...you have all these layers of history, the different languages, cultures and borders; but under this, there is this layer of nature, which doesn’t care about all the problems humans create.
To roam and wander the vast and daunting terrain of mountain-scape or to experience piercing silence, howling winds or the flood rains that shape the land. All the while bearing witness to the experiential notion of international borders and the mercurial idea of "otherness." These experiences—the confrontation with Mother Nature's wild and unbridled ways coupled with deserted land as part of pilgrimage, as part of communion, art, identity and being—are intrinsic, and an unspoken commentary found within photographer and installation artist Michael Höpfner's work.
Höpfner has walked, generally speaking, in the regions of the Nepalese and Chinese Himalaya, Central Tibet, Western Sichuan, Tajikistan and Western China. Keeping journals and taking photographs along his journeys that in turn become the body of his photographic works and installation pieces.
Michael is a kindred spirit and a good friend of Craftspring founder, Anne-Laure. We emailed Michael a few initial interview questions as primer and followed up with a Skype interview. Read on!
Michael during our Skype chat
What are you working on currently?
But next week I take my backpack and my walking boots and I travel to Northwesten Tibet for one month to hike to a lake on the remote Chang Tang Plateau; in September I will continue a hiking project I started last year in Kosovo and Albania – I plan to walk along rivers and mountains ranges all the way down to Northern Greece.
Why are you drawn to those particular areas right now?
Coming from Vienna, there is a strong connection to this South-Eastern European geography. I had a lot of colleagues in the 90’s, mostly students, who fled from ex-Yugoslavia. But then you know, the artists from there, or the arts in general from there, are always heavily into politics and social views; a few years ago the whole refugee crisis.
I was always interested in a different perception of geographical areas. Two years ago I read an article on biodiversity in Albania and Kosovo; the last rivers in Europe that have never been touched by humans, it’s completely empty mountain ranges. There are areas where there was no destructive influence on nature.That sounded exciting: you have all these layers of history, the different languages, cultures and borders; but under this, there is this layer of nature, which doesn’t care about all the problems humans create.
So I start my hike into this whole area with this naïve dream - and through this approach whole political problems will enter my work later from the back door. That’s the start now. I have no idea what will happen.
Michael, is this self-funded? Or do you have funding?
The Balkan – Greece river-walk project is self-funded. I started it last year, it’s not very expensive to go from Vienna to Tirana. If it keeps growing, I have a private foundation in Vienna who is willing to pay for it. And then I can get money from the Austrian government cultural council, the arts council.
I’m stuck on something you just said, “where nature doesn’t care about the politics of the land.” That seems like it factors into a lot of your work. Do you think about that a lot?
I think about it a lot because I like to have this almost naïve approach that only art allows. You can’t do this in science for example, where everything has to have a certain goal. In art there is failure, and it is even ok! For these hiking trips of course I have to do a certain amount of research; but I was always intrigued by this idea that with taking time and step by step…it is a slow approach. You have to open up, and then things come to you or they don’t. It never happened to me, but I’ve always liked the idea to do a project and then basically have nothing happen. To fail. No photos, no text.
The naïve approach is important to open up your mind, to start. In the end, I always walk into weird, hard to understand political and social situations…nomadic families managed to offer me an insight into alternative understanding of environment – I see them as a counter society.
How do you understand the mental construct of borders?
When we talk of the mental construct of borders, it is not necessarily always bad – what I mean is that for instance in the Alps you climb from one valley to the other and you find people speaking a different dialect – there is a different culture. You walk over the mountains, and you have a different language there. And talking of Central Asia one can feel this quite strongly. But there are also borders like the one between Tajikistan and Afghanistan: it’s big, you just can’t walk over. It’s not possible.
It’s an actual border.
Another one would be Kyrgyzstan and China. There is the Tian Shan mountain range. To walk over this mountain range is a real commitment. So yes, you have to be careful, it’s not just mental constructions. There are a lot of constructions as we know, basically just draw a line in the desert, but there are actual borders drawn by the environment, by nature.
I guess since there is so much unrest in many parts of the world about border disputes. What is your understanding of these natural landscapes that actually create borders and section off land, vs the imaginary line in the desert? How have you noticed how these different kinds of borders affect the people and how they interact with each other?
