Sensibility and art often have little to do with one another. Celebration of technique, symbolism, ritual and a myriad of life experiences often times trumps quiet inquisition. Art photographer and teacher, Adam Ekberg counters such stimuli with sincerity. Ekberg cleverly locates the space between celebration and isolation, explaining how absence can be sweeter than actual presence. His knack for creating the middle of nowhere among the bustle of everything inundating our lives creates a refreshing stillness begging to not only be contemplated, but felt through experience. An exhibition opens later this month at the Thomas Roberto Gallery in Chicago.
Rachel Wolfe: Artists can easily form visuals that either relate directly with or oppose their own sense of being or understanding of existence, but their intention can never been truly passed over. In other words, some artists may wish to create beauty when their life seemingly has none, while others create images of disdain to explore the mundanity of life all while they live a more joyful existence. Your work seems to be neither of these two poles. Instead, a certain sense of humor adjoins with a sort of all of everything all at once. Eloquently displayed within your photographs is a synopsis of a particular disposition. The intangibility of such certainly parallels with your statement, but would you care to comment on your disposition, the sort of style your roots navigate the dirt of life?
Adam Ekberg: I suppose this sensibility is a result of having been through experiences that were altogether euphoric and others that were overtly bleak. So I have certainly indulged in both poles of experience. At the end of the day, sensibility is the thing that cannot be taught or learned but only acquired as if each experience left a trace of itself on you. What I find interesting is the combination of signifiers of different sensibilities that are oppositional—for example, celebration and isolation. When two such signifiers coexist in a photograph they do not subvert one another but heighten each other.
I learned this a long time ago. I had several lost years after college that were wonderful and, in hindsight, very instructive. I remember that when several friends and I were living in the Southwest and we would leave Taos to drive towards the town we were staying in, we could listen as every radio station vanished as we drove into the mountains. I remember turning the dial, not listening to the stations, but just listening to them disappear. I remember feeling both a sort of loneliness and exhilaration that these radio signals were no longer reaching us, that the human world was vanishing and we were alone in the high desert. Had I not paid attention to that or just looked out the window or concentrated on driving, I would not have felt that simultaneous loneliness/exhilaration. In much the same way, my picture of a Sparkler on a Frozen Lake records the presence of something that makes its absence more tangible and sweeter. Arguably, a picture of a frozen lake with no sparkler is emptier, but the presence of the sparkler illuminates the loneliness of that environment.
RW: Constructing a happenstance scene as a “metaphor for existence” is, as you’ve described in your statement, an elaborate process. What in particular draws you to employ the symbols of celebration? And to what degree is the place of the object and the object itself relevant to your mission as an artist?
EK: It is hard to acknowledge the attraction to the object’s that signify celebration without speaking very directly about how I first started using this set of objects in my photographs when I moved to Chicago in 2004. I was frustrated with graduate school because although I was reading a lot and having new experiences, I felt weird being in school as an adult who had been out of school for six years. I was at an impasse—I found my life experiences prior to graduate school more interesting than being a student. Searching for subject matter, I began to make photographs about having nothing to photograph. I took a picture of a bunch of #2 pencils stuck in a drop ceiling implying the boredom that leads to such behavior. Another example: for some reason, a small disco ball had made the move to Chicago and I recall hanging it beneath the sink in my apartment next to the cleaning detergent and potting soil. I pointed a flashlight at the disco ball and made a picture. It was not an ironic gesture of displacing a signifier of parties from its expected environment by placing it in the most banal section of my apartment: it was a sincere gesture. When I saw the celebratory qualities of the disco ball melding with such a commonplace space, I knew I had found a way of making pictures true to my perspective and sensibility.
RW: In your work, perfect inquisitions are relayed through an arrangement of imperfect objects back into a constructed reality. What do you desire to bring to this translation?
EK: There is something satisfying in the illogical gesture of perusing ones desires wherever they take you. The point of origin for a picture is variable, but once I make a pencil sketch of an idea, I cannot wait to realize the concept. Precise Equilibrium, is a good example of this. For three months, I went to the same place in the woods with balloons filled with oxygen and others filled with helium. I tied the balloons together attempting to make this object that would neither fly nor fall, but hover. I attempted this effect countless times and had every possible failure—balloons flew away, popped on tree limbs, etc. Eventually, one pair hovered perfectly and I made the picture.
