As a medium traditionally used to record important moments and events, photography is a useful tool for exploring pressing themes related to memory and its documentation. But what happens when these memories don’t take the expected shape of material form, and instead come to us in flashes of color and abstract fragments that cannot be recorded solely by a camera’s lens?
Polish artist Filip Berendt addresses these obstacles in his photographic works by incorporating sculpture, painting and graphics into his multimedia projects. While his final pieces are ultimately photographic prints, the images act as portals into his strenuous, layered thought process, full of specific selections and constructions gradually built up using the differing mediums. In particular, his project Monomyth acts as a record of his memories from hallucinatory experiences with ayahuasca.
I first saw Berendt’s work in the Discovery section at this year’s Photo London, and was immediately struck by the combination of black and white imagery with abstract, colorful forms. Even the frames for each print were carefully researched, constructed and selected. When I reached out to the artist to discuss his project, we spoke about the immense amount of work that goes into making each final print and the inspiration behind each image.
LensCulture: While your final works are presented as photographs, they also incorporate other media like sculpture and painting into your process. When did you first begin bringing multiple media together, and why do you think photography is important to include in this work?
Filip Berendt: That way of thinking comes from my education in the arts—I studied photography, painting, graphic design and finally, sculpture. I had issues with this for some time, because I thought that I had to decide on just one thing to specialize in, but now I see that there is great value in combining all these skills. I actually ended up going to the Royal College of Art to break down those academic habits and compositional principles within me.
In my work, photography is always the only way to finish the entire process. For example, I once made a sculpture out of fungus – only a photograph could freeze and document that process.
LC: So you combine all these methods, but what medium do you find you always need to incorporate, aside from fixing your process with a photograph at the end?
FB: Working in sculpture is essential for me. After I have sculpted the work, I construct its surroundings with other subjects and materials. These elements introduce color and light, which then play off the sculpture. They form this zone that completes the sculptural object.
Theoretically, I could just exhibit the sculpture, but the additions that surround it are what make the final work so important. An onlooker can observe a sculptural piece from many points of view, but only photography gives me the opportunity to select and reveal one point of view that combines all the elements I want to bring together.
I think that the “materiality” of a sculpture is a trap—it’s easy to define without touching it. You can recognize and place the materials used in sculpture almost immediately, and for me, this makes sculpture too easily defined. I use sheeting, spray, metal cladding and varnish to disturb the original materials, and then I use photography to take the sculpture completely out of the material world.
LC: What photographic processes do you use to create your images?
FB: After I use various materials to create a sculpture, I work with a Polaroid camera to get rid of part of the information in the photograph. I also do this by just painting directly onto the photograph itself. I finish with a large format camera, where the legibility of the object becomes part of the process, like trying to fit the entire constructed thing within the frame of the viewfinder. I place the camera in one spot and build everything around one axis in the camera’s lens. I do this because I like to create an opposing situation to the traditional way of photographing, which is moving your own body and camera around the subject. Instead, I build the subject in front of my camera.
LC: How do you decide which added forms and colors best correspond with certain images? What is that process like for you?
FB: The lines and colors I selected for Monomyth were the direct result of taking part in processes associated with shamanism. There are structures and colors that dominate your thoughts during individual sessions; they are hallucinatory elements. So the forms and colors you see are actually direct overlays of structures from those visions.
LC: So then tell me a bit about the significance of this title: Monomyth. Where does it come from?
FB: The title is taken from American author and anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He proves that in all mythology, the journey of the hero adheres to the same structure, meaning that there is some sort of pre-universal narrative pattern that dictates how humans created mythical structures. The hero always sets off on a journey, and throughout that journey a series of changes in their personality take place, and they bring new ways of seeing and understanding into the world—they undergo deep inner changes that not only nourish themselves as individuals, but also nourish their cultures.
My work with shamanism was directed at visualizing some form of this monomyth—a personal and artistic experience—that could lead to the creation of works depicting this phenomenon. These works are the result of using ayahuasca, a natural hallucinogen. I wanted to see and experience the basis of the myth that permeates all cultures: the monomyth.
LC: You consistently refer to the “personal” and “mythological” journeys. Can you expand on this a bit? What is specifically personal as opposed to mythological?
FB: The experience itself is mythological, and then what you bring to the experience or get out of it is personal. So, the things you get out of a spiritual journey, sort of like a record, might be collages, photographs, painterly gestures, or colorful arrangements of forms. But your entire mythological experience is filtered by your own self, including your personal experience.
LC: How do you think the medium of photography factors into this, especially as something consistently bound up in themes of memory?
FB: What makes us who we are? It’s our memories. Without them we are just shells. We’ve learned ways to record them, write them down and hide them away, and one of the primary ways of doing this is with photography.
Right now, I’m concentrating on the eradication of photographic memory – the selectivity of memory, forgetting, or how our brain misses things when it is overstimulated with situations and impressions. I’m concentrating on using photography to piece together a memory collage, which is exactly what Monomyth is about.
This doesn’t just manifest in my final pieces. Individual layers of collage on the walls of my studio are selective memories from hallucinations. They are all different pieces, containing various painterly and sculptural gestures, but the final stage of this process is to bring them together and make a photograph of the entire structure, treating that as the actual memory.
LC: Yes, the final presentation of your work is incredibly intentional—including the frame. Tell me a bit about why these details are so important to you.
FB: I treat these pictures almost like they are windows or portals, like how sacred paintings are venerated in various religions. The frames for these windows and the individual components should be cut off from the surrounding world—the boundary should be made visible and very obvious. That is why all elements are made in my studio by hand, all together with the frames.
LC: Your work is grounded in your subjective experience, but it’s made for other people to engage with as well. What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
FB: Ideally, I would like them to walk away with an understanding of the common myth of all cultures. I’m not sure this is possible given that Monomyth is a structure composed of rhythms, repeated magic and religion. But it is enough that people react to the work intuitively, even reading the symbols, colors and composition subconsciously.
—Filip Berendt interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj