by Shraddha NairJun 16, 2020
A male peacock authoritatively stands inside the feminine teal-tinted Queen's Zenana in Udaipur's City Palace; a tiger cub curls up within a saffron alcove inside the Palace's rainbow mirrored room. Seen from a pair of gilded doors, a fox lingers at a threshold, examining a snowy flight of stairs. Browsing through American photographer and academic Karen Knorr's images, one senses that they inhabit a consciously liminal space, reinventing possibilities while challenging and interrogating rigidly established narratives and hierarchies. Her practice over the years has developed a critical and playful dialogue with documentary photography using different visual and textual strategies to explore her chosen subject matter.
Born in Germany, raised in Puerto Rico, and based in London since 1970s, Knorr has taught, exhibited, and lectured internationally, the cumulative and diverse influences evidently manifesting in her approach and work. Having grown up in the tropical paradise of San Juan before development occurred and irrevocably altered the place's character, those experiences would definitively impact Knorr. When she visited India for the first time, years later in 2008, she described the journey as “an epiphany flashback to my childhood”. Knorr and a friend took a 2,000 mile road trip across Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, covering nineteen places over 21 days, visiting many of the locations that would eventually go on to form the magical, iridescent backdrops of her India Song (2008-20) images. Ever since that life changing trip, as she puts it, Knorr has been regularly visiting India for the last 13 years, her last trip being in January last year.
The animals that imbue her India Song works are a recurring motif from Knorr's earlier series, Fables (2003-08). Animals have always been an elemental aspect of her life and practice, Knorr says. “They are metaphors for human behaviour along with being sorts of memento mori, symbolising transience,” she adds. In reference to the animals' mortality, many of the life-like creatures dominating the frames in Fables are actually their reincarnated taxidermized avatars. “The works also play around with the idea of illusion and reality. Photography in this case wields ability to rejuvenate the dead in these series,” she informs, adding that the works also contain allusions to Latin American magical realism.
Interested in referencing storytelling and fables, mentioning women storytellers in particular, the transnational nature of stories fascinates Knorr, as in how they too have traveled and migrated across time and cultures. “The series had a both strong animal and Indian connection,” she says of Fables, which was inspired by Ovid, Aesop, and Jean de la Fontaine's fables, who in turn had collected fables from a wide range of sources, including Aesop itself and Panchatantra. Few of the Fables images are notably set in a French museum, Carnavalet. The simultaneously playful and critical intervention of the animals into the clean, distinct museum space also reflects Knorr's interest in both the idea of the museum itself as well as the animals' representation in the museum context.
Whether it is the gilded interiors in Metamorphoses set in Italy or India Song, the images show a strong relationship between spatiality, time, and design. In India Song, Knorr mentions that she gravitated more towards pre-Empire structures, exploring Rajput and Mughal architecture, especially drawn towards the gendering of the spaces, the male mardana and the feminine zenana. Knorr pays close attention to a space, literally mapping it and often photographing the same room a multiple time. Knorr photographed the interiors with a large format Sinar P3 analogue camera and then scanned them to very high resolution; live animals were inserted into the architectural spaces later, using high resolution digital with analogue photography.
This minute attention to the dynamics and design of the space is crucial for the rooms will eventually stage magical, mythical narratives showcasing these animal characters. “I see the animals as the 'Others', disruptors in the clean, pure lines of these spaces,” she says. The overall effect is to create images that reinvent the Panchatantra for the 21st century and further blur the boundaries between reality and illusion. Incidentally, this image containing the saurus (hearkening back to the days when Mughals used to keep them as pets) also happens to be the cover of poet Tishani Doshi's new volume of poetry, A God at The Door.
Knorr has spent the pandemic looking over her body of work and making a lot of new images; in any case, she spends months and even years putting together her images. “I spend a long time looking at the images, taking a lot of factors into consideration, such as mood, colour, and tones,” she says of the process. Unlike the dead animals momentarily coming to life in Fables, for instance, the photo-collaged animals appearing in India Song are all very much alive, Knorr having captured them in cities, reserves, and zoos during her India travels. Her work also references animal species bordering on extinction, one example being the leopards appearing in India Song, a commentary on their endangered status in Rajasthan due to mining practices eating away their habitats. In The Locust Eater (2020), the image takes on a further topical and documentary aspect, referring to last year's summer locust infestation in North India with a locust standing on the chevron floor surrounded by painted luxuriantly floral red walls, all seeming targets for its consumption. One almost does not notice the locust at first but once seen, it becomes an incongruous, questioning element inside the image's visually rich layers.
In this image made earlier this year and set in Adinath Temple, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, a Bengal tiger stoically walks away from the temple, symbolising the Jain philosophy of leaving behind the untruths and undesirables. “It took me a long time to get permission to photograph the temple,” Knorr says, adding that she paid close attention to cultural sensitivities vis-a-vis animal representation and location. Privilege and how it enormously facilitates access to opportunities and spaces is something that Knorr feels about strongly, in a personal context of being an older white woman. Many of the spaces that she has photographed are not normally open to visitors and she wonders how much of her being an older white woman aided her in accessing and photographing them. As a professor of photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Surrey, United Kingdom, she and her colleagues are actively working on the idea of a network of women photographers, mentoring upcoming photographers and sharing strategies with them.
Her later series have taken her to Japan, a connection that she once more attributes to India as well. “Japan received Buddhism via China who in turn got from India,” she says, adding the important role oral storytelling played in transmitting both religion and stories. Monogatari (2012-17) imagined animal life and Japanese cultural heritage referencing Buddhist Jataka tales and Japanese stories while the ongoing Karyukai is inspired by the Kano’s 36 portraits of poets also referencing “bijin-ga” prints of the 17th century. The series also has woman composing waka and haiku, revealing their dreams, a gendered commentary on Japanese women's employment and place in society. This intersection of gender and oral storytelling becomes yet another iteration of Knorr's thematic preoccupation with conceptual art, visual culture, and feminism over the years.
Photographs from Monogatari were exhibited in a recently concluded one month long window installation, Once Only Only Once at White Conduit Projects in London, an alternative way for people to engage with art with the galleries being closed to the public during the UK's third lockdown. The photographs were taken in Kyoto's Daitoki-ji’s Obai-in temple back in November 2017, and the title is a translation from the original Japanese, 'Ichi-go ichi-e”, which in turn describes a cultural concept of treasuring meetings with people.