Artist Interview: Mona Kuhn

Artist Interview: Mona Kuhn

“Your dreams will never, like so many, meet reality.” These are the opening lines to a break-up letter from Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler to an unnamed lover. Who was this person? This question marked the jumping off point for Mona Kuhn’s (b. 1969) series Kings Road. For over 25 years, the Brazilian-German photographer has used the lens to explore the human figure in terms of both its physical and metaphysical presence. She does this in Kings Road by bringing to life this anonymous figure through solarised prints. Here, we see Schindler’s mysterious addressee as a ghost haunting his West Hollywood home. These pieces are on now on display at Edwynn Houk Gallery in the exhibition Mona Kuhn: Between Modernism and Surrealism. Her work is shown alongside masters of photo-surrealism, such as Man Ray, Láslzó Moholy-Nagy, Dora Maar, Erwin Blumenfeld, and Bill Brandt. In this interview, Kuhn tells us more about the solarisation process, her intentions with this project and how she integrates architecture across her work.

A: The series Kings Road developed from your research into the life and work of architect Rudolph Schindler (1887-1953) and the tragic love story you uncovered through a letter. Could you tell us more about how this project began?
MK: In this new series Kings Road, I took on the challenge of reconsidering the realms of time and space within the architectural elements of the Schindler House in Los Angeles. Built by Austrian architect Rudolph M. Schindler in 1922, the house was both a social and design experiment and an avant-garde hub for intellectuals and artists during the 1920s and 1930s. Through the Architecture and Design Archives, I gained access to Schindler’s private work including blueprints, letters and notes. During that process, I found precious letters written by Modernists like Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, who often visited the house and mingled with European expats of that time. And among the personal notes, I found the most precious of all, a lettre de rupture written by architect Rudolph Schindler to a mysterious lover. That’s when my photographic narrative started. 

A: On display are seven solarised portraits of a young woman in the Schindler House. Could you talk us through the process of creating these prints?
The enigmatic subject in my solarised pictures is an ethereal figure. To reach this fleeting quality, I went back to the darkroom, the place I first fell in love with photography, and started experimenting with this technique. Solarisation is a darkroom technique in which a silver print is re-exposed. The edges and contours oxidise the border areas of the already developed silver print: from an originally realistic image an abstraction is born. The layers of oxidised silver develop in unforeseeable ways, creating an impression of dematerialising parts of the subject. I wanted to create images in which the subject lingers in and out of her own physical presence within the architectural space. The resulting prints crystallise this silver magic in unpredictable ways that go beyond straight representation and ultimately question the very nature of photography.

A: Since the addressee of this letter is unknown, what considerations did you make when bringing this person to life? What qualities did you pick out from the text?
When I first found the letter, inside the architect’s archive with personal sketches and notes, I was struck by its thin paper folded into four.  And as I opened it out, I was smitten by Schindler’s hand writing and stern yet vulnerable message. He starts with the sentence “Your dreams will never, like so many, meet reality”.  To me, the message felt self-reflective. The letter was signed by him, but did not include her name. The enigmatic subject of my solarised images is a fictional, ethereal figure inspired by this letter from his archives. That was the initial point that gave me the artistic freedom to create a fictitious character — and eventually reunite them through my work. 

Solarisation was a photographic process discovered by Man Ray (1890-1976) and Lee Miller (1907-1977). What drew you to solarisation?
Solarisation is the perfect technique for this series because it allowed me to juxtapose the oxidised latent image with the silver gelatin, creating this ethereal quality to this mysterious woman in my story. In addition, the house was built in 1920’s, which coincides with the movement called Photo-Surrealism. The breakthrough of Surreal explorations in photography are widely traced to Man Ray and Erwin Blumenfeld’s experimentations of the 1920-30’s, together with Lee Miller, who radically expanded the horizons of photography beyond straight representation. I am honoured that Veronica Houk curated my works for this exhibition alongside the masters of that time, such as Man Ray’s nude portrait of Meret Oppenheim posing in front of Salvador Dalí’s painting, creating a shared dialogue at the core of Surrealism — dreams, desire, creation and a challenge to conventional modes.

