the short moment before they vanish in the crowd again. It's a very quick and intuitive, not a premeditated decision - where I think I need, say, ten teenagers and a couple of older people - because my work is not conceptual in this sense. It does not catalogue different types of people, it involves a more personal choice: I am attracted to certain faces and I couldn't exactly say why myself.


AP: You mostly depict young people, is there something particular about clean, unmarked faces that interests you?

BS: I wouldn't call them clean and unmarked - they are not perfect, just young, and sometimes have great style and great expression, and are all over the place in the city centres anyway. Besides, the whole society is obsessed with youth. Adolescence is indeed a very special and precious age; sometimes I wonder what some people mean when they say older, 'marked' faces should be so much more interesting a priori. When I see people ABOUT my age with a similarly impressing presence, I am more than glad to include them in my 'album'.


AP: Are you at all concerned about the status of the person you depict? You took shots in Via Roma, the main downtonwn shopping drag where you are more likely to find ©¯typical©&Mac247; Turin inhabitants, but you also went to the market at Porta Palazzo, where there is a large North African community, and photographed there too.

BS: Talking of the specific Turin experience, it is actually not that different from the one in other cities. I find myself in an in-between situation where I am not a tourist, but not a long time observer either, and I try to get a picture of a place. After a few days, it was obvious to me that I was interested in showing two sides of Turin: on one hand the city centre, with an almost 100% Italian population, a lot of young people typically dressed and made-up, in high-street fashion, and on the other hand, the market with its ethnically mixed crowd. I thought that by showing some of these two groups of people, which are by no means representative of the city, I could present two interesting extremes. So, of course, my portraits are not only about individuals, and I do want to say something about the impressions of one city as opposed to another one I've been working in. But the differences are very subtle and are not necessarily reflected by the social groups depicted. Besides, I think it is also just as interesting to show and think of similarities between different cities and cultures.


AP: I'm all the same curious to see, once you've finished working, how much the 'ethnic Turin' weighs in relation to the 'typical' Turin.

BS: In some ways that is not important, my work is much more about finding images of individual people which can stand alone and are strong enough in themselves, although the social aspects are present in some ways. I don't try to give an image of Turin pretending it is a 'happy multicultural city', nor do I want to completely exclude this social reality. If I manage to avoid falling into both such categories, then I will succeed in making it easier, and at the same time more difficult for viewers to look at the exhibition, because they will have to look at the images themselves and the people depicted, and not read them as a statement of whatever kind.


AP: Your work has moved away from the reductionist practices of minimal and conceptual art and evolves rather around a search for the emotional potential of aesthetic. You once said that you aim at 'making pictures as big and beautiful as films'. To what extent do you want to engage the viewer through ©¯beauty©&Mac247;?

BS: An installation can be beautiful because it is composed of beautiful prints and colours and creates a rich environment for the visitor which gives him something more directly, than, say, more 'intellectual' art. I give visitors lots of things to look at and lots of images of people amongst which to choose what attracts their attention the most. I am interested in a certain generosity - a bit like when I go to the movies I expect 90 minutes of intelligent entertainment. Regarding the often young and rather good looking people I photograph, I don't think they are mostly beautiful in a classical and obvious sense, they rather have to have that 'special something' which makes them different - and beautiful.


AP: Technically speaking, how do you take a photograph? Why do you mostly work with daylight, as opposed to interior or night photographs?

BS: It is of course technically easier to take photographs on a sunny day, and, by being therefore able to use a low speed, fine grain film, the pictures gain a sensual quality and richness I like very much. When the weather is overcast you have flat light without much contrast and the photographs, for some reason, tend to look more documentary - and I don't see myself as a documentary photographer. I am more drawn to the image itself, rather than to the description of a scene and, anyway, every image only halfway represents reality, whereas the other half is rather, more or less, fulfilling our imagination. In great, almost cinematic day light situations, you can also play with strong colours and contrasts, creating three dimensionality, which makes everything more exciting and magical.


AP: You sometimes turn your photographs into poster billboards which you then hang in downtown public spaces as if they were advertisement. But there is something at odds: advertisement always asks the viewer for something, to desire a product and possibly buy it, while your images don't seem to be asking for anything. The viewers are presented with a picture in the style and spaces normally reserved to advertisement and are puzzled when they realise that the expected commercial 'message' cannot be traced. This working method reminds one of the conceptual, language-based strategy used in the '80s by artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, although they substituted the advertisement with a subversive message, as in Jenny Holzer's huge billboard at Piccadilly Square in London which epitomised: 'Beware of what you wish for'.

