Carla Liesching is a South African born, New York based photographer whose work explores the gaps in between – the uncertain spaces where ambiguity resides and where new realisations of the self begin to emerge. Her photographs traverse an imaginary terrain, populated by uncertain interlopers, adrift on a sea of discovery.
Let’s start at the beginning, or at least, a beginning: when did you decide that you wanted to follow a career in art, and what were some of the factors that were at play then?
My mother tells me that when I was a toddler I was already saying I wanted to “be an artist when I was big.” But then, at that point I also wanted to be a ballerina and the boss of the world (the latter hasn’t actually changed). I’m not sure where I got the art gene…I come from a family of doctors and scientists, so I am a bit of an anomaly in that regard.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in the medium of Photography, or was it a process of finding your way there?
It was a process. I wanted to be a painter and/or a performance artist (neither of which I was very good at!). In my 2nd year university, our class was given a project where we had to make a massive scale drawing and then in some way implicate ourselves in the drawing – I chose to photograph myself interacting with it, so it was a kind of performance. A photograph flattens form, so it began to blur the lines between the ‘real me’ and the ‘fictional drawing.’ It was somewhere in that process that I realised photography was an ideal medium for me. Although recently I’ve started to experiment with sculpture too.
How would you describe your style and approach?
Hmm… probably theatrical? I see the image in my head before I see it in the world, so they’re all staged. Usually I scout out a location and find a subject that suits the particular story I am trying to tell. I’m quite painstaking with all my preparation – I like to draw little sketches of the photograph before I take it, etc. I also like to leave traces of the set-up – I don’t want the production to be too seamless, it must have a bit of a DIY feel. I want the viewer to be aware of the staging, if that makes sense?
Your work is concerned with notions of identity; can you elucidate on this a little, as well as other themes that reoccur in your photographs…
Of course I am interested in the performative aspects of identity – how the ‘self’ is a narrative that we play out. I look at how photography plays a role in the construction of that narrative too. In the past few years though I have become concerned with identity in relation to geography: the ways we are affected by geography and the social ordering of space, particularly in light of our continent’s history of colonization. The body of work I am showing in February at Brundyn + is questioning why we need to ‘map’ everything out, create hierarchal systems and divisions, on the land, in our selves, in our language etc.
In today’s’ globalised world, what kind of role do you perceive the Internet as playing in the ways in which we understand notions of geography and the interplay between physical space and place (if at all)?
I think the Internet has played a role in changing our understanding of ourselves in space. Where you spend your time nowadays is not bound to the physical world, nor does it require physical movement to travel to another space. So our sense of ‘belonging’ to a particular place becomes complicated, our identities are less informed by physical geography. We are also more exposed to the world ‘outside’ of our own – although, whether this brings us closer or increases otherness, alienation and distance, I cannot say… Because of things like the Internet, our understandings of both time and space have become less linear. John Berger (The Look of Things, 1974, 40) says something about this:
“It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the storyline laterally. That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the centre of a star of lines. Such awareness is the result of our constantly having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities.”
I like that image. We’re all standing alone in the centre of a star of infinite lines and pathways. All the possibilities are kind of terrifying!
Your series The Swimmers was started when you were in varsity – how have the original ideas of the series changed and developed in your work over time and across continents?
Actually, The Swimmers started a year or two after varsity. I began to think about these things because I was travelling a lot, moving between continents. The difference between The Swimmers and my new work is that back then I was trying to create an archive of people who ‘belong’ in fluidity and movement, between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ But by archiving this group, I created a category. Now I am looking at why we need those categories in the first place.
Can you please take us through, even just an overview, of your process – where does an idea start, how does it formulate and develop, get put into action to finally translate into a finished image…
It is difficult to say where the idea starts. But once I have an image in my head I start to research locations and places to stage the scene, there are scouting trips, sketches, the building of sets etc. I always have a list of people who have agreed to be photographed, so I pick one of them and go from there.
What have been some of the more important career lessons that you’ve learnt along the way?
When it comes to art-world politics, be an ostrich with your head in the sand!
When you’re not taking photographs, what are some of the things you spend your time doing?
Teaching. Otherwise, just hanging out with my husband Edward and our furry (cat) child Spencer!
What’s something someone might be surprised to find out about you?
I love Mariah Carey?
What/who is inspiring you at the moment and why?
Photographer Viviane Sassen’s use of light and very deep, impenetrable shadows. Also, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and B-grade horror movies – I like the lighting and the sets. Apocalypse theories, UFOs and aliens, ….oh. & Jules Verne’s sci-fi from the 1800s.
What are you currently working on/coming up in the near future?
I have an exhibition of new work called Nihilophobia [Expeditions into the Unknown #1-15] opening in Cape Town at Brundyn + Gallery on the 6th of February 2014. It will have photographs inspired by all of the above as well as some sculptures. (Below is a preview of photographs from the show…)
Anything else you would like to add…
CAPETONIANS, COME SEE MY SHOW!
Nihilophobia [Expeditions into the Unknown #1-15] – Opens on Thursday 6th of Feb at Brundyn + Gallery. More info here.