SABINA SURU

GUESTCURATOR

SABINA SURU

A little over a month ago we have presented on our instagram page a special photography series of some of the most beloved frames in our curated gallery. For this spectacular project, we have collaborated with Sabina Suru, a Romanian artist that makes conceptual artworks, photos, installations. You may know Sabina for her unique photographic work that explores analogue nostalgia and proposes a new way of seeing and perceiving the reality through optical instruments.  

Today we are celebrating the beginning of fall season with a new guestcurator interview that you will hopefully draw inspiration and aspiration from. Get a comfy seat and let’s discover the wonderful stories of the artist Sabina Suru.

KUBORAUM MASK M50 BM WA SUNGLASSES THOM BROWNE TBX714-A-01 EYEGLASSES
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You make analogue photography in an overwhelming digital world. How did you start exploring photographic art?

At first, photography used to be something only other people did. I was trained as a painter, having previously explored, during my high school years, most paths available - design, graphic arts, painting and eventually monumental art. As such, I applied to the Arts University in Bucharest, initially graphic arts, where I’ve failed. Spectacularly. And this was the best thing that happened from the point of view of photography.

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I packed my bags and left the country for a 4 days bus ride to Portugal. There, I bought the cheapest digital camera I could find and started to photograph everything I liked, nothing more. As I gained experience, I became increasingly critical towards my work and looked for ways to have more control over the outcome. With 100 lei in my pocket, I could achieve this with a film camera. After all, why not get a film camera? I’ll get a digital sexy one later - this was the reasoning that started me on the path that brought me here today.

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The people I met along the way made all the difference and encouraged me to move forward. For example, when I got my first camera - it was 2007 and I just received my old Lubitel that came all the way from the other end of the country, I went into the first lab I saw and asked for a medium format film. The guy at the counter gave me the longest look and started questioning me to make sure I knew what I was asking for. I knew exactly what I was asking for, which made him enthusiastic and asked to see the camera. Turns out my camera had an enormous hole which, of course, allowed a lot of unallowable light to come in and spoil my film. He kept the camera with the promise that a “passionate old man” he knew would fix it.

And so he did. A week later, I went to take back my camera. I barely recognised the baby. Of course, this little camera would stop working on a yearly basis, and each time I would get another camera (this was a time when people didn’t care much for analogue photography anymore, so buying a camera was by far cheaper than fixing the one I already had).

Most of the cameras I gathered weren’t even bought. They were mostly cameras that people had inherited, cameras that held beautiful stories. I went to Pitesti once to buy an enlarger and found an old man that sat me down for a cup of coffee before I left. He questioned my motivation to buy such an old object. When he realised I was buying it to actually put it to use, he told me the story of his lab. A long and beautiful one. I left with all the little gear that his late wife had bought for him over the years to make him happy. Now, the wife was no longer, so little did he care about the money. What mattered was that all these little fragments of love would continue being so, in a different way.

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Countless stories like this one are incorporated in my lab. This makes them more than functional objects, wouldn’t you say? Analogue photography is tangible and soulful in a way that the digital world never managed to open up to me. It completely spoiled the charm of digital technology for me, though. :)

Sabina's work for the Exposing Movement project (2017)

During our visit in your fascinating atelier we got the chance to take part at a photographic development demo and we know that you are exploring various and unexpected mediums for film developing. Could you explain more on that?

Thank you for all the curiosity and excitement you’ve shown when visiting me. It created such a lovely vibe and I enjoyed sharing some of my techniques with you. During your visit, we went through a quick developing process using a one shot developer - the most common approach to revealing the images captured on a negative. This is just the starting point on the journey of analogue photography. During the years, I discovered countless methods of developing negatives and then transferring them on a larger surface.

Sabina's 'darkroom' for film developing
wearing KUBORAUM MASK A5 BM SUNGLASSES

For example, I experimented with alternative developers (such as cafenol) or printing techniques, like the anthotype - this is a sun based printing method made on plain paper using a natural sensitisation.

In less fancy words, it means coating a paper with a mix made of natural things, such as coloured fruits or veggies, leaves or flowers, using the sun for the actual print transfer. It gives a beautiful image that feels more like a painting, than a photograph. It’s also probably the oldest printing technique. This method though gives an unfixable image, a delicate and fragile photograph that needs to see as little light as possible, once done, to prolong its life (poetic irony, isn't it?).

Currently I am working on a long term project on optoclones. Put simply, it is a project that tries to bring back to life an old holographic technique from the XX century. Yes, that’s right! Holography was available in the early ‘60s. The initial approach to holography was a photography based path. But not only was it stable as a process, it was also based on a photographic technique that dates all the way back to the 1870s and it was the result of a science research on the interference of light.

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Returning to my project, silver based holography, bringing together an artistic effort along with a scientific one, also comes with a handful of limitations and challenges, especially in regards to “optocloning” a living and breathing body. That is where my interest lies there - how can a living body be recorded onto the holographic plate, in movement, within the technological limitations that come with this process and remain a stand-in for the actual person, like a presence-in-absence device of sorts.

