Simone Kussatz: Do you rather see yourself as a conceptual artist or photographer?
Manfred Menz: I consider myself to be a conceptual artist, although, I've worked with all kinds of cameras. In the beginning of my second career - I worked in film at first - I did more installations than photography. And when I did photography I used them for collages and added texts to them. Now the photographs at Roseark which are part of “the Invisible Project and Invisible Asia” are a combination of photography and digital work.
Kussatz: What inspired you to create photographs of landmarks that can't be actually seen?
Menz: I started with this work about 10 years ago. My work has two components. They are made out of a conceptual and an emotional part. I was first interested in the emotional part, which was to focus on what has always been there, but we've missed seeing, which is nature around landmarks. Obviously if we decide to take a tourist picture of the Eiffel Tower we want to see the tower, and don't care much about the surrounding nature. So I wanted to see what was there. The other part, the conceptual part, was that digital imaging became popular at that time and although I wasn't much into computer work, I felt fascinated by the idea that it would allow me to alter images in ways that one could never tell what happened to the pictures. Therefore I removed the landmarks. I started with my project in Europe. I went to Germany, London, Paris, and Rome. I took a photograph of one of the oldest landmarks, the Colosseum and later worked in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 2007 and 2008, I went to South Korea and Japan.
Kussatz: Since the focus of your work is on nature do your works carry any environmental message?
Menz: There are many messages in my work and I'm always happy, when I discover another one, which I originally hadn't seen. The environmental message as I mentioned earlier is to see things that surround us, yet we've never seen and paid attention to. In regard to the Eiffel Tower I found these four trees that in some way give us an impression of the relation between the landmark Eiffel Tower and the trees. The trees are not very large by nature, and they can be overlooked easily, but they have a wonderful beauty to them, which fascinated me. However at the end of my project, I realized that most nature around landmarks are man-made. Most plants hadn't grown naturally. And that provided another interesting view which is to what extent do we value nature as what it is, or what we wanted it to look like. Therefore, my pictures show how our alter ego presents itself as nature. That's why I call them documents of society's self-portraits.
Menz: I only take pictures during the end of April towards mid-May, because that's when we get to see the freshest green in nature. I have about 30 pieces throughout the world; some may look as if they have more than one season due to my removal of everything. I usually use grey for the ground, which enhances the green tone of nature. And that makes it look like cold winter snow. It's a nice reflection on the fresh green. So you may be puzzled, when you first look at it, thinking how it is possible that there is this fresh green in winter. I wasn't aware of that at first and it wasn't planned, but I like that effect. It's an optical illusion. As far as “Changdeok Palace”, it's my favorite image, because it's unique to get a chance to be able to see all seasons at once.
Kussatz: Karl Marx Boulevard (Karl-Marx-Allee) was your first image in this series. Is there any political agenda in this?
Menz: Karl Marx Boulevard is a well-known street in Berlin. It doesn't only bear the name of Karl Marx, but associates his ideology with it. However, my first thoughts were about the painters of the past that dealt with images of alleys lined by rows of trees. They were creating this optical illusion, a sense of infinity, by using a tunnel vision. I liked the perspective. Those two rows of trees are parallel in reality. The conceptual part of this picture is that I removed the remaining traces of all social achievements and capitalistic buildings of our collective awareness. And what I left is perhaps the 21st Century's version of a virtual reality. I'm not a Marxist. Karl Marx said of himself he isn't a Marxist. He also said “Art is not a mirror to held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” and that's exactly what I think I did.
Kussatz: Can you tell us more about your work in the Korean Demilitarized Zone?
Menz: I worked from the position of the Joint Security Area. I took pictures with a view from the South Korean to the North Korean side, where there was this gigantic watchtower, from where the North Koreans would watch what was happening on the other side. There is a lot of tension with about 2 Million soldiers total on both sides standing face-to-face. In my opinion this is the most dangerous place on planet. Being from Germany that was a divided country for a long time after World War II, I expected to see military equipment or a military environment on the Northern Side. But instead, I rather looked at something that seemed to me like Disneyland. There was this wonderful nature with trees and so forth. And what fascinated me was the relationship between what reality is and what we're made to believe it is. And I think my work shows that.
Kussatz: You mentioned that you came across some difficulties when you took these pictures?
Menz: I needed to get a permit in Panmunjom first and a military escort for my own protection. I used a panorama camera. It took time to set it up. Therefore the circumstances under which I worked were very interesting.
Menz: I would never compare the two political situations or juxtapose them. They are very different from each other. Yet, it's natural for me to be interested in Korea because I know what it looks and feels like to be divided as a country and the meaning of it and how it's being presented. However, Korea was very different from what I thought it would be. It was much tenser, and yet there was this wonderful nature in such a political difficult environment. And then they have this artificial village on the Northern side. Nobody lives there but it looks very impressive, and obviously it's just there to make us believe something that's not real.
Kussatz: Your picture “Rodeo Drive” seems to me the most artificial one in that show.
Menz: It is the most artificial one and it is the most colorful one. There is the illusion that there are these potted plants floating in the air. And it appears to us as if we're standing at a point looking down at the palm trees, although it was exactly the opposite from where I took the photograph. I was actually looking up. And in a way this is how we feel, if we go shopping on Rodeo Drive. We think as if we belong to the top of society by holding a bag from one of the most well-known streets in the world, where it actually is the opposite. It doesn't make us what it appears to be. It's only an illusion.
Images: Courtesy of artist Manfred Menz (right - Karl-Marx Boulevard, Berlin 2003, 36x44; left - Tate Modern, London 2003, 43x39)