On the occasion of OFF THE WALL: ON SAFARI WITH E.A. KAHANE, the photographer sat down with art writer Katy Diamond Hamer and spoke about what lead up to the exhibition at Jessica Hagen Fine Art, what it means to be "off the wall" and her photographic process over the years.
Katy Diamond Hamer: How did you come up with the idea for OFF THE WALL?
Elizabeth Ann Kahane: Shortly after I went on a Safari in South Africa, I had these extraordinary images and experiences and wanted to share them with a wider audience. I thought it would be boring to just put them in a 'white box' so to speak. I had the idea to make a light tower, and the image of the leopard lent itself to that process. Much of being 'off the wall,' is in response to process and that a photo doesn't just have to be a square on the wall. I'm generating and fabricating objects with dimension, I made a maquette and did pencil drawings of how I wanted everything to look. I saw the Rauschenberg exhibition, The 1/4 Mile in LA at LACMA and after visiting that show, I couldn't wait to run home and start experimenting with silkscreening my photos, which is what I did with the lion.
One of the most exciting pieces is the elephant because it's all about size, and very sculptural. I was introduced to dimensional printing, which is a fairly new process. The trunk has actual, dimensionality that the visitors were able to reach out and touch. I also printed a series of 24 by 36 inches, digital prints on canvas and designed a series of cleats that would allow the position of the photographs to be easily moved. This was also part of my concept for Off The Wall, allowing for things to be moved and changed, to not be stagnant.
Also, anyone who knows me, will know that I"m a little bit, 'off the wall' myself! [laughs]
EAK: If you look up the meaning of 'off the wall' it says, unusual, unorthodox, and other people who have used it include Michael Jackson and my dear friend Calvin Tomkins, who wrote a book on Rauschenberg titled "Off The Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg". There are layers of meaning for me in the title.
KDH: How did people respond to being able to touch the elephant print?
EAK: Let's say that at 8 1/2 feet tall, it was hard to ignore his presence. I intentionally used the process only on his skin and tusks and not in the background. It takes 12 hours to make one of these dimensional prints. They are very time consuming. I installed the Artist's Proof, so that people could touch it, which was encouraged. It was so well received. My gallerist, Jessica Hagen shared with me, "Every time someone walked in the gallery, the first word they said was, 'Wow!'" and it happened over and over again. Some of my friends, like Brooklyn Museum curator Drew Sawyer had never seen a dimensional print and it was exciting to be able to introduce this process to people.
I chose images that helped to tell a story and might not stand on their own, but worked towards telling a story. When I asked my friend, photographer Larry Fink what he thought, he told me how much he loved the image of the leopard in the grasses. For me the star of the show was the light tower, the dimensional print and all of the work that I printed myself.
KDH: Can you say more about the installation?
EAK: I really engaged the space from floor to ceiling. The custom wallpaper extended 12 foot ceilings and the elephant was nearly life-size. The floor was engaged with the light tower and the jeep bench which was one of the most popular objects in the show. Visitors were invited to sit in the jeep, which is the way that people are transported while on safari, in the traditional sense. The entire space was transformed and the tables were turned because the animals were looking at you, rather than you just looking at them. Their eyes are very telling.
KDH: Out of all the work in the show, do you have a favorite?
EAK: Well, my husband put it a different way. After all was complete, he said "What was the best part for you?" and I replied, "The making." Then he asked what the second best part was and I thought, "Seeing it finished." The third part for me was to have people see the way, and the breadth of how I work. My friend Tina Barney even suggested that I look into theater. There is so much that this exhibition covered —it's fine art, design, theater, performance. I actually think of myself as a performance artist of sorts. I would show up, wearing particular outfits, and be a part of it. As a story teller, there is a performative gesture involved.
KDH: In one of your photographs, there is an image of a female lion, with its kill. How did people react to this direct representation of nature?
EAK: It's a little shocking, but people were much more intrigued and in fact, someone bought that piece. I made multiples of images that I thought would be the big sellers and I didn't expect that they would buy that one and they did! In fact, the person who bought that image bought five. And that is what I was hoping, that these particular photographs would be acquired in multiples because they tell a story. It was incredible to take that photograph, since I was literally underneath the animal and could see the blood, fresh from the kill, and the lion looking down at me. It was so moving that people were not offended at all but I think they found it exciting.
KDH: For those like myself who have never been on safari, is it possible to get out of the jeep? Did you ever feel afraid?
EAK: When on safari, people aren't allowed to get out of the jeep or even stand up! In fact, I got out of the jeep once in one camp where they don't have as many cats, but we had to walk behind the guide who had a gun at the ready. You are really at the mercy of the guide, spotter. That morning, our driver heard the sounds of the kill and we just arrived as she was carrying the impala up the tree. It was incredible. I never felt afraid but excited. I took 3,000 images and only showed about 20 in the exhibition.
KDH: I think my favorite of the series is the portrait of the hyena.
EAK: There are two portraits of hyenas but they one you are referencing almost came in the jeep! It was possible to see the reflection of the jeep in its eyes. The light was beautiful. Obviously as a photographer, I am always looking for the light and that moment when the light is just right. Whether a landscape of a portrait of something, I am always looking for the right moment to frame a shot.
KDH: What's next up on the horizon?
EAK: Two things, one is that i'd like to travel the show and am looking at various venues in both New York and Los Angeles. I'm also already working on a show in Newport for Salve Regina University at The Dorrance H. Hamilton Gallery. I am co-producing and also a participating artist, that will open next June. I also want to work on a book project and expand on where my wallpaper can be installed, since it got such a great response. I am looking to expand my reach and visibility, so that more people know about my work. I'm interested in the fine art world and the design world and where the two collide.