The years 2015 and 2016 were years of increased flows of migrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Irak and Syria to the EU. The development was contradictory – on the one hand ”Angela Merkel” opened Germanys borders to something like one million syrians fleeing the war, on the other hand efforts intensified to complete ‘Festung Europa’. And later, Donald Trump, pledged to build a ”beautiful” wall along the southern border of USA. The phenonomen was global though. Walls and fences along borders became at least a little bit less taboo, more visible and normalized.
Between 2016 and 2021 the Finnish art photographer Harri Pälviranta travelled to five continents and 12 different countries to photograph walls and fences from USA and Israel to Slovenia and Spain. The project and book, Wall Tourist (Kult Books) is spectacular, eerie and unheimlich. There are no migrants in the images, but Pälviranta has stood in front of the camera taking photos of himself in front of walls and fences.
I had the privilige to ask Pälviranta a few questions about his work. Visit Kult Books home page, a small but inventive publisher of beautiful photo books. And visit Pälvirantas home page.
– You have done work before on different aspects of violence, for exempel on gun violence in Finland and abroad and the representation of violence in the media. How does Wall Tourist connect to, or disconnect from, your previous work?
– Well, it is true that several of my previous projects have touched different aspects of violence, be it interpersonal or systemic, institutional, or subjective. This body of work surely has its reasoning in systemic and institutional violence, yet the work approaches border walls and fences also from several other angles. For instance, I connect to the tradition of landscape photography, self-portraiture and, of course, to heroic masculine traveling endeavours. I believe I approach this from a slightly humorous and critical angle. Perhaps it is this little inbuilt irony that separates this work from the previous ones.
– When you move from behind the camera to stand in front of it and the walls and fences, it’s a performance of sorts. How did you get the idea to this move, what is it’s significance? Is it somehow akin to Bertold Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt?
– Apart from my heavy and serious violence works, for a very long time I have also done self-portrait series. They are more inward looking and ‘subjective’, sometimes even joyful. I keep on doing these partly because they are much about shame, and play, at least the way I see them. I am very much aware of the criticism towards documentary practices, particularly to the critique posed towards the ‘traveling man’ syndrome, and this performative aspect is one response to that.
– I believe touching shame publicly corrodes heroic masculine authorship, with this I mean by positioning myself in uncomfortable roles, I dismantle the idea of masculine bravado that is very much still here. I acknowledge being privileged, being white middle-class man from a wealthy North, and with this move I wanted to visualise this position, to incorporate it in the series. To make the author visible. Following these thoughts, I scripted this character, my alter ego, to perform as the protagonist.
– While making this work, I haven’t particularly thought of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffect, but surely the way I have worked connect to this. The fact that this same man appears in the photos repeatedly, distorts the view, and makes the theatre apparent. The theatre metaphor is interesting and valid also because Dark Tourism practice is sometimes seen being some sort of environmental theatre, that there are people traveling to these distant locations because of their individual aspirations but simultaneously there are groups following each other, buses arriving one after another, all following predesigned choreographies. As a social practice, it doesn’t differ much from institutional theatre art.
– The book contains three texts that contribute quite a bit to the reader experience. You adhere to the concept and phenomenon dark tourism, which tend to evoke a whole array of strong and contradictory emotions. Could you please say something about your work and dark tourism?
– Dark Tourism is a broad field of investigation connected to the different commodified traveling opportunities that provide a possibility to travel to destinations of conflicts, atrocities, death, and disasters globally. There is an unbelievably big number of people whose travels are, at least partly, motivated by this type of interest.
– I surely have an interest towards uncomfortable, flipsides, and dark, and I feel comfortably uncomfortable while doing these travels. I am not celebratedly warm-hearted and empathic, and I am not that good in distant empathy, so for me to ‘feel and understand’ something hideous and horrid, I must expose myself to it. I somehow ‘understand’ with and through bodily experiences. We can all read about everything possible but personally I am not able to integrally understand something well without being somehow present in that issue or event.
– This is a very difficult topic to talk about because one is very easily stigmatised being a thrill-seeker, or something. It is not about that. It is about touching something with your body and senses, and through this presence there arises a possibility to ‘understand’. When it comes to border walls and fences, even though I see them being manifestations of separation and cruelty, I surely do understand their existence. When one meets people at the borders and talk to them, their reasonings are often very concise and acceptable, even though I would think the opposite.
– You asked about the three texts in the book. Personally, I do not like to read texts that somehow art historically celebrate the series, and I do not want anybody to tell me how good this body of work is. That is up to the viewer-reader to decide. So, I wanted to include something that I call extensions, texts that are well grounded approaches to my work, without being the celebrations of it. Separate thought exercises that offer alternative angles. I think the texts are great, because they also pose criticism towards my work. This is important because the body of work is not totally resolved.
– What do you feel now when you look through your images? What are some of your most vivid memories?
– I am proud of the book; I think as an object it reflects well my intentions but also my experiences. The gray outlook follows the grayness of the whole thing: that the walls and fences are somehow meaningless but simultaneously they make enormous affects on some individuals.
– I would say my most vivid memories are connected to this ambivalence. I am witnessing something extremely uncomfortable but at the same time everything around me is so beautiful! There are so many weird singular incidents that I came across but here is one fundamental. The first photograph for the series was done in the border between Hungary and Serbia. Just when I had set up my 4 x 5″ field camera and made the first photo, the border patrol arrived, a minute later came the military, and following them, the police. Up in the sky, was a drone observing us. A discussion and several background checks followed, taking about an hour, after which I got a permission to continue. This was in 2016. After that Hungary has built a double fence to their border with Serbia. Also, the legislation has changed so that now I would not be able to do the photography any longer. This is very descriptive to the project. Intensities tend to grow, without any real reasons behind. Many instances are putting a lot of effort on this, but the core issues are not dealt with. It is this weird human activity to do lot of tinkering, because of tinkering.
– What are some of your favorite contemporary photographers? Please say something brief about why you like them.
– Oh dear! I am bad at naming my influences. I have this eclectic approach to contemporary art; I am not terribly medium oriented, yet I love lens-based works but not that much of classical photography. And simultaneously, my bookshelves are full of photo books!
– I have cried when visiting a Marlene Dumas exhibition, the same happened when seeing Caravaggio paintings; most recently seeing the painting Judith Beheading Holofernes just rocked my groundings. Talking about lens-based artists, going through a very recent book by Miro Kuzmanović was a tremendously moving experience. It is about the Balkan Wars. Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh is my long-time favorite. And then there is a book titled 100 Suns, put together by Michael Light. It shows one hundred nuclear explosions. So beautiful and horrific.
– I think that is the core: I am sucked in when there is a huge ambivalence and conflict built inside the piece of art. I do not know what to think and how to handle my feelings!