RW: Reoccurring themes could be perceived as excessive or even obsessive. Yet, the continual appearances of nature and celebration hint at something more, perhaps an investigation of a nearly scientific approach. Your photographs depict manifested permanence as if it were born from the ephemeral. Can you describe your relationship to the woods and the ontology of the material and non-materials worlds your images portray?
EK: I can assure you that my approach is anything but scientific. The process of making an image stems from the desire to see something in the physical world and then depicted in a photographic representation. It can be something grand—like a meteorite piercing an empty seascape—or diminutive—like an ice cube melting on the floor of my apartment. Whatever the image, I’m interested in doing whatever is necessary in the physical world to arrive at the phenomena I’m after. In some cases, the thing photographed happens so quickly it only exists in the photograph. It is imperceptible in the moment of making. Often times the thing photographed lingers in space and time. After all of the setting up, carrying of objects, performing of tasks, and making of photographs, I relish a moment in which I am able to simply sit with this thing. This moment represents the end of a process, sometimes one of months or years: what began with a desire to see the thing has led to sketches being made, materials acquired, locations scouted, objects carried to just the right spot, and camera set up. All of these steps makes the thing photographed feel almost alive, but after that, lights go out, balloons fall, and I clean up the mess.
RW: You have taught photography for several years and noted in other interviews the essential lessons you continue to gain from teaching, is this something you plan to continue?
EK: Absolutely. I really love teaching and find it a wonderful compliment to making art. I am really lucky to have joined an outstanding faculty at the University of South Florida and am inspired by the work of my colleagues and students. I teach undergraduate courses in which I have students examine the intentions of the photographs they make as well as reconsider what a photograph can be. I also work with graduate students, which I really like because I easily remember and relate to a lot of the things they are experiencing.
I was fortunate to have several people who were very important teachers to me. Two of my good friends as a child were a naturalist/photographer and a paleontologist/professor. Of course, later, I had formal teachers in institutions but I continued to find mentors outside of school who have been extremely important to me. I hope that on some level I can perform either role for someone else.
RW: And having explored the Midwest, Northeast and Florida regions, are you being drawn towards a new area or to explore new symbols for your work? In other words, can you share any of your current or future plans for us?
EK: When I first moved to the Midwest I was constantly looking for vantage points that resembled New England, where I grew up. It took a while before I was able to embrace the fact that I lived in the middle of the country, surrounded by all of that flat land that initially had made me anxious. Now, having left the Midwest, I’ve started to use the landscape in Florida, which is also really foreign to me. Moss hangs on everything, and there are all sorts of exotic plants and animals.
I remember several years ago, Alan Artner, the former art critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote my use of landscape is “almost generic shots of forest, field and ocean” as if I use the landscape as a backdrop for the thing I am making. On a certain level, I think this is true. The natural world in photographs functions as a void or space in which to actualize something that I want to see. Be it New England, the Midwest, Florida, or wherever, that space just needs to have a certain rightness to it. It needs to feel the way I want the picture to be, whether that is empty, desolate, balanced, or lush. I suppose on a very basic level I am most comfortable with the landscape that I know best. On some intuitive level I know where to go in New England to find the landscape I wand, whereas in Florida I walk through the woods like a tourist. But even on the outskirts of a giant American city like Chicago, I can locate a place that seems like the middle of nowhere—when, in fact, just outside of the picture frame are signs of modernity and I recall hearing airplanes at O’Hare during the shoot.
At the time of this interview, I’m staying in a small shed in my friend’s backyard in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Having a significant part of the summer to myself is a luxury that I have not had since I started working in high school. I have been making new images in the area for the past many weeks that will be part of my upcoming solo exhibition at Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago. It has been a really nice period of making art, a feeling better than anything else I know. The show opens in Chicago on October 21st. The new work will also be online at Adam Ekberg or Thomas Robertello, but if you find yourself in Chicago please swing by!