Aglaia Konrad: ‘Concrete and Samples’ Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Aglaia Konrad’s work across photography and film surveys the built form with a quiet, careful regard. Her studies of  architecture function individually as documents, portraits, yet together transcend any reductive reading to form a  corpus which mines greater depths. Circling the indeterminate, liminal spaces where the built abuts the unbuilt, the   enclosed faces the excluded, civilisation meets wilderness, her work stalks landscape, in all the culturally and  historiographically loaded understandings of the term – not least its implicit notion of the mediation of space.

The suite of films Concrete and Samples works, in this way, to locate the idea of ‘architecture as sculpture’, as Konrad avows, which the first two films, Wotruba Wien and Blockhaus, demonstrate in an apparently straightforward way. Both films document particular instances of architecture, in this case sacred Modernist buildings, assuming a sculptural form;  an enquiry which the specific textural, tangible qualities of the medium, 16mm film, augments. But in dialogue with  Carrara, the third of the series, this concept is complicated and expanded to the extent that each element – architecture and sculpture – is unmoored, existing in a state of free exchange, able to refer at once to the constructed and  coincidental, the ordered and the chaotic. From architecture which assumes a sculptural form, the third film leads to a sculptural, or ‘sculpted’ space which has an agency of its own.

In this active zone, space plays itself. Where the spaces of Fritz Wotruba’s Church of the Most Holy Trinity and Claude Parent and Paul Virilio’s Eglise St.Bernadette-du-Banlay marshal light, colour, shadow, air, the site of the quarry corrals space itself. It is neither built nor evolved, natural nor artificial, but a chimera, a synthesis. It is space in the process of becoming, and in this way is, arguably, both a place and not a place. What is essentially an entirely mediated space now, to an extent, mediates itself. It was not built or created, but uncovered, a process set in train which uncloaked the hill’s heart. And, thus revealed, though the parameters of its becoming have been determined artificially – that is, by human
intervention – the ensuing metamorphosis is only partly controllable, and is played out, as the minuscule figures in the  film testify, on a grand scale. The cliffs, caves, crevasses and faults of this blasted terrain assume a will, free to act. Geologic forces are afforded a concentrated stage on which to rehearse those actions which would otherwise take  millennia to effect change.

The quarry also, however, reminds us of our ambition; our will to power. Though it presents an active earth, a space animate, it is at the same time a strange negation of itself: a raped earth, become but commodity; and while it courts a sense of the wild, it represents – by what it has yielded – the very heart of the civis, the city; a strange paradox of brute rock describing, in the voids it nurses, the many buildings to which it has lent itself. From this angle, it does not only  belong to civilisation but enables it. And it is no great leap to move from here to the spectacular pillage being practised elsewhere in the rush for coal, diamond, copper, uranium.*

By presenting this singular, restless space, the construct of ‘landscape’ itself is exposed, and in particular the paradox of ‘natural landscape’: what is represented cannot be ‘natural’ in the sense of the pre- or extra-human. Landscape here is stratified not only physically but metaphorically, philosophically: it is a concrescence, an amalgam, an accretion of physical mediation, geologic history and force, and the frame, behind which sits (Western) perspective, art-historical traditions and cultural significance. At any given moment, it is all these things, flowing in and out of each other, stratum upon stratum of meta-landscape hovering above and buried beneath physical phenomena.

But where Konrad’s enquiry explores spatial limits, thresholds, boundaries, it depends also on a notion of liminality in time: these are moving images, action on a timeline, yet they retain many of the sensibilities of photography.  Meticulously composed, with the long takes and sense of stasis common to those whose practice straddles photography and the moving image, though more restive than, for instance, James Benning, Konrad’s treatment of place and patience of vision relates to that of photographers such as Edward Burtynsky, Zineb Sedira and, particularly, Jem Southam – and, by extension, perhaps belongs to a wider topographical tradition which takes in both the formal typologies of the Bechers and the painterliness and artisanal practice of Ansel Adams or Thomas Joshua Cooper.

The three films of Concrete and Samples inform one another in a circular exchange, the first two reaching an apotheosis of sorts in the third, yet that then weighting the others again in turn, urging a re-evaluation of such documents in light of the shifting status of space. It is not adequate, then, to resign the series to the territory of portraiture alone, nor to  reduce it to a binary of nature versus artifice; even the built versus the natural environment, since – as Konrad might avow, and not just here but in, for instance, her photographic project Desert Cities, the border between is blurred,  porous. And it is this uncertainty that her films stalk.


* For a compelling and impassioned claim to wilderness and the wild, see Jay Griffiths’ book Wild, which tracks the politics of the civis and those few remaining wild-dwelling peoples.


This essay was written to accompany an installation of Aglaia Konrad’s suite of works ‘Concrete & Samples’ as part of ‘Apparent Positions’, a series of four shows I curated for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. More information at >