A Readymade World in the Heart of the Country
In a studio outside of Cape Town, photographer Nico Krijno refashions sculpture and performance.
By Matthew Leifheit
Douglas Sirk once said, “I’ve always trusted my audience to have imagination, or else they should get out of the cinema.” Nico Krijno, an artist who lives with his wife and young daughter on a farm outside of Cape Town, South Arica, seems to follow Sirk’s plea for the indirect, the open-ended, the gleefully imaginative. A selection of his photographs, characterized by botanical motifs and emphasizing Krijno’s uniquely lush mode of fracturing and flattening space, was featured in Aperture’s “Platform Africa” issue. In the accompanying essay, Sara Knelman wrote, “With a background in theater and film, Krijno is more inclined to invent new worlds than record this one.” And it’s true—a sense of play and a freedom of space permeates this work, but it’s devoid of specific geography, especially as geography might relate to a clearly defined politic. The work provides no answers; instead, it generates new and endless questions.
I first started speaking with Krijno in 2014 after admiring his work online, and eventually wrote the foreword to his first book of photographs, Synonym Studies (2015), which was subsequently was shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation-Paris Photo PhotoBook Awards. Since then, I’ve lived for the publications he’s been releasing on an almost yearly basis, as well as his presence on Instagram, where, with casual nonchalance, he releases scads of photos of astonishing quality and range.
Matthew Leifheit: What’s going on in your life?
Nico Krijno: I live out on a farm, an hour outside of Cape Town. I guess the move was brought on after the baby came, we just needed a change, and we felt it would be the best place to raise a child, which it is! The idea was to slowly migrate from the city, but life had other plans, so we made the move. It’s idyllic, but also very tough, and can be very testing on a relationship when two people are in such close proximity 24/7 while we are raising our daughter together.
It’s also slightly tricky to be based here and to make work from such a rural setting. I’m cut off from a face-to-face peer group to talk about work with. I think that’s important, the mirroring. It energizes. I don’t want to be the guy who goes to all the openings; I don’t want that life. For me it’s just about making the work, and I think the rest can be a distraction. There might come a time in the future where I would like to live in the “Big Smoke” again, or at least close to the real smoke. I don’t have a gallery in South Africa, and I don’t do a lot of commercial work here.
Leifheit: What relationship does your work have to where you are?
Krijno: Because the work is so self-involved and personal, where I am plays a huge role. I think about it a lot, and I haven’t come up with a good answer yet. When I was in London recently, I had a show, and I was walking through the streets every day. It was familiar because I used to live there. But it was also seen through updated eyes, and I thought, What would my work be like if I still lived there? Because when I lived there, I was doing completely different things. But I was just finding my feet. I was making videos, and I was shooting models in my bedroom to pay the rent. If I was living in London now, I wouldn’t have all the time I have. And I do like washing my eyes in nature. I like the peace and quiet and the wildness of living this close to nature, not just looking for parking or free Wi-Fi. But it’s very important to keep a good balance.
Leifheit: “Washing your eyes in nature”? Is that a thing people say in South Africa or did you just come up with that?
Krijno: Just feels right. Must have heard it somewhere.
Leifheit: From an outsider’s perspective, it does seem like you have a lot of space.
Krijno: I work from this tiny old cottage, probably an old farm worker’s cottage. It’s not very big, and when the sun is out I try to build my setups outside. I’m so happy to be able to do that. Because the light’s fantastic and I can schlep my lights and flashes outside with me. And when you’re in a city, and you have a tiny little studio on a busy street, you can’t have all of that.
Because I have the luxury of space, I’ve got a lot of junk and props and materials piled in my studio yard that I mine from. I go to the dump a lot, and I collect stuff—objects that speak to me, old wood, building rubble, et cetera. And they sort of amass outside. When I’m finished I take them back to the dump. People look at me strangely, like, Why are you taking things from the dump and bringing them back again?
I also like this life because it gets me to do things like gardening and building. I do a lot of physical labor, such as chopping wood or mixing concrete. Those are the things I want to be doing, they get me away from the desk, and also away from the studio. I want to be doing these things that I think we’ve all lost, which are important. These things give me a lot of time to process and think about what I’m working on.
Leifheit: In your work, there is so much variation: there are things happening outside, in the studio, and in between—and there are things constructed in Photoshop. Everything could fit into the world of your vision and your work, which I find very liberating and exciting. You also make the tools of Photoshop apparent sometimes, like Lucas Blalock does. In the world we’re living in, appropriation and even sampling seem like dated terms to me. This is all material in your purview, material that you make your own and exceed. And there’s something exciting about that.
