Known and unknown, visible and invisible
Marina Slavova in conversation with Marta Djourina
Marina Slavova: You mostly work in the field of experimental analogue photography, but you don’t define yourself as a photographer. Your work examines the possibilities of light as a material and as means of expression. When and how did your fascination for light begin? What are its specifics as a material and what is the role of photography in your work?
Marta Djourina: My work with light began as a result from a long exploration of light-related situations and from experimenting with different forms of drawing. The first contact I had with analogue photography was with self-made negatives of transparent paper and details of pictures printed onto them by the light, coming through the blinds of the room I lived in as a child in Sofia. Returning often to Sofia at that time, I always tried to capture the moments when I was waking up in the morning in that room. Millions of dots and patches of light, falling at different angles and reflecting against the shapes of the furniture, created such plasticity in the room, which gave me the idea of folding the photo paper before exposing it in the lab several months later. Thus the light turned from a subject into an instrument, a tool. Step by step and under the influence of the painting class that I found myself in at the art school, my black-and-white experiments gradually became colorful. In the analogue colour process we can compare the light sources that I use to leave direct marks on the large-size paper, with a brush, while the photo paper resembles a canvas. The chemical qualities of the photo paper’s surface convert the colours of the light that touches it; for example, a red laser beam leaves blue marks, and the closer and faster I move it, the thinner and lighter these marks become. The correlation between movement, darkness, light, orientation, painting, blind drawing, motor memory and performance is what ultimately drives my works.
Marina Slavova: You draw since your school days, but on leaving for Berlin you decided to dive deep into theory – before applying at UdK (Universität der Künste) on a Fine Arts program, you graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History of Art from Humboldt Universität, and then with a Master’s from TU (Technische Universität), Berlin. Tell me a bit more about your attitude toward education, the role of theory in your work and your academic path. How did you decide to go back to the artistic practice?
Marta Djourina: Many people from our generation know what it’s like to study abroad. Being a graduate of a German language high school, where physics, chemistry and other subjects were taught in German, I felt like an export product with a set destination. My departure for Berlin, for what became the first of three courses of study, was very spontaneous. After my admission to the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, which had been my dream since I was a child, I received a scholarship from DAAD (the German Academic Exchange service), which allowed me to live and study in Germany. The decision had to be taken very quickly so I withdrew my appication from the Academy, found a place to live in Berlin and left, all this before August 2009 was over. The more internally I rebelled in the first years, the more I realized how positive they were. Because of all the rushing, I didn’t manage to apply for a fine arts program at one of the Berlin academies, so I began studying History of Art and Cultural Studies at the Humboldt Universität. I had seen several of the graduation exhibitions at UdK, the Berlin University of the Arts, and I felt pretty certain that this was the right place for me. After completing my B.A.’s degree at Humboldt, I was admitted for a Major in Fine Arts at UdK and in parallel with that I signed up for a Master’s in Art Theory. My scholarship was prolonged under the condition that I graduate within the regular 2-years. I can certainly say that these were the hardest years of my life, but I learned a lot. Going back to your question – my personal development as an artist benefited immensely from the theoretical training. From today’s perspective I can only be grateful for the opportunities. The M.A. program in Art Theory was very practically oriented and involved frequent encounters with restorers and museologists, visits to workshops, depots and archives. It is quite possible that my fascination of photography is partially influenced by that.
Marina Slavova: You live in Berlin, but you often work in Sofia as well. You also have a strong connection with Glasgow, where you’ve spent a semester studying Photography. In what way your relations to these cities are reflected in your works? Can we say that the sense of belonging and identity are subjects in your work, and to what extent? What other matters do you explore in your art?
Marta Djourina: Some projects are conceptually embedded and handle e.g. pinhole cameras or other materials, turning them into test tools. For the project Von: Mir / An: Mich (From: Me / To: Me) I sent myself such pinhole cameras as parcels via post, which documented up to 3 days of their „voyage“. Pieces of black-and-white photo paper sized 9 x 13 cm, the proportion of a standard postcard, were sent separately in each package. The experiences from the travel of these cameras, which function as a time archive, were documented: the vibrations, the changing light situations during the transportation, were directly recorded onto the photo paper. In this way, the camera works independently and acts as a test instrument. The resulting photographs are an attempt for artistic visualization of some kind of a space-time continuum. The results show the path between two moments of my personal history, immersed in memories, feelings of belonging and nostalgia. This idea came to me from the realization that there are two post boxes with my name on them, one in Sofia and one in Berlin.