Your art presents an altered image of the physical reality that almost seems as vivid and dynamic as the concrete, tangible object. Could you share more of your special photographic technique that offers this almost like inner motion effect to the photography?

Sabina's work for the Exposing Movement project (2017)

I’m fascinated by the history of things - history of objects, history of images, sciences, technology and so on. Because of this, I have a natural tendency of breaking things into their “anatomical” parts, in my mind and with my hands. I did the same with photography: after learning the basics, I started breaking down the processes, then the mechanisms, then the optics and so on. I ended up decomposing “photography”, little by little.

As you’ve seen, my workshop is overflowing with camera fragments, prisms, lenses, little screws, down to the unidentifiable little metal profiles. So I started using some of these bits and pieces with the same purpose they were initially intended for, but lacking the whole mechanism. I practically acted like a mutating agent of “object identity”, so to speak.

Speculative Mechanisms, installation view at Creart Gallery (2019)

For example, the pentaprism inside the SLR viewer has the purpose of comfortably redirecting an image, reflected from the lens into a mirror. Extracting the prism and using it as a single instrument of vision (giving it the role that the lens+mirror+many others have as a functional ensemble) kept the function of image translation into 2D, while also adding a mutation of perception. Iterating this process, the image mutates again and again, until becoming itself another element that can be part of another functional ensemble.

Excerpt from Vika Tonu's "Pilgrim's dream" jewelry collection lookbook (2019)

The image of the person photographed, for example, reaches the photographic lens after several layers of mediation - a prism alters how the person’s body is built and reconfigures it, a mirror prism will double this process, breaking the person's image into pieces and reshuffling then and so on. In a way, opening the photographic process into fragments, brought me to a stage of questioning how I looked at people to begin with, how I relate to their presence and how I translate their symbolic presence through a technical process.

Excerpt from Vika Tonu's "Pilgrim's dream" jewelry collection lookbook (2019)

Tell us more of what instrumentalized vision presumes and how do you work with optical tools such as prisms, lenses or mirrors.

Instruments of vision are any elements that intermediate between cognition and the object of perception. As the history of science and, in connection, that of technology advanced, these instruments have become more and more complex (from the magnifying lenses to the telescope, from the camera obscura to the photographic and video camera etc.), to the point where paradigm shifts and cultural changes have become a natural resulting phenomenon.

Sabina's work for the Speculative Mechanisms project (2019)

Relational growth is bigger and faster than single progression. I try to apply this kind of layered structure in my work.

As I said before, I revive optical “organs” than have been left for dead (prisms from old military gear than appear sometimes at the flea markets, pieces of medical equipment, remnants of enlargers or other kind of optical equipment that I find even on the side of the road sometimes - it unbelievable what people throw away sometimes!) into new organisms that instrument the path between reality and cognition. The result of this is a transformed reality, my subjective view on the objective world that it is a medium for expressing my emotions and sharing my experiences.

Sabina's work for the Speculative Mechanisms project (2019)

In your latest projects you collaborated with artists working in various disciplines. What elements are pivotal in connecting different types of art from a photographer’s perspective?

I strongly believe that the main structural element is the conceptual basis for the work. From this point forward, my experience is that every process becomes a tool supporting the overall objectives. As such, I work with photography alongside many other instruments (video, installation etc.), in order to be able to develop the idea for a project more accurately.

Even doing this is sometimes not enough. Over the last few years I’ve worked more and more with people involved in performance art (time based media like dance, for example). More than once, I found myself needing to make the initial capture via moving images. Sometimes, I would break them into frames and bring them back into the steady realm of photography, but sometimes it would work the other way around also.

Excerpt from Noir Morphosis's "KOKORO" collection lookbook (2020)

Openness is the second essential element, especially with collaborative frames. Keeping an open mind to the potential of things, rather than control, brings about amazing things, be it in photography or beyond it.

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What are your top three recommendations for aspiring visual artists in Romania?

First of all, meet others. Other people that do things, in any other fields. In school, I grew up thinking an artist is a one-man-show. So I invested time and energy into being able to do as many things as I could need - I needed sound for a video? It didn’t occur to me to find a sound artist or a musician, I borrowed a recorder and tried to do it myself. It was fun and useful, but didn’t get me as far as I imagined. Later on, I met sound artists and musicians and worked together. It was amazing! Not to mention, it brought more and more beautiful people in the landscape of collaborative practice. The more people we know that we can work with, the stronger we get and the better our work becomes, that is something I strongly believe in.

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Secondly, travel and see. Just see. Everything you can get your eyes on. Information gathers from the most unlikely sources and pops up when you need it most.

