Ever since photography’s inception, the scientific underpinnings of the medium have served to distance it from traditional forms of visual media. A desire to reconnect photography to the inherent human proclivity for mark-making forms the basis of London based photographer, Oliver Eglin’s 2014 project Markings, recently selected as part of Daniel Blau Gallery’s annual 5 Under 30 group exhibition.
Taking as it’s subject matter the intricate carvings inscribed in the bark of the Ficus Macrophylla trees by visitors in the Giardino Garibaldi in Sicily, research by Eglin into the origins of the Ficus revealed it’s use by Australian Aborigines who would utilise it’s bark as pigment for rock paintings. Looking at the sensuous, twisting roots of the Ficus tree in images such as Ngamadjidj, it’s easy to imagine that the words and symbols engraved into the bark have been carved directly from the pulp on which the image is printed.
For Eglin, these carvings were less signs of a progression in human cultural evolution than the latest incarnation of a mark-making tradition as old as time itself. The desire to perceive such a cyclical narrative in human evolution likewise allows the viewer to observe the cyclical relationship between medium and subject matter whereby the photographic print, sculpture and rock painting are juxtaposed as if to form an infinity mirror reflecting upon the human condition stretching back millennia. The images in Markings can thus be considered the very opposite of transparent. We caught up with Oliver to ask about the inspiration behind his recent work.
AK: What drew you to photograph the carvings inscribed in the Ficus macrophylla?
OE: When I first visited the park, I had no prior knowledge of the history of the space. Initially my compulsion to photograph the trees was one based on aesthetics; there’s something quite sinister about the structure of the Ficus macrophylla, which immediately drew me in. As I began to notice the engravings in its surface I realised there was something interesting going on in terms of the way it embodied man’s interference with the natural landscape.
I see the images as a metaphor for the act of taking a photograph. Where does the compulsion to make images come from? It’s something intrinsic to humanity; there are cave paintings dating back 40,000 years. What’s interesting is that those ancient cave paintings don’t show an accurate depiction of the world inhabited by the artist, they are an edit in a way; it’s a disproportionate sample of particular animals such as horses, bison and lions. Evidently these animals had some spiritual significance to the artist. This tradition is continued into photography, in that we’re very selective about the moments and the subjects that we choose to capture.
AK: Your work often appears to comment on the loss of cultural identity, is this a personal concern to you?
OE: I’m interested in the accumulation and progression of culture over a period of time. If you look at the work I did around Berghain/Panorama my main concern is the preservation of that culture; it falls very much in line with the use of photography from an ethnographic perspective, in that it offers you a view of something exotic removed from its context. I recognised Berghain, and in a wider context electronic music, as something very particular to a certain moment in history. I was interested in why there was such an appetite for this prolonged, almost unending, escapism, and how that is particularly relevant in contemporary Germany.
With Markings I’m questioning the very notion of culture; this idea that cultural progression is something accumulated over time. In this project, that’s inverted, in the sense that I’m showing these very base urges that people have to leave their mark on the earth. Engraving our name or that of a loved one is very relatable; we seem to have some compulsion to physically externalise our thoughts and emotions through drawing. This spirituality is what sets us apart from all other species and also what we seem to hold up as the most distinguishing feature of intelligence. The titles of the work are taken from sites of aboriginal rock art, and in doing so I’m trying to break or delineate this idea of cultural evolution.
AK: You are drawn to document architectural spaces which signify the physical limits of particular civilisation in series such as Prora, Il Gattopardo and Lucca. In your artist’s statement accompanying your series, Prora, documenting the long-abandoned German holiday resort, you cite Edmund Burke’s 1757 work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Could you describe how your style is influenced by theories on the sublime?
OE: During University I spent some time studying sublime ideology and it’s prominence within art. I became fascinated by the theoretical development of the sublime, particularly how that manifested itself within the photographic medium. I’m very much influenced by the aesthetics of the German school, the likes of: Gursky, Strüth and Höfer had a big impact on my own aesthetic choices. I like the formal qualities to the work; I tend to have a very structured approach to the way I compose an image and I’m incredibly fussy about the exact components of the scene.
With the Prora series I felt it would have been impossible to have created the work without making reference, in some way, to the sublime. The architectural ideology during the Fascist era was intrinsically tied in with Burkean notions of the sublime as a mode of consciousness; the deliberate manipulation of scale and imposing geometry was fundamental to Albert Speer’s plans for the future of Germany. In showing the physical ruination of those plans, whilst also employing formal principles of sublime ideology in the composition of the image, it heightens the potency of the work.
AK: Could you describe why you consider literature and film to be such a strong influence on your style?
OE: From an early age my mother introduced me to a lot of great novels and films. I subsequently developed a strong passion for both, which in turn compelled me to write and develop narrative.
Both film and literature really influence each piece of work that I produce. In regards to my most recent series, had it not been for the early films of Paolo Sorrentino or the writings of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, I may not have had such a cohesive vision of the Sicily I wanted to photograph.
AK: What projects are you working on now?
OE: The Markings series is part of a wider body of work looking at the study and preservation of cultural artefacts. For the first time in a while, I’ll be making images in the UK, which is both exciting and challenging.
Next month I’ll begin my Masters in Photography at The Royal College of Art. This should give me the opportunity to really experiment with my practice, so I’m very much looking forward to getting started. Aside from that there are a couple of interesting editorial assignments that I’ll be working on over the next few weeks and I also hope to produce a book of my Il Gattopardo series.
View the entire series at olivereglin.com, all images © Oliver Eglin.
— Alan Knox