This interview was made on 25. July 2014.
Conor Clarke (b. 1982 Auckland, New Zealand) is a photographic artist who has been living and working in Berlin since 2009. She shares a studio with fellow New Zealand fashion designer Sherie Muijs, and NZ / South African artist Nicky Broekhuysen who she met whilst completing her BFA (2005) at Elam School of Fine Arts. Since 2004 she has exhibited her work in Australia, Germany, New Zealand and Turkey. Her most recent series ‘In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance’ is part of the group show Typologien and continues her exploration of the picturesque and fascination with the German Industrial Landscape.
Michael Dooney: How did you come to start the project ‘In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance’? I imagine that a lot of work went into it, you travelled all over Germany.
Conor Clarke: it took me a while to come to this point. I began looking at the old industrial area in east berlin; rummelsburg. I lived there one summer and became interested in plotting views around the Rummelsburger Bucht, trying to create picturesque compositions from positions i considered most pleasing. it was kind of tricky, creating picturesque compositions with a camera is more difficult than a painting where one can easily add and erase objects, or shift them around. the composition is very important, following the rules, for example framing with trees in a shaded foreground, guiding ornamental figures, a leading subject resting asymmetrically in the distance, etc. The leading subject of my earlier works eventually became the subject of my current work.
MD: I’ve seen your previous picturesque series (Viewing Stations around Rummelsburger See) on your website. Would you say ‘In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance’ is effectively the next chapter?
CC: Yes, this is like the next chapter which continued a few years later. For ‘Viewing Stations around Rummelsburger Bucht,’ I made three final works which we (myself and a small group of NZ artists) showed in Istanbul, then later at the Grimm Museum in Berlin. Sometimes it was quite challenging and frustrating following the picturesque recipe, but in the end I was quite satisfied with the pictures. In each one the leading subject is the former Klingenberg power plant in the background, and the towers. It was summer at the time they were shot so there is no steam in these pictures. I tried again later to photograph the towers in the winter, beginning at a distance, still trying to create picturesque compositions, but it became more and more frustrating. I experimented with this for around a year or so but in the end I just wasn’t satisfied. I then hired a telephoto lens and decided to focus on my leading subject closely. It was enough, a symbol of the industrial landscape, the environment was no longer necessary. Now isolated, I call it the post-industrial picturesque.
MD: Are there any other artists that you’re aware of explored that?
CC: Well there was Doré? I don’t really know much about him to be honest, but he was making picturesque views of England following the industrial revolution, cramped housing conditions, etc. one memorable image by him is his portrait of ‘The New Zealander’ painting the London Bridge in ruins, an imagined future of London.
MD: So keeping with the tradition of painting
CC: They were etchings I think. Gustave Doré. Maybe he was French?
MD: So you started in Rummelsburg?
CC: I started in Rummelsburg. The reason I was attracted to the industrial landscape in the first place was of course because of photos I’ve seen before. The work of the Becher’s is an example of my early experiences with German photography, and perhaps explains my romantic association with the German post-industrial landscape, it’s interesting what sticks. Not that I expected the German landscape to be covered in industrial structures, but I was attracted to it, and sought out this kind of landscape, in the beginning.
MD: is there something similar in New Zealand, do you have heavy industry there?
CC: We have industry, just not in the same way or on the same scale. We don’t have the mining industry like you do in Western Australia or west Germany, but we have the occasional steel mill way in the distance, or we have beautiful hydro dams. So it’s not completely foreign for me, but when you think of New Zealand you think of nature, mountains and beaches, of birds, lush green and Lord of the Rings, am I right? You know this from pictures. It’s not that Germany doesn’t also have these things, but the image is very different. We are always in pursuit of otherness.
MD: And is that why you chose to focus on just the industry?
CC: It’s not why I chose it, I was attracted to it. And I began to plot views around an industrial area and this was the result.
MD: Was there a point that you decided that you were going to shoot a lot of them and travel around Germany?
CC: Well I started shooting towers in and near Berlin, actually I think I have probably shot every power plant in Berlin. Then I started going to the larger lignite plants near Berlin, around Cottbus and Halle, in the east. That’s how I began, before I got the funding to head into the industrial west. Once you begin collecting anything it only encourages you to collect more, the pleasure of the chase is universal.
MD: And who did you get the funding through?
CC: From Creative New Zealand
MD: and what did it what allow you to do?
CC: Rent a car and drive around pursuing towers. It paid my production costs, for the car, fuel, food, film and processing. I couch surfed my way around to save on accommodation and meet excellent locals. So it pretty much covered all of my travel costs over nearly 2 months.
MD: You saw a lot of different plants and facilities, how did you access them?
