INTERVIEW: CLEMENS ASCHER
A DYSTOPIAN VISION IN UTOPIAN DRESS
The award-winning Austrian photographer Clemens Ascher creates a reality that is so calm, clean and picture perfect it almost feels oppressive. His, is a deceiving sense of beauty, as it is injected with a subtle and surreal touch of irony. In his series on pleasure grounds, for example, we see seemingly happy tourists admiring wild animals and deadly weapons in what must be the world’s weirdest entertainment park.
Clemens, other than that you are originally from Austria and currently live in London, we know very little about you. Could you tell us a bit more?
I was born in a village near Innsbruck in the mountains of Tirol. Both my parents are actually photographers, so I was always surrounded by photography and it felt very natural to start myself at some point. Actually, it was not long after my father died that I discovered his photo and art books. That is when the dream of becoming a photographer arose in me. Ever since, I've never thought about any other profession.
What did you study? Photography? Fine arts? Or both?
Of course, I've learned the very basics from my parents. Later I obtained a diploma in Advertising Art Direction and Photography in Hamburg. But most of what I learnt I taught myself, by just doing and reading a lot. I became acquainted with fine arts through a circle of friends who studied art in Vienna. I learnt a lot from them through discussions and working together. So, I guess I am a crossover between art, fashion and advertising, which I think is reflected in my work.
Your early work is very minimalist with a strong focus on lines and architecture. In your later work, you still seem to have a fascination for minimalism and straight lines, but gradually people and colors have appeared. What happened?
“Works I” are entirely fictional and constructed fine art projects and “Works II” are part of a kind of ongoing sketch book, in which I observe my surroundings and look at reality without any retouching or manipulation. One topic both have in common and which is very important in all my work is architecture, the metaphysics of construction, if you want. Like Nietzsche said: "Architecture is the highest form of art because it tackles reality. I show minimalistic, wide and silent spaces to create room for contemplation. But, of course, there is also a political aspect to the work. It has an element of subversion, questioning societies and regimes that utilize architecture, often in a negative way. But humor is also very important to me. Nothing should be all too serious. I think serious topics are best treated with the wink of an eye.
Your series "On Pleasure Grounds" is still minimalist, but is also surreal and somehow funny: tourists eating an ice cream while admiring wild animal and deadly weapons in what must be the weirdest entertainment park on earth. Could you tell us a bit more about the project?
My goal was to create an artificial world, nearly two-dimensional, where missiles, animals and people would function like interchangeable figurines, marionettes playing on a theatrical stage. I was thinking about control through architecture, food, media, entertainment... The series is entirely constructed and fake, just like the world it portrays is entirely artificial. And if you look around you in our modern world of mass tourism, cheap attractions and distractions, I can't help but finding it a bit ridiculous. And I guess that comes to show, especially in this series. In relation to that I like a quote of Noam Chomsky: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
Your latest series "In The Garden" reminded me of De Stijl. Was that an influence? In general, do you look at art history to get inspired?
Yes, I'm very interested in the arts. And you are right, the images can remind one a bit of Mondrian with his color fields and frames. It still is a very actual aesthetic of modernism that he and many others created nearly a hundred years ago. But back then I guess they had a more utopian modernist vision, whereas in my series "In The Garden" I show these aesthetics more as a tool of modern society to trick people into happiness. People that are entirely estranged from nature. I guess it's the bright colors and superficial luxury: a dystopian vision in utopian dress.
How important is post-production in your work?
It is very important. It’s a tool that allows me to create the photos just like I imagine them. But set building is also important to me. It always depends on the project.
What is the last art or photography book you bought?
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes and a book on Japanese art from the Edo Period.
What does 2016 have in store for Clemens Ascher?
Hopefully lots of work and travelling.
INTERVIEWED BY PETER SPEETJENS