by Dieter Debruyne

A while ago, I had an interesting meeting and a talk with Sybren Vanoverberghe. He's still a student at KASK Ghent and will launch his second book '2099' on 22nd of March at RIOT gallery. And recently, he founded with Ilan Weiss PINGUIN, a space in Brussels where he exhibits upcoming artists that can present their works in a experimental way among other events.

How did you start getting interested in photography?

Sybren Vanoverberghe (SV): It began with making photographs of my friends skateboarding. When some photographs were published in skateboard magazines, I decided to go to the academy (KASK) in Ghent to explore photography in a wider context. In the end I’m very thankful to have discovered photography through skateboarding and its scene. It taught me a lot on how to persevere with the things you like in life. Trial and error. It always surprises me that a lot of friends and other artists that I talk to have the skateboard scene in their past. During my first two years at KASK, I researched lots of other photographers; the classics and some contemporary photographers. Of course, being surrounded by a lot of photographers and artists that are still developing their point of view also inspired me to develop my position within my work. However, I still see all of this as a continuous process within my artistic point of view. Sometimes one small thing you see in a book or other work can have a lot of influence on your own work.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099' 

You are a co - founder of Pinguin; tell me about this adventure and what you’re looking for in artists to exhibit?

SV: Pinguin… Ilan Weiss and I didn’t expect it to grow so fast or for it to get the kind of attention it has already had. I still remember the first time I arrived at the small space that was, and partly still is, the atelier of Ilan. The space was chock-full of prints, tables, artworks, and also just piles of shitty stuff … one big mess basically (sorry Ilan haha). As our friendship grew we decided to try to use the space as something where we could show our own works. The first exhibition was a duo exhibition. Since a lot of people attended the first opening, we decided to do a second event. This time we chose to exhibit somebody else’s work, which was Marie Dhaese and her great first book ‘Tell me I am pretty so I can sleep at night’. Again, a lot of people came to the opening so we decided to see Pinguin as a permanent open project space, and a real thing for both of us.

© Installation view of Sybren Vanoverberghe and Ilan Weiss at Pinguin, Brussel

Pinguin is an open space where artists get a lot of freedom to present works in an experimental way and, especially, works that aren’t even seen as final products yet. We’re still brainstorming on how we see Pinguin evolve in the future and what our position should be. However, we are intrigued by artists who experiment with how they present their works in the space and exhibition, by, for example, creating new dialogues with different artists or with the archive and new work of a certain artist. We like the in-between state of works that normally isn’t seen in a final exhibition. The nice aspect of this approach is that each exhibition will always have unseen work for the public. Currently, we’re making the agenda for 2018 and I can announce that the next exhibition (opening the 30th of March) will be a group show by Belgian photographers Tine Guns, Thomas Vandenberghe and painter Matthieu Ronse. In addition to the exhibitions, we want to host different kinds of events. One of these will be a couple of Extra Forts organised by Recyclart. There will also be a curation with Ann Françoise Le Suisse, a workshop with Akina Books and book launches, etc.

Who are some of the artists/writers that have influenced you and why?

SV: One of the recent books on my bookshelf is the 'Parellel Encyclopedia #2' by Batia Suter. Another that I really like is 'The Voyage of Discovery' by Carly Steinbrunn. Here, the combination of archive imagery and new images works really well for me. Some others are Michael Schmidt, John Gossage, Robert Smithson, Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs, Kasper Andreasen (Writing Over). In the nearby future, I want to practice drawing more and cutting marble. This gives me new inputs for understanding my photography.

Could you tell me a little about the project ‘2099’?

SV: The project '2099' started before I really noticed myself. In 2016 I made a trip to Montenegro, without any intention to photograph a certain subject or even make any photographs at all. Once I was there, though, I did take a couple of photographs, mostly of nature and some historical monuments. When I came back to Belgium, I developed the images. Some of the photographs seemed interesting when I compared them to my first published project ¡pírate!. It was my first time shooting on medium format colour film.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099' 

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

Back home I decided to photograph at places close to where I live to further develop my approach to photography in Montenegro. Shortly after, I was reading 'The rings of Saturnus' by a German writer, W.G. Sebald. I was really intrigued by his style of writing and how he approaches literature. He searches for interconnections between places, inspired by memory, history, time and the places he visits or walks past. His working method actually seemed similar to my attitude towards photography.

