Lost highways and mediated memories
by Vittoria Caradonna
Eriz Moreno is an artist from Bilbao, Basque Country. His practice has led him to places as different as Eastern Europe, North America and Western Asia where he spent time researching and collecting documentation for his projects. He has been part of several collective shows, such as “9980 km el horizonte que nos separa” at the Domus Artium 2002 Museum (Salamanca) and” Horizonte” at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His solo shows include “Projekt Beton” at the Szczecinek Regional Museum (Poland) and “Ararat” at the Ereván Contemporary Art Museum (Armenia). He’s currently based in Leipzig at Pilotenkueche, an international residency located in the Spinnerei complex.
I sat down with Eriz and talked about the way he approaches his work.
I wish I could have seen your photos in their original, larger scale. But even if somehow mediated by a laptop screen, I have found them captivating. Although they are similar to documentary photography in code and format, the route you choose to explore, the stories you want to unearth, ask deeper questions about the relationship between symbols and history, reality and iconography.
I guess then, that my question is do you start with the history or the place? I mean when you decide on a project, do you focus on the place first and then stumble upon its history? Or do you decide to tell a story using the place where it took place?
Both. Usually you start one project that then takes you to the next. For example, while I was in Poland I came to Leipzig to research something related to the project, and during my stay here I first learned about the Battle of the Nations monument. Sometimes I’m just listening to people talking about a place or a history and I see potential. Afterwards, you just need to know how to take advantage of this potential. It doesn’t matter which one come first, it matters how you get to it.
Which element informs your work the most, symbol or reality?
If I enter too much on the symbolic, I give too many opinions. For example the Battle of the Nations monument, or Mount Ararat: they are both physical and symbolic places. I have to be careful, because I’m working with things that hold a lot of meaning for different people. That’s why in these cases it is best to see these things as objects and to remain neutral, so that after people can form their own opinion during the exhibition. That’s why I’d rather use photos and documents and also why I try to present them in a neutral way. Because we weren’t there, so we don’t know for sure what happened, and therefore we could be unfair to those for whom these places have a much deeper meaning. But of course everything in art is a negotiation between the symbolic and the real: the final artwork becomes not just a collection of symbols, but something that by existing in reality creates a symbolic relationship with the public.
Another example of this is what I’m doing with the “Fest der Millionen / Werk der Millionen” project. This is a propagandistic book published on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the German Democratic Republic. I don’t speak German. But the Fest der Millionen book is in German. So I was not there at the time, I didn’t experience the situation, and I don’t speak the language. But there I saw the potential. It’s the reading of a book, in a language that I don’t know. It’s an exercise in translation, I observe the book as a structure, as a space with its own structure. The final display it’s a projection of the book.
This is what happens when you start researching, you feel there’s a treasure. And the best part is when you feel that things are starting to make sense.
To me your photos in their realness, sometimes in their starkness, precisely because you decide to portray the landscape as it is, with no added manipulation, seem to suggest that these are not in fact real places. They are the lost highways in the western compulsion for progress, or distorted reflections of places that perhaps only existed in the imagination of their founders.
I want to take the public to that place and make them feel something. For example in Projekt Beton you feel that the forest is not really a forest, you see the traces of human intervention. Or during the making of Untitled (BERLIN) the route between towns ended up to be more significant than the towns itself. The experience is part of the project. I can’t make the people feel as they were there. In this sense the places are definitely not real. I collect material that then I use for the final artwork. I’m not trying to recreate. I’m trying to create something entirely new. The public is making its own experience, a ‘second experience’ the first one being my own while I travel and collect. They’re not seeing the things from my point of view, they are creating their own relationship with the artwork.
How do you choose what to represent of a place?
I try to avoid choosing as much as possible. I use tripods and “tricks” like for example taking pictures every 500 meters, or 360 degrees. So in the end I take very few decisions. I took 8000 photos in Yugoslavia and I decided to exhibit them all. If I have to choose I try to be as little intrusive as possible. There’s reality, my negotiation of it, and at the end I obtain highly symbolic work, but the symbolic value is provided by the people that see it, not by my subjectivity. I ask myself where the right balance between reality and symbol is. My intention is to be as objective as possible, but there’s always a negotiation. The important thing is being aware that sometimes we could be “cheating”: as artists we can take licenses that historians shouldn’t take. History can be used as a material, as clay, artists can use it as they wish. But my goal is instead to produce documentation as accurate as possible.
For example for 18/19/2013, why did I choose this topic? Because I liked it. The viewers can then choose if they like it as well. In this sense I’m not cheating: I’m not cheating myself, I’m following my interests. The work is part of me and the way in which I’m deciding to represent and present it that’s the only subjective side of it.
So you’re saying that being objective and neutral is the only subjective choice in your work?
Yes, in a way. I was inspired by the ideas behind the Düsseldorf School: to be objective is to take a lot of pictures of the same thing, this way creating a pattern. The pattern is the only thing you decide, and that is the rule you have to follow throughout the project. I know that I’m going to end the pattern, but I don’t know how every photo is going to turn out.
In Projekt Beton you traced and followed the abandoned Reichsautobahn from Berlin to Kalinigrad in the North-East of Poland
The use of highways is about the concept of pilgrimage, is about the idea of knowing where I’m going without knowing how I’m getting there. For me the usual pilgrimage routes, to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, have no meaning.
We are used to see represented both in the arts and in the news cycle, the route from south to north and to hear about narratives of displacement and of loss of identity and community, usually drenched in the rhetoric of progress and of sacrifice in the name of said progress. You chose to follow the opposite direction with the Brotherhood and Unity Highway project: in the 1960s and 70s this highway across Yugoslavia became the somewhat dangerous holiday route for the Gastarbeiter: Turkish, Greek and Yugoslav immigrants that worked in West Germany and Austria. They used this route to visit their homelands during their summer holidays
The Brotherhood and Unity Highway project allowed me to travel around Yugoslavia, following a specific thread. A sort of secular pilgrimage: this time I wasn’t following a pattern, but collecting information that could be used later for the artwork. I was not showing the highway itself, but using it as a path through histories and places. Since the road was used by tourists, as a leisure commodity, albeit a dangerous one, I couldn’t choose a static point of view, I needed more freedom.
Along the way I learned about the splitting and connecting rifts along the history of Jugoslavia. I found people nostalgic about the past. I learnt how today the republics are more independent politically but less economically.
Finally, when do you know a project is finished?
When I start another. No really, when there’s nothing else I can add. A project can be reopened whenever I find anything related to it. That is not my main concern, when to finish. I can reuse things, make new interpretations, revisit places and what happened to them in the meantime.
Investigate, collect, tell. There is never a final artwork, it changes depending on the exhibition it needs to be tailored to the exhibition, the place, the audience. As Bruce Lee says: “Be fluid, be water, my friend.”
Cover image from: Brotherhood and Unity Highway, 2014-15