China Residencies spoke to German photographer Saskia Ketz about her project Anybodies Home completed at Pantocrator's residency program in Shanghai.
China Residencies: How did you find out about Pantocrator?
Saskia Ketz: Just online. I've been in Bangkok for almost three months, doing an internship for the United Nations, and I also work as a freelance photographer for them. I actually wanted to do a project in Thailand, so I read about this artist in residence program called Pantocrator but Raul [Alvaro] told me that this program was not in operation, so he invited me to come to Shanghai and I said, ok why not? It would be also a great place to proceed with my project so I decided to split my stay abroad and do both.
CR: That's really neat. And how long ago have you been here for?
SK: I came to Shanghai in middle of March, it's almost been a month. And I’m leaving next week so it’s very short.
CR: It's a very short time for a project.
SK: Yes, it's about a month. But I started taking pictures in Thailand, and I wanted to have this project relate to Asia in general, not only to Shanghai. And I would like to continue in another Asian city, right now I am applying for other artist-in-residency programs in India and maybe Japan -- so we will see.
CR: There's a great website sort of like ours for Japan--AiRJ--that lists all the different residencies in Japan, and there's one for Taiwan as well. Did you think of this project before coming? When you were in Bangkok where you already thinking about what you wanted to photograph?
SK: Actually I had two ideas. One of them was about light. I had a previous project related to the sources of light, like natural light, how light makes its way through dark spaces. I'm just fascinated by light. And the second idea is also on the subject of light, when you are working in a dark room and you are waiting for the photo to appear in the chemical. When I take pictures, I always have that excitement with me, to see how much light does the subject need to appear or display. I'm fascinated by the contrast of such huge and crowded cities compared to those empty residential spaces.
CR: Do you shoot on film?
SK: No, it's all digital.
CR: Has it been easy to print things here? For your process, has it been easy to find printers?
SK: Yeah, there's a print shop next door. The staff helped me a lot with that, telling me all the places that I would probably need to finish my project.
CR: That’s really cool. And actually who's on staff here? Who's in charge of the whole program?
SK: So there's Raul, Luis & Laura, the gallery founders and they’re from Spain. Unfortunately they needed to leave Shanghai soon after I arrived, so we just had a short time together. They're so nice, and they're so helpful and we communicate a lot by email. And there's another guy from Scotland studying in Shanghai who's an intern at Pantocrator and he's so helpful.
CR: The first impression of Shanghai can feel so chaotic, but as soon as you start walking around with a camera, you're focusing on quiet moments that really reflect how things are here. Tell me a little bit about the candles [in these works].
SK: I tried to split the exhibition into two parts. I wanted to have the photographs in frames because it creates distance. The scenes are so empty and silent, with almost no people. I led with the big one because if you walk into the gallery, it's just like walking into the picture. My whole project is about light and all of these pictures are quite dark, so I made these boxes to be like windows. They will be closed and you have to get involved to open them, to look into what people are doing. Sometimes you see something and you can just poke around, and sometimes it is very, very dark and you might not see anything...
CR: Oh, that's great. And so you're positioning the light to where the light source would be. And have you worked with these kind of small installations before?
SK: No, I have not. I never did that before. Actually I'm not experimental usually, but I like it. [laughs]
CR: Have you been on any residencies before or is this your first one?
SK: This is my first one.
CR: That's great that it allowed you to experiment a little.
SK: I did a huge project before, but just on my own, not through a residency. I lived in Iceland for a couple of months to finish my final work at the university. It was a project on landscape photography. People in Iceland have that belief about spirits. And they told me about all of these creatures living in the landscape, in nature. So I was just running around to find places where they probably live.
CR: So how did you go about taking the photos in Shanghai? Did you just go for walks or did you specifically look for a neighborhood?
SK: I tried to do some research on places that might be suitable, so I just asked people. And usually what I do first is go to the places without my camera and try to have a look. But I didn't have enough time for that, so I took my camera with me and just walked around at night. Usually, I started walking at like four or five pm and would come back ten or eleven. Because afterwards it would be too dark, there were no lights at all.
CR: Yeah, people go to bed kind of early here. In your images, it's like when you're walking around and you want to look into someone's house but you don't know if you have permission, and you don't want to be creepy. Did you talk to any of the people or did you just walk by and take a picture?
SK: I didn't talk to them. Some of them they didn't realize that I took a photo. But I really was on the street, so everybody was looking at me because I am a foreigner, but I got used to that. And some of them were very interested in what I'm doing, and then they asked me to show them the display of the photo I took. So I would just show them and try to explain what I'm doing but I don't think they understood me.
CR: Do you speak any Chinese?
SK: No, unfortunately. I just have English.
CR: Yeah, it's interesting because people are very curious. When you're photographing in Europe no one will come talk to you or ask what you're doing, but here there's a huge interest. Did this interest change the way you were working at all?
SK: I think it was more comfortable in the end. Because if you walk around and take pictures of people's homes, I always worry that I would be disturbing them or something. After talking to them, I felt more uncomfortable, In the end it's really nice.
CR: Have you had a chance to meet people in the other galleries around here?
SK: Yeah, I met some of them. Gustav, who has a studio near here. I’m renting a room from him, it’s pretty comfortable and convenient because it's across the street.
CR: Can I ask how are you funding the residency? Did you get a grant from Germany or is it self-funded?
SK: I got a scholarship from my university.
CR: That's one of the hardest things to find funding for residencies.
SK: Yeah, I was lucky because I'm still studying in the Master's Program that I’m about to finish. It's more theoretical and related to art and design history, as well as art and design philosophy. I also studied photography before, and I was already working as a freelance photographer and also as a fine art photographer.
CR: Do you know what you want to do next?
SK: Well the first thing I need to do is go back to Germany next week, because I also work as a photography teacher, and I already have some appointments for classes at the end of April. And in the middle of May, I’ll go back to Bangkok to work for the United Nations as a freelance photographer, which is a pretty good opportunity.
CR: That's really good that you get to spend time here and really just work on one thing at a time. What was the biggest difference you noticed between Bangkok and Shanghai?
SK: The weather. I was freezing when I came to Shanghai. I guess life in Thailand, in Bangkok, is more easy-going, it's a bit easier. But it's a hard question because Bangkok is just one of my favorite cities in the world, so it was pretty hard for Shanghai to compare! But I met so many nice people and I feel supported by so many nice people, so I really appreciate the opportunity to be in Shanghai. It's been a great experience.
CR: And have you had a chance to meet a lot of other artists while you were here?
SK: There are a lot of other artists around M50. We had a great opening two weeks ago so I had the opportunity to meet lots of people, and Raul also introduced me to many people. So that's really great. It's just interesting to walk around and have a look at other artist’s studios.
CR: Do you wish you could've had more time?
SK: Well, in the beginning I was a little upset because the weather was so bad. It was raining a lot so it was frustrating. But by the end I realized that I was starting to repeat myself. So if I would have had more time, I would have liked to get out of Shanghai, to visit some other cities, maybe to go to the countryside, that would have been interesting. I stopped taking photos last weekend to just have the whole week to prepare for the exhibition.
CR: Are you happy with how everything's coming out?
SK: Yesterday evening, I just sat there by myself and had a look at my pictures and I realized yeah, I'm quite pleased with them.
CR: I’m glad to hear that! And were there other artists at Pantocrator on the residency while you were here?
SK: No, it was just me. There was one before but she left before I arrived. And I know that somebody's coming in the beginning of May.
CR: And before you came, what did you expect? Was your idea of Shanghai very different?
SK: My first impression was that it wasn't as crowded that I expected. It seemed kind of strange, because there are so many people living here. But to be honest, I didn't think about that too much before I came. I had been very busy in Bangkok, and I always try not to think about things too much beforehand.
CR: That's a common stereotype when you think about China, you think about crowds but unless you're on the subway at rush hour, most of the time it's actually quite quiet.
SK: Yeah, and I was surprised that the subway stops at 10:30 pm. I mean, it's such a huge city, 22 million people. And I'm coming from a town that has about 200,000 citizens but we are connected to the other cities with our trains running nonstop the whole night. And this is a city of about 22 million people and the subway stops at 10:30, so that was just unbelievable to me.
CR: I never thought about it that way. Where in Germany are you from?
SK: Not too far away from Cologne and Dusseldorf. It's a quite unique area because there are a lot of bigger cities quite close to each other. The area was known in the past for coal production, but now all of these coal mines are closed and the space is used for cultural activities. So it's not that different to M50 actually! I've heard that they're trying to destroy M50 but it got too successful, too famous, especially for tourists, so hopefully it is safe.
CR: A similar thing happened in 798 in Beijing, where it became very popular as a tourist destination. You'll see people taking their wedding pictures in front of the graffiti walls and the cafes. You need to prove that tourists like it and then you can stay. I hope it stays, but it's hard to tell in China.
This interview was conducted on April 3rd 2015 by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies. Pantocrator has since relocated its gallery space and residency to the nearby city of Suzhou.