The Swiss duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs first made their mark with the series “The Great Unreal” (2005-09), a photographic account of a series of road trips they took in the U.S. Exploring the limitations of the medium—its inability, despite enduring beliefs in its transparency, to faithfully convey what the photographer sees or knows—the pair frequently constructed, elaborated on or enhanced their subjects by means of manipulation and staging. It is often unclear just what is straight documentary in this series and what has been fabricated. Powerlines shoot off every which way in a barren landscape in one image, while elsewhere a utility pole and a huge illuminated cross echo each other’s forms. One work shows a roadway as a continuous loop; another, a residential street that drops off into a sheer cliff, as if the earth beneath it had collapsed.
At the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Onorato and Krebs exhibited a new body of work that, like “The Great Unreal,” portrays a series of travels. “Eurasia” took them through territories that are generally less familiar than the U.S.: Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. The odyssey was presented across four galleries in works made between 2013 and 2015. Three galleries displayed photographs of varying sizes, arranged in topical clusters. Several themes crystallized, with photographs of harsh, poor environments (like an image of a mangy, one-eared donkey standing on a dirt track) interspersed with those of flashy architecture, the incongruous vanity projects of the region’s rulers (such as a vast, curving Zaha Hadid construction whose white panels we see laborers installing). In one work, a young man on horseback is shown holding a chainsaw, representing a meeting of tradition and modernization.
In a space at the center of the exhibition, seven projectors showed various films. One film is a series of close-cropped portraits of people the duo encountered en route; another shows a woman doing astounding physical contortions while balancing on her hand or foot. Still another (the only one with sound) portrays a crowd of men jostling about, engaged in some frantic competitive activity at their feet that remains unseen and does not seem to fit the rules of any Western sport.
There were no wall labels in the galleries, but a 44-page newsprint magazine accompanied the show, reproducing many of the images on display as well as others. It also featured an array of short texts, borrowed and commissioned, that underline the impossibility of any attempt to portray such an expansive area and even of contemporary travel reportage per se. The texts provide multiple lenses (historical, architectural, geopolitical) through which the viewer can begin to consider the images and their subjects.
As viewers made their way through the show and the publication, it emerged that—as with “The Great Unreal”—the works are not always straight documents. Some, for instance, incorporate images of objects found in the archives of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. In such works, the artists inserted—“repatriated”—these objects back into their countries of origin by photographing them against the travel shots, using the latter as backdrops. One image, for instance, appears to show a preposterously large hammer standing in the middle of a snowy road; on close inspection, however, one notices that a piece of thread encircles the handle and that the tool is positioned against a photographic print of the landscape. Are such images corruptions of a true record, or a valid attempt to improve and substantiate documentary work with ethnographic insight, perhaps even taking on the dark histories of ethnography itself? There is no easy answer to this question. Such construction, or reconstruction, is central to Onorato and Krebs’s practice, in which imagery and knowledge of the context it illuminates combine to create the final work.