In Conversation: Kata Geibl

Kata Geibl (1989, Budapest) is a photographer living and working in The Hague. Her work is mainly focused on global issues, capitalism, collective memory and the ambiguities of the photographic medium.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The Sun rises, and the sun goes down and hastens to the place where it rises. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the Sun.”

Frederic Jameson once said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Our contemporary culture is hugely influenced by global capitalism, which affects every part of our life. The myth of society is that if we work hard enough, we can become “somebody.” This kind of individualism led to the belief that we think that the world exists for the benefit of mankind. We crave perfectionism and at the same time use the Earth’s resources as if there is no tomorrow.

As an artist, I always try to reflect on our contemporary culture and the world we live in, to mirror what happens in our society. I believe we all can feel the rise of this new era even when we lack words to describe it. The way we consume, inquire, vote, communicate, and work is rapidly changing every day. There is Nothing New Under the Sun is capturing the Zeitgeist of our time, without laying out answers to the viewer but guiding their mind and creativity into the direction of the story behind the images.

BD: Kata, first off, thanks again for taking the time to discuss your latest work with us! I wanted to start by asking you to describe your photographic process and what originally drew you to the medium.

KG: I’ve always wanted to be a photographer, ever since I was a kid. When I was five years old I asked for a camera from my parents for Easter. I think that was the starting point for me as a photographer. I remember that I carried that green 35mm film camera with me everywhere, always taking snapshots. Later on, I learned that photography doesn’t just happen on a street level, but that you can actually build whole universes, tell stories through images, and that these stories don’t necessarily have to be true. My whole understanding of the medium shifted when I finally watched Antonioni’s movie Blowup in my 20s, which changed everything for me. After that, I knew I needed to become a photographer no matter what. 

I started to think in series and not single pictures, creating stories that I wanted to tell. My approach always changes in the context of each project. Every series requires a different kind of approach to the medium, so I always try to keep that in mind and be flexible. But one thing that never changes is my artistic practice. Every time I start working on a series I sketch what I want to see, then search for the perfect location, arrange everything and hope that I will end up with what I have in my mind. I really enjoy the freedom of staged photography, I can be the director and the screenwriter of my own story. 

BD: Where do you tend to take inspiration from?

KG: To answer this question I need to go back a little bit in time. Before I got accepted into art university I studied film history and philosophy. These studies shaped my vision of the world tremendously and gave a solid foundation for everything to come. Usually when I start a series I see a script in front of my eyes, the storyboard of the story I want to tell. This is also why I tend to take my inspiration from movies. I really try to avoid getting swayed by photographs – I feel they influence my way of seeing, too much to be honest. But when I take my inspiration from movies, I always have more room to maneuver. I always have a sketchbook where I collect my photographic inspiration that’s filled mostly with archival or found imagery.

BD: Your work often involves reflecting on the world we live in, and the effects of contemporary culture. We’ve previously shared your series “Sisyphus,” which took a very scientific approach to this idea, while your newer work feels more organic in nature. Can you speak a bit about this shift for “There Is Nothing New Under the Sun?”

KG: Thank you for pointing out the shift between Sisyphus and my new series. I agree. Sisyphus was my first long term project, I worked on the series for two years. It was a very conceptual project with sterile, abstract, cold images – places and things that are not easy to access. I made those images mostly in labs or tried to recreate a very scientific feeling which goes with the images. When I finished the series I felt the urge to work on something completely different. I wanted to work on a much broader theme, something that has an effect on everyone’s life, that you can actually relate to. This theme later becomes the Zeitgeist of our society. It’s a more impulsive, poetic series which I hope is more accessible but at the same time raises questions that are more universal. I could most liken this shift to Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia. There’s a scene where Kirsten Dunst’s character feels the end of the world before anyone and swaps albums from abstract paintings to figurative oil paintings in the family library. The blue square is replaced by Caravaggio and Bruegel. I’m feeling this kind of transformation now with Sisyphus to Nothing New Under the Sun. Abstraction and rationality can no longer answer my questions which is why the shift was necessary.

BD: I can definitely understand that shift, and you couldn’t have chosen a better movie to relate your process to (and one that is also very poetic). There is certainly something about your new series that feels tangible to the viewer in a very different way, given that the imagery may feel more immediately familiar than those taken in lab-like settings. Speaking of Melancholia, I wanted to ask about a specific image in your series that I love – the still life of a model that is on fire. It’s the one image that reminds me of the sense of impending doom that is prevalent throughout the movie, while the other photos don’t feel quite as ominous. What was your thought process and intention during the creation of that image?

KG: This image was born after reading Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory again, where his argument is that the Gulf War didn’t happen. Mass media created a spectacular view of the war through television screens. What the world saw from the war was merely a simulation of the war in hyperreal space. He wrote that essay in 1991 but it is more relevant to our world today than ever. If you just think about the fake news era which we live in, where you no longer have any reference to an external reality, but statements which exist for themselves, replacing reality and facts. I wanted to capture this very strong image in a metaphorical way, which of course also speaks about the future that lies in front of us, due to the reality of climate change.

BD: The title alone for this series is what initially drew me in. The Book of Ecclesiastes, while ominous, always felt the truest to me personally out of any religious text that I studied and I think that choosing this excerpt for your series couldn’t be more fitting. Similar to pulling from the biblical text, many of the images in “There Is Nothing New Under the Sun” provide a great juxtaposition between classic and contemporary, such as the male portraits that mirror ancient Greek sculptures alongside photographs of urban landscapes. Was this a conscious decision for you when making these images?

KG: Yes, very much. My main inspirations were ancient greek sculptures. I started to deal with these figures because I wanted to create pictures that were filled with politics, but not directly. I wanted to find a metaphor without talking specifically about politics. Sports and competitive sports have always been linked to power, and sports and dictatorships have always gone hand in hand. If you think about the Olympic games it steps beyond elite sport and becomes this whole spectacle of competition between nations with the constant craving to overcome our human limitations. 

The other aspect of these figures goes back to the title of the series. The Book of Ecclesiastes is mostly interpreted to describe the monotony of life, but it also has a deeper meaning. When Ecclesiastes states that there is nothing new under the Sun he’s reflecting from his earth-bound perspective. The sentence also means there is nothing new on Earth, the lifetime of man is lost in the grander scheme of things. This idea goes hand in hand with Nietzsche’s thoughts about eternal return and recurring moments, energy, and history. I wanted to catch this feeling of infinity, and link the past and present in a very symbolic way.

BD: As in your series, In Ecclesiastes, he speaks about the limits of human wisdom but also the perpetual rat race of life on Earth. The images in your series seem to address this in an interesting way because they somehow all feel very quiet and still, despite the constant rush of life that we experience. Could you speak a bit about that?

KG: The quiet and still images in the series are more related to nature which has an infinite silence in my opinion. On the other hand, the aspect which you mentioned is not as represented in the series at this stage as it will be in the future. This is what I still need to work on, so there is a balance between the “good and the bad” in our society. But for instance the image with the model on fire, the beehive, and the lion images are speaking about that other aspect. 

BD: What can we expect next from you and your work? Are you still working on this series, or is something new underway?

KG: I am still working on There is Nothing New Under the Sun, I am only at the beginning of my journey. When I am finished with the series I would like to publish a book out of it. The series unfolds when you see two or three images side by side, it is a story that you have to read. This is also why at Unseen Amsterdam it was installed in a grid format since one image follows the other and neither is without the other. 

BD: Wonderful. We will be on the lookout for your book, and for new work in the future. Thanks again Kata!

To view more of Kata Geibl’s work please visit her website.