I am right now thinking of one place, which actually was in Tajikistan, quite close to Kyrgyzstan, where there is this border between China and Tajikistan. And basically there was no border; there was just mountain range and nomads were going back and forth. But now there is an actual fence. But it’s quite interesting what happened. One walks along this fence and suddenly there are holes and you can see people sneaking through it - there is again an anarchistic approach to the idea of borders.
There are natural borders; cultures with rather fluent borders; and there are national borders drawn with a pencil on a map but made visible with a wall or a fence but undermined by humans.
They fenced the border with Tajikistan?
They didn’t fence in the Kyrgyz border.
I know, but with the Tajik border, they wanted to keep out the drug traffickers. And of course, the Taliban influence. It’s funny, when you are there, you know there is a fence, you see the fence, and the fence has a perfectly installed section, and then suddenly, you can see these goat herders going through. ::: laughs::: at least this is a beautiful situation.
You know, I went up with some Kyrgyz minority on the Chinese side to their pasture land, about 5000 meters, it was very high. And 10 years ago they still had their yurts, and now the Chinese government made them have stone homes.
I think I know what you mean, these “houses” look the same everywhere in China. It looks like a concrete cube with a little door and a little window.
So they have to go to the same pasture land each season. No matter what.
And it’s freezing cold in those houses, and in the summer, you just get baked in there.
You know, when we went up, the Imam from the summer village on the bottom saw us, and so when we came back, the police were waiting, isn’t that so funny, no one can visit, but there is no reason! We were questioned. It’s so crazy.
Yeah the Chinese side.
It happened to me four times.
They just don’t understand. They are so sensitive about it.
It is a sad situation. I think the best answer on this topic I got from an English speaking Chinese officers: I asked him (we are talking about the NW part of Tibet) where you have 80 to 100k nomads living there.. “what is the deal? What do you get out of it?” And his answer was great, “ well we want them to become real citizens, and if you want to be a real citizen you have to pay taxes.”
There is the famous East-German writer Heiner Müller who after the wall fell said, “Now home is where my bank account is.” ::laughs::
I wonder what you are going to find on the border with Albania and Kosovo and Montenegro? They still have borders up right?
There is a border to Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia; it’s still problematic because Kosovo is run by the UN and KAFOR troops (a peace keeping mission with soldiers from different European countries). After all these years it is not perfect. It is a mountain area, and on some parts of the border one has to be extremely careful with land mines. It’s tough.
So how are you going to deal with land mines?
No, I can’t. In this area you can’t go into nature, you have to stick to the roads. It’s too dangerous.
That’s crazy! How do you deal with the idea of your personal safety? On one level, the violence of strangers and the violence of the military, and then also your emotional safety? Your food safety? Because when you go, it’s a very long hike, you’re in the wild for a while.
That’s a good question. I never had problems with people in Western China or Central Asia; nor with any natives. Never with military; in the areas we are talking about now, in Central Asia, nature is stronger. It’s very existential. When you are there alone, it’s sometimes very frightening.
Outpost of Progress (tent), Silver gelatin Print, 120 x 120cm framed, 2009
What’s frightening? The storms or the vastness?
Many of these areas are very high; if there is suddenly bad weather coming in, within half an hour you can have 20-30cm of snow; you have to be patient: the weather moves on and there is sun again within two hours. People who grow up in this climate and landscape deal with it in the most natural way; but coming from outside, you completely stay a stranger. What is my reason to go there and what am I looking for? Of course, it’s a big question in my work.
There are lots of contradictions, but I think for me, it’s exactly, as an artist, what you are looking for.
Does your work often think about the human experience of the sublime in the natural world?
Yes, I think a lot about it and it is an essential part of the artwork. There is the experience of the sublime in nature while walking especially in these vast endless landscapes.
The problem is that being confronted with destruction of nature and of social communities it is not possible anymore. At my walks in Western China and also in Central Asia I was always confronted with incredible nature and incredible destruction. These moments shaped the walks.
Like an escape?
Well, then it is an escape, exactly. That makes my work controversial; people have heavily criticized me, “this is just a stupid escape into exotic countries", "who needs this," "Why?”
In the last several years, I’ve realized (you mentioned this in one of your questions) the tourist industry conquered these exotic places; I believe someone has to go to these places and look at it and think about it from another angle. And this is where my work is right now, in-between somewhere. It’s a pretty big topic.
