“I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.”
— Clarice Lispector
The excerpt from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. accompanied Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili’s 2016 exhibition I Move Forward, I Protozoan, Pure Protein at Micky Schubert Gallery in Berlin, Germany. This enigmatic link between the nothing and the carnal permeates Alexi-Meskhishvili’s photographic work at large. Her ethereal depictions of light and color are never absolute abstractions, but always tied to specifics of history, memory, and cultural imaginings. Alexi-Meskhishvili transforms human bodies and everyday objects into radiant dreamscapes without compromising the materiality of her subject matter. She achieves this near impossible friendship between the conspicuous and the impalpable through the use of photomontage, large-scale printing, and various digital as well as analog collaging techniques. The resulting whimsical and often humorous compositions push the boundaries of the photographic medium and its reliance on the visible world.
Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili is a Georgian-American photographer based in Berlin. She studied photography at Bard College under Stephen Shore, An-My Lê and Barbara Ess. Her recent exhibitions include Georgian Ornament at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles, France, Dog Smile at Siegfried Contemporary in Saanen, Switzerland, and Boiled Language at LC Queisser, Tbilisi, Georgia.
Originally published on October 27, 2021
Salome Kokoladze: In the early 1970s a lot of American photographers, for example, Diane Arbus or Danny Lyon, started including the borders of the negatives in their prints. The appearance of the hairline black borders had multiple meanings: they showed that a photograph has not been manipulated and that the framing had been thought through before taking a photograph. When I look at your prints and their dark edges, I see a very different function assigned to this visual element. Could you talk about how or if the edges of your prints contribute to the openness and lyricism of your photographic syntax?
Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili: One thing that unites every photograph is that it is an edited frame of the world. The choice of the frame is what makes the photograph even though what you are left with points to the possibilities beyond the frame, beyond the visible. By using the black frame, I like to accentuate this aspect of photography as well as play with the history of the medium. Starting with Henri Cartier-Bresson, through, as you mention, Diane Arbus, as well as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn who utilized the photographic edge very precisely, the use of the negative borders was tied to the theory of the decisive moment, where its presence meant that the author “shot” the perfect image in real life without a need to edit it afterwards. Traditionally, it was an accolade to be able to photograph so that you didn’t need to re-edit as it meant you were the real deal. These days, with Photoshop, the black frame has become irrelevant, and you will never know whether I digitally added the frame in, or if I am actually that excellent of a photographer.
SK: In the Georgian Ornament series, your use of photograms as well as large fabric prints give an aerial feel to your images. The objects of your work, plastic bags and ornaments, present themselves not as a form of cultural currency, but as the substance of our imagination. I wonder in what ways it was challenging to work with objects that have saturated our daily lives and how you managed to escape cultural tropes that are attached to such subject matter.
KAM: The presence of various Georgian ornaments on plastic bags that are given out in tourist shops bewildered me. I was attracted to them nostalgically and simultaneously, repulsed by their inane quality. When I decided to do my first exhibition in Georgia, I thought about what visual art meant for Georgians, because for half a century, there was no exposure to contemporary art whatsoever. Georgia’s strongest visual history has been Byzantine architecture. To see these ornaments that are usually found on Basilicas and Churches used as some kind of auric representations of Georgianness, and printed on plastic bags like logos seemed unresolved in the best of ways. I still don’t know what it means and I like that. I just know that these bags are not produced anymore and that they will almost never decompose so they hold time in a similar way as photographs do. So, why not photograph them?
SK: Your photographic process feels very intuitive. When I look at your work, I see that you have carefully constructed a relationship with the objects you have photographed as well as the photographic objects themselves. I am really interested in the evolution of your work process. What pushed you to experiment with various analog or digital techniques and is there any new tool or method you wish to incorporate in your future projects?
KAM: My introduction as a child to image making has been through collage, and other forms of non-linear narratives. Sergei Paradjanov was my godfather and my first exposure to art was through my father who collaborated with him on his film Ashik Kerib. They both made collages as an attempt to disrupt the black and white propaganda narrative of the Soviet system. At Bard, I decided to study the history of experimental and Avant-Garde film and was completely consumed by it without realizing the roots of my attraction, as I do now. This sense of experimentation with the medium, with the narrative, is in my blood you could say. I do work spontaneously and attempt to invite as much improvisation as possible into the process. However, working with the large format camera is burdensome, it takes much concentration and time. It forces me to slow down and as I work, I go into an almost trance-like state, where I visually meditate on the object that I am photographing.
SK: You appear in some of your photographs, but I don’t necessarily see those images as self-portraits. Just as some writers embraced the concept of the “implied author” and more intentionally manipulated the authorial presence in their works, you seem to appear in front of the camera to also embrace the inevitable implication of a photographer in a photograph. I am curious to hear more from you about images such as “I was no longer seeing myself,” “Monitor 2,” or “Wilfred Flower.” How does the function of your presence change in each of these works?
KAM: My presence in these images is Hitchcockian. It’s a joke, but it’s also not. Sometimes, I need to assure myself of my existence. Other times, I need to engage with the history of the female self-portraiture in photography. And then again, I sometimes photograph myself out of solitude since I am usually the only one around in my studio.