Irene Kung's artistic career led her via graphic design, painting, etching and sculpture to photography, which she took up in 2006. She has achieved international fame and recognition with her unique style and most recently won the pitch for an art edition of the new Porsche 911.
Irene Kung, thank you for meeting with GstaadLife. What brought you to live in this part of the world?
During my father’s military service, he had to march from Thun to Saanenland. The last part of the journey was steep and dark but, when he got to Saanenmöser, the magnificent view suddenly opened up. He had a very strong feeling that he wanted to build a house here – and this is how I came to be here now, in Saanenmöser.
With your background in art, how do you see the relationship between art and photography?
I was a graphic designer for a few years before I learned to paint and I loved the opportunities that painting opened up for personal expression and self-development. Twelve years ago I switched to photography but still thought like a painter. Digital photography allows me to adopt an artistic approach to photography while getting results similar to painting. It comes naturally. Surprisingly, people reacted to my photographs as something new. For me, however, it’s like painting. I just use the camera as a tool.
What made you switch from painting to photography?
I was inspired by a very good international gallerist in Rome, Valentina Bonomo, who came to see me. She was impressed by my photographs and offered me an exhibition. When she asked what I proposed to exhibit, I replied that I would photograph the Roman monuments. Valentina protested, saying that everybody had already done that. I mulled it over and some time later brought her to my studio, where I had a huge print of a photograph I had taken of the Pantheon. When she saw it she immediately changed her mind and agreed to the monuments of Rome! My images were so different, a different approach and expression. That’s how it all started.
There’s quite a lot of technology in digital photography. Did you find it a steep learning curve?
Yes, I don’t enjoy the technical side. But I got help, especially from my adopted son, who is a photographer in Italy. I have only learned the strict minimum on the camera and computer to get the results I want.
I think you're being modest. There's a lot of technical wizardry in what you do!
You’re right. I even ended up buying a large plotter so I could personally produce my own prints without having to send them out to a studio. I couldn’t figure out how to work the plotter at first and, when I called Epson for support, the technician was astonished to learn that I had such an advanced printer just for myself. However, he came out and explained everything and now I manage quite well.
Can you tell us about the Porsche commission to take photographs for their 911 model?
I love Porsche and was both surprised and excited when they asked me to produce an art edition for the new 911. I had to submit a proposal, along with several other photographers, and Porsche ended up choosing me. So as not to resemble their advertising campaign, I concentrated on producing something totally different: images like movie scenes where you don’t see the car immediately and can imagine what is happening in the scene.
My first problem was to get an image of a place without people or a car. Everywhere in the city is so packed and timing is key. I always think of the image I want, then I work out how to get to it. I knew I wanted a photograph of a Porsche by night, a bit like in a James Bond movie, with a slight tension to the photograph. I had a time limit and needed to work fast. I started in September and finished by the beginning of December – a very short time for a project like this.
Your photos all have a dreamlike quality. Can you comment on this?
I am surrounded by more and more chaos. Phones ringing and buzzing, cars passing, someone talking or yelling, the noise of mostly useless news like violence, which I cannot do anything about. For me, however, the worst noises are the visible ones: electric poles, vending carts, dumpsters in front of historical buildings, horrible buildings next to, or even in front of, monuments.
As a photographer, I have trained myself to ignore these bothersome noises. When I look for the right spot to take a picture, I don’t see the disturbing reality generated by the frantic world around it. I automatically cancel whatever disturbs me and I “silence the world” so as to be able to see and feel a monument as it is, or as it was centuries ago.
First of all this silence puts me in a state of bliss then it allows me to appreciate small details such as the ravages of time on a particular monument. I feel the immensity of a contemporary or historical monument as an expression of the power of whoever built it.
To me, as a photographer, silence is the relief in which I enjoy the present as well as being a working tool. When I “silence” this noisy world, I am able to feel what surrounds me and new truths arise. All of a sudden I dispose of time and vision.
I communicate the essence of what I see and photograph. I don’t describe it with words as that would risk destroying the atmosphere, I wouldn’t be able to share the wonderful experience I felt. To me the essence of a monument can’t be put in words, it has to be felt and shown.
“To silence” the world does not mean to turn my back on reality; on the contrary, I see the world more clearly, I keep in balance with it and try to love whatever surrounds me.
So, you let your intuition guide you in terms of the subjects you choose and the final product?
Yes. It’s a fascinating process because I don’t think rationally, I just work without thinking and, at some point, the image takes me by surprise.
How has your career as a photographer developed since you started?
As I mentioned earlier, I started twelve years ago at the end of 2006/early 2007 with my first exhibition in Rome with Valentina Bonomo. My launch was such a surprise. It was a huge success. I thought I was going to build my career slowly but this wasn’t quite how it worked. I had another exhibition, which wasn’t as successful as the first, and then yet another, with greater success. It’s a whole process and I learned to be patient. Single events aren’t as important as the bigger picture. Above all, I have to protect my passion to work, which takes much time and dedication.
What are you working on now?
It’s an exciting time as I’m participating in a group exhibition, which will travel around the world, starting from the Contemporary Art Museum in Seoul. I also have a solo exhibition at the Museum Camera in Turin from 30 May to 28 July 2019. The curator of my exhibition in Turin gave me free reign so I decided to depict monuments and trees, showing the relationship between the two.
I've noticed that you have a fascination for both trees and monuments.
Well, trees are also monuments. That is why the title of the solo exhibition in Turin is simply Monumenti. I have 18 works on display.
I wanted to ask about your book and its title, The Invisible City?
A famous Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote a book called Invisible Cities. He emphasises that a city isn’t about the highest towers or the most extraordinary architecture. It’s more a question of how you feel. This can change completely according to your state of mind. When taking a photograph of a monument it is about my state of mind. It is totally personal and would probably be different for somebody else.
Irene, thank you very much for sharing these insights with Gstaadlife. We we wish you all the best for your forthcoming exhibitions.