Swiss Precision: Interview with Fabian Oefner
ANDREA BLANCH: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned aiming for a Jackson Pollock style of action painting. What other artists’ or scientists’ processes are you influenced by?
FABIAN OEFNER: Salvador Dali is one of my largest influences. Not in terms of aesthetic reasons, but more in terms of conceptual reasons, which holds a theme of surrealism and a dream world that he referred to. What I’m trying to do with my photographs, and when you look at the older works – like the Jackson Pollock inspired ones where you see paint spiraling at a split second – that was a real moment in time. I used to do, and still do, photographs of split seconds: photographing events that happened in real life, like paint being thrown around, even though they’re too quick for us to look at with the naked eye. They’re really there. In the Disintegrating series, where cars are coming apart, the idea behind it was to invent a moment in time. When you look at those photographs, you think you see a car disintegrating or exploding, when, in fact, it never really existed. It’s just a cleverly made illusion of a car being disintegrated, so I’m trying to evolve the idea of, what exactly is time? How do we perceive time? Photography is the perfect medium, because it’s the medium of recording time, holding onto time, creating memories. And that’s the conceptual part of my work, which you don’t necessarily need to know about to appreciate the images.
ANDREA: So why do you think it’s important for art and science to intersect?
FABIAN: Because they both have the same goal: to better understand the environment and the time we’re living in – it’s a reaction to our surroundings, and we shouldn’t divide those two fields, as it has often been done. It’s just another approach to look at the same thing. When you combine the two, you find so much more about what’s going on around you, rather than to exclusively use a very rational way like it’s often been done in science, or in a very emotional way as it’s been done in art. I’m trying to find intersections between emotional and rational approaches to our environment.
ANDREA: You work with potentially dangerous materials, such as alcohol and fire in the 2014 Aurora series. In your work, have you ever encountered any dangerous situations?
FABIAN: Yeah, quite often. The alcohol project with the burning of alcohol was actually quite scary. I did it for the first time and I wasn’t prepared for such a violent reaction. Photography was not in the foreground – it was more trying to take cover and get yourself out of the situation. And then I tried to find a more controlled experiment.
ANDREA: Your dedication to making the invisible visible and connecting different senses reminds me of a lot of Synesthesia phenomenon, an anomalous blending of the senses, in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces a sensation in a different modality. Basically, it’s a conceptual condition of mixed sensations. Are you interested in that concept?
FABIAN: When I do my projects, I don’t think that far. For me, it doesn’t feel like blending two different fields together – it’s not concept that brings together art and science, it’s a very natural process of fusing what other people would refer to as scientific tools to create art. I didn’t sit down and think: ‘Now I’m going to combine art and science!’
ANDREA: Would you put yourself in that genre?
FABIAN: I would say so. I can’t deny that it’s connected to science. If you want to put it in a field, then science is the one that it’s closest to.
ANDREA: What projects do you have coming up?
FABIAN: A few ones I can’t talk about and another one is something in 3D. It’s a non-commercial project. In the end, it’s going to be a sculpture, but I’m combining photography and using all the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired from my past projects into this new project, so a lot technical equipment will be involved.. Basically, it’s a split-second frozen in time as a sculpture.
ANDREA: Sounds like an interesting concept. Aren’t sculptures frozen in time?
FABIAN: Yes, to a certain extent, but it’s really the theme of that sculpture and not so much a side-note of the sculpture.
ANDREA: Much of your work is about capturing and magnifying tiny moments in time. Do you think that the poetry of science is invisible to the naked human eye? Do you believe it’s art’s duty to amplify the poetry of science?
FABIAN: Yes, it can amplify science. Art can help in looking at science in a different way, but what I’m not trying to do is to create didactic art – I don’t want to teach people something through art. If they just want to look at the image and appreciate the image for its beauty, then that’s fine with me too. As an artist, you can never control 100% of what your art is about or how it’s perceived. To me, that’s not the job of the artist.
ANDREA: What do you want viewers to take away from your work? What thoughts are you seeking to provoke?
FABIAN: It would like them to think about their environment. To embrace that beautiful tiny moment and the magic that’s happening around each and every one of us every day.
ANDREA: Being present. Are you spiritual?
FABIAN: Yeah, I’m more of an irrational-type spiritual person. Certainly, doing the art that I do, one has to be spiritual in one way or another.
ANDREA: The picture of Ai Weiwei recreating the image of the Syrian child that was washed ashore, a refugee. A lot of people thought it was very crass and cheap. I didn’t, but a lot of people did. What do you think about it?
FABIAN: From an artist’s point of view, it fits really well in his body of work; from a social point of view, anything that helps to point out the disasters happening there and to prevent these things from happening any further, is a benefit. People can be cynical about it and say it was very cheap, and that he gained more popularity from it. But I’m sure it wasn’t about that.
ANDREA: In your work, you often focus on automobiles: Hatch and State of the Art. When did you become interested in cars?
FABIAN: I’ve been interested in cars since I was a little boy. Now, when I use cars in my art, it’s not because I find it a fascinating object, aesthetically speaking, but because almost every person on the planet has an opinion on cars or an emotional connection to them. That’s why I found it a very good object to use as a conveyor to transport ideas and get ideas across to people. It’s something that everybody understands.