BS: The two artists you mention, and whose work I like very much, convey a much stronger message than I. In almost all of their work there is an accusing undertone and an uneasy feeling, you are made to be worrying about something. The billboard I did for the Sydney Biennale consisted of about twenty portraits which I selected because I liked them: I thought, if I went to see an exhibition, which of all the images I had taken in Sydney would I like to look at most? In the end, a third of the pictures were of Asian people, which is probably representative of the ethnic mixture you see when you walk the streets of Sydney - a percentage that may seem surprisingly high. Although my 'illustration' of this fact assumes possible political connotations, this is unintentional - and is able to cause reflections and discussions all the same. People, I believe, always need a sensual input to really think about something, to act or react. This is, in a way, one of the problems we have with globalisation, we are forced to deal with it on an abstract level which is not part of our natural daily experience, so people don't act considering global contexts. People need to be directly touched or hurt in order to realise that there is something wrong - or sometimes right, too.


AP: You watch people and transfer their image from the street to a prominent place, the museum or advertisement allotments in downtown areas, attracting their attention into watching images they can identify with. By portraying people in advertisement-like manner, while not asking them for anything in return, aren't you in fact giving back to them their own image, magnified and 'nobilitated'?

BS: I hope that's one of the ways in which my art works, although this was never my intention or concept. But this is probably a reason why it makes sense to me to work the way I do. I want to show and evoke emotions. I am fascinated by my fellow human beings and I am sure that my respect for them is the foundation of my work. The quality of my installation here in Turin might be even more 'benign' because, after all, it is summer here and, in my opinion, summer, optimism, well being and sensuality are good enough material to be used IN art. In contemporary art, this is sometimes almost a taboo, although it is not a taboo in film, music and literature.


AP: Advertisement techniques merged with large-format colour photography and film are characteristics of your work and seem to allow you to extend the restricted art audience to a broader one. This 'democratisation of art' seems a very important point for you.

BS: Yes. As opposed to advertising the viewers know that I show "real people" met in the street and not casted or hired, and I think that this makes a big difference in the perception of my images.


AP: Do you ever think of kitsch as a kind of counterpart you are juggling with, a borderline notion against which you are bouncing off?

BS: Kitsch is something very relative; for example, most people in the street probably think that what you see in museums is not kitsch enough and this is why they are bored by it. So maybe it is about time we think a little more about the audience, although I'm not into populism either, because basically I only present what I like myself. I am not interested in kitsch as an idea my work talks about, my images are not ironical in that sense. I try my approach as far as possible to be a sincere one, as opposed to sensational, cynical art.


AP: The backgrounds you choose for your photographs are typically downtown or recreational areas in big cities. Is that because these are places where an unselected variety of people and age groups you wouldn't usually encounter in the same place gather together?

BS: These areas are also stages where the circus of human comedy or tragedy can take place, you might call it a background which articulates what is in the foreground. I think it is easier to look at things against a neutral background, and this is why I hardly ever take pictures in poor suburbs where the social problems are obvious, because against such surroundings people could become blank and absorbed by the problematic environment. Recreational areas, instead, provide a few hours of costless paradise for everybody. There are no video games, no particular attractions, but everybody enjoys themselves in a quite old fashioned, almost archetypical way. Partly, you could even say that of shopping areas. You see people with lives very different from yours, and also people with lives similar to yours, having a sudden glimpse of a range of possibilities, ways of life, that make me very curious, because after all, we only have one life and will not be able to experience many of the other possibilities. This curiosity is (DROP: ALSO) quite essential to my work. So my question is, where can I satisfy this curiosity? You cannot easily intrude into people's houses, so I look for public spaces where you can have a glimpse of the personal aspects of their lives. I'd love to take pictures of people in the subway, which is another place where you can look at people for quite a long time, only, I never thought it would be technically possible to take their pictures there without them feeling aggressively intruded upon. Maybe train stations are easier places to work in, but like in subways, I might have to use a flash light, high speed film, maybe black and white, or some digital surveillance equipment which would all give a documentary, media feeling to the photographs. It would be difficult not to sense the mediation of the technique and therefore difficult to reconnect to the actual experience, as opposed to my colour, high-definition images, in which you almost feel the people, they seem to be so close to you. I always liked to transport as much as possible of this feeling of reality and reproduce it in the context of photography and art.