During my time in Glasgow I came across an interesting local tradition – the pigeon racing. In the city outskirts some people breed white pigeons, which they enroll for races that take place across the country several times a year. With the assistance of a fellow student I was able to contact one of these enthusiasts and get his permission to attach a small pinhole camera made of a matchbox to a pigeon’s leg. The camera recorded the bird’s flight in an abstract way. The very technology of aerial photography is closely connected with the flight of pigeons, which had been used as spies in both world wars. Carrying specially designed cameras, the birds used to fly over enemy territory, documenting the situation from a bird’s eye view. And even earlier than that, they were also used as postal service.
The specifically used approach of aerial photography made by a pigeon from a bird’s eye view cannot be completely understood from the actual result (a 4 х 4 cm print), but it remains as a narrative. It is this interaction between the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible that is intrinsic to my work. In 2015 I almost moved to Glasgow. To this day I try to keep contacts with that city and I have some ideas for new encounters.
Marina Slavova: The deconstruction and dematerialization are the main topics in two of your works: in SOL (2015) you explore physically the destructive forces of the light by literally burning the photo paper with a magnifying glass, and in The Dematerialization of Everyday Life (2015-2017) you metaphorically deconstruct the perception of objects from our everyday life like plastic food boxes and plastic bags, depriving them of density and functionality. Where does your interest in destruction come from?
Marta Djourina: Deconstruction and dematerialization of the matter are the points of reference for both of these projects. It all becomes flattened onto the surface of the photo paper. Collages with transparent materials, traces of paint left by fingers, everyday objects. All of them lose their volume and filter the light, radiating different colours. Apart from everything else, there is something destructive about this process. The moment I place an object or a self-made negative, which can also be voluminous, in the enlarger of the photo lab, they are deformed by the strong light that is emitted during the process. This is the closest point to the photographic process, as it also “captures” a moment of their existence.
The whole levelling of paint, light, transparent material and all performative interventions on the plain of the technical medium, the photo paper, is an act of dematerialization to me. The light, on its part, materializes – from a tool it becomes a colour.
Marina Slavova: Your works have certain autobiographical characteristics – you document yourself, imprinting the performative movements of your body onto the photo paper, but you also leave marks by often drawing with your fingers. When did you start examining the movements of your own body? To what extent (self-)documentation and the function of photography to create and preserve memories are a topic in your work?
Marta Djourina: The photo paper preserves the traces of one or a sequence of movements. It is like an archive of events and in this sense it refers to the main features of photography.
In my creative process I don’t touch the works themselves. The only direct contact that the photo paper has is with the light. I often asked myself the question how does my presence manifest itself in the process, where is the hand that draws?
Moving from the one end to the other of a 6-meter long paper, I leave traces of my trajectory. The movements themselves have a great impact on the light imprints depending on the distance, speed and duration of exposure. Each movement and each glimmer of light leave a dash of colour on the paper. Working in the dark requires sharpening of the senses. With time, I developed specific motor skills of movement. I know the space well and I can move inside quite freely.
Marina Slavova: The inversion of colours in your working process is quite interesting. The light you draw with is of the opposite colour to the one we see on the photo paper after its development. Besides, as you mentioned, you work blindly, in absolute darkness, without actually seeing what is being printed on the paper, which requires substantial experience and preciseness of movements. Do you make samples? To what extent do you work with coincidence and do you find creative potential in it?
Marta Djourina: The photo paper inverts the colours on its surface – a red light results in a blue imprint, a bright green one leaves a magenta mark, etc. I don’t keep a sketchbook in the traditional sense; instead, I’ve been collecting colour samples for years. Recently, I’ve started to classify them precisely, with date, type of light source, seconds, etc. Looking through these, I combine them and in most cases I have a clear idea what will happen even without reading my own notes.
I keep all my samples in boxes, which serve as a kind of colour catalogue and a sketchbook at the same time.
Once I’ve decided what exactly my aim with a particular work is, the interesting part begins, where everything is very fragile. One stumble in the dark, a movement too slow, a wrong button, too close a distance and the paper may overexpose and become pitch black. The large-size formats, which I often exhibit and plan vertically, are actually created horizontally. The unrolling, cutting, carrying and hanging of the 6-meter photo paper happen in complete darkness. No marks or creases should be left and there shouldn’t be any unwanted light – the mobile phone and the watch are not welcome in the photo lab. After that I start the exposure process, which involves a combination of self-made film negatives in А4 format and colour marks coming from lasers, diodes and all kinds of light sources, partly self-made.
In the process,I explore the notion of my own presence , working just a few feet away from the image carrier; about the properties of photography to be reproduced, which I turn by creating unique pieces that not only cannot be made again, but also express a certain criticism of the flood of visual information. My interest is focused on the qualities of photo paper to capture and invert the light, but also on the capacity of photography to record an act or a performative intervention. The controlled coincidence is combined with a kind of muscular memory developed through the years.
