The legend of Sisyphus is one of those myths that has come to pervade Greek mythology, recognizable as a story mirrored in all facets of pop culture, from comics to television to contemporary art. In the original legend, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, is punished by the gods for his selfish deception. He is forced to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again when it nears the top, trapping him in an endless cycle of labor for all eternity.
For photographer Kata Geibl, this cyclical myth acts as a metaphor for the topic explored in her series of the same name. Sisyphus is a photographic project that commentates on our incessant obsession with science – a discourse that regularly opens up new questions rather than conclusive answers – a hydra with multiplying heads that cannot ever be fully defeated or conquered. “Sisyphus is really just about humanity, because every time we discover something new, we think we get closer to understanding how the whole world operates and functions,” Geibl explains. “But also, every time we understand something new, we have to start all over again, because it presents us with a new set of questions.”
Geibl explores our reliance on science through a series of images that reveal our fascination with scientific objects – inanimate tools – that we use to help us determine major truths about human nature. The presence of human beings is insinuated, but never made fully obvious by incorporating the faces or full bodies within the environments she constructs. While some images hint at a human presence, depicting their hands working through equations or interacting with particular substances, most of the images place human invention at centre stage, so that our manmade tools act as the protagonists in the story. For example, one image, saturated in green and blue hues, is a photograph of a simulation of an entire year on Earth. “I asked a woman working at the planetarium to start a timer and simulate one year on Earth in three minutes, so this picture is a still image of that entire year. It was created with an exposure of three minutes, which is why you can see the shift of the sun. I loved the idea of capturing an entire year in one single photograph.”
Many of the images in Sisyphus are fabricated scenarios, and possess an intense, cinematic atmosphere that makes their drama even more appealing. This film-still aesthetic is a direct result of Geibl’s initial training as a filmmaker. She explains, “I actually first studied film theory and history, and I wanted to be a director. But I soon realized that I prefer working on my own, because I’m not very good at communicating with others – I’m quite shy.” Rather than working with a team of make-up artists, actors, PAs and camera operators, Geibl shifted modes to the solitude of her medium format camera.
Geibl’s isolation allows her to pace her practice on her own time, and she carefully plans the creation of each image before she takes them. She actually draws each piece before photographing it, storyboarding her images through sketches that she then carefully reconstructs in front of her lens. “Whenever I draw the picture that I want to create, I always incorporate the lighting in it so that I can recreate that mood, because I don’t really like flashes. I prefer using ambient or consistent light, because I like the light being a constant presence in the work. Flash can’t really be a constantly-present character. I guess this goes back to my cinematography training as well, because in cinema they always use constant lighting and never flash.”
Just as she plans each individual image through sketching, Sisyphus is actually just the first few brushstrokes of a larger piece that Geibl is piecing together. “I’m working on the second chapter of this work now, which is about our society’s consumption. In our modern times, we are under the impression that we can possess anything we want. We take advantage of the earth and pollute it, abusing our power.” By tying this topic in with Sisyphus, Geibl suggests that our obsession with using scientific materials to tell us about humanity can actually become quite wasteful, directly contributing to humanity’s downfall. Heightened pollution and degradation are an offshoot of this unstoppable hydra, and she hopes this work will shed light on that paradox. “I think the contemporary image flow we find ourselves in today makes us immune to pictures. It’s really important to stand in front of a picture rather than look at it on your mobile phone. This is why I approach my work with planning, and I take my time. As a medium, photography is perfect for me, and I want us to stop scrolling past it. I want us to really think about it, and think about the messages it is giving us.”