AP: Perhaps contemplation also plays a role in your work: after all you frieze fleeting images and concentrate on a selection of them. Contemplation allows one to extrapolate the subject from its context and concentrate on it - it also sublimates the object and is usually linked with some sort of idea of beauty.

BS: Contemplation to me sounds a bit too much like meditation, and sublimating is not exactly what I do either: I try to deal with situations on a one to one level, and not heighten them towards the sublime. But it's true, there are different ways of using our eyes: You can fix something or just take it in, acknowledging a situation. In the first case, one is much more focused, selective and intentional, in the second, one is more neutral, you could almost say 'democratic'. My way of taking pictures corresponds more to the second case, in that I try almost to photocopy an image from the outside world, with all parts equally important, the foreground as much as the blurred background. I am offering the viewer a surface where the eyes can wander around freely.


AP: Could you then say that giving equal importance to back and foreground activates the viewer's attention?

BS: Yes, and also when you print a picture in large format you will be able to spot details you had not noticed before. After all, this quality of actively involving the viewer distinguishes photography and art exhibitions from the movies and TV.


AP: Does this imply a criticism against modern technologies?

BS: Even if I was never very critical about modern technological or media developments I start to become a bit weary of some of it, or its extent by now. I do appreciate this 'old-fashioned' quality of involving the viewers art has. For similar reasons, I also like the 'low-tech' aspect of some of my installations. My wall paper installation here at the GAM does not give the feeling of expensive art. Large framed photographs may not be much less expensive to produce than these posters, but they look more precious and create a distance to the public. The posters have a more direct, casual and temporary connotation, they don't look as if they were made for eternity, but rather for this particular situation right here.


AP: It is the first time you show a sampling of images from different cities - the ones you chose for the GAM are, other than Turin, Yamaguchi in Japan, East Jerusalem, Chicago, and Enghien-Les-Bains near Paris - unified by the media: the posters. What is the effect you are expecting with these juxtapositions?

BS: I am curious to see these series next to each other myself, and figure out whether there are differences and similarities, and if so, which ones exactly. In the exhibition, you will be able to move from one city series to another, a bit like a miniature world expo... For the catalogue instead, I have decided to mix the portraits in a way which leaves you insecure about the origin of each image, thus allowing to approach this material, all photographed in the summer months of the last few years, in two quite different ways.


AP: Are there further elements of inspiration for your exhibition at the GAM?

BS: Arriving in this city, I could not help thinking about Cesare Pavese's novel ’La bella estateŒ, which also takes place in Turin in the summer. The book is about some teenagers' daily life - they are occasionally modelling for somewhat older painters - and the author was about my age when he wrote the book. But my initial intention, following the novel, to photograph exclusively contemporary, 'typically Italian' adolescents in a kind of homage did not really work, because when I saw the market area with its more mixed crowd, I felt I could not exclude this side from the project completely, even if I were only to present a few images from there.


AP: People in the context of cityscapes have been the protagonists of your work so far, but recently you made a slide installation based on the Australian desert. Do you think you will explore landscape any further?

BS: Over the last few years I've been taking portraits of hundreds or thousands of people, which form an archive of almost global dimensions. So, regarding the desert projection, I quite simply felt an urge to take pictures which are mostly empty, not populated. Of course, I am not a landscape photographer, so this project became possible because I realised it in the form of a 'road movie'; in fact you often see that the desert is photographed from a car, you occasionally see my friend driving, or gas stations. This is a cinematic genre which helped me to focus on the beauty of the landscape. Thousands of pictures of Ayers Rock have been reproduced on calenders and post cards, so if you just repeat the image you will not be able to tell anybody about your experience of beauty in front of this 'monument'. So here, all the same, I was trying to allow beauty come into the picture again. The longer I work, the more I feel that I am gaining the experience to engage with almost any topic, avoiding pitfalls which might easily end up in cliches, by becoming more conscious about how pictures function and how they interact when put in context with a specific exhibition site, a medium, or with other pictures.