Agar Ledo and Roland Fischer Interview 2003

Conversation between Agar Ledo and Roland Fischer
Santiago de Compostela 2003

Agar Ledo: In this project, based on Santiago de Compostela and on
pilgrimage, you have included new pieces belonging to your Cathedrals
series. Why did you first choose the cathedral as a subject in the
Roland Fischer: In fact the series of Cathedrals emerged from proj-
ects I had developed before. It seemed a logical outcome when I was
trying to see how I could transfer the issues I had dealt with in my por-
trait projects (the series on nuns and monks, the Los Angeles Por-
traits) into the sphere of architecture. I found a similarity with the con-
ceptual theme of the portraits, the „paradox of space“, which explains
why I started to superimpose the insides of building on to their out-
sides. The only constructions in which interiors are related to exteriors
in terms of structure and size are cathedrals.
AL: In the first works in your Cathedrals series you chose Gothic archi-
tecture, which has a strong symbolic content. Equally symbolic are the
portraits of nuns and monks. Why do you use typologies that have such
a strong meaning?
RF: There is a quite simple reason, I would say that I never do straight
portraits; I always choose very specitic aspects ot the genre. As tor
the religious portraits, I was trying to create visual tension with the
forms of the images. Before these I was working on black and white
portraits in a more or less classical way, although I was already trying
to make them less documentary and more images in their own right.
Later I wished to become more abstract and then I had the idea of sur-
rounding a face with more or less abstract forms, which would enable
me to create greater visual tension. There were two ways of obtaining
this, either photographing sheiks (which, incidentally, I did), or
focussing on nuns and monks. Naturally, I chose nuns and monks
because they have more meaning in our culture. All visual elements
are very symbolic. I began to produce these portraits and their subject
was already artistic, for the way in which they dress is already an
abstraction. They cover their body to underline the significance they
attach to immaterial values, transforming their appearance into some-
thing different.
AL: I find in your work such disparate concepts as limited and unlim-
ited, finite and infinite….
RF: For me this is also the expression of some basic paradox sur-
rounding human existence. The human being is defined by a number of
paradoxical situations: we have a body and a spirit, we are alive but we
are going to die, there are all kind of antagonisms which are not really
understandable and yet this is the situation defining our being, some-
thing which is very hard to describe. Things that are difficult to express
in spoken or written language are easier to render on a visual plane.
After showing an increasing interest in working with architecture, I dis-
covered this analogy concerning space, the paradox of space, the spa-
tial qualities of both interiors and exteriors. This is why I turned to
images of cathedrals. The outcome of my images does not really rep-
resent the real building one might be familiar with; sometimes it cre-
ates something totally different and more like deconstructions of these
very buildings. So the projects I did before Cathedrals are related to
some of the basic problems I was particularly interested in.
AL: Just as you would do later on in the Collective Portraits, in the
series entitled Los Angeles Portraits you seek to portray people in a
specific place and moment.
RF: The Los Angeles Portraits may convey the human being’s sense of
isolation. The thing is that I was not at all interested in making por-
traits to show the wide range of different individuals. The intention of
the project was rather to see what we call individuality really is. I’m
interested in the problem of identity. Later on when I first visited
China, I was able to observe the strong desire people had to distin-
guish themselves from one another in such a mass society, a desire
perhaps even stronger than it was in Western countries, and yet the
sheer mass of the people is still impressive for visitors. I developed an
idea for an image, a large tableau that would include hundreds of peo-
ple arranged side by side on the computer to create a pattern, a visual
repetition. To avoid an anonymous crowd, I portrayed people individu-
ally, noting their personal names underneath. So the images can be
regarded as a whole, or one can engage in a dialogue with the individ-
ual characters.
AL: From the very beginning you chose to work in series. When do you
consider that a project actually begins and concludes, in conceptual
RF: After a number of years of working in this way you delve deeper
into a project and discover new aspects of it. I wouldn’t go so far as to
say that I won’t produce another cathedral or another Los Angeles
portrait, as it might prove very interesting to add a few more things to
a given series at some point in the future. This is what happened with
the CGAC project, which offered me a very good opportunity to work
with a number of features and techniques I had been unable to apply
previously, as the Camino is full of churches and cathedrals repre-
senting different architectural styles. This allowed me to develop many
aspects I had been looking forward to working on.
AL: Since Bernd and Hilla Becher, a number of German photographers
have chosen the architectonic portrait as the basis for their works. Do
you consider yourself close to any given school or group of artists?
RF: Not really. When I started to work, photo art (art coming from
straight photography) was in its very beginnings. Bernd and Hilla
Becher were teaching photography based on the German tradition of
documentation you have mentioned. I was rather more interested in
different aspects of the medium of photography, so although I appre-
ciate some of these photographers, I probably don’t have much in com-
mon with the movement itself.
AL: Proceeding to analyse your series, we should ask about your expe-
rience in China, for that is where you started there the last two series,
such as the Façades.
RF: When I was living in LA I was already taking lots of photos of the
surfaces of the city. Los Angeles is a very visual place, its urban situa-
tion has a great abstract quality; Baudrillard called it a huge simu-
lacrum. But it was not until I visited the major cities of China that I
suddenly realised how I could use this approach in my work. I took
photos of the surfaces of those impressive high-rise buildings and cut
them out. Some of them were pure and perfect, such as the buildings
by architects like Ieoh Ming Pei, while others are experiments made
with multiple colours and forms. Here I was able to combine the two
specific aspects of the photographic medium to express the fact that
each pixel in a photograph is linked to its reality and independent
appearance as an image devoid of references. At first sight the
Façades may evoke colour-field paintings while still being „classica!“
photos of objects. These aspects are completely interwoven in the
image and every detail has a double side.
AL: And joining these aspects together we get the static point of the
image. Like a moment of transition between the visible and the invisible.
RF: Transparency and transition are indeed very crucial for me. They
represent the difference.
AL: Collective Portraits is your latest series to date, the second of
those you began in China. On the question of opposites, these social
groups represent the union between isolated individuals and their
global context, the group. Is there a previous sociological intention in
the Collective Portraits?
RF: Sure, because here I was dealing with the image of social groups.
I started with the students, and afterwards I realised collective por-
traits with steelworkers, farmers and soldiers, all of whom constitute
very strong social groups in communist China. Students somehow rep-
resents the intellectual future of China, while Steelworkers symbolises
the utopia of the Maoist area. The Farmers seemed obvious to me as
a result of the part they play in Chinese culture and economy, and the
Soldiers are of course inevitable, forming as they do one of the last
great Communist armies. I did these four groups, in which each indi-
vidual is placed in the context of his or her own social environment.
AL: The abstract context in the Collective Portraits is the collectivity
itself, which is the result of the conjunction of social membership and
place. Later on, you developed this idea further in other group portraits
in the West.
RF: After that I discovered that another possibility was not to focus on
a given social group, entity or environment, but to use instead the time
and location of specific situations as parameters. I produced one col-
lective portrait at Frankfurt airport, where I photographed over a thou-
sand people in the transit area. This was the portrait of a space result-
ing from the unique mixture of the individuals crossing it. Something
that is different every day. Here I included the element of chance.
AL: Is this the same idea of the Pilgrims Portrait you are presenting in
this show?
RF: Exactly. It is a sort of invisible portrait of space (the Praza do
Obradoiro in front of the Cathedral), of everyone who happens to
arrive at one given moment, leaving his mark with his portrait. In San-
tiago I just created a combination of the two aspects, photographing
people – belonging to a group in the sociological sense – only for a
particular time and gathered in a specific place.

published in: Roland Fischer „CAMINO“, CGAC Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea 2003
Agar Ledo is a Spanish curator