JACQUES MARIE MAGE DEALAN NOIR 4 EYEGLASSES

Thirdly and vitally important, read. I believe building a cultural ground that isn’t only visual, is essential. The first book that comes to my mind is one that I wished I would have read when I was young young young is Daniel Arasse’s On n'y voit rien.

It is apparently a light book that doesn’t throw itself into art analysis, critique or theory, but rather a gathering of subtle histories that transpire from the tiniest and most unexpected details hidden in the old master painting. These insignificant elements tell impressively convoluted stories about the people of those times, their culture and habits, small or big political plots and so on. It reminded me how everything can bring out large amounts of information and how an artist can communicate well beyond words, through the simplest things.

JACQUES MARIE MAGE DEALAN NOIR 4 EYEGLASSES

And I would like to add a fourth recommendation (related to the second one): stay updated with what is happening close to home, too - exhibitions, festivals, cinema etc and the people behind them. Knowing what you want to say as an artist is like knowing how to stand on your own two feet, networking is as important as knowing how to walk.

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What are the current photo exhibitions you would recommend, virtual or physical?

The Contemporary Dance Film Festival is opening at the beginning of September. It is one of those things I would not miss! Exhibition-wise, I would keep a close eye on Scena9 (they have very interesting exhibitions!), Anca Poterasu Gallery and MARe, the latter has a very diverse program (these days they focus a lot on performative practices that also activate the museum collection). I would also keep an eye on Sandwich Gallery, Suprainfinit Gallery and E T A J | artist-run space.

The one good thing about these “interesting times” we (try to) navigate is that many large cultural structures move online. That makes geography no longer an essential element. As such, I’m looking forward to this year’s Simultan festival and Ars Electronica!

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Bucharest is such an eclectic place that has a little bit for everyone. What are your favorite spots in the city?

To be honest, I’m more on the introverted side, so I love discovering little underrated places - cafes like Atelier Pinion, 20 Grams and Arome, for instance (yes, I’m a coffee lover). I also love places that mix things - there was, not long ago, Piua, a cafe-ish place, that also had books, film screening and cultural gigs; there is still Point, from the same type of places. Another beautiful place is Linotip, an independent contemporary dance venue and the ResourseCube within the Contemporary Dance Center.

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We are constantly inspired by a certain mood given by summertime and we are always seeking this #endlesssummer feeling everywhere, a feeling of really high vibration, positivity, willingness to experience and curiosity. What gives you a similar feeling?

Travelling. I believe seeing new places, the experience of being suspended in time while on a train or a long car ride and meeting new people gives me this feeling.

Another approach to this is Couchsurfing. Since I’ve been spending so much time with my work, the alternative to travelling was hosting travellers. Nothing is more pleasant than to welcome them as they walk in with that hard to explain joy, bringing a bit of their world into my home while spending late nights improvising meals out of nothing. As I listen to stories from their home cultures is like being there myself, in a way, living that summerly air ailleurs.

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While we live a new normal and travel and going out are happening with great limitations at the moment, what are your wanderlust dreams once this is all over? What do you miss the most and what are you looking forward to doing again freely?

Travelling ha ha ha! I would also love to go back to actually meet people and work with them in real life (and real feel, mind you). I miss physically exhibiting and being able to think and plan my work in a tangible manner, instead of thinking of ways to adapt to the digital.

Although it is attractive to not be geographically dependent exhibition-wise, the fact that digital isn’t endless remains real for a practitioner that functions outside the online usually.

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Give us a glimpse of your next project.

There are several really. Early this year, I co-founded Qolony (the Colony for Art&Science), along with artist Floriana Cîndea and science-journalist and artist Mihaela Ghițǎ. The NGO we started focuses on projects that will gather at the same working table artists, scientists, curators and theorists.

We are currently preparing two pilot-projects - FUSION, an art&science festival and artist-in-residence program and The somatist, the entropist and the skeptic, a collaborative art project, that will bring together a team of artists, choreographers, intermedia artists and scientists from several research institutes from both Bucharest and the Mǎgurele Platform.

Excerpt from Noir Morphosis's "KOKORO" collection lookbook (2020)

One of my favourite projects I am currently working on is Faulty Technologies. I focus on small technology gaps. Mainly, decomposing the moving image medium into photographs, from digital to analogue, frame by frame, glitch by glitch, looking into the anatomy of the medium and eventually, building back into moving image, from analogue back to digital. The resulting hybrid is actually rather hard to label as belonging to any particular medium.

Sneak peek into "Faulty technologies" project [2020 | coming soon]

I’m also currently involved in a beautiful project called Don’t bite your tongue - another collaboration with my beautiful friend Alina Usurelu, following Exposing Movement (a project of analogue photography and contemporary dance in 2017-2018). The aim of the project is to analyse social norms, linguistics and labels that manifest in sexuality.

Sneak peek into "Faulty technologies" project [2020 | coming soon]

Photography: Andrei Tudose  | Shooting Location: Sabina Suru's atelier | Creative Direction: Ioana Popa & Roxana Marcu  

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