Sophie Kahn: New Media Artist
You began as a photographer.
I trained as a photographer, but I eventually became frustrated with what I thought of as the opacity of photography: you can’t really see through things, you just get the surface. I became interested in X-rays because that really allows you to see through material. In an X-ray the body is transformed, it becomes transparent.
I’m really obsessed with this anecdote about the discovery of the X-ray. Frau Röntgen, who was the wife of the inventor, had an x-ray done of her hand, maybe the first X-ray which anyone had ever witnessed, and she was completely horrified, she decided this was an evil technology—she was seeing her own death. So for me 3D was sort of an extension of that, in that you can remap things and see through things, and look at something’s past or future.
When you see all those classic Greek, kind of images, you see the way they’ve decayed, and it’s usually like, the nose, this is totally modern—it’s like pieces have just been erased.
Yeah—and I do that, absolutely. I really push the 3d scanner that I use. The way that it works is that it has a laser beam and a little camera and it’s looking for things to reflect and any time it doesn’t find them you get crazy results, you just get these gaps and errors in the image—so this is kind of this accumulation of glitches and mistakes that I forced it to produce. And what I love about that is that that glitchy data is then frozen in bronze for thousands of years, at this one point.
When I was looking at the Strange to Inhabit the Earth No Longer series it reminded me so much of TSA body scans—but those images are so frightening, and these are so beautiful.
They are terrifying. And I think that these still come from the same idea—that idea of seeing through the body, unveiling it—and seeing it happen to yourself. I’m really interested, too, in the way that power operates in those images. Because of course when you go through the backscatter X-Ray, you are completely subject to the power of the person who has it, and through this visual technology they have control over you, and they have this information about you that you yourself don’t have. My series Strange to Inhabit the Earth No Longer, which is nude figures rendered from 3d scans, came out of an experience where I was ill for several years and I had a lot of medical imaging done. It’s a strange feeling—you’re in an extremely perilous position and you have to lie back and submit yourself to this visualization, and you don’t see it. You don’t control it. It goes through a technician and a doctor and you wait. And someone has this power over you—so partly I wanted to inhabit that myself. It sounds a little cheesy, but I kind of wanted to have some of that power. But I wanted to make it beautiful, too.
The LIDAR scan series I did involves that same deadening effect, because you’ve removed the texture, you’ve removed the color—this [landscape] was a beautiful spring day in the woods in Upstate New York, but you end up with this image that looks like the surface of the moon. It’s almost the bones of the landscape, it’s been entirely stripped back. I love that—in a way this technology kind of kills what it’s looking at. But I love that outcome. And again, you feel like you’re a 19th century landscape photographer. You have to sit outside for about two hours while it sweeps around, so you could well be a guy from a hundred years ago with a black cloth draped over your head.
I like that you reference the Victorians so much. When we think about some of their creepier aspects, that whole Memento Mori thing, it’s—photography is preservation, and it’s equally weird that anyone should want to preserve a moment in time.
Absolutely. And I’m still extremely connected to that. Even now that I’m not doing photography I still feel that my work is coming from that history. I mean, why does one want to preserve, and what is the agenda? And it’s so much too—in the act of creating that image you almost become complicit with something’s disappearance. I’m thinking about Edward Curtis’s photographic survey “The North American Indian”, which is about a hundred years old now. The very fact that people chose to undertake that survey and that act of preservation, no matter how noble their motives, was the history of violence against Native Americans and the belief that they were a ‘vanishing race’. The act of turning the camera on somebody is so inextricable, it’s bound up with loss and the violence and the operations of power and all of that. 3D scanning really is an amazing process to watch. In a way it’s much more similar to human vision, in the way that you just take in sweeps at a time and you focus and shift—it’s a much more subjective way of imaging the world, much less than a photograph which takes in everything. You are very much choosing which part you kind of want to come into being—it’s a physical act of kind of painting and sculpting.
Like when you’re looking at someone you know well and a large percentage of that image is your own memory.
Absolutely. This process is also a way for me to get at how incomplete human vision is. What I love is that if you take one of these sculptures and rotate it around you see the parts that are incomplete and you actually see the edges. And these edges are where the gaze stops, where you stop looking. I love that sculpture by Mike Kelly, The Educational Complex. He rebuilt, supposedly from memory, all the educational institutions that he attended in his life, and they were all conflated into one big architectural model. He left the pieces that he’d forgotten he left as blocks of solid wood. So they were physically and visually inaccessible as well as inaccessible in terms of memory—almost a map of his memory, but mapped as architecture.
I started a project that someday I want to finish, which was making 3D models of architectural spaces from dreams. It’s the same question—how do you decide to draw the space of something that edge of where you didn’t think about—this space just didn’t exist in a dream. The edge of this room just wasn’t there, you weren’t thinking about it, so how do you visualize it? Do you have a jagged edge or do you have it fade out? Every single cinematic dream sequence has done something really cheesy and I don’t know that I could really do justice to the experience, but the subjectivity of memory and the subjectivity of vision is all wrapped up what I’m thinking about.
I did the Bride Triptych the day after I got married. I still had my wedding dress and all the pearls and the shoes and everything. They become these haunted, dark images and so removed from that event. It becomes this kind of ghost bride.
Head of a Young Woman IV reminded me of that Rossetti painting of Beatrice, that image, she’s in ecstasy, it sort of looks like she’s tasting something.
That kind of ambiguity is really something that’s interesting to me as well, I was inspired—particularly when I was doing all the sculptures of the sleeping figures, I looked a lot of images of women and sleep in classical sculpture and I also looked at the wax anatomical models from the 18th century—they’re called the anatomical Venus. This woman has a torso that you actually remove and her intestines spill out. She’s made from wax, but she’s in this pose where she might be in pain, or ill, or in some kind of ecstatic state, or dreaming. She has her head thrown back, and the fact that she’s still wearing jewelry and has hair seems so strange to a modern viewer. Medicine wasn’t disembodied, desexualized in the way it is now. So these are kind of terrifying and bizarre and beautiful all at the same time. They used to be entertainment—I think—in the 19th century there was a crazy for anatomical parlors, they were a public spectacle. It was very much an entertainment for people—some were in the red light district as well.
Look at more images of Sophie’s work here.