ANDREA: So you’re saying that this is your way of communicating? By using a car as your subject?
FABIAN: For certain projects, yes. I’ve done very few projects with cars, but they’re the ones that get a lot of attention.
ANDREA: You said that your collaboration with Ferrari came about because they saw your TED Talk. What was Ferrari attracted to?
FABIAN: Two months before a conference, I got a call from TED, and they asked me if I’d like to come on. They had seen an article in a scientific magazine. I thought it was an interesting combination of bringing art and science together. I was trying to evolve that idea in this talk. Ferrari saw it after it had gone online with about two million views. I guess Ferrari thought it was something new, something fresh that they and their audience hadn’t seen before.
ANDREA: You constructed your own mythology around the origin of an unnatural object – the automobile – in Hatch. How did you construct that birth narrative?
FABIAN: Again, it’s a very natural process for me. I don’t exactly recall the moment where I thought I could do a birth of an object, rather than a human being or a living organism. I think 10 years from now you would have to do it with a smart phone – I believe that that’s the new car, the object that will one day be more important than the car. Up until now, it’s still the car that stands for our ‘achievements’ in technology and life. In 10 years, I believe more people will be emotionally connected to the smart phone rather than the car.
ANDREA: You don’t think they are now? Especially younger people.
FABIAN: Yeah. But I think until that generation becomes the key generation or the generation that determines our society, it’d be another 10 years. But you’re absolutely right – it’s already a more influential object among younger people.
ANDREA: So how did you construct that? Technically?
FABIAN: That was pretty straightforward – using the model of that car, and creating a lot of plaster molds of it. Basically, throwing that mold on top of the original model car, which gives you the illusion of the shell being exploded off of the car. In fact, it’s actually drawn on the car. It’s a sort of technical trick.
ANDREA: How did you execute Disintegrating? Did you photograph them individually like a montage?
FABIAN: Yeah, basically. I did a couple of newer ones of that series which will come out soon.
ANDREA: In this series, how do you see the concepts of motion and emotion intersecting?
FABIAN: In that case, I believe it’s the motion that creates the emotion – the viewer looks at the photograph and believes to see a motion frozen in time, when, in fact, there is no motion at all. In creating those photographs, it’s like the slowest high-speed photography in human history. It took three months to photograph it – it’s an extremely tedious process. But, then again, I’m Swiss, and we’re watchmakers, so…
ANDREA: That’s very true, very precision oriented. So, why were you attracted to photography as a medium?
FABIAN: To me, it’s been a tool to explore my work. I started doing photographs when I was around 12. The camera has always been a natural object to me; it’s not something that I had to learn. I was very intuitive about taking pictures. Through the camera, you can learn about what’s going on around you and capture interesting things.
ANDREA: Since you started photography, it’s really progressed. Now you have started using other mediums like Field of Sound that have taken you outside of the two-dimensional realm. You’ve done video, but now you’re doing performance with Field of Sound. How did that transition take place?
FABIAN: I don’t know if you have seen the Dancing Colors series where you would see salt grains dancing on a speaker. The idea was to visualize sound or music through a visual medium like photography, so I put salt grains on a speaker and played music through it. Depending on what kind of music you would play, the salt grains would dance.
ANDREA: I loved that concept! I think it’s brilliant.
FABIAN: In Field of Sound, I was evolving the idea of creating something out of sound or using sound to create art. Having done it with photography already in Dancing Color, I thought that viewers can interact even further or understand the concept on another level if I do something that they can walk around, look at, touch, and hear. That’s why I created Field of Sound. It’s the same idea of using sound to create – it’s just another medium to reach more people.
ANDREA: You never had any formal training?
FABIAN: Originally, I studied product design, so I know quite a bit about manufacturing processes, as well as interesting and innovative material. That still helps me a lot with developing the project, whether it’s the Field of Sound series or the Ferrari project.
ANDREA: What do you think about the world of photography, art, and science traversing each other? Is it exciting for you? For instance, using an iPhone supposedly makes everybody a photographer. I don’t think that way.
FABIAN: I feel the same way about it, but it all feels more natural to me than it feels to you. I think the medium of photography still presents a very important role, it just changes in the way we value photographs.
ANDREA: Do you think you’ll use 3D?
FABIAN: In my case, 3D is quite an ancient technique to use. The whole social media realm is a more interesting question because it’s all about getting ideas across, whether it’s photography or sculpture or any other art form. The question is more about the channels you use for your idea, rather than the medium.
ANDREA: And the process?
FABIAN: Yes. For artists, the process in general has become much more important, especially for someone with social media. In the past, you would go to museums to look at the final artwork, and, at best, you would have an explanation about how the artist created that picture, painting, or sculpture. Now, everybody already takes part in the creation of the artwork because, with the whole social media thing, you share the whole process of the art with your audience when you start doing it. I’m the older generation because I’m 31. Young artists starting now already have a better understanding of what you can do with social media, because they have grown up with it. To me, it doesn’t feel as natural as to somebody who is in their twenties or even younger. It’s something new, something that I have to learn.