I'm writing this as I start work at my "new old" atelier. I'm still close to my home studio, but I desperately needed a bigger space to produce the actual artwork for The Blue Skies Project, which requires quite a large wall to preview. I was fortunate enough to rent a classroom in an abandoned primary school just a few miles from home (thanks Vonk!). I'm joining other artists already there, and there's a good vibe going on. Plus the light in my classroom is just perfect :)
So I've got a busy six months ahead of me, and for now the walls are still empty: there's quite some research to be double-checked first, and some important dossiers to be made and submitted.
And then there's my fear of forgetting. So this lovely setting won't only be to find a good work rhythm, but also to recall things that happened during my blue skies travels along the way, things that I'm afraid I will forget... if not already.
I don't want to forget. It's been hard enough travelling all this distance over the course of 5 years. I've seen jaw-dropping monuments and commemorations at times, but I've also witnessed the most anonymous places with no trace whatsoever, empty landscapes and busy streets alike that have witnessed it all. It saddens me more than anythings else. I've collected stuff on scraps of paper all over, brochures, receipts, notes on my computer, in my phone, images everywhere, information in links online and in books and encyclopaedias.
I have to consolidate all this data, and I thought it would be a good idea to keep a diary of my atelier days at the abandoned school. Regularly set some time aside to talk about what I'm doing, what I'm remembering and don't want to forget, which project or what particular aspect of The Blue Skies Project I'm working on at that moment, and what I've come across in my rummaging.
The main things I'll be doing are obviously making the Blue Skies artwork and book. I'm talking to museums and I've just started book design with Teun, plus Ruben is working on a stunning audio piece. Both dear friends. Lots of exciting things going on.
I can't wait to get started. As soon as I've consolidated all the research – which will take me the rest of the year – I can finally dive in making the artwork.
Measuring about 10x2m, the thing is going to be huge. It scares me. I've got no idea if I'll ever be able to complete construction without some serious logistical and financial help. We'll see... plus who knows what will happen along the road.
I realise I've been in very deep for a long time now, and probably most of what I've been saying just now makes no sense to you whatsoever. I have quite some explaining to do, I promise things will become clear along the way...
Here's to blue skies and favourable winds,
The Natzweiler concentration camp is the only one that was built by the nazis on French territory. It was set up on May 1, 1941, in the Alsace after it had been annexed by Germany the year before. The site was chosen because of the proximity of a granite quarry. Approximately 52,000 prisoners were registered in Natzweiler and the subcamps, and the mortality rate was quite high due to the harsh working conditions: about 20,000 prisoners died of exhaustion, hunger, illness and maltreatment. The main camp had at least 42 subcamps at any given moment, with a t total of 56.
There were medical experiments at Natzweiler, mainly for the effects of mustard gas, typhus, and hereditary diseases. For this purpose a gas chamber was built outside the camp, and bodies were sent to the anatomy institute at the Medical University of Strasbourg.
The camp was evacuated on August 31, 1944, before the advance of the Allied armies. Most of the 7,000 remaining prisoners were evacuated on foot to its many sub camps, and were transferred to the control of Dachau in April 1945.
The journey to Natzweiler-Struthof is part of a series of journeys that I'm undertaking to photograph the blue skies precisely above the (last known) location of every single one of the 1,074 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of a photography/book/installation project called The Blue Skies Project. The project has proven quite immense and almost impossible to hold on to single-handedly – with staggering logistics to match – but I'm hanging in there.
So much has gone into my current Mono No Aware + Yakuza exhibit – it's the largest one I've had in my career to date – that I thought it might be a good idea to describe some of the things happening behind the scenes.
I was invited for a first conversation with Gerhard (the director) about 13 months ago. A simple premise: "next year is a city-wide celebration of the 25th anniversary of the city's relationship with Japan (Hasselt has an exquisite Japanese garden - the largest in Europe), your images often have a connection to Japan, might we find common ground?" As Hasselt is my home town, everything seemed like a very nice potential fit. Gerhard had seen Yakuza exhibited before, and Mono No Aware at Ingrid Deuss in Antwerp. In the larger whole of the city wide celebrations, it seemed logical to display both bodies of work, and to focus on the newer, mostly unseen work of Mono No Aware. They would each get a separate space in the building.
