By Jose Morales
NEW YORK – This past August 28, Fotografiska New York reopened its doors to the public. The newest global outpost from the Stockholm-based photography museum opened in December 2019, but as most venues in New York City, it closed in March 2020 due to Covid-19 quarantine restrictions. Among the opening exhibitions, Fotografiska will showcase the work of the critically acclaimed, award-winning artistic duo Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer with a series of portraits collectively titled, Between These Folded Walls, Utopia.
Recognized for their exceptional composite portraits, the Sweden-based duo continues their artistic mission to raise awareness about the hardships faced by women across the world when it comes to issues such as forced migration and dislocation, and how those experiences reshaped their lives. Between These Folded Walls, Utopia continues the artists’ exploration of forced migration by featuring young women who relocated to Sweden. The portraits highlight these women in a figurative illustration of a new utopia.
We had the honor to interview Cooper and Nina before the opening of the exhibition to discuss their creative process for Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, as well as other upcoming projects.
Interview With the Artists
"The world around us is not the objective realm of things we think it is, but rather, an ever-changing kaleidoscopic dance of continuous impressions and interpretations."
• You began collaborating back in 2006. Can you share about your background and studies in the arts and how your working relationship started?
Gorfer: We come from different backgrounds. Sarah is a classically trained photographer with a BA from Syracuse University, and I studied architecture under Zaha Hadid at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. We met during our studies in the Master’s program at HDK Göteborg, where we began to collaborate out of our shared fascination in narrative structures, visual storytelling, the influence and expression of culture, and our love of books.
• Your critically acclaimed work is a study of culture, people, and places through a collage of images constructing a final product reminiscent of the work of master painters of the past. How has photography enabled you to bring your art to life, and what other tools do you implement in your productions?
Sarah: The world around us is not the objective realm of things we think it is, but rather, an ever-changing kaleidoscopic dance of continuous impressions and interpretations. In our work, we pay tribute to this by merging many experiences and different aspects of a person. The result is a mixed-media collage with photographic elements.
Photography is our primary medium. It allows us to collect different aspects of a moment or a person such as important heirlooms, garments, a family pet, wall patterns, or the nature that surrounds them, to name a few.
Our images work like memories. We take documents of reality, if such a thing exists, but like our memory, they undergo a transformation. Reality only exists at this very moment. By the time our perception of reality has been consigned to our memory, our subconscious has already altered it and blended it together with moments that came before or after. We may have forgotten some details, added some emotion, saturated it with meaning, or forgotten it altogether. We like the idea that the photograph of a real situation literally undergoes the same change – it is this transformation and multi-layered-ness we want to make visible in our work.
"In our culture today, we have somehow accepted the Loss of Utopia, and with it, the right to imagine a different, better world."
• When discussing your creative process, how do you choose a subject to explore, and what does this process look like from research to the final product, and how long is this process?
Gorfer: The question of how we chose a subject or theme for our series is an interesting one because it happens gradually, and sometimes the trajectory doesn’t become apparent until we cross the finishing line. We allow ourselves to be open to our intuitions and trust our obsessions. This process can be difficult – going forward, trusting that we know without knowing and that in the end, the meaning of a body of work will only become clear after we have done the work. This doesn’t mean that we go blindly about our process. Instead, our projects crave a lot of planning and production, especially when working with so many people and storylines. Our process is like an organized trip where we let our intuition and instincts lead the way.
• When discussing your new exhibition Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, soon at Fotografiska New York, you explore the stories and lives of young women who were forced to emigrate from their land. What motivated you to explore this topic?
Sarah: The inspiration for a new project often comes from the desire to see through a different lens. And this was exactly how we felt in 2017 when the migration crisis was in full swing. One day, we happened to meet an old friend who works as a teacher for underage refugees. She told us about her frustration that many of the kids she teaches lose their asylum status once they turn 18 and get sent back to unstable and dangerous countries. For girls especially, this means leaving an education and a certain kind of power over your own life and future to return to systems where young women are last in the food chain. It was then that we decided that we wanted to work with young women whose lives have been influenced by migration and integration. We began to ask ourselves questions about these young women and their lives. What does it mean to be uprooted? What does it mean to be part of several cultures at once, but belong to neither one of them entirely? What is it like to leave everything behind and move into an unknown future?
At the time, we also stumbled over a quote by Thomas Berry: “If a society’s cultural world – the dreams that have guided it to a certain point – become dysfunctional, the society must go back and dream again.” We were inspired by this idea and the possibility that in order to achieve a better world, we must take an inward journey and dream again. In our culture today, we have somehow accepted the Loss of Utopia, and with it, the right to imagine a different, better world. The girls in our series have integrated different cultures within themselves, are caught in a global diaspora, and are on the cusp of adulthood. Considering these factors, we felt that they symbolized and embodied this possibility to transform and the wisdom and courage to create a better world. For example, two of our subjects, Parwana and Yohana, traveled the smugglers route as underage girls all by themselves in search of a more just life. One of our other subjects named Israa, a Swedish nurse, aided the refugees who landed on the shores of Greece and later started the NGO Stand with Syria out of sheer despair and an urge to help.
• What do you wish your audience to learn or understand from this exhibition?
Gorfer: The title of our exhibition at Fotografiska, BetweenThese Folded Walls, Utopia, is a manifestation of our thought process. We want visitors to get lost in the labyrinth of lush gardens printed on the walls of the exhibition, discover these young women and their stories, and perhaps even uncover aspects of themselves. We hope the exhibition will challenge visitors’ minds and resonate with their hearts.
• Thinking of the young ladies photographed for this series of works, which of their story was the most impacting to you?
Sarah: In the exhibition, there is a short film that includes four of the most interesting stories. The film dives into the emotion of the project and features four of the young women talking about their stories in their own words. We’re really excited to premiere this film at Fotografiska.
• As history has shown, when cultures, or the world as a whole, go through a calamity, the human psyche tends to change. The happenings of COVID-19 have demonstrated multiple facets of human reaction, adaptation, and behavior. How do you feel the world of art will change post-COVID-19 and is this a subject you will be exploring through your art?
Gorfer: Any crisis has the potential to accelerate insight and change our trajectory. In their severity, they offer catharsis. We all know how painful change can be because change always means that you have to let some things go, leave loved ones behind, and enter the unknown. The works in Utopia investigate this idea of change. Although we finished it before the pandemic broke out, we believe that the project is even more relevant now because people can relate to loss and the reality of forced change on a more personal level.
Right now, we are working on a project called Delirium with the hospital staff of Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, that was sparked by our reaction to the pandemic. Our next large series is called Hysteria, which revolves around the world of our inner demons. We started to think about this project a year ago, but we believe that the current pandemic experience will leave its traces within this body of work.
• What is your advice for aspiring photographers and artists who wish to follow on your steps and are still trying to find their own voices through art?
Sarah: Everyone’s path is different, so is yours. While some artists may get discovered out of nowhere, there is a long history of effort, trial and error, and belief in yourself that precedes success. Don’t give up if you feel that art and photography is what you want to do. Experience is your biggest teacher – live. Trust your instincts. Trust your obsessions. Nothing is ridiculous. Question your motives. Be true. – GM
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