CC: I have a long lens and I prefer to shoot from outside the plant. Sometimes I go inside, but it’s difficult to get permission, mainly because I pose an insurance risk if anything happens to me. I know the Bechers encountered this problem as well. This is really problematic sometimes, because often the towers are obscured by trees, or especially power lines (it is a Kraftwerk right) so it’s complicated to navigate around those, but that is also part of the challenge of plotting the ideal view. Towers in Berlin are often obscured by buildings but outside Berlin, the bigger plants usually rest in uncannily picturesque locations alongside rivers, with fields and trees. There is almost always a river or water source because they need the flowing water for the cooling process at the plant. But I can usually get close enough, there is always space around the plant.
MD: So you visited some of the plants as well?
CC: only a few, but I often had contact with the employees, and have been on a few tours.
MD: are they all doing the same thing?
CC: It depends, the form of the tower usually indicates the function. The round reinforced concrete structures are all cooling towers, the narrow tall ones are chimneys. The only wooden towers I’ve shot are from the coking plants and are all square in shape. There is only one in the show. I think it’s called a quench tower in english. The hot coke is wheeled into the base of the tower, then cold water is thrown onto it and steam explodes out every 20 minutes or so. It’s not a continuous process like the cooling towers. It’s much more powerful and you see that in the pictures, it appears like a solid object. It’s kind of bizarre and exciting to watch. But the focus is always on the steam, not the tower so much.
MD: How many did you photograph in total?
CC: I don’t know, a lot! I planned to visit 15, that was in my proposal. But there were a lot of changes along the way, like when I arrived at Kraftwerk Datteln they told me it had closed 10 days prior. Which was really disappointing, because they had 4 cooling towers all made of wood. You don’t find these anymore, because they’re all made of reinforced concrete. They will be deconstructed so as not to pose a fire hazard. But I added a lot of other plants to my list, and decided to head further south, where there are a lot more lignite plants.
MD: Have you completed it?
CC: I really want to start working on another project.
MD: But do you feel that it has come to a conclusion?
CC: No I don’t think so, I’d like to continue with the coking plants, I’ve seen three, there were two in Duisburg and one in Bottrop, one I couldn’t get a clear view onto the towers and they wouldn’t let me in. So I’ve only photographed two and there are two more in Germany that I haven’t seen yet, I’d quite like to have a look at those. I think I’ve covered most of the large power plants around Germany, there is one in Leipzig that I’d like to shoot. But there are only five coking plants left in the country. There used to be many more when the steel industry was booming, and now, well it isn’t anymore because they buy most of the steel from China. So I feel like the life span of these plants is more limited. I’m not sure, but the one in Bottrop was saved as it was bought by Arcelor Mittal, otherwise it would have closed. I spent quite a lot of time there, they took me on a big tour of the plant, it’s one of my most exciting experiences in Germany so far. It was like going back to the 1920s, nothing has changed, because nothing could be improved. For example they still use wooden towers because the concrete would crack under the high heat of the coke, but it means the wood can’t dry out, it always has to be kept wet. Sometimes it was kind of scary walking past the rows of ovens cooking coke at 1350 degrees, you can really feel it, it was boiling in the plant. But exciting, it’s a good horror.
MD: And the title? — In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance
CC: Well I can’t be too close, I can’t be too far away, and the images need to be relatively consistent. I compare it to the picturesque process because I am still going about it in a similar way. As a traveller or explorer, you plot your journey before you go, you make a plan including scenes you are already familiar with, but you go there anyway to fix the view for yourself, to claim it. I spent the days walking the perimeter of the plant, plotting potential viewpoints depending on the wind and sun direction and I would generally shoot at sunrise and sunset. I don’t like photographing too close to the tower, to see the underside, I prefer to shoot from further away, to see more steam than too much tower.
MD: So its more like a record or document of your travels. You’re almost like a hunter.
CC: Yeah, that’s why it’s a pursuit. I’m pursuing an object, I’m a hunter, a collector.
MD: And the proper distance is that you always want to get the same perspective.
CC: Yeah for practical reasons but it’s also a reference to the father of the picturesque genre, William Gilpin, he pretty much wrote the picturesque rule book so to say. How to create picturesque compositions, proper subjects for painting, colour, light and shade, need for variety, etc, and he wrote that nature must be viewed at a proper distance to inspire awe. I’m just following the rules.
MD: For the ideal landscape picture
CC: yeah, like a combination of the beautiful and the sublime, that is the picturesque.
In Pursuit of the Object, at a Proper Distance was exhibited as part of Typologien from 19. July until 30. August 2014.
More of Conor’s work can be seen on her website: www.conorvonclarks.com