Later, I decided to look for and combine archive images with new images and the photographs from Montenegro to help me decide to which locations I wanted to travel to start the project. Up until now I have photographed in Athens, London, Dachau, Eichstätt and more recently Carrara, Rome and currently Istanbul. I see the book of the project '2099', that will be published by Art Paper Editions, as a collection of images of memory linked to my perception on the constant evolution of history and its repetitive character. I tend to deconstruct places, manipulate icons and bring them together in one project on an associative basis. I make a kind of prophecy for the future, as well as express my desire or admiration for the past. Photographs of nature, the city, historical artefacts and icons, time and place are some recurring motifs in the work. For me it was important that the order in the book put the focus on the city. Even though it is trying to present itself fully to the viewer, it seemingly doesn’t manage to do so in the end. It became clear in the book that places seem to rise and fall over and over again, crossing the map from one place to another. Yet, their progress is constantly questioned or inhibited by the photographs and the lyricism of nature and history.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

And what relevance do you think it has for the cultural landscape?

SV: Even though I like to play with the idea of ‘the cultural landscape’, my photographs might not have a straight forward relevance in terms of documentation. Subjectivity is instrumental to my photography. I might, for example, capture statues with an important historical and cultural connotation, while also capturing statues that don’t have any significant value whatsoever. By combining objects found close to home or at a-historical places with the deconstruction of ruins, temples, artefacts, etc., I try to interfere within a particular timeline of history. Through adding these certain aspects or places, they create interesting dynamics that shine a new light on evolution and the vicious circle of history that cultural landscapes are a part of. I don’t have a documentary approach but put my focus more on what might be and what might come to be within the notion of history.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

© Sybren Vanoverberghe from the series '2099'

I have a collection of negatives and slides of important monuments and places. I like the fact that most of them are probably photographed by tourists, based on their composition and the technical aspect of the images. I, mainly, look at them as historical documentations of place and time. There is a common belief that these monuments and places are frozen in time and will remain so. This is exactly why I decided to include in the book '2099' one of the slides I bought of a pyramid in Gizeh. I am fascinated by these monuments and their firmness. Yet, I don’t believe they will stay untouched by the passage of time. Eventually the places where you can find them will also become unstable. I guess I buy these photographs and slides because of my fascination with archaeology, which coexists closely with what I perceive through the medium of photography.

The places you’ve already visited are so different. London vs Dachau for example. Could you talk me through your decision process when choosing a location?

SV: I’m still trying to figure out myself what motivates my decision making. Of course, I do have my reasons for why I went to Dachau or London, for example, to take photographs. I’ll try to give you an answer based on these two. I remember I was in London walking around without having the intention to photograph that day, but I still had my camera with me. When I stumbled upon The Shard, I started thinking about London as the economical centre of Europe. This immediately reminded me of other places that were important economical centres in the past. So, I made the mental trip from London to Athens, which was at one point in history one of the most important commercial and economical centres of the world. At the same time, Athens also came to mind because of its historical artefacts and ruins, which then again made me think of the red photograph of a statue I made close to where my parents live. In a nutshell, my way of working is based on associations and memories that come to mind in the moment. They trigger me to go and photograph other places. Another example you mentioned was Dachau, the concentration camp. I knew that the development of the city, or places in general, was an important motif in the project for me. On the other hand, I also wanted to show that the way I work, which is tracing the map from place to place, reflects my perception on important historical places. Places rise, fall, disappear and seem to reappear at other locations. Within the idea of London and Athens as a representation of civilisation, I also wanted to include a place in Europe that unfortunately rose and luckily fell and that is hopefully never coming back again. The path we didn’t want to take and hopefully will never take again as mankind.

I like that you asked this question. For a lot of people that won’t read this, it won’t be clear that there are actually two images of Dachau in the book. They are quite hidden in the book and hard to spot when you don’t know about them to begin with. One of the two doesn’t even really fit in the book because of the visual aspect of the photograph. I still kept it in, though, to highlight its difference from the other places. Some people who had visited Dachau paused at the image while they were flipping through the dummy book. Right away, they remembered standing there and having the exact memory of the place. It is important to me that certain people will recognise the photograph and think back of being there themselves. In this way, their experience is linked to my way of working as a photographer. So, they also appreciate memories linked to places and, maybe, my desire to visit metropoles, historical places and places close to home. Then, they, too, can perceive an interaction between the present, past and future.

Can I conclude by saying that you found the theory for your practice through the making of '2099' and through Sebald. 

SV: I guess so … At this point probably yes. '2099' is definitely going in a direction I want to explore further in new projects but probably more defined in the places I want to photograph. Sebald did have a big influence on the last project but I see this as the beginning of discovering new theories and influences for my work. They could come from archaeology, archive imagery, archeological sites, etc.


Sybren Vanoverberghe 
Urbanautica Belgium