Intrigued by the unknown and obscure, the Austrian photographer delves beyond what first meets the eye
Austria. The Art of Discovery, an exclusive British Journal of Photography commission supported by the Austrian National Tourist Office, as part of its Austria. The Art of Discovery project, is now open for entries. The winning photographer will travel to Austria to explore and document the regions of Linz, in Upper Austria, and Vorarlberg.
For the last in a series of editorials exploring the work of Austrian photographers, British Journal of Photography spoke to Vienna-based artist Klaus Pichler, who will feature in a group exhibition of contemporary Austrian photography showing at Photo London 2018.
“It started by coincidence. There is a park near the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, which was closed for ages. One night, when I was passing by, I noticed that it had reopened and I was finally able to look into the museum’s windows after hours,” remembers Klaus Pichler. “One of the rooms was illuminated and the scene inside was very strange. It was a normal office, but there was a life-sized stuffed antelope in one corner.” Instantly intrigued by the absurd display before him, the Austrian photographer contacted the institution who invited him for a tour of the museum’s back rooms.
Over the next three years, Pichler returned to the museum once or twice a month to explore the hidden spaces of its collections, offices and scientific departments. The photographer discovered room after room of exhibits in storage, arranged following a strict scientific classification system. It was however the chance still lifes, emerging out of these otherwise rigidly organised areas, which captured his attention. With the museum’s back rooms constantly in flux, as objects moved between exhibits or were rearranged to save space, comical, even life-like, arrangements materialised.
“I was sure that the scientific staff did not notice the photographic potential of these displays,” says Pichler, “for me, it was about photographing a very strange collection of chance still lifes.” Given their playfulness, it seems impossible that the arrangements could have been accidental. From a badger gazing at itself intently in an ornate mirror, to a giant toad lying camouflaged atop a set of wooden storage drawers, the resulting series Skeletons in the Closet imbues these taxidermied creatures with a renewed sense of life. “I was trying to revive them and restore their dignity and personalities,” he explains, “because really, a museum is the house of the dead.”
Born in Vienna, the photographer grew up in the historic town of Judenburg, Styria, but returned to the capital every summer to stay with the friends of his parents. “Spending a day at the museum during these trips was always a special event,” he says. Pichler was more preoccupied with the dinosaurs and mineral collection as a child. But, returning to the museum as an adult, he was taken aback by how younger visitors reacted to the displays of long-dead animals as though they were alive. “It was a strange experience wandering around the exhibition halls, seeing families with children looking very happy; they were not perceiving these animals as dead,” he says.
Despite the often playful and humorous appearance of Pichler’s images, this kind of darker undercurrent, along with a desire to delve into the hidden sides of places or communities, is something that runs through all of his work. “For me, photography is like a key, opening doors into hidden parts of society and everyday life,” he explains. This is true of another series he shot in and around Vienna, entitled Middle Class Utopia. The project captures the curious worlds of Schrebergärten – small allotment gardens found throughout the capital. Established in the late 19th century to provide a place for working people to cultivate their own vegetables and fruit, today the gardens are mostly used for recreational purposes. When Pichler moved back to Vienna 20 years ago he would wander through the allotments, intrigued by the strange atmosphere that pervades them.
His ongoing fascination with the Schrebergärten led him to return to the subject as a photographer. Pichler originally trained as a landscape architect and his photographic practice is grounded in a research-based approach that stems from this first degree. Researching and then exploring these inner-city idylls over the course of a year, Pichler captured their subtle quirks and peculiarities. His images are populated with the garden’s residents preening their hedgerows or sunning themselves on perfectly trimmed lawns. “Due to the strict rules of these colonies, concerning both the look of the gardens as well as the behaviour of the occupants, a special mood surrounds them,” he observes.
Both Middle Class Utopia and Skeletons in the Closet reveal the hidden sides of places and communities that have intrigued Pichler for years. For his most recent project, This Will Change Your Life Forever, the photographer ventured further afield, exploring the irrational new age esotericism scene. Through joining online forums and attending esotericist fairs and gatherings, Pichler immersed himself in this strange and factitious world. Indeed, his practice rests on an anthropological approach that leads him to continually seek out and explore the unknown and unfamiliar. “Ultimately,” he says, “I like to contemplate things in society and my surroundings that are often overlooked.”