"Poetic and politic" conversation with artist Benedikt Partenheimer

Portrait Benedikt Partenheimer. Photo (c) Grischa Schmitz
Portrait Benedikt Partenheimer (c) Grischa Schmitz

Berlin-based artist Benedikt Partenheimer (Munich, 1977) pursues a “philosophy of political awareness” through his artworks using mediums such as photography or video.

His poetic representation of serious and important issues related to the effects of excessive global economic growth challenge the inherited binomials of modernity –such as development/civilization/wellness versus underdevelopment/lack of education/poverty. Partenheimer’s artistic depiction of these severe topics is meditative and disturbingly beautiful and manages to involve the viewer into a moment of contemplation. The artist often deals with aspects of perception: visibility and invisibility, and how they extend beyond their own subjective limits.

Recipient of the Berlin Art Prize 2016 edition we talked to Ben just before heading to his artist residency in Tbilisi as a result of the mentioned award and here is the result of the interesting conversation.

To warm up, let’s talk a bit about you and your initial carrier. You are educated in Philosophy, History and Art History. In 2001 you moved to Melbourne and then to New York to study Photography. How did you decide to become a photographer?

I don’t think it really was a conscious decision. Photography has been a part of my life for a very long time. Looking at photographs has always fascinated me, and I have always enjoyed creating pictures. But for some reason, it had never crossed my mind to become a photographer or an artist until in some way I became a self–taught photographer. Acquiring a degree in photography was just a logical step and maybe also an excuse to explore the world.

You passed from 0 to 100 in no time, as in 2002 you were working as intern and assistant for Richard Avedon in New York. At that time, two years before his death, was he still passing by the studio? How was the experience of working with one of the biggest names in photography?

I was very lucky. During my time with Richard Avedon, he was very active, shooting a lot of commercial and editorial work. He lived right above his studio on the Upper East Side and would be at the studio almost every day. Obviously, it was a great experience for a young photographer like me to see how Avedon worked. He was a very energetic, intelligent and inspiring man. I learned a lot about studio photography during that time, but I also realised that this was the world I was not interested in as a photographer.

Thus your intention succeeded, as you moved to a less commercial path and more politically committed career that last now 15 years. Proof of it is your piece Business as Usual, winner of the Berlin Art Prize 2016. The work presented there deals with the Anthropocene, tell us a bit about that.

The main work I wanted to show at the Berlin Art Prize was a floor installation named Business as Usual. I collected about 14.000 A4 pages from the International Panel on Climate ChangeThe pages provide scientific data and facts about climate change from the early nineties until now. The idea was to cover the whole exhibition floor so that the visitors could walk on the information and choose to ignore it.  The piece relates to our behavior but also deals with aspects of post-factual politics. How can we even speak of “facts” when they no longer provide us with a reality that we all agree on?Because of space and budget issues I only used about 1000 pages to cover a section of the wall and floor. The rest of the pages were presented as a stack of blank pages. 

On the wall section, I showed some images from the series Particulate Matter and a new work, Trinity (The weather is Fine). This work is a photographic montage showing the Trinity explosion. The beginning of the Anthropocene could be considered to start at the moment of the detonation of the world’s first nuclear test. On the 16th of July, 1945 at 5 hours 29 min and 45 seconds, the United States Army conducted the first test of a nuclear weapon. The beginning of the nuclear age marks a historic turning point when humans first accessed an enor­mous new energy source and also developed the ability to destroy themselves.  

Benedikt Partenheimer, “Trinity 2016 (The Weather is Fine)”
Photographic Montage 143cm 120cm

About the price, how do you feel about winning the Berlin Art Prize, the city in which you are based –it is said: “No One is a Prophet in their Own Land”?

I don’t think artists should see themselves as prophets. My work allows me to explore and critically engage with the world, it is an attempt to understand our way of living. The work is not meant to be instructive, it offers the viewer a possibility to think and feel. Winning the Berlin Art Prize was a fun and valuable experience. I really like the selection formula of the Berlin Art Prize. In the first round the jury looks at anonymous portfolios, so you are evaluated on your work only, without your education and exhibition history.  The founders and current team members are all involved in Berlin culture and have managed to establish an alternative non-institutional prize that tries to be more equitable and democratic. I take my hat off to the whole team and their commitment, creativity, and perseverance. 

To this extent, at the Berlin Art Prize installation, you also showed your previous project Particulate Matter (2013-2014), where you also point to a very politically controversial issue: the eco-system and the pollution in China. Again, how and why did you decide to do this work? It must have been expensive to travel to Shanghai to film and to take photographs… 

Back then I was already particularly interested in developing work related to the Anthropocene, as said, a proposed term for an epoch that begins when human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, based on atmospheric evidence carried out by the Industrial Revolution. The Anthropocene is a situation that calls for re-examination, asking us to take a closer, more sensitive look at the way humans have chosen to live. The work Particulate Matter reflects upon the consequences that come along with excessive economic growth in China and the burning of fossil fuels. The work addresses the problems of air pollution and deals with the relationship between revival and decline.

