When you first encounter French artist Thomas Hauser’s photographic sculptures, they appear to be made of antiquated, aged materials, only revealed as something more modern by their contemporary jagged edges and intentional asymmetry. These objects—what he calls modules—form the backbone of Hauser’s work. Interlaced with photographs of his own making, the modules trigger the sense of nostalgia that often comes with confronting something archaic.
These metallic shards—layered with reflective glass and muddied photographs—have received widespread acclaim over the past year, and are a perfect representation of the never-ending possibilities for novelty within the medium of photography. Hauser’s process is in a constant state of flux—both literally and figuratively—and he successfully plays with the chemical potential of the medium, all while addressing its timeless association with nostalgia and memory.
I first came across Hauser’s work at Foam’s exhibition Back to the Future earlier this year, and was able to finally speak with him in person at Les Rencontres d’Arles, where his show titled The Wake of Dust is on view until September at Ground Control, a venue packed with installations by selected emerging talents. We spoke about the intricacies in his process, and how he uses photography and sculpture to comment on the passage of time.
LensCulture: The pieces you currently make are very sculptural, but you’ve also begun incorporating larger prints, so I assume your foray into photography began with regular shooting. How did you transition into these more tactile methods?
Thomas Hauser: In about 2004 or 2005, I started experimenting more within the medium because the school I was attending didn’t have a lot of money. The studio wasn’t of very high quality, so access to chemicals and paper was limited, and we didn’t have a range or variety of stuff to practice making traditional prints at a high volume. At the time I found this a bit annoying, because I wanted to use the good stuff, but I now realize that these circumstances are what forced me to start playing around with materials more.
LC: While this limited access forced you to change the form of your work, did it also change the subject matter? Or have you always been drawn to the same themes?
TH: I have always taken photographs of my family members. I was particularly interested in photographing my grandmother, and when she passed away, I found an archive of family photographs that she had hidden in her home. I guess I would say that finding these materials was the catalyst for creating my current work, and I like the idea of making these archives disappear within my own pictures. It’s been one long, continuous process.
LC: So tell me a bit about this process. It is photographic, but you’re really making objects. Do you plan out how to make these sculptures beforehand, or is the process more organic?
TH: It’s definitely intuitive. I collect the materials from piles that I find in the street, and in my studio there’s always a lot of stuff on the ground, so I assemble each object from this stuff that surrounds me—it’s a very natural process. I call the final sculptures “modules,” and they are always in flux. I fix them when I show them in an exhibition, but in the next show, their form might change. I like everything to constantly be in movement and progress—even the paper I use on each module remains photosensitive, so at the beginning of an exhibition the paper is white, but over time with light, it disappears and changes colors. Everything is always in this constant state of change.
LC: That’s so interesting. So what specific processes do you use for these prints? Because in this exhibition, there are larger ones on the wall, but then there are smaller ones integrated into your modules.
TH: I have three or four laser printers, and I destroy some parts of them so that I can create an alteration of a standard print so that each picture is different. This means that even if I print the same image two or three times, it’s going to be a unique outcome in each interval. But for this exhibition, I wanted to create prints that were quite large, so I had to find a new technological process because my own printers cannot print anything bigger than A3-sized paper. This is how I found out about the process of silk-screening with glue. Basically, I print the image with glue, so at first you cannot see any picture on the paper, and then I cover the glue and paper with toner powder so that the whole thing is black. Then, I blow on the toner so that it falls away, and just the toner that is fixed to the glue is left, outlining the image.
LC: And you said you find stuff on the street to integrate into the modules. Are you constantly looking for any materials in particular?
TH: Yes, I’m always looking for specific things like marble and mirrors. I’m constantly using the backs of mirrors in my work. Mirrors are made by pouring silver liquid on a plate of glass, and then sandwiching this liquid between the glass and a plastic backing. So what I do is remove the plastic from the back of these mirrors so that the silver is no longer suspended in an airtight form, and it starts to become exposed to the elements. This makes it oxidize, changing its color and texture.
LC: So you’re like a chemist with both your prints and these mirrors, finding ways to have them constantly change by being exposed to the elements.
TH: In a way, yes! I also use some materials that are traditionally for intaglio printing, which is when you use a printing press with copper plates. So it’s not just about the chemical make-up changing—it’s also always about finding ways to make the image more ambiguous. When I use the copper plates, you can’t see the picture engraved on the back of them—it’s like a secret. So in the end, the mirror can no longer reflect an image because of the oxidization, the prints are becoming harder to read because they are slowly overdeveloping, and even in the large prints, each subject hides their face and identity, making those images hard to read as well.
LC: And what are you trying to say by making all these things ambiguous? Why is it important to you?
TH: My work is very much about the process of memory; I’m making modern ruins. I use modern materials and I create photographs in a contemporary context, but what I am also trying to do is create this invented, fictional memory of a moment in time. I’m also questioning the relationship between memory and identity, thinking about the ways we build ourselves up with regard to our own past. This is why I always photograph my family members—it adds this genealogical layer to the work so that it all has to do with the stuff that is passed through time, reappearing in pictures and materials, but also in gestures. I’m constantly looking at these relationships.
LC: So when you’re exploring these themes of memory and identity, why do you think photography is the appropriate medium to tackle them?
TH: Because your memory is always going to be a picture in the end. You remember things, and you’re always making a mental image that courses throughout time. Everything and everybody is slowly turning into stone in this way, like petrified wood. This creation of a mental image is like creating ruins within a memory.
LC: That definitely clarifies what you’re articulating with the title, The Wake of Dust. Can you explain how this label relates to those themes as well?
TH: The word “wake” means many things, like the waves behind a speeding boat, or when you get up in the morning, or a memorial service when someone passes away. The three meanings of this word all come together to make sense of this project, and the dust literally refers to the toner I use to create the large prints—but it’s also the dust that slowly deposits atop the ruins I constructed over time. It’s about memorializing the objects and concepts I’m exploring, which brings together everything I am always trying to do with my work.
—Thomas Hauser interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj
If you want to check out Thomas Hauser’s work in person, the exhibition The Wake of Dust is still on view at Ground Control in Arles until September 23, 2018.