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Gregor Sailer conjures an environment dotted with surrealism through photography

The Austrian architecture photographer ascends difficult terrains to create photographs, allowing viewers to experience a milieu that is hitherto unseen, yet continues to survive.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Feb 15, 2023

Winter blues, referred to as a metaphor for the suspension of mortal life, oversees acts of refraction of light and repudiation of nature. As nature begins to shed its glory in the season of cold, the human mind turns introspective, drawing meanings from what remains, perhaps, outside the field of human vision. Austrian photographer, Gregor Sailer, captures solitary tall architecture, standing against the expanse of wild winter snow, recreating the sensitivity of difficult terrains, obliquely evoking a psychosomatic milieu of the winter season. Devoid of a human face, the photographer carefully lets the built-environment peel another layer of  society—the political economics of geopolitically sensitive places.

Solo Exhibition, Sailer Exhibition, Unseen Places, Kunst Haus Wien, 2022 | Gregor Sailer | STIRworld
Solo exhibition by Gregor Sailer, Unseen Places, Kunst Haus Wien, 2022 Image: © Gregor Sailer

To give a brief context to Sailer’s fascination with architecture—the photographer's father is an architect, and the nuances of the discipline, to which he has been familiar since childhood, organically influenced his works. Later, while pursuing photography as part of academics in Germany, architecture photography became a crucial focus of his practice.

He was fascinated by giant industrial sites in Ruhrgebiet in West Germany, and was strongly influenced by German photography. In an interview with STIR, Sailer says, “I am much more interested in tracks and signs of human beings than in showing portraits of themselves. Architecture is much more than constructed objects. For me, it is a carrier of contents and a mirror of our society and its often-absurd developments.”

East GRIP XXIX, Northeast Greenland Ice Sheet, Ice Core Project, 2019| Gregor Sailer | STIRworld
East GRIP XXIX, Northeast Greenland Ice Sheet, Ice Core Project, 2019 Image: © Gregor Sailer

The surge of images related to abandoned architecture took a new breath of life under the shadows of isolation, induced by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. But Sailer has been persistently dwelling on this notion of solitude in his works. Landscapes that seem inaccessible to humans, nudge the photographer to recreate an environment rooted in the ambivalence of fact and fiction. The series The Potemkin Village is a display of counterfeit villages, built in the reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great by field marshal Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin. Cities and villages on the verge of collapse, in the face of the absence of human life, have been of constant interest to Sailer. 

Gregor Sailer ’s Portrait | Gregor Sailer | STIRworld
Gregor Sailer's portrait Image: Lorenz Seidler

Sailer has been interested in the Arctic for many years, and was already working there on another project when he began the work of his ambitious project The Polar Silk Road. The aim was to realise a project dealing with the Arctic as a whole, while also focusing on the current developments around the North Pole. This thought developed for several years and was accompanied by intensive research and organisation phases. When the Chinese government first published the term The Polar Silk Road, describing the Chinese Arctic policy for the upcoming decades, Sailer was able to finalise the concept.

The Mars Series from The Mars Series, Antenna Test Zone, ExoMars Programme, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands, 2016 | Gregor Sailer | STIRworld
The Mars Series from The Mars Series, Antenna Test Zone, ExoMars Programme, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands, 2016 Image: © Gregor Sailer

“For me, The Polar Silk Road includes all main topics of the project—economic exploitation, geopolitical tensions as well as the expansion of military structures and research stations, new sea routes and of course, the motor of all those developments—climate change. Most of the photographs have been taken in restricted areas. Organising the necessary access and photography permits needed for months and years. Working at very low temperatures until -55 degrees Celsius during heavy storms and white-outs at such exposed locations, was very challenging—mentally and physically. All photographs have been realised with an analogue view camera,” informs Sailer.

The Box from the series The Box: V, Messerschmitthalle Schwaz, 2014 | Gregor Sailer | STIRworld
The Box from the series The Box: V, Messerschmitthalle Schwaz, 2014 Image: © Gregor Sailer

Besides the execution challenges posed by the project The Polar Silk Road, the surrealism of the photographs is a window to the economic exploitation of the Arctic regions, where territorial claims have been thrust upon by the nation-states involved. The project underscores the lesser-known consequences of geopolitical expansions that engage military structures and research stations. Sailer confirms, especially regarding The Polar Silk Road, that the architectonic structures have a symbolic sculptural object character. The architecture is very reduced and follows its function. This reduction, in the context of vast, often-surreal landscape, on the one hand, enabled him to tell stories about human presence and its consequences, on the other, it also allowed him to create photographs with room for interpretation.

Sailer endeavours to create and offer a platform that makes the possibility of discourse feasible. “Once people start to think about particular topics and reflect on things, I succeed. But finally, it is up to the visitor to read the pictures through the aesthetic surface or to delve deeper into the matter, ideally in combination. Both are essential for me,” affirms Sailer.

Currently, Sailer has a huge solo show, Unseen Places running at the Kunst Haus Wien, presenting the most important projects of the past two decades. The show is on public viewing till February 19, 2023, and is accompanied by lectures, talks, and guided tours. On January 13, 2023, another solo show of his, opened its doors in Berlin. The Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung represents The Polar Silk Road and it will be on display till April 2, 2023, accompanied by a guided tour and a talk in March. In early summer of 2023, there will be another opening of a large solo exhibition in London. Apart from that, two group shows featuring Sailer are running right now in Innsbruck in Austria, and Bolzano in Italy.

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