Rethinking the limitations of different media, I could shape my own technique and approach leaning on the experience from a number of experiments, in which the elements of chance and surprise have been paramount. The outcome of my work is a function of the body’s muscular motor memory and the complete darkness in the working space (the photo lab). Between chance and experience, between the surprise and the controlled coincidence, is the moment when things are born in synchronicity.
Marina Slavova: In a text, dedicated to your art practice, Sarah Frost describes your working process as ritualistic. Tell me more about the rules and the sequence of this ritual. What is the role of repeatedness and discipline in your creative work on a day-to-day basis?
Marta Djourina: The discipline in the process, despite its strongly experimental nature, is very important. To get the desired result, you have to follow the steps of exposure and development. Once the paper is developed it cannot be modified any more, meaning that the process has a clearly defined beginning and end. The ritual in the pitch dark photo lab is a preconceived one, yet it always leads to surprises. We can call it a controlled coincidence. The ritualism is rather in the movements themselves – by waving my hands and arms, carrying the light sources attached to them.
Marina Slavova: Until recently, a work of yours was exhibited at the St. Marienkirche church in Frankfurt (Oder). Apart from its size (12.5 х 3 m), it impressed with the substitution of photo paper with fabric. What is the role of the format in your work and what did you learn from your first attempt with textile material?
Marta Djourina: In 2020 I had the chance to experience for the first time the enormous space of the gothic cathedral in Frankfurt (Oder), which had been largely destroyed during the Second World War and clearly carries the traces of time. In that year I exhibited unique works with size 6 х 1.8 m, which were hanging freely along the height of the cathedral. With their bright colours they resembled the typical stained-glass windows, while the diversity of their composition reminded of the church’s architecture marked by the many restorations and renewals through the years.
This year’s exhibition is dedicated to the 20s, with no specific decade in mind. This time I wanted to emphasise even more on the entering light and its role. I viewed the cathedral as a huge camera, and the windows as the apertures of lens that lets the light in. Since they are not painted on (which, again, is due to the suffered damages), I took their measures and covered them at a close distance with two long strips of fabric with an overall size of about 70 sq. m (two pieces, 12.5 х 3 m each).
The light in the church is a very specific and important part of the sacred space, which gave me the idea of playing with transparency observing the way the separate elements interact with each other. The windows looked like they were transposed a few feet forward, with their frames protruding from behind the fabric and its surface, thus making this new element a part of the architecture. In reality, the installation resembles a huge screen or projection canvas, which visually seems to move and ripple gently.
I feel more and more inspired by site-specific projects. I am exploring the installation aspects and experimenting with larger sizes, looking for ways to transform the flatness of the paper or in this case, the fabric, in the exhibition space. I suspend works from the ceiling, sometimes with their back to the visitors, who are then prompted to move around or even in-between the separate elements, in order to discover the colour traces on the frontal part. Their body movements, especially in 6-meter high vertical works, repeat elements of the movement of my own body in the darkness of the photo lab.
Marina Slavova: What else do you currently work on? What’s on your mind these days?
Marta Djourina: My new works often develop and expand the previous ones. My new works often develop and expand on the previous ones. Also the performative aspect of my work has been on my mind a lot.
I plan a collaboration with dancers in the coming months, in which we will develop some specific movements together. I’m also working on a project, involving an installative intervention in a public building in Berlin, in which I intend to use direct lights and sensors.
At the end of July I will participate in the exhibition of the artists, nominated for the BAZA Award for Contemporary Art in Sofia, and in September is the exhibition and prize ceremony for the Eberhard Roters award and scholarship at the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin.
Right now I am at an artist residency in Rostock, in northern Germany, on the Baltic Sea coast. I applied for my stay here with projects like SOL (2015) and other interventions, exploring the city’s industrial history, and at the same time, the direct link between the salt, the sunlight and the natural environment of a coastal city.
Most of my time is dedicated to research for my projects with bioluminescence, which is a frequent phenomenon in recent years, even in Europe (as a result of global warming).
For the exhibition of the nominees for the BAZA Award at Sofia City Art Gallery I’ve made a new piece, which is directly inspired by the concept of visualization of the different manifestations of touching. It builds on the artistic quests in previous projects like Glowing Attraction (2019/2020) and Foxfire (2021) exploring the different manifestations of natural light, but expanding that idea connecting it to the human beings.
And not least, at an exhibition at Berlinische Galerie in Berlin I will display on 200 sq. m. an overview of different aspects of my work.