Krijno: The variation is what’s important to me. It’s all about a building up of a visual rhythm. Really it’s just the way my head works. Someone once told me in critique that my work is “too much.” There’s just too much variety in the work: a face, a table an object, some flowers. Where does it begin and where does it end? How are people supposed to engage and access the work? Maybe this person was looking for a clear and linear series—the kind where there are fifteen essentially similar images to really hit the point home. There’s work out there that does that to great effect, but I just don’t think in those straight lines. Maybe I think in circles that link up, forming some kind of Technicolor dream chain. I like to show an idea, and what also lies behind that idea, and sits right next to that idea.
Leifheit: Are the books you’ve published, Synonym Study and New Gestures, and the unpublished books you’ve shown me, The Fluid Right Edge 1 & 2, the core of what you’re doing?
Krijno: Yes, I think books are extremely important to the process, to making sense of the work as an outsider and to myself as well. They are the definitive lines in the sand for me. Because I don’t work in series, everything sort of bleeds into each other.
Leifheit: You make sculptures, too.
Krijno: I make sculptures, but I’m really just interested in photographing them. I’m interested in how the meanings of cast off objects can change. Dousing them in paint and removing their original use completely. And I am interested in fooling the eye. You’re not sure what you’re looking at, a painting or a photograph. I like the trickery, but I do make it quite obvious.
Leifheit: So part of the meaning of what you’re doing comes from the use of readymade objects, and of mashing them into something new?
Krijno: My work is very, shall we say, busy? But I don’t like to live with a lot of objects and trinkets and things. I prefer the photograph of them. I prefer a photograph of a sculpture to the sculpture itself.
Leifheit: Yes, there’s the flatness, and a reductive quality to all photographs, but there’s a sense of democracy that comes with that. I also noticed that your butt recurs a lot in one of these new books, which is really working for me. And you’ve been in your photos before. How are you using yourself in the work?
Krijno: I’m starting to do it more and more. I see the work as a performance, with the camera as the viewer. I’m very physical in the studio; it’s like sculptural gymnastics. I’m in my body, and I feel it’s important to break that wall and become a sculptural object in the photograph. I don’t think about it at all; it just feels right.
Leifheit: A sculptor once told me, “I’m just trying to keep my practice one step ahead of what I can understand or explain.” With photography, if you allow yourself to be present in a situation and react to it, you can learn from what the camera takes in.
Krijno: That’s what happens when I’m editing a book. I see two images that are literally bounding off one another, and they might have been made in different years. I make so much work, and there really is something in the sum of the parts that happens when you look at all the images together. I have a lot of critique for the books I’ve made in the past, but I’m just trying to make better books. That’s why I’m making a book in two volumes. And I like to keep things simple when I make a book, in terms of the layout.
Leifheit: It’s about the photographs.
Krijno: Yeah, it’s not about the design. It’s about the photographs. They’re picture books. And the works are not going to be propped up by any text, because I don’t think like that. I really think in images. It would be great if someone looks at the work and writes a great piece. But then I find that these are the only words that enter the work. Because the work is so abstract, sometimes these are the only words that stick. I find that it’s best to just ask questions, and not have too many answers.
Leifheit: Photographs are always, in the end, a mystery, and I think your books end up that way, too. They are mysteries I want to engage with.
Krijno: That’s what I want them to be. My images are part of the “Platform Africa” issue of Aperture, which is an honor, but somewhat strange to me that I’m included in that conversation. Because I don’t work in the typical South African tradition like some of the well-known and respected South African artists—like Zanele Muholi, Pieter Hugo or David Goldblatt. Their work is extremely important; I just don’t make that kind of work.
Leifheit: I expect the editors wanted someone who wasn’t going to fit peoples’ expectations of what photography in South Africa might be. I don’t actually think all art needs to be an activist project, which seems to be a common sentiment these days.
Krijno: But especially in South Africa, that’s the sort of the narrative that gets driven at the university level. Which is why I never studied photography here. I studied filmmaking and acting. You’re told that if you want to make it, you have to talk about the white guilt. The past, you know?
We live in a traumatized country that will take a century to heal itself. And I’m grateful for the local artists engaging with these issues in direct ways. But I don’t see myself as a South African artist. I’m just an artist. And being here feeds into the work, but I can’t post-conceptualize and overlay issues between black and white on my work. Because I know it so well, these textures and these people. And I deal with it on a daily basis. I am just trying to reinvent the world and make it strange and new again.
Matthew Leifheit is the publisher of MATTE magazine.
This article is part of a series produced in collaboration with Contemporary And (C&) – Platform for International Art from African Perspectives. Limited edition prints by Nico Krijno are available from Aperture Foundation.