When we were reading your responses this morning we were thinking, “oh man, this guy sounds like a monk.” There is something meditative about the exercise of putting yourself into strenuous situations, a routine of strenuous exercise, mental and physical. Also the pace of walking. We were thinking it was similar to the Buddhist idea of circumambulation. And then when you talk, you remind me of the Franciscan monks, who also just walked from Europe to Asia, they were in a sense, explorers of the in-between.
Is there in a sense a transcendental purpose to the work, even if it’s not intentional?
Yes, definitely there is.
I have to say, it’s funny you mention this because 10 years ago, after my studies in the 90s, I was really afraid of this moment. Because in art at this time, it was really not cool to come up as someone who was making art as personal experience; It was not accepted, not interesting. I think even more so in Europe. That’s why my work at this time became much more concentrated on documentation and political circumstances. And I forgot about this big personal experience, this commitment. I put them aside a little bit. I didn’t want to be the monk. In the last three years—I think it was two years ago I had two big solo exhibitions—this was the moment that I realized, how important experience and commitment is in our times.
I think these very personal experiences and also the long-term commitment to something has a very different value in contemporary art. And also a different meaning in our time.
I understand much more since I am teaching. I am constantly in touch with 20-year-olds who basically grew up with the screen as reality, and I realized, “whoa, in this case, the reality of my work has another meaning.”
Simple reflections on being become important again.
This is, of course, controversial thinking of the Philosophy of Heidegger. But perhaps it is time to not leave the philosophy of “being” to esoteric pseudo-science.
Do you think of your journeys as pilgrimages? Or would you not go that far?
When I think about the trips in Tibet, I really try not to not get too much into the religious context. But on the other hand, everything, life and understanding of the environment is about a religious context.
I once used the idea of the religious pilgrimage for a work I did in Scotland. I was invited by the Deveron Arts Center of Northern Scotland, because they were doing projects with artists who deal with walking. They said, “Michael, ok, do something here.” Then I had the idea to have a 50 km (25 mile) circle around this town on small roads. And I told them, “ok, I’m going to walk on this circle for two weeks…just walking it.” It’s Scottish countryside, farmers and farmhouses. It’s was cool. It was late November beginning of December. So it was me hiking there with a big backpack staying out in the night. I even called it, “Absurd Pilgrimage.” And it worked beautifully.
This was where an experience from somewhere else was used in a completely different context.
How do you come back to city life? Even from this country walk? You have to be in Vienna, you have your teaching, your family. You have to earn a living, get to work. What do you bring back with you? And how do you transition?
I know what you mean, I thought about it when I was still a student after I spent two long summers in Northern India. It was the middle of the 90s and I was confronted with a lot of Europeans who basically got stranded there. I asked myself: “Do you want to stay or do you want to work as an artist?" If you want to do something relevant in this world, you have to figure out both sides. I remember this, it was 1996, and I thought, “no no no, I will never stay.”
So the return is as relevant as the departure?
Yes, the return was something that was always an important part of these trips to the exotic landscapes. It basically helps to understand your own culture...to understand where I am coming from. I think to work with both places in mind is where the birth of an artist happens. Perhaps there are people who manage to stay there, and completely immerse themselves into another culture. But I think working as an artist is always about both worlds. It’s also a big part of modernity. You can go back to Cézanne. Why did Cézanne not stay in southern France? Because he had something else to say. And this goes on today I guess.
Do you think Michael, in 20 years you will still be walking?
Yes. Even more.
This is your way?
Walking does not mean necessarily to explore new places; it means a lot to me to return to the same places again and again and again over the years. This is something about passion but also a sort of questioning: what did I see? What did change? Lately I see it as a life project. Of course, I don’t know what happens in the next years.
But yes, if I am committed to something for almost 20 years, I want to know more. And of course, there is a deeper understanding of what I am doing; 10 years ago it was more a political question, and now there is something I want to understand about myself. And let us see how this merges or changes into something else.
I wanted to switch gears; we’ve been talking a lot about the experiential realm of your work, the journeys that you go on, these excursions. And how they are the foundation of the work. But then you come back and you have the photographs, you have the tent installations. How do you think about those in regard to the actual walking? As a reflection of? I don’t want to say they are secondary, but in a way, because they are not the primary experience… how do you think about that?
