Radio 3 Suite // 8 March 2016 (ITA version)
Interviewer: A wonderful book just out for Contrasto documenting the work of a Swiss photographer who despite her lengthy photography career always keeps her soul as a painter – if you will allow me to say so – this is Irene Kung. We now are led outdoors to look, watch and rest in their shade, to listen to their sounds to feel their leaves, the colour of their flowers: trees. Trees is the title of Irene Kung’s book and we are speaking about it with the artist herself. Good evening.
IK: Good evening.
Interviewer: Good evening. And with us is also Giovanna Calvenzi, good evening.
GC: Good evening.
Interviewer: …a photography historian who so many times has helped us to unravel the crucial art itineraries of so many men and women photographers and particularly so in this case. Now before passing the microphone to the artist herself I would ask Giovanna Calvenzi to help us contextualise Irene Kung’s work as some of our listeners may be encountering this for the first time despite her notoriety.
Giovanna Calvenzi: To speak about photography without seeing images is always something very complex. For me Irene Kung’s work is always extraordinary. This particular work on trees it is furthermore complicated by works she has produced previously. That is to say that previously she gave rise to a very poignant work called The Invisible City which came about within a two year period, between 2010 and 2012. In it she speaks of an imaginary city through the buildings making up such a place and depicting them in complete isolation from context. These are extraordinary images in black and white or in colour where she states that darkness in some way allows her to enlighten what she chooses and therefore to create a sort of imaginary city complete with important recent and ancient monuments – a true extraordinary city of invention, shall we say. The same procedure has been used in order to create this garden which she herself calls a “garden of wonders” or “forest of the soul”. Here a tree is isolated from its context and in this case the extraordinary configuration of the forest is highlighted because there are different trees photographed in different seasons; in different places with different light, yet the summation of all these images gives us one imaginary wood. Again we have a case where we experience a lesson in vision which teaches us to see trees.
Interviewer: So, Irene Kung – and thank you Giovanna because I have put you through a double ordeal: that of talking about photography on the radio and to do it with the artist present – but I need this to help out our audience who is already asking us to repeat Irene Kung’s name in order to contextualise her work, which is truly fascinating. To look through the pages of this book is to dive in and to detach oneself from the world we are in even seated as I am here and this is only by browsing through the pages…Irene Kung first of all, how long has it taken you to finalize this work?
IK: I took some photographs years ago and many were shot for the EXPO project… these are all fruit trees that Contrasto had asked me to photograph for the EXPO and therefore I did it over two separate periods of time. Clearly the EXPO job was carried out in more or less six months, whereas the other trees over years and therefore it is difficult for me to state a precise time frame.
Interviewer: This is a very long time window even though actually the photographs – and I’m talking about what I feel here – project us into nature, they take us to the exact second in which a gust of wind manifests itself, or a ray of sunshine, yet at the same time absolute eternity is fixed with these trees. How did you work with each one of these shots? For example when you feel the wind between the branches of a weeping willow or an orange tree how do you grasp the exact moment in which the snow-laden tree is immobile to the point that looks like an enormous crystal…how did you operate here?
IK: Well, on the one hand it is certainly an issue of constantly looking for trees, always keeping one’s gaze open in order to see them. And then it’s a question of luck because before going to see a tree which perhaps I had seen before…I go back there there with the hope of finding it as I would like to photograph it yet in that case the timing or the light may not be right so I need some patience…to remain there, to move around it and to wait for that time when something impresses me…
Interviewer: What does “remaining there” mean? How long for example might you remain and look out for the opportune moment in order to shoot at that given instant that, as you say, you like?
IK: sometimes I stay very little because the right light is already there. At times I may stop for an entire day. Or I might go and then return… it depends. I go back to some trees because I know them well. Each one has its history and the extraordinary thing about trees is that they are never the same. Sometimes after only a few minutes the atmosphere has completely changed and that is even more true if you go back after a day.
Interviewer: This is an interesting aspect and I would go back to Giovanna Calvenzi. I put it to you that this imaginary wood made up of many different trees is a continuous and kaleidoscopic panorama which on the one hand is independent of human presence – a silent nature living out its own rhythms – but at the same time as we look at it includes us as though it encourages the presence of humans. What does the imaginary forest of Trees by Irene Kung tell us in this sense?
GC: I believe that what Irene told me when we spoke a little about this project of hers is true and that is it is a transcription which becomes ever closer…I have just heard her speak and she talks with great simplicity about something which from a project point of view is not simple at all. This is the transformation following a rational process and which changes the tree in a certain way into a dream. That is to say that it is not so much a realistic and documentary representation of the tree but the tree in its image becomes a kind of dream and as such – please allow me this rather simplified consideration – it almost becomes the incorruptible internal and non-modifiable idea of tree. That means it is a sycamore or a palm tree a pine tree yet it is the pine the sycamore. She has a truly extraordinary ability to transform a real datum, which in this case is the tree, into an idea.
Interviewer: I know that Giovanna Calvenzi cannot stay with us for long now and I would just like to ask her for a quick impression concerning the dimensions of these works when they are later put on show. Those which were presented at EXPO in particular and what kind of result they have had in relation to the public.
GC: They have evoked an extraordinary result because actually everyone recognises the tree as though it were their own, as though they had seen it or dreamt it themselves or in any case as though they had learnt to see and somehow to get it to belong to them. My feeling was one of great enthusiasm. People were stopping and remained enchanted to see things they knew very well, and it felt like they were seeing them for the first time. This is a feature of Irene’s work: somehow, she teaches us to see.
Interviewer: I would ask Irene a question about this work which is actually a collection of mostly European trees, or ones transplanted into Europe, such as the banana tree or palm trees. Is this also a geography of Europe you are offering us? Perhaps a in some way a more beautiful and happier Europe than the one we are seeing these months?
IK: Of course I couldn’t agree more. And especially of the countries in the South of Europe, particularly Italy, which seen from Switzerland where I live now is truly a great botanical garden. Yes, it should be looked at more carefully.
Interviewer: And it should also be preserved well because we know that the landscape and also art heritage towns and monuments belong to that great legacy which we should preserve very well. We are nearing the end of the conversation but it is a very important moment for me: when you chose the various trees you set off to observe, to listen to these trees…and when the man-made world disturbed your photographs and ended up inside your pictures, how did you manage this? How did you relate to a world we live in which is invading and taking over nature?
IK: For example with fruit trees it was difficult because now for example even apple trees are planted and pruned in rows and they have lost their magnificent form and therefore it became difficult to find an isolated tree. However there are some. You just need to go and find them and therefore it is a matter of patience. I’m quite obsessed by my work and therefore it is a great pleasure of mine to go and find my subject. Then there are times when I always feel much happier: this is when I leave early in the morning and I simply wander the whole day as I look for a subject I like. It is a state of grace it is greatly beneficial to do this…
Interviewer: Your words are very beautiful and fascinating. Naturally it is also very hard work especially in this case because it is true that your photographs of monuments have had a great resonance and are very complex very difficult…but at least a monument is what it is and it’s there. It is true that one has to accept the challenge of many other photographs and interpretations of the same monument but when it comes to trees you actually need to find the right tree, you need to identify it.
IK: Exactly, but the search is also more pleasurable than looking for a monument to as you need to travel through nature, and therefore it is not difficult.
Interviewer: One final curiosity: what are your future projects what are you working at in this moment?
IK: At this time I am working on architecture again, I always alternate. I have another project which I would not want to talk about yet as it is not finalized. It would be a new subject for me but it’s not defined enough for me to be able to speak about it as I’m not certain and it may change.
Interviewer: I would then exact a promise to come and speak about this together when it finally takes shape.
IK: …then I will go back to trees, as I always go back to a subject I have enjoyed.
Interviewer: Might it happen for example that as you are working on architecture or you are on a completely different path and you might find a tree in front of you and take a picture of it?
IK: Of course, certainly! It has happened to me many times. For example the willow you referred to earlier this was photographed in China as I was shooting some monuments and I suddenly saw this slow beautiful movement…
Interviewer: We could spend a long time here speaking about the trees you photographed and it would be wonderful to describe them one by one. Trees this is the volume published by Contrasto. Thank you for having been with us, Irene Kung.
IK: Thank you very much. May I end with a quotation by Martin Luther King? Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my [apple] tree. And this is also in response to how the world going is going at this point in time…it is wonderful to be able to work on a project like this.