„The Garden of Dreams“
The latest work of the Swiss artist is entitled Trees.
“I return the tree to what I have felt – its essence”, the portrait of an oneiric dimension. “A positive and fruit-bearing message in the face of crisis”.
A tree. And much more. Or in some ways, much less, reduced as it is to its essence – the emotional content it evokes. As we observe Irene Kung’s photographs we are certainly looking at the image of a tree. Yet this may not be. If we paraphrase René Magritte and his pipe, we may state this is not a tree. It is what it transmits, the blossoming of feelings and states of the soul. The Swiss photographer’s latest, Trees (Contrasto, 95 pages, €45) carries great impact. In my way of working – the artist states – I am able to return the tree to what I have felt. This is the way I perceive my work: to strip away what is not essential in order to show a tree as it really is, as I feel it. This is intuition; it is the irrational. What is rational may deceive us. Feelings don’t. And here come such trees: in an oneiric, metaphysical, unreal dimension. Kung’s style is all there. She had already made her mark with the mysterious and silent urban space of The Invisible City (along Italo Calvino’s lines, cities as dreams) where the void prevails. These are familiar places, of course the monuments are recognisable, yet the approach amazes us. Torre Velasca and the Duomo in Milan, the Empire State Building in New York or Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome are immersed in instances describing spaces with no time, as we have never seen them before. They take on a magical, enigmatic connotation of the power of black and white. The same takes place now – except in colour – with trees. Trees. Why trees? Firstly this is a break with the rigid lines of architecture. Then, there is a deeper explanation: trees are the symbol of nature, a sacred icon. As Hermann Hesse writes in his Song, “for me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers”. Fruit trees are symbols of productivity, health and fecundity and represent a positive image in this time of crisis, tensions and difficulties. I am relieved in seeing trees and nature follow their course: seasons, flowers, fruits. Within trees resides the cycle of life and time. All our feelings are there. Nature somehow becomes a refuge, a seed from where to begin again. In the words of Bruno Munari, a tree. The extremely slow explosion of a seed. Irene Kung’s wonder garden displays an enveloping beauty, and takes us to other and higher dimensions. It carries the power of nature without distortion or distraction, and without noise. Here is the plant, nothing else around. From the olive trees of Apulia and Greece to the palms of Egypt, from the apple trees of Switzerland to the lemon and fig trees of Sicily. Forty types of tree, centuries – old or not. There are green and lush items, others are bare and snow-laden. There are trees transmitting radiance and vitality; and trees indicating sadness or melancholy. I shoot the tree at that moment. Not for what it is, but for what I feel, what it brings about in me. Thus the portrait of the tree is exact and faithful, yet it is oneiric – what I imagine.
“A positive and fruit-bearing message in the face of crisis.”
Kung began as a painter. This approach cannot be forgotten, and knowingly so. On the other hand, when contrasted to those who interpret photography as photo–journalism or a story, it is for her “undoubtedly art, abstract art”. I believe an artist needs to give to the public what the public does not possess. Therefore the task of a contemporary artist is to help people dream through a positive and intimate message. And even the “photographer” label fits her somewhat loosely. There is no name for what I do. I was a painter. I have added the camera to my tools for creating images. I work with light a lot. And I do it through a pictorial frame of mind. A painter– photographer of the expressions of the soul. Kung’s images are also an acrobatic exercise of technique, patience, light…and a careful work of development, retouching and post-production. Photographs, or paintings if you like, which have to deal with objective difficulties: these trees are perfect in one given moment, and it is crucial to find single items which do not belong to orchards or are not in rows. In addition, they change with every season and take on results and expressions which differ greatly. And that excludes the light, which is continually changing throughout the day.
Before the phenomenon of disposable photography her “mediated” pictures are certainly a challenge. But Kung does not criticise the success, excess or exaggerations of today’s photography. Technically, very interesting things can be achieved with digital photography. And all should be explored. Photography has many faces, and this does not rule out good quality photography. And though there are the excesses of those living through selfies, good photographers and good photographs still remain. To switch on the emotive side of viewers, to reach the heart of people. Sure, people. Those absentees in Kung’s photography, at least visually.
Sooner or later I will start work on people, she shares. With an honest approach, one stemming from what I feel within. Yet even without men and women, her photos of trees or monuments display great humanity. A beating heart. And dreams. A dream helps us reach great goals and helps us in times of trouble. I believe that through dreams we reach the essence of an object. No, the tree is not a tree. It is only the shape of dreams.
Giuseppe Matarazzo / Avvenire, March 2016
Irene Kung was born in Switzerland. She studied painting and has recently shifted her attention to photography. By her also see the Fruit and Vegetable Cluster photos at Expo 2016. Her book on architectural works The Invisible City (Contrasto, 2012) has been published in English, French, Italian and Chinese.