by JC Gonzo
Russian-born artist Anna Block uses the photographic process as a means to an experiential end. Her travels through Europe and Russia, erotic encounters, and daily acts of mundanity coexist under an ethereal aesthetic umbrella of abstracted viewpoints and motion-blurred glimpses. The lines between reality and fiction blur as she uses the photographic’s subjective and objective qualities simultaneously. Block integrates the photo-taking process as performance, occasionally engaging her surrounding environment as an action. In her current series, Could You Please?, she invites strangers to photograph her with their hand in the frame and the result of which exemplifies her interest in shifting roles of the seer and the seen.
She states: “I perceive photography as a performative practice—it is a way to find certain connections to reality and people and through all this—to myself. Maybe it is not possible to be more precise about it than this quote by Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.’ I try to forget myself and probably this is the reason to make photographs at all—to get to some other mental reality, to escape from this world where I do not always feel comfortable.” Anna Block will often include text, field recordings, and video pieces with a photographic series. The following images and media samples span multiple collections which are best viewed in their original context.
I sense a diaristic element, but occasionally this is merged with staged scenarios and studio arrangements. Do you see a separation from the constructed and natural elements of daily life?
AB: No, there is no separation for me between those two. Diaristic image is usually perceived as something documentary or more or less relating to the truth of reality in contrast to staged photography which is commonly referred to fiction and making-up. But this seeming difference is not only illusionary but also provokes discussion of a more serious topic of the relation of any image to so-called reality in general. Besides this type of comparison inevitably raises an even more mind-blowing question of what “daily life” is and if there is any “objective” reality at all.
We know there are many works deliberately made in a documentarian fashion, and even with some scientific purposes, which then suddenly started to acquire strength and value in the realm of Fine Art. An amazing example of that is the photographs of plants by Karl Blossfeldt, which evoke in a viewer much more than just the curious observation of a “species.” Or Eugene Atget’s work that documented details of Parisian life “as it is” and were then highly estimated by surrealists for its metaphorical and poetic qualities. Thus, documentary started to live in a world that we could describe as fictional.
I think I was always intuitively drawn by the seductive and uncanny sensation evoked by the juxtaposition of these two worlds. In this reality, I find elements of the mystical and fictional even if they are just barely visible details, or just impalpable feelings. It’s as if when your dream is so real you can physically smell/touch/hear it and also the other way around. In “normal” life your perception is suddenly changed to the one you usually have when you dream or watch a film. The “unreal,” subtle beauty of reality is my only interest and my main inspiration. Unintentionally, I think I always explored this area even as a child. Now, I try to work on this in a more precise and deliberate way with my photography. For example, my series Lucid Dreaming on Sunday Afternoon and Vice-Versa is an attempt to make this kind of real/surreal narrative. Though sometimes I feel like I’m losing sanity. I am happy to have these shifts of vision. Some people take drugs. I take pictures.
What inspired your current project of asking strangers to insert their hands as they photograph you?
AB: I left my home country and lived abroad over a year ago. Since then, I’ve had a lot of inner experiences and issues related to being unable to connect socially. This project is a kind of playful, or maybe perverse way to explore this topic and also to overcome some inner fears that are both challenging and exciting for me. I usually don’t speak to strangers, and I almost don’t talk to people at all. Literally today and yesterday I didn’t say a word to anyone. I like to explore this area beyond my zone of comfort, though, now it is quite difficult for me to go on. In terms of talking about similar approaches to art, Sophie Calle is a great inspiration for me.
Often with erotic imagery, which you do not shy away from, questions of power, control, exploitation, and celebration come up. Why do you integrate such explicit and honest sexual photographs, and are these themes that interest you?
AB: Yes, these themes interest me and in this sense I probably use photography as a process that might help me release those inner fears. There is massive, dark world of the unknown beyond any relationship and beyond our perception of ourselves or other people. We are all animals first of all, aren’t we? And there’s some part of us that is connected to the world of flesh, blood and instinct. We have to restrain it to be human and social, but it’s all there and I believe there’s a lot of pain related to oppressing these elements. I realize people who ask me to be photographed also implicitly expect practice that causes some of their deep inner process—definitely a relation between photographer and model inevitably includes pain and domination, to this or that extent. I exaggerate it for my own therapeutic reasons and through this strange communication each of us gets a portion of electricity, struggle, discovery… And of course, there is an obvious point here that for many people pain is a way of getting pleasure.
with Konstantin Ladvishchenko, Dregs
You photograph many varying urban environments, from a series based on three days in Paris to many other cities. Is location and the sense of “place” important to your work?
AB: Of course environment has its impact, but it is not the landscape that I’m interested in. It is just a material I alter and cut up and use for my own purpose like any other “object.” But, of course, there are some places that induce some “shifted” states or inspire more than others. It is great to be plunged into new locations and to just see how it resonates, to see if anything could be created at the intersection of the place and my own inner world.
Can you tell me about your creative process?
AB: If to generalize, I might say there are two different processes. One is based on deliberate shoots which involve other people posing for me, I am usually prepared in advance and have more or less certain ideas of what I will do. Though, then being inside I just let things happen and try not to control too much. But I also do some “casual” photography with a small one-button camera which I carry with me quite often. This second thing including work with color is a relatively new thing which I believe broadens the range of my aesthetic and makes the work more complex and interesting for me.
Regardless of the type work, I always bear in mind all the images I have ever taken, and while making a decision as to whether to release the shutter or not, the main criteria depends on the chance that I will find a place for that photo among some others of which I already have. Then, gradually images start to live a life of their own—while editing a shoot I may suddenly find connections with some older picture and this new couple then draws some others, and so on. There is always a kind of reference library in my head. I go through my archive from time to time pulling out some words to create a new poem. There are a lot of unfinished poems, so when I take a new picture I sometimes think, “Oh, that flower would rhyme to that stomach from 2009,” thus a new line appears.
with Konstantin Ladvishchenko, Dregs
From Foliage, “12mar 15apr” video segment:
View more of Anna’s work here.