From the Glass Archive – Surrealist photographer and installation artist Sandy Skoglund talks to Glass

Flights of fancy – Surrealist photographer and installation artist Sandy Skoglund talks to Glass about green cats, the beauty of plastic and the pursuit of learning

IN her seminal collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag begins her study of the medium by highlighting its ability to prove. A photograph can convince us, with barely any effort, that what we are looking at is real. Even if the image distorts, “there is always a presumption”, Sontag writes, “that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture”. In the work of American photographer Sandy Skoglund what we are presented with is emphatically unreal: the images for which she has become renowned are carefully staged tableaux of the unexpected and bizarre. A multitude of goldfish float above a couple resting in bed; fluorescent green cats surround a lone figure standing on a roof terrace; three identical women inhabit a domestic space covered with fern leaves. Although convincing in their artificiality – the craftsmanship of the environment carefully hand-built by the artist is fathomable – the reality of which Sontag speaks, in relation to Skoglund’s photographs, may be a reality solely of the mind, in other words that which only our imagination could make.

Sandy Skoglund, by Albert Baccili 2004Sandy Skoglund by Albert Baccili 2004

Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1946, Skoglund studied Fine Art and Art History at the prestigious Smith College (also alma mater to Sylvia Plath) and went on to complete graduate studies at the University of Iowa, where she specialised in filmmaking, printmaking and multimedia art. She received her MFA in painting in 1972. It was only after moving to New York that Skoglund started working as a conceptual artist, focusing on repetitive, process-oriented works, employing techniques such as mark-making and photocopying. During this time, whilst exploring new ways of producing images, Skoglund was also able to incorporate her interest in popular culture and commercial photography, which led her to the large-scale staged pictures she has been making since the end of the 1970s.

Although you have become most renowned as a photographer, you didn’t formally study photography. Can you explain why photography became the medium you chose to focus on?
I found that photography, especially still photography, is a way to unite many different materials and processes. Photography is a very inclusive medium, embracing imagery across cultures and language barriers.

One of your first key works Motel Cabins (1974) was a series of photographs of vacation homes in America. Another work Reflections in a Mobile Home (1977) was concerned with depicting commonplace items within domestic settings, often with a small alteration or addition which made them nonsensical in that setting. What influenced these early works?
The early works were all part of the struggle to find myself within the vast opportunities that contemporary art offers. I loved the processes of collecting and finding things in order to photograph them. With the early Motel series, I drove along an old vacation route and stopped at different motels along the way to photograph them. With the still life series in the mobile home, I went out and looked at thrift stores and bought or rented objects to use, while placing the objects in the context of the actual mobile home. My husband and I were living in the mobile home at the time, and I was impressed with the way in which plastic was used to convey feelings of luxury.

Cats In Paris, 1993Cats In Paris, 1993, Sandy Skoglund

Your photographs from 1979 onwards have been based on the handmade creation of elaborate sets which comprise specially selected, often unrelated objects which are arranged in surprising ways. Do you feel your work has any relation to theatre, or perhaps a discipline such as design?
Yes, I do feel there is a relationship in my work to both theatre and design. Since I try to work resolutely on my own as much as possible, I feel that my work is a critique of design processes and theatre processes, in that I try to speak from a position of isolation and not from a dialogue with a client or audience.

Would it be appropriate to say that your work seems to be concerned with showing the artificiality of photography?

I think so, yes. But I also feel that I am saying that the truth includes the imagination and the unexplainable, in the same way that Carl Jung and other psychologists have stated. Reality is much more than the news event that is just happening right now. Reality is much more than just the decisive moment that may or may not be captured by a camera. As Plato and the entire history of western philosophy, as well as contemporary quantum mechanics and science, have discussed, reality is evasive and much more than what you see in front of your eyes.

Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981, Sandy Skoglund

The use of colour in your photographs has always been a focus point – even though your sets will often only comprise two main tones, such as turquoise and orange in Revenge of the Goldfish (1981), or red and black in Fox Games (1989). Can you discuss the importance of colour in your work, and why you choose to infuse each photograph’s environment in such a way?
Colour is critical to my work because the world is in colour. I try to use it in as many different ways as possible, and in ways that are interesting to me at the time that I am working on a piece.

The term “staged photography” has been used in conjunction with artists such as Cindy Sherman and David LaChapelle, and also your close contemporaries Patrick Nagatani and Joel-Peter Witkin. When you started working as an artist in New York during the early 1970s did you feel as though there was a group of artists around you who all had similar objectives?
There was a feeling in New York in the 1970s of a different generation, culturally speaking. We were the first generation to grow up with electronic media in the form of television and entertainment, so we were all affected by that.

Fox Games, 1989Fox Games, 1989, Sandy Skoglund

The images you’ve shown me from your forthcoming landscape installation entitled Winter comprise a photograph of a person’s eye placed in the middle of a snowflake. One of the first things that came to my mind was the eye motif which is frequently used in works by the Surrealists – I’m thinking particularly of Man Ray’s photographs. Which artists have informed your work?
I have always been interested in the work of Man Ray, as well as Meret Oppenheim. But the term “surreal” is not very useful any more as a descriptive term because it is overused and hackneyed. Everything that is odd or unusual is surreal, so what is real? What is ordinary? What is not odd or unusual?

Your staged works often have an appearance of sensuality – mostly emanating from the textures of the set and also, perhaps, due to your frequent use of outdoor bucolic landscapes which appear ripe with vegetation and health. What role does materiality have in your work?
I feel that my work is clinging to the physical world in a big way. I love exploring new materials and processes. I love to learn.

by Allie Biswas

From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Hope

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