23 Jan Fresh Meat: Hanna Orlowski
Germany-born Hanna Orlowski has lived and studied in Swaziland, Mozambique and most recently South Africa. It was here that, from 2011 until 2014, she completed her Bacherlor’s Degree in Fine Art at UCT’s Michaelis with a focus on photography. With the environment as one of her primary influences, Hanna’s core documentary approach is made poetic through visual distortion and re-interpretation, achieved through various artistic processes. We see this in the gorgeously abstract works that make up her latest project and graduate exhibition, Oceanography. As part of our Fresh Meat graduate series we spoke to Hanna about her interest in the ocean as a connector and separator between land and beings, as well as her experimental process.
How and why did you become interested in photography?
I think my initial interest came with my parent’s photo albums. From before I was born they have kept many albums and I used to spend hours with my mum in the living room choosing photographs and sticking them in. I became fascinated by the ability of photography to trigger memories and, in turn, emotions which I had long forgotten. At times I even became unsure which was a memory and which was just an image placed in my mind. Even in school I was known for taking my point-and-shoot everywhere, and for having my walls plastered with photographs I’d taken or found online.
What do you enjoy, or alternatively dislike, about it?
What I enjoy most about photography, especially since my more experimental work at Michaelis, is the ability to bring viewers (and myself) to look at surroundings differently. This is especially fascinating with photography as a medium often seen as more ‘true’ or closer to reality. In turn, I find myself questioning everything around me and, of course, myself and my art. This is perhaps the most productive and distressing part.
How would you describe your style, and what influences it?
During a lecture with Jo Ractliffe we were asked the same and I described my art as experimental documentary photography. At the time I was inspired by Broomberg and Chanrin’s shadowgrams of the war in Afghanistan. Jo Ractliffe told me she would rather call it experimental poetry, removing the word photography altogether (needless to say the crit did not go very well). Now I think my work stands between the two. Influenced by its environment, it stands between documentation and poetic and visual distortion and re-interpretation. Recent influences have been Adam Fuss, Luigi Ghirri, Katherine Spindler but also Edward Burtynsky and war photographer Don McCullin.
Was completing a degree in Fine Art at Michaelis what you expected it to be? Has your perception of the field changed since your first year? And if so, how?
It was not at all what I expected. In the beginning I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, wasn’t sure if all conceptual interpretations (which we often forced onto our own observational drawings and random splashes of paint during the two-week projects) were necessary or even useful. I was once criticised by my lecturers for finishing my work too quickly before they could give me any input at all. But I continued and each year became better, more complex, harder and more rewarding. With each year I spent more time at Michaelis and loved every minute of it. We began to realise that we were allowed to be less serious again and that our own un-seriousness always seemed to have a more serious connection. Fine Art became much deeper for me than I ever expected, like a wave which began to grow bigger and took with it everything around it. I have a much deeper way of looking now, everything around me is a potential artwork or seems interesting in some kind of alternate way.
What’s the best piece of advice you received while studying?
Don’t be afraid to experiment, and that the process is often more important and can result in many more works than the planned final work.
Which of your creative projects are you most proud of?
My Left Behind (2013) series was a big breakthrough for me because it gave me the confidence to trust my process and to not disregard it before it has begun. As our first self-motivated project it also allowed me to realise that I am not completely incapable without someone else’s brief.
However, I am probably most proud of my Oceanography (2014) project. It was much more in-depth and very experimental. I went in any direction into which my research pulled me and somehow still managed to untangle the strings and realise the links between works.
Oceanography (which can be directly translated into ‘writing with ocean’) is an exploration of the ocean as a connector and separator between land and beings. Through various artistic processes including photograms, laser cutting, scans, digital photographs and magnifications the works attempt to create samples or map aspects of the ocean. However, the vastness of the sea becomes greater with each attempt of narrowing it down and thus the distances between shores remain the same. Simultaneously the viewer is confronted with aspects of contamination and pollution throughout the project and each burn of the laser, etching of a needle or spilling of ink becomes a destructive act.
What sparked your interest in Oceanography?
Since I lived in Mozambique for a long time and have almost always lived close to the ocean this topic was always of interest and importance to me. I started the project by finding links between the ocean and my former Left Behind project – the colour of the images and their similarity to oil and rust, beach litter as similarly left behind objects, etc. My long distance relationship with my boyfriend in Cuba also played a role in the project; the distance the ocean symbolizes and the ocean as a simultaneous connection between us.
What sort of research did you conduct before embarking on your Oceanography project? How did the body of work evolve or deviate from what you had originally had in mind?
My research began by visiting beaches in and around Cape Town and doing research on water pollution and overfishing both in South Africa and in other countries such as Mozambique and rivers in China. I also began to research artists who dealt with similar topics and artists who used laser cutting or alternative processes in their work (in the beginning these included Adam Fuss, Edward Burtynsky, Scott Harben and Siven Royz shell jewellery). I envisioned my project to be primarily laser cut works, partly because I wasn’t sure how else to start. The fate of the broken laser cutter, which was out of order for some time, changed the fate of my exhibition – in a good way I think – and forced me to experiment with things I never even thought of including before.
Is this project an ongoing one, or does it feel complete to you?
To be honest I am not sure about this yet. A few days ago I saw a sweet wrapped in foil which reminded me of waves and I was tempted to make a new work with it. The topic is a very seductive one, it has so many unexplored avenues and so many associations. But this may partly be because it is my comfort zone now and still partly my way of thinking. That’s also why I am trying to force myself to move away from Oceanography or to at least start a new project simultaneously. Since I am going to Cuba for a few months now this new project will probably begin there – I am already torn between ideas.
Many of your artistic processes – photograms, laser cutting, etc. – are more hands on than one typically associated with the medium of photography. What did you enjoy about this approach? And what is one of the best “accidents” that has occurred during your experimenting?
My more experimental approach allowed me to find my artistic voice which helped a lot. I enjoyed the immediacy and the surprises it brought and the possibility of working in various ways according to what I was trying to express. It was also great to be able to leave a process for a while and continue with a different one and to then suddenly realize links between images.
One of the best accidents was a small photogram I tried to make by placing sand and water onto a scrap piece of photo paper and moving it around while exposing it to light. This process formed the beginning of my four 5×1m photograms which were a kind of centerpiece in my final exhibition. My experimentations with the scanner, which began with scanning some shells and my face, led to my print titled Ocean two. This image now seems to be one of the most popular ones and is one of the photographs that will now be exhibited at the AVA.
What are your plans for 2015 and beyond?
For 2015 I hope to find work in the creative field while still continuing old and new projects. From February I will be in Cuba for the Havana Biennial and am hoping to start a new body of work, hopefully in collaboration with artists in Havana. I am also exhibiting at the AVA in Cape Town from 27th January until 19th February.
Where can we stay updated with your work?
You can find me online soon again on hsoart.wix.com/hsoart but I am also always happy to receive emails on email@example.com! Keep in mind that internet is a treasure to find in Cuba and that replies may come at postage speed but they will come.