Selected by Unseen Platform
With monochrome photographs suspended in time, Sybren Vanoverberghe captures the textures of the Iranian desert.
Unseen Platform: Where exactly were the photos in Conference of the Birds taken, and what is your own relationship to the spaces pictured in the series?
Sybren Vanoverberghe: While travelling in Iran, I encountered what I refer to as the ‘palm tree village’ on a desert road between Kerman and Bam. I remember seeing six trees next to each other while driving; from a distance, they looked like the silhouette of a house. It felt like a village that was left behind; the ground was full of ash and the air smelled like some pieces of it had stopped burning just moments before our arrival. About twenty of the other photographs in the series were taken in several other locations in Iran. These are the smaller framed works held in archival boxes, clamped shut with brass clips. To me, these additional images feel like the footnotes of the series.
What does the title of this series, Conference of the Birds, refer to?
The title comes from a famous Persian poem written by Abu Hamid bin Ibrahim Abu Bakr in the year 1177. Summarized, the poem tells the story of a group of birds that gather together to find the Simorgh (or ‘leader’) of the group. As they travel over the Seven Valleys to find their sovereign, many of the birds perish from harsh conditions, panic, violence, illness or thirst. When they finally reach their destination, with only thirty birds left among them, they realise that they themselves are the Simorgh. In the same way, the palm trees in the series seem to have a hard time, but most of them are still standing straight. They function as individuals, each with their own character and form. Places might disappear and lose their function, but there are always those entities that don’t disappear completely. To me, the palms resembled a family, like the group of birds in the story.
It’s clear that texture is an incredibly important feature of your work. The landscape, buildings and palms appear as flesh, as something breathing. Tell me a bit about your relationship to texture and why it was important for you to capture it in this way.
I think that texture and tones are extremely important for giving energy and life to an image. I like this metaphor of the objects “breathing,” especially since a lot of the subject matter in this project has actually stopped “breathing,” transitioning into artefacts. I like switching between descriptive images and images that isolate single subjects or views. In this way, the structural elements of a picture are highlighted, and the textures come to the fore.
In that same vein, what do the monochrome palate and blown-out lighting contribute to the metaphors you are trying to visualise?
My memories of this place are full of light, the shadows lit up by reflections of the earth’s white and soft brown colours. At least, that’s how I remembered it before developing my film and discovering the images for the first time. The white and low contrast of the prints gave me a feeling of something that is simultaneously fading away and something that is bright, arriving anew. Additionally, the monochrome tones allow the photographs to be seen as archival images from the past. I like to think about my work as a personal encyclopedia, showing images of both the past and present.
Text by Cat Lachowskyj