Conceptual Realities

Gabriela Torres Ruiz is a German-Mexican photographer based in Berlin, and Aesthetica Art Prize 2016 shortlisted artist. Her work is rooted in the act of gathering and realigning images, which serves to generate new associations, as well as new figurative and conceptual realities. We catch up with Torres-Ruiz to discuss the influence of landscape and the spaces in which we live.

A: How has the environment you grew up in influenced your works in terms of subject matter and the landscape?
As a child, I was very fortunate, since my parents instilled in us a real appreciation for the arts and I had the opportunity to attend museums regularly. At home, I had acces to many art books, which inspired me to draw and paint since my early years. In my memory I still have scenes from Hyeronimus Bosch’s paintings, which I admired and which perhaps led me to my fascination for Surrealism. Eventually I discovered other painters, many of them from the nineteenth century, as Casper David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin, or the contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, which remain a great source of inspiration to me. Unfortunately, growing up in Mexico City, I had little contact with nature. In Germany I truly discovered it, and it became a foundation for my photography.

A: Your works often feature abandoned architecture as their focal point; why do you think that it is interesting to capture buildings that are rich with history yet devoid of any figures?
GTR: When I arrived in Berlin, I was struck by the abandoned buildings that belonged to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Later on I visited other abandoned buildings in France and Poland, all of which I identify and select based on research I conduct prior to visiting them. I am fascinated by their atmosphere, the way nature began entering these spaces and ended up occupying them, the fate of those interiors returning to their initial state, where nature regains its lost place. I am also fascinated by the way light penetrates the spaces, the contrasts and the diversity of intense colors, as if they were paintings. I have the feeling that the walls, floors and ceilings tell stories of those who once lived there.

A: How do you think that structures influence and inspire society?
The interaction between individuals involved in social processes depends on the well-being of each of them, which in turn is influenced by his/her own environment. It is assumed that the physical and social dynamics of public spaces and spaces in general play a central role in the development of social life. Public spaces of a city become symbols of collective prosperity and provide information about the possibilities of their citizens. Although there are differing views on the evaluation of collective achievements in detail, there seems to be a consensus that there is a close relationship between the cultural level of a society, its political structures and the character of its public and private spaces.

A: Why do you think it is important to consider the spaces in which we live, or don’t live?
As an architect the study of spaces and its qualities has been an important topic for me. The environment around us is of great significance for the emotional, spiritual and intellectual development of every human being. The physical aspects of the spaces we live in, the built form and the internal structure of our dwellings, adequate space, light, warmth, and comfort are central to the quality of our daily lives and affect the quality of social relations. Buildings shape lives, without resorting to what is termed architectural determinism, I think we are products of these environments, which influence wider social outcomes, including health and education.

A: How does the notion of disruption come into your works and what does it mean to capture it for you?
In contrast to natural places, which are shaped by the constant rhythm of nature, the history of buildings is very often formed by disruption. The interventions of its inhabitants or users create traces, which overlay each other during the years, and can be read as archaeological layers. Those layers, which exist in a physical sense, illustrate in a comprehensible way a framework, in which changes have taken place. However, the actual experience of a certain place emerges in our minds caused by its aura, and it is the aura of these spaces which I try to perceive through images.

A: There is a sense of ethereality within your photographs – of stillness and calm – why is it that you wish to document this?
I grew up in a city, which together with its environs has reached a dimension of approximately 22 million inhabitants. The permanent confrontation with noise and chaos, which are attributes of such a place, generated my desire to search for silence and tranquillity. My search led me to places that have something in common, namely silence and the absence of human beings. During my childhood our home was dominated by silence and I started to value it. This private environment at home was always in contrast to the external reality, where noise, chaos and the bombardment of images reigned everywhere. I became interested in silence itself. Our contemporary thinking about silence sees it as an absence or a lack of speech or sound – a negative condition. Instead I identified an interior dimension of silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind, which is not a void but a rich space.

A: You seem to keep your compositions under the impression they have been untouched by humanity for a long time, including the lighting or footprints you leave behind as a photographer. How do you approach the lighting for each piece and how does it contribute to the work as a whole?
Light is what allows us to see and it is crucial in photography. It is what shapes every object, it creates depth and colour or highlights a subject. Lighting determines not only brightness and darkness, but also tone, mood and the atmosphere. The source your light is coming from has a huge impact on how it falls on your subject. Side lighting produces a far more interesting light, as it shows the shape of the subject much more and cast it partially. Rembrandt or the Dutch masters are effective common examples of this lighting type. I work with natural light conditions, which gives, in my view, a true experience of space and time.

A: What do you have coming up in terms of projects or exhibitions?
GTR: Right now I’m having an exhibition in the city of Krakow, a wonderful city, in a small gallery in the Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz. I am currently working also on my first book, with the title Silence, which I hope to be able to publish next year.

1. #28 from the Silence diptych. Courtesy of Gabriela Torres-Ruiz.