As Mono No Aware only ever had been partially exhibited, a lot of production would still have to happen. And I was unsure about impact the huge space of the cultural centre would have on my work. My first sketches started out to try and make the space drastically smaller and more intimate. rooms within rooms, literally creating an environment which could be completely controlled. A natural instinct I suppose:
As you can imagine, this proved to be too expensive... I had to find a way to work with the space instead of against it. Because I've extensively used Japanese rice paper and goza mats in installations before, maybe they'd come in handy this time as well. Even though the sketches were very basic, they were excited to go for the key elements of high walls, circles, rice paper, goza mats and colour. I could start making a production dossier next.
Over the next couple of months all elements of the production had to be dealt with, and in the dossier I would end up including the following things - in no particular order:
a collection of installation views of previous exhibits (so I could reassure everyone that I did indeed know what I was doing)
a list of assumptions specific to the organisation and location
the overall concept of the exhibit and its installation + whatever is tailored to the space/organisation/event
synopsis of each project
a cv and bio, publication tearsheets
a visual overview of the installation elements needed
a complete edit of all the images of the Mono No Aware project (and Yakuza too of course)
current status: what existed already and what not (production-wise)
a general timeline
a budget proposal (artwork production, framing, installation production, artist fees)
transport requirements, storage requirements
personal thoughts and questions
exhibition histories of both projects
specific production sheets for the lab, the frame maker, etc.
As soon as the budget was approved, I could start production... First setting in motion the things that would reasonably be expected to take the longest or have insecure delivery dates, i.e. ordering the custom made goza mats and rice paper in Japan and getting them shipped to Belgium and through customs. Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law this all went without a hitch.
A schedule of days reserved for the build up was spread out over 3 weeks in April, starting on the 3rd, and the opening being on the 23rd (with a private viewing on the 22nd). The first week would be used for construction of the walls and the painting, while we started sewing the mats. The second week the system to hang up the rice papers would be tested, and on the 18th all the artwork would be delivered and everything would come together.
2D and 3D
Most of my time went into designing the actual exhibit, while communicating with the technical staff along the way as to where they might foresee problems installing, visitor flow, or anything else.
In this specific case, the exhibition space doubled as the foyer of a theatre (seating 900), so I needed to take this reality into account. As a bonus, this also meant that most probably many more people would see the exhibit, literally passing through it on their way to watch a play or a concert.
3D helps me to get a grasp on variables that I can't see in 2D. However, I still always start with sketching on paper, then printing and cutting out all the images and laying them out on a floor plan / wall plan, slowly moving to digital along the way.
In the meantime, things start appearing in the press, and my control strips arrive from the lab. More work to be done. Images are to be printed on different media and across very different sizes (from tiny 8.5x11inch to massive 9ft wide posters), and every digital file needs to be dealt with individually.
Erwin, head technician, tells me it's time to deliver the wall colours: I verify each color with its corresponding color code so the paint can be mixed. The walls need to be painted about 10 days in advance so they can dry thoroughly and self-adhesive posters (or anything else that needs to be stuck) can be applied safely.
All in the while, the tech guys are building the walls. Also a test shoji screen is made at a 1:2 scale. Paint is delivered and painting begins.
And then they deliver the outside banner.
The final stretch
Time for the final stretch. In the last week, everything comes together as the artwork all gets delivered on the same day:
framed images from the framer
posters from the lab
vinyl letters and stickers from the lab
printed huge rice papers from the lab
the custom shoji screens
already produced works from my storage space
I print a paper for every single wall, with a visualisation and all necessary measurements. They remain on the walls until final inspection, so everyone working on a wall has all information at all times.
Sewing goza mats
One of the longest works of this exhibit was the stitching together the goza mats. Everything needed to be sewn together by hand in specific patterns for specific parts of the exhibit. Almost 200 mats in total, it took us four full days with a team of 6 people. Without my family I would've never been able to pull this off. Thanks a million everyone...
Then the posters are installed, the artworks are hung, the rice paper is cut to size and the vinyl letters are attached: we're nearing completion.
At the very last moment we have to hang the final rice papers from the ceiling, which takes a full day and a half. A few hours later, the vernissage.... and all stress melts away.
