Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low are established fine art photographers who joined forces in 1990. The duo has since collaborated to produce ground-breaking works that push the boundaries of identity, culture and perception through evocative and thought-provoking photography.
Anderson & Low’s projects testify to the versatile nature of photography as a tool for personal, social and cultural scrutiny. They are most known for their audacious work with athletes, including being the official artists for the 2012 Olympics, for creating art projects based around sets and crew for the James Bond films Spectre and Skyfall, for their groundbreaking projects Manga Dreams, and most recently their exhibition Voyages at the Science Museum. Albeit through radically differing approaches, they explore a continuing and evolving interest in photography’s relationship to other visual arts. Their works are often located on the threshold between the realistic and the artificial, blurring the boundary between the fantastic and the real.
Noted for their attention to concept, form, lighting, and printing, the duo has exhibited internationally. The vast range of their work includes portraiture, architectural studies, abstract images, reportage and landscapes. Key pieces are in many public and private collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and National Portrait Galleries in the UK and Australia.
Now, Anderson & Low are judges on the prestigious London-based VIA Arts Prize 2017. Open to all UK-based artists, the VIA Arts Prize seeks to celebrate works and artists who draw their inspiration from Ibero-American cultures, environments and peoples. In English, Spanish and Portuguese alike, the term “via” invites artists to embark on a voyage; the Prize is intended as an artistic experiment in acts of communication and displacement. Its objective is to establish cross-cultural pathways and celebrate the UK as a cultural and artistic hub that sees the intersection of vital and diverse migrant populations. The theme for the 2017 edition is Dialogues, continuing to place both cultures in visual and metaphorical conversations.
In our interview, Anderson & Low discuss their most recent projects, their love of Latin American art and their struggles and rewards of their nature as collaborative artists.
How do you work as a duo?
There is no magic formula to working as a duo, it really comes down to teamwork. After thirty years working together we still have our differences, of course, but we have learnt that it is ultimately a crossover. It’s like a ballet, a strange dance by two people learning to work in partnership. Practice makes perfect. To be successful, we must meet in the middle, or beyond the middle, to a new place entirely. Only by moving beyond our comfort zones can we strive to tread new territories and carve original paths.
What have been your favorite projects of late?
Our last project, Voyages, was a very personal passion for both of us. It certainly spoke to our interest in the relationship between art and artifice and our desire to test the boundaries of traditional photography. The project reinterpreted images of ship models from the Science Museum’s extraordinary stores to reveal hidden, forgotten and even submerged histories. The aim of Voyages is to take the viewer on a journey, sharing the desire to physically and metaphorically move their artists and audiences into new arenas. As a result, canonical modes of representing and seeing are necessarily re-evaluated.
Voyages allowed us to continue our artistic exploration of the confrontation between fantasy and reality. This was a concept we had already tackled head-on in Manga Dreams and also when we were given the thrilling opportunity to create an art project based on the sets for the James Bond film Spectre. In both of those projects, we really felt able to tease out the liminal space between the illusory and the authentic. Pivotal was also our ability to convey a narrative, to use images and imagery to tell a story of wonder and fantasy. Interestingly, this concept resonated very strongly when working on our latest project, too, where we used our imagination to weave history and fiction to rediscover and retell maritime historical narratives.
What’s your relationship to Latin America?
The widespread influences of Latin American countries are integral to the history of art and the contemporary art scene. Latin America is indispensable to 21st century art. We believe the vibrant and prolific energy of Latin American countries and their socio-cultural production, whether artistic, literary, musical and even culinary, is undeniable. An unparalleled cross fertilization of cultures makes this a truly unique melting pot of artistic visions. Only in Latin America do you witness a similar assimilation of so many different ethnicities and backgrounds. The creative outcomes are absolutely invigorating.
How did you get involved with the VIA Arts Prize?
Quite unexpectedly to be honest; it all started with sport. The chain of events that led us to Latin America and the VIA Arts Prize began in1998 when we were invited by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia to create a new art project for the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival, and we began to focus on athletes in training, often using it as a metaphor for human aspiration, human identity and the human condition. We have created many projects around this theme, looking at different facets of sport and those who pursue it, often questioning that tension between the ideal and the real, and challenging people’s preconceptions in the process. We also used athletes and sport to create a similar dialogue when we worked on an AIDS Awareness project the Elton John AIDS Foundation. As part of the project we wanted to demonstrate vulnerability. We felt that the most effective way to do so was to photograph internationally renowned male and female athletes in the nude. Our aim was to question understandings of heroism and its relationship with manifestations of physical and psychological strength. Despite their heroic physiques, all these men and women displayed the vulnerability that all humans have to this infection by posing naked. At the heart of the project lied the burning question: what does it really mean to be vulnerable?
It was because of our sport-based projects that a few years later we were chosen as official artists for the 2012 Olympics, exhibiting portraits at the National Portrait Gallery of the Olympians and those who played important roles in staging the games.
It was in 2015, after our meeting with the Brazilian Embassy in London about the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, though, that we became involved with the VIA Arts Prize. When the Embassy approached us, we were thrilled to be given the chance to work on such an ambitious and critical project.
Are art prizes important?
Art prizes are valuable to emerging and established artists alike. Prizes are a worthy tool in an artist’s career because they not only increase one’s exposure, but they also function in garnering support, often providing welcomed financial relief in what is an unquestionably competitive and tough vocation. Art prizes are also special in so far that they allow artists to re-late themselves to others working in their field and across a range of mediums. We experience art prizes as an exciting opportunity to place ourselves and our work in conversation with those of others. Art does not work in isolation; it a product of intersections, of communications and miscommunications, and art prizes are the perfect ice-breakers.
What are you looking for in the winning works?
Given our nature as an artistic duo, we are both particularly interested in this year’s collaborative entries. That’s why this year’s theme, Dialogues, is so relevant and important to us. The word ‘dialogue’ has many different meanings, it is complex and multifaceted. Implicated in acts of communication, it essentially points to a conversation. Dialogue involves the coming together of people and ideas. Dialogue requires finding the middle ground and that “other place”, like we do on a regular basis. At the same time, however, dialogue can also be confrontational. Sometimes, confrontation itself provides a fertile ground for revolutionary results.
This year we will be paying particular attention to the ways in which artists work together to respond to the chosen theme. Over the past years, we have found that some of the most powerful work is actually the quietest, while the work that shouts at us initially often doesn’t stick with us as long. Yet art’s ability to resonate is, of course, neither fixed nor pre-dictable, and that is one of the many challenges and rewards of being judges on the VIA Arts Prize panel. We are thor-oughly looking forward to it.
About the VIA Arts Prize
The top 30 works chosen by Anderson and Low and fellow judges of the VIA Arts Prize have been exhibited at the Embassy of Brazil in London in November 2017.
Text by Amelia Hubert