That’s the biggest problem of course, in this whole work. How do you “talk” about an experience? Or what is left of a walk? I think this was a huge topic for me from the beginning. As a student, I did some of these trips without even taking a camera with me. But then I came back, and I realized I had nothing. Just myself and some notes. I look at it today, it was pretty radical actually.
But art is about sharing thoughts… “how can I let somebody be part of it. How can I get somebody into my world of thinking?” As a writer, of course there are certain ways to do it and as a documentary photographer there is a certain way. But if we are talking more about this transcendental/philosophical thinking then it becomes more abstract. Then as a visual artist you also have to be strong enough to come up with an abstract gesture that says it all. That’s what fascinated me about visual arts: sometimes there is one moment that basically can tell a whole story.
For instance the yarn I collected at different nomad families and used for installations works as a simple symbol… a line, made out of wool of animals, etc.
Outpost of Progress, Installation, black yarn, nails, size variable, 2010
Then I am using the black and white photographs. The black and white aesthetic used in desert landscapes is timeless…
If this photograph is taken in 1890 or 2010 it doesn’t matter. But then on the other hand, there is this irritation – traces that make the photographs clearly understood as images from 2010.
And of course there is a connections to a certain way Land Art artists worked in the 70s.
Lie Down, Get Up, Walk On, (Phabonka), 120 x 150 cm, Silver Gelatin Print, framed, 2015
Is that intentional? The timelessness of the landscape documentary photography? It’s in a way representational of the timeless journey that man has to go on in order to find himself. So it’s like you create photos in which the viewer can step inside a world outside the one in which they normally live, and kind of tap into that eternal journey, we either physically go on, we go to distant lands, or we go on in the context in which we live in the city or country wherever. How do you think that the photos and the timelessness help people or act as a catalyst for them to have their own experience, or hint at what you’re experiencing?
Perhaps these photos open up new spaces for people; but in the end an artwork is open to various thoughts and understandings.
Outpost of Progress ( A Hermits Bivouak), two Silver Gelatin Prints, 120 x 120cm, 2009
Outpost of Progress ( A Hermits Bivouak), two Silver Gelatin Prints, 120 x 120cm, 2009
Absolutely, but is part of your intention with the work you are bringing back to the public to make some kind of impact or is that not important.
You mean that it’s influential? Yes, that is definitely important. This for me is connected to the question if I ever thought to stay there. If you want to say something, or have a message in your society, or in human society, then you want to do an artwork that is saying something, or is changing the way people think. At least some.
It’s like classic hero’s journey. You go on these journeys. You receive a boon, you undergo your own transformation. You receive information that you can bring back to society. And then you return to society and make society better… Have you thought about it that way?
It does not have to make society better – it has to irritate.
I like this moment when art forces people into discussions. It can be controversial, does not need to be positive.
Just in terms of the impact, there tends to be an environmental message. Would you say that is one of the core things you want to bring back to people? In the last 2 generations we have basically destroyed our planet. Is that something that is central?
This became the most important aspect in my walks in recent years. Walk out and think about nature. I realized there are not many artists who deal with this topic. As I said, when you look at ex-Yugoslavia they think about political problems, war, language and connection to Europe and postcolonial everything. To think about where we are living and how we basically get rid of and destroy our environment, it’s crazy.
I think it’s quite an interesting moment to address this.
Is there a solution? Does your work offer a solution to us? Can developed nations improve or is it too late? Is there some sort of redemptive thing we can do?
In one of your answers you talk about the landscape in which some have to live and make do with such very little that is given from the land, and that they are still able to survive. And maybe that’s not the highest quality of life, or in terms of material wealth for what we have available to us, but yet, it is still possible and how do you translate that to the western world where we just have so much consumption?
Of course I criticize the endless consumption. I am fascinated with the simplicity of life. But if you address the simplicity it is just romanticizing a style of living which, doesn’t work after the Industrial revolution, the French revolution, Globalization etc.
Recently a student of mine did a work about the history of grain in Central Europe, grown by farmers. There were 1000 different sources of wheat just in Germany and now there are 7 left. This makes you cry.
So how do I deal with this experience walking to these small communities and I feel this deep understanding of environment. Well, it makes you think a lot.
And it is depressing: because I don’t have a way out of this. Perhaps the only way for me is to walk on. ∎
Silver Gelatin Print, 80 x 120 cm, 2012
Check out Michael's website here.
Check out this beautiful video of Michael's work made by our friends at the AUCA Public Art Program blog at Artystan: