Interstates of Becoming

“The form of the photobook is ripe to try new things. It could be objects, sculpture or installation.” Imagine a book that comes alive, springing off of a wall. Its images concertina across the gallery, rising vertically, as it sprawls out, depicting different scenes across beaches, rainforests and waterfalls. This is the work of Caligo, a photobook scultpure by contemporary photographer and artist Gareth Phillips. In 2023, the piece was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize and was installed in York Art Gallery. It told the fictional story of a group of humans escaping the climate catastrophe, seeking asylum on another planet, a utopian environment reminiscent of Eden. Since being shortlisted, Philips has continued his innovative creative practice, joining notable alumni such as Debi Cornwall, Julia Fullerton-Batten and Larry Achiampong. Now, Phillips’ latest series Interstates of Becoming is on display at PHOTO 24, Australia’s largest photography festival. Here, we catch up with the artist on his development since working with Aesthetica.

A: Caligo was shortlisted for the 2023 Aesthetica Art Prize. The piece was a four-metre suspended photobook and told the story of a group of humans escaping the climate crisis. What inspired the work?

GP: The inspiration of the Caligo photobook sculpture came from a week-long trip to the South Island of New Zealand, alongside a renewed interest in sci-fi films. I had no prior plans to make the work, but after spending a week making images in the forests and mountains of South New Zealand, it occurred to me that I had had the privilege of seeing what felt like a new world. A beautiful verdant environment that humans hadn’t ruined yet. I realised that this pristine landscape might be similar to an alien planet that humans hadn’t settled and decided to create a fictional photobook that explored ideas of space travel, new colonisation and untouched environments.

A: I’m fascinated by your experimentations with the book format. You approach the medium in a tactile way, opening up the codex to be something unstitched, material and object-like. What marked your move from photography to sculpture?

GP: My work is always narrative based, and in an increasingly ‘screened’ and digital world I want to create more physical experiences that allow the viewer the opportunity to feel more of my subject’s narrative. I do this by expanding and experimenting with materials and spaces that allow the viewer to go beyond their preconceived definitions of the photobook. I want to bring the viewer into the photobook. Although I enjoy and hugely respect its historical lineage, I have often wondered why the form hasn’t evolved in shape, time and space. Of course, other artists have explored parts of this territory, but for me, including elements of the narrative that take on a physical and sculptural form, only adds to the depths of a viewing experience. It’s also tremendously exciting to work on the periphery of a medium. 

A: I’m curious – what did your first ever photobook look like?

GP: My first photobook was created in 2006 for purely practical reasons. I wanted to have more time with the narratives I was working on, so I physicalised many of my preliminary edits and printed them out as rudimentary copy paper photobooks. The first, titled The Waltons, explored the life of a teenage family as the mother battled cancer. I was in my first year of university and felt like it was the best way to distill the narrative visually. Since then I have made photobooks about all the projects I have created, with the medium allowing me to do it as both a practical and progressive art form.

A: Interstates of Becoming, your installation now on display at PHOTO24, depicts the direct and indirect effects humans and mountains have on each other. What was it like working in the Indian Himalaya?

GP: For me, the Himalaya is the most mesmerising and humbling place to create a body of work. I could not have done the project without the support of friends in Mumbai, Kinnaur and Himachal Pradesh, of whom I am deeply grateful. Navigating what has been called “the world’s most dangerous road,” was a precarious undertaking due to the fragile nature of the landscape, but it solidified a practice of working as safely as possible. Although I wanted to get as close as I could to the region, I had to first mitigate the dangers inherent to the place. But for me, any risks involved were offset by the majesty of the mountains, and the power of the contest for dominance between humans and nature I was witnessing.

A: Can you talk about your use of other materials – such as concrete and steel? Interstates feels like a distinctly harder and more brutal piece compared to Caligo: we see images drilled into, stacked on top of concrete. What marked the change here?

GP: Every incarnation and detail of a photobook, for me, is driven by its subject. The subject always dictates what materials should be used. Interstates of Becoming follows a significant road that services the border region between India and Tibet / China. It follows the Sutlej River which has been heavily dammed for hydro developments and military encampments. Concrete and steel are synonymous with the area as it is geologically fragile with many landslides occurring each year. The human endeavour is to control this landscape with millions of tons of concrete and steel. I find it profoundly interesting – both logical and futile. It’s inevitable that the mountain will overcome this infrastructure. As climate change increases instances of extreme weather, the cycle of construction and destruction perpetuates. Considering a photobook of this subject meant that concrete and steel had to be the main material used in any iteration. This also meant the size, shape, impalements, rubble and dust had to be included.

A: How do you select which images go into your installations? Your photographs seem to be in conversation in an organic way, sometimes being attached or folded together. How do they interact?

GP: For some reason, I have always had a knack for sequencing images. Having experimented and practiced sequencing since that first book in 2006, a visual fluency has developed. A lot of the placement is instinctual, but I get a lot of inspiration observing the layers and tiers of forest or plant landscapes. The key aspect of any sequence I create is that it conveys a concise narrative, so I spend a lot of time playing with my arrangements finding a balance between the harmonious and the progressive.

A: Can you name some of your favourite photobooks?

GP: Ying Ang’s books are some of my favourites. The Quickening being a book of note. I also enjoy Moe Susuki’s work, Daisuke Yokota and David O’Mara. Also, many of the books designed by Teun van der Heiden are favourites.

A: What has being shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize meant for you?

GP: Being shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize has been instrumental in the creative steps I have taken moving forward from it. Aesthetica’s support, alongside Director Cherie Federico and her team, has allowed my practice to reverberate in ways I have never imagined and I continue to take great inspiration from all the other artists that have been included in the award. Being connected to them and watching their individual practices pushes my own and is continually contributing to the evolution of my practice. It really has been an honour to be a part of.

A: What can we look forward to next?

I will be showing another edition of Interstates of Becoming at the Griffiths Gallery at the Swansea College of Art, UK in March where BA Photography Course Director Ryan Moule is facilitating an exciting group exhibition and discussion about artists experimenting with the contemporary photobook. I will also be showing the Caligo photobook sculpture at Ffotogallery, Cardiff in May/June, and I will be releasing handheld versions of three of my photobook sculptures each available in a handmade edition of 20.

Interstates of Becoming | Until 23 June

Want to get involved in the next edition of The Aesthetica Art Prize? Our Award is now open for entries. Submit your work by 31 August. Win £10,000, exhibition and publication. Find out more here.

Words: Chloe Elliott and Gareth Phillips.

Image Credits:

All images courtesy of Gareth Phillips.