Viggo Mortensen on photography, art and politics

Source: House of Telcontar/Viggo-Online

Viggo's recent exhibitions have created a lot of curiosity on our forums regarding the process or techniques behind his photos. In the recent VLife feature (October 2003), we received answers to some of our questions:

    Using a borrowed Hasselblad he produced an entire series of large-scale, haunting images, which not only became the subject of his latest book, "Miyelo," but also a show at the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles.

    "I wanted to get the feeling of moment," says Mortensen about a dance by America Indians he shot during the course of the movie. "But I wanted to capture the feeling rather than a simple document. And by using this technique, by using a long exposure like this, it sorta made them blend into the landscape and become transparent, which was the idea."

But not all. Our very own Hasemi was given the opportunity to ask Viggo a few more of our questions regarding his photography, art and political activism.

Image Kim Rune.
© Fyens Stiftstidende.
House of Telcontar: What is the most important thing for you in the process of making your works? For example, colour, composition, inspiration? Which comes first to mind: the final image, materials, subjects? When do you see the final image in your mind.

Viggo: All of the aspects you mention are important, but I am not conscious of concentrating on any of them in particular when I am working on photos, painting, writing, acting, or making songs. The most important thing may be simply that all of the work involves, as part of a process, the asking of a series of questions by virtue of observing. The work that results is my reaction to the answers received or not received. There is no specific question or list of questions that I am aware of asking; I only mean that planning or beginning to make any effort creatively involves opening yourself up, which I see generally as being curious, or a way of asking questions - consciously or otherwise. There is no final image. Things seem different every time you look at them, read them, listen to them, or say them.

Miyelo 12
Miyelo 12
Image Viggo Mortensen.
© Perceval Press.
HoT: Each "Miyelo" series has very strong colors and some have "lines of light",for example, Miyelo 9 and 12. Especially in Miyelo 12, the shape of the line is quite similar to the Hiragana character "Hi", which means fire, flame or the Sun in the Japanese language. How did you put these intense colors and lines of light in your works? Do you make them only with the camera? Or do you use other methods such as Photoshop?

V: The MIYELO photographs are essentially prints faithful to the photographic transparencies. Although I technically can explain what I was trying to accomplish out in the desert with the camera, and can understand most of the results, some of the aspects of the images, such as the dotted lines, are a mystery to me. The lines of light you refer to are a result of using a long exposure to "pull" the sunlight in different directions. It is interesting how we can sometimes unconsciously connect to the symbolic imagery that might be specific to a given culture or cultures. When I first arrived in New Zealand, for example, I was surprised and pleased to recognise a lot of the designs in traditional Maori art as being similar to forms in some of my own paintings and photographs. This all probably has to do with the fact that, regardless of whether we have knowingly made any comparative mythology studies or not, we as human beings have much more in common with each other and with those who came before us than not.

HoT: "Hoka Hei" and some of the "Miyelo" images seem to consist of layers. Have you actually layered photos to create some of your images? If not, could you tell me how you achieved the effects?

V: Well, I don't know if I want to technically explain everything. Some things are best left a little mysterious! I will say that I did not layer photos to achieve "Hoka Hei". That multiple-frame image is taken right from the film strip.

Hindsight 29
Hindsight 29
Image Viggo Mortensen.
© Perceval Press.
HoT: You have 37 recommended books on your website in regards to the historical, social, and economic role of the American Indian in this society and a good many of them are directly related to the concentrated efforts of the American government to annihilate the Indian people. The Lakota ghost dance is a response to this act of genocide. Why make the pictures so abstract that the message is potentially obscure? Is Miyelo an art book or a political statement or both? Is there a relationship between your art and your political views?

V: MIYELO is a book of photographic recreations of an event, just as the event photographed is a performance recreation of previous events. The photos are not, any more than the words included in the book and the exhibition, meant to be political statements. They are responses as much as they are questions, and anyone is free to go wherever they might be inspired to as a result of looking at or reading the material included.

HoT: Do you have, at this moment, any plans or ideas for your future activities? For example, you mentioned Japanese translations of your books at the signing in Japan in the end of last January. Also, you said photography had taken the place of painting because of lack of time. Are you planning to make time for painting again?

V: I look forward to painting more or less regularly again after the new year begins. It feels like I have explored that medium so little. Need more time, more quiet. That will come soon, hopefully. There have been no Japanese translations, as you probably know. Perhaps when a Japanese publisher takes sufficient interest in future writing, we will have the opportunity to collaborate on a translation. Likewise, it would be a great honour to show photographs or paintings in Japan. Perhaps a book in Japanese could accompany such an exhibition. Time will tell.
Last edited: 4 December 2006 08:57:10
© Sachie/The House of Telcontar/Viggo-Online. Used by permission.