A: In Interleaving (2022), we see the subject covered in the shadows of leaves as she stands behind a window. Could you tell us more about this piece?
One of my intentions in Kings Road is to reinterpret photography’s dichotomy between memory and record. This work’s narrative is about love and its unfolding fate between two characters: the Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler, whose house and letters remain as physical records, and this mysterious woman, a fictitious and ethereal lover. I photographed her walking in and out of the house, as a ghost or a spectre, in a similar way as longing thoughts and desire linger in our minds. At times, it seems that she is inside of the house, looking out the window as in Interleaving, but, because part of her presence is dematerialised, one wonders if she was really there or if it was just a thought. While creating this work, my intention was to push the boundaries of photography and architecture, so that both subjects could cross time and space to meet each other again.

A: We catch glimpses of the iconic building within these portraits, such as the grid-like shadows cast on the floor by the windows. How did you approach integrating the unique architecture into the project?
 I received access to the house by the MAK Center for the Arts and Architecture and The Friends of the Schindler House, both organisations responsible for its conservation and artistic programming. In addition, I worked with the Architecture and Design Archives at UC Santa Barbara to gain further depth about Schindler’s contemporaries and his influence in the world of architecture. And finally, from an artistic and metaphysical angle, the house symbolised to me what remains of him. As I entered the building, I felt as if I was entering his body and mind. I took the artistic liberty to bring this mysterious lover in those walls, and through my works, her body parts and his architectural elements mirror and dissolve into each other. Her silver shadow cast on the building creates a palpable space of integration.

A: What impression do you want to leave on visitors once they’ve seen the show?
The exhibition at Edwynn Houk Gallery highlights my works between Surrealism and Modernism, and opens a dialogue with those artists known for their unconventional ways and their avant-garde desire to push forward the boundaries of photography. As we move forward, we must honour the past. It is a real pleasure for me to see how Veronica Houk brought my works into this art historical and erudite conversation. During the opening reception, Darius Himes (International Head of Photographs, Christies) joined me for a walk-thru and conversation, during which he further contextualised the works highlighting the advances of that time with parallels to our moment in time now. My work is and feels contemporary despite the process and this is a fascinating aspect I want to share and enjoy with visitors.

A: Are there any other approaches to photography you would like to explore in the future?
Yes, I am interested in pushing the ways in which we present photography, from prints to books, beyond the framed walls and into multimedia projections. My previous exhibition at Kunsthaus-Göettingen, curated by Gerhard Steidl in Germany, included the architectural colour prints as well as a large-scale multimedia and sound installation. For that exhibition, spread over 3 museum floors, I collaborated with composer Boris Salchow who scored an original sound track. While visiting this exhibition, viewers had the impression of entering the Schindler House, its private spaces and their unconventional love story.

A: Could you tell us about the projects are you working on at the moment?
My focus has always been about the figure and our presence in time. Throughout my works, I have photographed the nude using various techniques, from selective focus to reflections, and now solarisation as a way of lifting it from its immediacy and entering a more abstracted, and at times existential, understanding of ourselves. My next project is a step further into that direction, but with a new twist!

Edwynn Houk Gallery, Mona Kuhn: Between Modernism and Surrealism | Until 11 May

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Mona Kuhn

Image Credits:

  1. Mona Kuhn, Portrait Revealed, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery
  2. Erwin Blumenfeld, Untitled, undated. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery
  3. Mona Kuhn, Portrait Revealed, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery
  4. Mona Kuhn, Realm, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery
  5. Mona Kuhn, Silhouette, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery
  6. Mona Kuhn, Interleaving, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery
  7. Mona Kuhn, Spectral, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery