Augustin Rebetez: Method man

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“What is a photographer today?” asks Stefano Stoll, director of the biennial Images: Festival des Arts Visuels de Vevey. “There are plenty of shows and museums that ask this question. Now everybody has a smartphone and is a photographer – compare that to the 1960s when only a few people had a camera and there was no digital. It’s a very different world.”

His festival tests the boundaries of this world by showing artists who push photography into fantasy and fiction; one of the best examples this year is Augustin Rebetez, who beat off 800 competitors in 2013 to win the prestigious Vevey International Prize. Awarded 40,000 Swiss Francs and a brief to create new work for the festival, he’s come up with a wild installation that combines illustration, performance, music and painting.

“Augustin is not the answer, but he is part of the question,” says Stoll. “He’s looking for other ways of self-expression using photography, mixing it with drawing, installation and performance. What’s interesting for us is we’re showing an artist who is asking what photographyis – or what it should or could photography be today. And although this prize is a photography prize, Augustin has really dealt with it and found a way to keep photography at the core of his project. He came back to photography but with a new world that lies somewhere near science fiction and staged photography, and shows how creative narrative photography can be.”

Creative isn’t the half of it. Rebetez’s work is a stream-of-consciousness that somehow manages to reference just about every artistic movement there’s ever been, from the Lascaux cave paintings to Japanese anime. Whether this is intentional or not is another question. “My work is called arrière‐tête (mécanismes), which means ‘back-of-the-head’,” Rebetez says by Skype from Switzerland. “My interest is to express the pictures in my mind and how they are related to the subconscious and the poetic. But it’s a creative act. I’m not Freud and I’m not scientific. I’m always trying to express what I have inside me and the mechanisms through which our minds work.”

It’s hard to know where to start the journey into Rebetez’s head. Is it with the cardboard sculpture where a Bavarian castle motif meets a kindergarten arts ‘n’crafts class via Dr Caligari? Or maybe the picture in which a masked human figure holds a mobile that dangles up against gravity (the picture’s been flipped)? Strangest of all are the sculptures, in which human figures have been moulded into place and extra arms and legs added on. One shows a black-clad figure crouched on the ground with paper heads and fork-like hands pasted on, Edward Scissorhands meeting Kafka’s beetle. Another shows three figures piled on top of each other into a ninja-bug mutation.

“I had an interest in the body, and in specific heads and bodies,” he explains. “I was working on a residency with a circus in Stockholm so I found all these different models who were acrobats and contortionists from this circus world. The idea is to express the human in a different way, to express feelings and emotions with the body.”

Photographers such as Asger Carlsen and Isabelle Wenzel also manipulate the body in their work, and Rebetez’s physical manipulations echo both; his work has also been compared to Roger Ballen’s, especially the older photographer’s more recent installations. Rebetez doesn’t feel consciously influenced by any contemporary artist though – except maybe William Kentridge, an animator who makes stop-frame motion by drawing, photographing the result, erasing and rephotographing. “The real interest in photography for me is what happens between two pictures,” says Rebetez, who is also a skilled animator. “One picture can have a spark, but with two pictures you can really create something special. Most of my mobiles work like that.”

Rebetez says he’s most interested in Primitive art – the Lascaux Cave paintings, for example, or Aztec or Mayan work – but his interest comes from his central inspiration; self-expression, and the images that leak out of the back-of-his-head. “Primitive art looks modern because it is essential, it’s about primitive artists with primitive feelings,” he explains. “The real artists are those who make art brut. I’m not an art brut artist brut, but I’m trying to be sometimes.

“I’m always asking myself when I go to an exhibition – I want to get answers, or feelings, or see something beautiful or something new. I’m not religious but I want to know what life is. With this work, I’m trying to give this idea. Maybe it will give some answers…For this work I have this old idea that things come to us from outside, that our feelings and emotions don’t just come from our soul, that our imagination doesn’t just come from our brain, but that they connect to something beyond our bodies.”

What’s impressive it that he’s marshalled this self-expression into a creative challenge – working out how to transfer these ideas into something photographic. “For me, with painting it is easy to express somebody with four arms and six legs,” says Rebetez. “And I use only black-and-white and some watercolours, which is also easy. To do that photographically is more difficult. So what I did was I slid my painting practice into photography, which was really nice.

“Photography has a lot of barriers compared to cinema and painting,” he continues. “Photography has barriers for me because I’m making creative things. In French I say I am creating an artistic universe, and for that I need to use more than one medium. I need to write, to draw and to make installations, so photography becomes stronger when I can associate it with other creative elements. I use it for recording what I’ve done, for recording performances, installations and sculptures.”

In fact Rebetez’s site-specific installations are one of the main reasons he won the Vevey prize – the festival is keen on situating artists’ work in the environment, as some of its past exhibits show. In 2012 a line of JR’s Inside Out prints led down to the waters of Lake Geneva, for example, while Cindy Sherman’s Film Still #14 was pasted across the façade of the local bank; this year John Baldessari’s Figure (with Vertical Lines) will be shown on the walls of the town’s former prison, and one of Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s off-kilter self-portraits will rip a view into the heart of Vevey’s high street.

Rebetez’s exhibitions tend to be immersive experience, as his exhibition in Lausanne’s Musee de l’Elysee showed. “That was for the Nuit des Images – they asked me to do something in this small wood outside the museum, so with my friends and a lot of motivation I created a children’s house and an outside museum with light and a concert,” he says. “It was like a big party.

“For this new exhibition it’s the same team more or less, and we decided to make something in advance, so all the structures have been built according to a plan. I like old wood, old houses and old tools, so we used that – old stuff has an old soul. New stuff has a soul too, but it’s a new soul. I need to work with material that has soul. I’m not too much into minimalism.

“It will be a bit complicated – there will be a small cinema, a small kiosk and a small house, which is a kind of church, in which there will be experimental hip hop, and a lot of pictures.”

What it all means, even Rebetez is not sure. “I don’t know if there’s a narrative to it, but I want the audience to be impressed so they see something fresh, so they’re not bored. Then I’ll try to make something close to my soul, so people can dream and have magic feelings; so people can use their brain and understand what lies behind these pictures.”

For Stoll this creative drive helps create an alternative reality – which, most importantly, constructs an alternative narrative. “The most interesting aspect of photography in the 21st century is the power it has to tell stories and create a narrative that is not simply a reflection of reality,” he says. “I don’t believe in photography as a document of realit, but I do think it has the power to tell new stories and open doors to new worlds that we have to handle through fiction.”

It’s a current that has always run through image-making but, he says, the birth of digital media has made it all the more important. “There was this Roland Barthes myth that somehow because the light hit a mirror and entered the film, the object and so reality has become embedded in the film,” he says. “But pixels are so easy to manipulate one by one that it makes the connection with reality more uncertain than ever. The physical connection is fading away. I think it’s fantastic that one of the biggest lies in the history of images is fading away: photography can no longer be considered as a pure reflection of reality.

“What’s more important in art, as in photography, is imagination and not reality and that’s what Augustin is dealing with. I think the most interesting way to deal with reality, to document the real world, is through writing, through journalism. Words admit their subjectivity; images pretend to be objective, but they lie. That’s what we are interested in; the contextualisation of the picture through its size, its location. Each contextualisation interferes with the image and gives to it a new narrative.”

What is a photographer today? It’s whatever you want it to be, as Rebetez shows, and that includes painting, sculpture, installation and music. For him photography is a tool to record his other creative processes, a tool he could easily do without – but even so, he’s a photographer. Why not? We’re all photographers now.

See more of Augustin’s work here.

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