Thomas Mailaender’s weird and wonderful world

“Thomas Mailaender’s forum and sphere of operations is less the art world than the rowdier public domain where events can easily run out of control,” writes Ian Jeffrey, the respected photography critic. That rowdy sense of anarchy and fun is clearly on show in the French artist’s current exhibition at Roman Road, which is punningly titled Solo Chaud.

With liberal use of sheets of white plastic, Mailaender has literally transformed the gallery into a white cube, and populated it with artwork culled from various recent projects – a print on plasterboard, showing a man grabbing and photographing a bird, is taken from his Cyanotypes series; humorous press prints ‘framed’ in roughly-shaped, brightly-coloured clay come from his Les Belles Images collection; large, roughly cut boards showing amateur snaps of everything from hapless plastic surgery fans to questionable bikini lines are relics from the Chicken Museum installation he created at Rencontres d’Arles in 2011.

Behind the gallery, in owner Marisa Bellani’s home, more work is on display – lumpen vases, a more traditional large-scale print, and what look like family photos. Many of the images come from the Mailaender Fun Archive, a collection of more than 10,000 photographs he’s built up since he was a student. BJP’s Diane Smyth caught up with Mailaender to learn more about the serious thinking behind his madness.

BJP: Where do you find the images you use?
TM: I’ve had the Fun Archive since 2000. It’s mostly found pictures from the internet, but I also have lots of friends who know I’m working with this kind of imagery, so they send pictures to me. It’s always amateur pictures; it always has something to do with performance, do-it-yourself, amateurism and also comic situations. Historical photography like the picture of the guy with the bird [from the Cyanotypes] is really a fun situation, but when you take it out of context it can become more political, and have stronger meanings about photography and how we consume it.

BJP: Are they just images that appeal to you? It’s quite esoteric.
TM: Yes, but I know this collection very well because I work a lot with it. It’s in my brain, it’s a base to work on everything. It’s on hard drives, it’s a collection of digital images, but the way I work with it, I make it physical. At some stage the pictures escape from non-reality to something more concrete.

BJP: Recently in BJP I wrote a feature about young photographers looking at the materiality of the photograph, including your Cyanotypes and Anouk Kruithof’s photographic sculptures. Is that something you feel aligned with?
TM: I know Anouk, she’s a close friend. I don’t think it’s like a family, but I’m sure it’s like a fight against this non-reality; these images that are no longer printed. Who would print an image now? Mostly artists or really nostalgic people. I collect a lot of prints, I consume a lot of pictures, buying them from fleamarkets or on ebay and so on, and over the past five years I can see they are really disappearing. Now people are dying, so for a few more years we will have those little amateuristic archives appearing, but maybe in 10 years there will be no more pictures. You will only find maybe hard drives with images on them.

BJP: So where online do you find the images for the Fun Archive?
TM: On Flickr, blogs – these images have definitely been shared. Someone has posted it, then it has been reposted, reposted and reposted until there is no more author, no credit. It’s fun because people take pictures from my website, too, so sometimes when I look at pictures from amateurs I find some part of my work, and sometimes I can see that it has been resized, re-jpegged over and over again. My work has been digested by the internet and has reappeared. It’s cool, but at the same time I’m fighting for credit, too, because I’m an artist. It’s hard for non-professional people to understand – how can you take pictures from people, reuse them, and at the same time fight for your signature?

BJP: Some of the images in Solo Chaud you’ve put into very obviously handmade clay frames – I like this idea of the deliberately amateurish, in contrast to digital, where everything looks perfect.
TM: The name of that project is Les Belles Images, and for that I used non-digital pictures gathered from press agencies. These agencies are digitising their archives, and when they have digitised the images going back maybe 10 or 20 years, they sell the prints on the internet or ebay or wherever. I’m buying a lot of them – it’s a really nice typology, and also you buy the image, but you always have the caption stuck on the back. I wanted to include them in my work and found this very simple way to present them, which is just to frame them in a sensitive way. It has to do with me role-playing, with amateurism, with do-it-yourself at home, and with making – and it’s very colourful, very playful. It’s really a celebration of these particular pictures, news pictures, but the kind of news you’d find in the news-in-brief section. In France we call it Rubrique des chiens écrasés [literally ‘run-over dog topics’, humorous, small-town news]. It’s comic, not really interesting news, but still it happened. It’s slightly surrealistic, and I really love this in-between information. It’s not really important [news], but for me it is really important, because it’s peoples’ everyday stories. It’s the most important thing. These pictures are underrated in the history of photography, so through my work I want to give them more space.