Your series of photographs under Particulate Matter are named after the air quality index (AQI) how is the index classified from no heath implications to hazardous?

There are six different degrees of air pollution. AQI 0-50 is classified as good air with no heath implications. AQI 51-100 is classified as moderate with few health implications. AQI 101-150 is classified as unhealthy for sensitive groups and AQI 151-200 is classified as unhealthy with increased aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. AQI 201-300 is classified as very unhealthy and AQI 301-500 is classified as hazardous. Everyone should avoid all physical outdoor activities and should remain indoors.

The foggy clouds over Shanghai consist of heavy smog that has settled over the city. Is the ecological balance of the city is in danger? And is the human habitat becoming more and more unsuitable and inhospitable?

Yes, scientific studies have shown that many cities in China are becoming unsuitable for human habitation –the air pollution has become too strong and too dangerous.

This sounds like living in a dystopic futuristic place… There is a web page where government agencies publish the air quality index in real time and it is used to communicate the degree of air pollution to the public. While you were there, did you check the index before going to the street? 

Yes, I would always check the AQI Index in the morning before leaving the house. I think the government web page is quite reliable. I had compared the ratings from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, who has their own air quality monitor, with the ones from the Chinese government and they have been identical.

The video work It’s Never Enough (2013) and the photographs reflect in a very aesthetic way upon the consequences that come along with excessive economic growth, quick industrialisation, and modernisation. This really makes me wonder what use is economic growth if people have to live in cities where they cannot breathe and where children cannot play outside. People are suffering the consequences of the ‘system’. In your opinion, what should the governments and politicians do?

I think we have reached a point in history where we seriously have to rethink about how we want to proceed as a species and how we want to treat the world we inhabit. Air pollution is just one example of how humans affect and destroy the environment. We live in an extremely profit orientated world. Profit and economic growth have become more important than the environment and the wellbeing of other people. But money will not help us, once we have destroyed our environment. The only way to reduce Air Pollution is to switch to clean energy sources and move away from fossil fuels.

It seems like you are back on track with the Anthropocene, in line with Particulate Matter and It’s Never Enough. Is this going to be your major focus from now on?

I am not sure, but at the moment I am still very interested in creating work related to the term “Anthropocene. The relationship between man and nature has become dysfunctional because we live in an economic paradigm and it seems important to me to think about ways to discuss this through my work. 

By the way, the soundtrack Symphony of Sorrowful Songs used in your video piece It’s Never Enough, was also played the opening night of documenta 14 in Athens, in a concert dedicated to the refugees and their important presence in Greece. So unconsciously, your two main lines of work are connected through this music. As we will see now, apart from the Anthropocene issues, you have worked in a kind of visionary mode with the very crucial refugee European crisis for more than two years now. Your project Dreams of Europe (2015) started at the moment that the refugee crisis was hitting Europe and became very critical for the old Continent. In 2015, 137.000 people fled across the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life in Europe. Not all of them managed to escape. As said, you did it before almost anyone else –nowadays it is also overused by the media. Why did you decide in the first instance to work on this project?

It’ s a project I’ve wanted to work on at least two years before I did start, but I never really had the time or the money to pursue it. The situation became more and more dramatic and unbearable, and the urge to work on this project became stronger and stronger. I was ashamed to see how Europe was and still is, dealing with the situation. Migration has always been part of our societies but I am very concerned to see how Europe’s strategies of deterrence and expulsion are forcing the migrants to take extremely dangerous routes in order to reach Europe.

The project presentation starts with the text: “We were all once people, it was only our names that differed, but those called human transgressed, and the world exploded into species.” Can you tell me where it comes from?

It’s a quote from a poem by Jeremy Cronin, published in the book More Than A Casual Contact. A bookseller in Johannesburg recommended the book to me and I read the poems when I was traveling through South Africa to work on a project about borders a few years ago.

The photo series, as we said before, is called Dreams of Europe but what dreams of Europe do the refugees have?

The migrants and refugees are leaving their countries and homes for different reasons. People are fleeing war, suppression, injustice, hunger and unemployment. But what they all have in common is a dream for a better life in Europe. They are hoping for a safe environment where they can start a new life, find a job, and earn money to support their families.

Would most of them remain in the new country or is their hope someday to return to their homeland?

I don’t know, I think this is different from person to person.

Your photographs from Tunisia, Lampedusa, and Sicily (the first phase of your project) show only men. Have you encountered exclusively men or have you taken this decision I mean photographing just men?

