By Pygmalion Karatzas
Irene Kung was born in Switzerland and trained as a painter. In the past few years, however, she has expanded her repertoire to include photography. Her works have been exhibited in numerous international galleries and her book 'The Invisible City' won the PDN Photobook 2013 award.
In her beautiful and mysterious photos, Irene Kung gives us just such a map of the city, the city of daylight transformed into the nocturnal city of dreams. In her photos, cathedrals become the heavenly palaces they must have seemed to the faithful who knew nothing of architecture and structural engineering. Monuments retain their identity and their geographical location, and yet in the process of leaving the earth to float upward into the unconscious, they shed the dry husks of culture and of purpose to become wondrous abstractions./ Francine Prose
Pygmalion Karatzas: Ms. Kung, thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how did you start being involved with photography?
Irene Kung: I began taking photographs as a teenager and I always had fun taking pictures of things that I wanted to bring home. A number of years ago, it was Valentina Bonomo in Rome who suggested I use photography as my main technique.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
IK: Everything that surrounds us can inspire a pause for reflection and meditation. The dreamlike aspect of my work is not accidental: working via intuition, I approach the mysterious and essential content of the subject. Daydreaming makes it possible for us to see what's behind things: we can't think, if we can't imagine.
PK: Who are some of your favorite photographers and how has their work affected your own?
IK: Actually, I am more inspired by painters than photographers. I look at Caravaggio and Vermeer for light; Klee, Picasso and Richter for colour. I have worked with several painters at their studio and what I learned then was essential in defining my path as an artist.
PK: Architecture and urban spaces are one of the central subjects of your work. Could you tell us why you gravitated towards those subjects?
IK: I am fascinated by architecture as an extraordinary and indicative expression of human beings. Walking, I feel the atmosphere of the city; I walk around the monuments, I observe the light. I look for silence and immobility. To stop and see, feel, think and dream, this is what attracts me to urban spaces.
PK: Could you tell us a few words about your 'Invisible Cities' series?
IK: I don't know if you have read 'Invisible Cities' by Italo Calvino. Calvino collected his moods and reflections like in a diary. Sometimes he would only imagine sad cities and sometimes only happy cities. It was only afterwards that he gathered the stories and classified them. I am following the same idea: putting my feeling and reflections on paper through the images of the monuments. This is how exhibitions on similar shapes, architectonic influences and moods are born. Not identifiable cities but a single one, imagined.
PK: Have your studies in graphic design and painting influenced your photographic work and how?
IK: I worked as a graphic designer and I experimented with sculpture, etchings and painting: everything that I have done contributes to my present work. Of all these techniques, I dedicated myself to painting for many years and it was only later that I added photography. For me, the camera is a medium, the same way a brush or paper are. Everything can be used to create an image.
PK: What photographic gear do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process? You have also emphasized that post-processing is an important aspect in your work, could you tell us more about it?
IK: I use different cameras. In my work the technique is not the most important aspect, it doesn't have the main role in my creative process. With a camera and a post-processing software, one can invent images and for me there is no limit in using any tool to do it. Everything is permitted and only the result counts.
PK: Could you describe some key moments that made you feel you honed your craft and were milestones in your learning curve?
IK: Through the years I learned not to think, but to feel the image. When I walk around a city and take a photograph, I have a precise feeling of that moment. When I work in my studio, I try to bring that feeling back… always through my emotions and not rationally thinking. Reasoning takes me off track while by working intuitively, I get closer to the subject's mysterious and essential core.
PK: You have done numerous exhibitions and publications. From your experience which are some key points about the business aspects of photography?
IK: For me the most important aspect in collaborating with galleries and dealers is to trust each other and I have an assistant who helps me with many aspects of my work. The only thing I do completely on my own is taking photographs and creating the image.
PK: Could you tell us about your 'Forest of the Soul' series?
IK: After having worked for a long time on images of architecture, I wanted to focus on a new subject: trees were my instinctive choice, because they are nature's monuments. I also feel that every time I go back to a tree that I have photographed, it is different because the light is different, the season is different - but also my way of perceiving it changes.
PK: As many photographers have pointed out, the photographic act, beyond its utilitarian aspect, is also a transformative experience in the sense that our awareness of the environment - both natural and man made - becomes more astute. How has this awareness changed/develop for you over the years?
IK: Yes, I see to world through the lens of my camera, even when I don't have it with me. It is one of the great pleasures of being a photographer to see more. I also increasingly enjoy seeing the work of others, because I can relate to what they were thinking when they were taking a photograph.
PK: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there's also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries? How would you define fine art photography?
IK: The only difference is that the commercial photographer works on commission and therefore he has less freedom of expression. Commercial photographers are often excellent, creative people considering that they have to satisfy, of course themselves, but also the client.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movement(s) in photography?
IK: I am not part of a movement. This was not my choice, it just happened to be so. I think that movements are usually defined by people trying to group a number of artists with a shared idea.
PK: With your images you aspire to stimulate stillness and a contemplation on dream consciousness as a rich and equaly important faculty of the mind. To what extend do you feel transformative art has the power to achieve that and what is the role of the viewer in this participatory experience?
IK: 50% of the artwork is in the eyes and mind of the person, who contemplates it. The achievement of an artwork depends on that specific communication between the artist and the viewer.
PK: Could you share with us any ideas about future projects you would like to work on?
IK: My only future project is to protect the enthusiasm in doing my work. I will always follow my instinct.
With cities, it is as with dreams; everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else./ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
DW's video segment on Irene Kung:
Last updated: October 20, 2014