I'm so incredibly grateful to be able to work with my family and such dedicated and professional people, and an organisation that believed in the concept in the first place. Needless to say, you must come and see... it's totally worth it, I promise.
As a final bonus, here's a video walkthrough.
Have fun, and see you soon,
I worked together with hot young fashion designer Sander Bos to photograph his Master collection at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. Amazing work, beautiful silhouettes...
He asked me to photograph his collection in a "typical for anton, not so typical for fashion" kind of way. I very much obliged. We did a studio shoot the first day, and an exterior shoot the second day... below some selects of the latter. Great fun.
I suspect you'll be hearing a lot about him in the not too distant future :)
May 8, 2017Read More
April 23 - September 24, 2017Read More
Recently I did an informal talk at my friend Evelien’s place in Amsterdam. She organised everything and hosted at her place with Po, cat extraordinaire. 8 friends at the table, cooking and having dinner together, and afterwards one of us talks about his work.
I had mentioned before to her how I missed being able to talk to friends about what I’m currently doing, what thoughts are going on in my head, the projects I’m tackling behind the scenes, the way I try to stay afloat financially, how to produce my own work, what scares me, what makes me confident, if the ideas I’m having are actually good or not. You know, things you normally only reserve for your inner circle, if even that. It's cool to appear confident after all.
So Evelien said “hey what if we create a formula that’s casual enough so that friends/colleagues/fellow professionals from different fields can get together, cook together and drink wine together, in general find out how everyone’s doing, and then after dinner one person gets up, connects his/her laptop to the tv and talks openly. A limited group, 7-8 people max. Oh, and you should be the first one to do this, by the way. Just so you know. Next time you’re in Amsterdam, you’re on.”
No pressure there :)
Renate was going to cook Bombay Eggs for dinner, and we decided to name the event “Eggs & Photos”. The condition would be that always at least one dish should have eggs as an ingredient., and that the friend-speaker should have prepared a three hour talk at the minimum (just to mess with their minds). The concept was born.
I’ve written before about having a group of people that are instrumental to me being able to gauge different aspects of my work or my process, but now I got the chance to talk about everything all at once to everyone all at once. Basically an unedited look behind the scenes into the running engine that is my mind.
It was different than any talk I’ve ever given. So much better and more liberating. I can’t say exactly what prompted this, but I ended up laying everything out there, no taboos. About (the lack of) money, securities and insecurities, storytelling, the choice of only making autonomous work, collaborations, cameras, images as objects, books as objects, connecting to people, drinking coffee and what not. The resulting discussions were extremely interesting, professionals friends bouncing off ideas and feeding off of each others feedback. Actual constructive dialogue, as it were.
Usually the outside world knows you through your images, your publications, your social media, and to a lesser extent your lectures or workshops. All of which is admittedly a very narrow connection. But now, I could talk about a complete picture of what’s behind all that.
It’s one of the most important things I’ve always missed as a professional photographer: constructive professional peer/friend feedback and discussion. I always imagined this to be the core reason why photo collectives existed in the first place, not for the pooling of resources or the collective strength or the brand or the notoriety or whatever, but the open-behind-closed-doors discussion of everyone’s work in every possible stage, from concept to full on production to putting it in the world out there. No taboos, no holds barred. Genuinely people interested in thinking and discussing - with a strong professional background, not necessarily related to photography - with zero alternative agenda.
So it turned out, while preparing my massive three hour minimum “tour of what’s inside my head” presentation, that I didn’t even know that I was actively working on 9 substantial projects simultaneously (and a whole lot of concepts of course). Two have already been “put in the world” so to speak (Yakuza & Mono No Aware), but they do need constant working on nonetheless (e.g. I’m working on an exhibit for both of them as we speak). Because my work is autonomous and long-term, whenever a project is put out there (even if you’ve worked on it for years already), it would be considered “just the beginning”.
So I’ve come to look at my current projects as my nine lives: if I manage to get each and every one out there in the world, that would be 9 versions of myself out there, each with its own idiosyncrasies, mistakes and imperfections, its own beauty and ugliness, its own successes and failures. But it will be out there, alive and independent, making a mark, and I’ll be proud.
The one thing I can’t wait for? To be invited to the next Eggs & Photos, as an audience member this time, to return the huge favour.