Before the waves of people provoked by the war in Syria where there are many children and women. Lampedusa and Sicily always have had a flow of Maghrebi and sub-Saharan, it is not something new. Based on my experience in these places, about 70% of the migrants and refugees are young men. I guess this is the case because the journeys are very dangerous and also physically very demanding. So no, it is not a choice I have made, I simply only encountered men on my first trips. But the situation has changed dramatically, because of the war in Syria many families with women and children are fleeing the country.

How open were the portrayed to work with you?

It really depends, of course, there are people who do not want to be photographed and I totally understand and respect that decision. Overall I have to say that the people I met were extremely friendly and open.

Refugees have to pay a lot of money to the smugglers for their travels. How can they afford it?

Refugees are not necessarily poor people; there are many different kinds of refugees and migrants. There are people and families from the lower class as well as people from the upper and middle class fleeing the war in Syria. A lot of the refugees and migrants from Africa collect the money in their families or sell their property to afford the journey. In other cases, people travel as far as they can and then stay at one place to work and earn money for the rest of the journey. I have met people who have been traveling and working for many years on their way to Europe.

In your project, you sell the portraits of the refugees for the price the refugees paid the smugglers?

The portrait images of the refugees are only released as an edition of 1 (+1 Artist Proof). The price of the print matches the amount of money the individual person had to pay to smugglers in order to reach their current location. This way, the size and price of the print is not determined by me but represents the exploitation of the depicted person. The earnings of the print sales go back to the refugees or if that is not possible, the money is donated to an aid organization.

For the second part of the project, you went to Kos (Greece), portraying again refugees. We have seen through the media that there are many women and kids there however you avoided them again. The images are very impressive and far from sensationalist and on many of them you are not even showing people. I am asking because it is populist matter and you would get a lot of attention with it just thinking about the photo of the drowned baby, which has been seen around the world…

I am not interested in creating sensationalist imagery. I have decided not to photograph children for various reasons. I do believe that every life matters and I don’t make the distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee from a war-torn country, and I also don’t make a distinction between young and old or male and female. I was trying to portray refugees and migrants in a respectful and dignified manner. I mainly encountered male refugees and it was easy for me to approach them. Families are much more protective and I didn’t really feel like invading their space.

Are you still in touch with the refugees from Tunisia, Lampedusa, Sicily and Kos?

I conducted short interviews with every person I photographed and I also collected their contact information so I can contact them if I sell their portrait. I am also planning to contact every person I photographed after a couple of years to see where they are and to find out how their “dreams” have developed.

Therefore haven’t you finished the refugee’s project? I bet this project is a personal “wear and tear”

Well yes, I have finished the Dreams of Europe project for now, but I might come back to it at a later stage. I wouldn’t say it was a wear and tear but I have put a lot of time and energy into this project and had hoped it would find more support and a bigger audience. Like I have mentioned before, the idea was to raise money through print sales and to support refugees, but I didn’t find enough places to show and sell the works. The MACRO, Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome was the only Institution where the work was shown. At least we managed to sell one image as a special edition with Monopol Magazin and raised about 8000 Euros. The edition was sold out and the money was then donated to Sea Watch.   

What do you think should the politicians do with the increasing refugee crisis situation?

Europe must rethink its immigration policies and must start to think about alternatives to the Dublin regulation. We have to offer refugees legal ways to travel and we have to accept that migration is a reality. Migration is part of an unequally distributed and globalised world, and will only be stopped if the living conditions in the countries of origin are improved.

But most important is that we stay human and that we treat people in a humane and respectful manner.
Consequently and in summary, the planet is full of wars, we tend to destroy the eco-system, etc. in favor of economic interests. Is there any solution at all?

There is a solution, but I think that many people are not aware of the urgency of the situation. We have only been on this planet for a very short time but the impact we have made on our ecosystem is immense. The world will continue to exist without us, so it is up to us to treat the environment more wisely and respectful. Otherwise, this planet will become more and more unsuitable for humans and many other living beings.

We need to switch to clean and sustainable solutions, which already exist, but unfortunately, our capitalist societies are praying to the wrong god –Mammon. We need to evolve into new economic models and new ways of sharing this planet.

And now as a farewell to this interesting and committed conversation, what projects are you working on at the moment and the near future?

There are a few things I would like to work on, but I will have to find ways to finance those projects. In the meantime, I am working on images that explore the relationship between technology, science, and climate change. I might also have the possibility to make a book about my work Particulate Matter. So I am thinking about traveling to China again to photograph the final chapter, which will look at air pollution from a different perspective. 

Benedikt Partenheimer, “Space Mirror”.
Photography/Mirror 120cm x 120cm

More information about the artist available on his web page www.benedikt-partenheimer.com

Text: María Muñoz

Images courtesy of the artist. Front featured photograph: Portrait Benedikt Partenheimer (c) Grischa Schmitz

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