BJP: Because then there’s the question of power, and who decides what’s a small story and what’s important?
TM: Exactly. When I talk with people from museums, sometimes it’s great and sometimes I can see there’s a gap between their real heart [what they really value] and who decides what’s important.

BJP: So the work that’s on show here [in Bellani’s home], is this all part of the show?
Marisa Bellani: No, this is the private space of the gallery, but the way I imagine the gallery is that we have the little space at the front [for exhibitions], and this space for other pieces by the artists.

BJP: Because I think it’s really nice to have these images [amateurs’ family snaps] in a domestic setting.
TM: For sure. You have the white cube [of the gallery], then in here [it is arranged in] exactly the way I would put it in my house.

BJP: You’ve made the gallery literally a white space – is that almost a joke?
TM: Yes, I like it. Solo Chaud gathers together very different work, so I was joking to my friends that it’s my very small retrospective. When you gather together work like that – especially in this gallery, which has a very small floor and very high ceilings – it’s nice to consider it as a museum. The first show Marisa and I did together was Night Climbers, and then we painted it all black and bolted climbing holds onto the walls [and showed the images all the way up the 7m high walls].

MB: The gallery was totally transformed, and the funny thing was people came with like [climbing] ropes.

TM: After that show, I was invited to exhibit the project at Vevey [at the Festival des Arts Visuels de Vevey, an open-air photography biennial] and we worked with a climbing society there to create a 25m climbing wall. People would come saying, ‘Ah great, we have a free wall in the city’, not really caring about the images. But then they could see them and get interested, because those images are the first ever documentation of urban climbing.

BJP: You’re showing one of the images from the book, Illustrated People. When did that come out?
TM: At the beginning of this year.

BJP: How did you expose the photograph on the skin? [The images show photographs that have been sunburned onto peoples’ skin].
TM: It’s really simple – with a UV lamp from the 1970s. I basically applied a negative from the Archive of Modern Conflict collection and it was burned onto the skin.

BJP: So it’s like when you’re sunbathing and you fall asleep and a friend puts your name on your chest in suncream?
TM: Yes, in the gallery, I have a picture like that [an image from the Fun Archive that found its way into Mailaender’s Chicken Show]. That’s really where this project started, but without that sense of humour. I was really interested in using the skin as a sensitive material. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I developed this technique [to do it].

BJP: And this picture – is this a Nazi camp guard?
TM: It’s a German soldier, but it’s not an SS guard; it’s a regular type of guy, the son of a German guy dragged into the war, or something like that. It’s taken from a photo album and you can see he was a really regular guy who got mixed up in the conflict.

BJP: Why did you want to use the skin?
TM: I made this project on residency at the Archive of Modern Conflict – it was a very free residency, they didn’t make any demands of me, but at the same time I had to find a way to present my own take on all these images that have already been chosen by Timothy [Prus, who oversees the Archive and its collecting activities]. Then one day I was talking with Timothy about how we all have some picture in mind, a souvenir, a picture, that when you close your eyes you can nearly physically see. We were imagining a reality in which these images would appear literally on your skin – where there are so many pictures in your life they start to literally come out. The title also comes from a discussion with Timothy and a book by Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man, that he lent me.

MB: It’s very interesting to see peoples’ reaction to this photograph – a lot of people look it and say, ‘Oh my God, that looks so painful!’

BJP: But there is something a bit shocking about it, because the skin is burnt.
TM: It could be like torture, it is for sure something to do with violence and conflict and bad treatment. I didn’t torture people, but I assume this violent role. Don’t try this at home!

Thomas Mailaender: Solo Chaud is on show at Roman Road until 15 June. The gallery is open Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-7pm, and by appointment. The private space at the back is also open by appointment.

Thomas Mailaender will be leading an analogue processing workshop organised by Self Publish, Be Happy during the Offprint London book fair at Tate Modern, 22-25 May.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy