Sat in a North London pub, I am patiently awaiting the arrival of London based artist Alma Haser. I get there early to ensure we have a quiet secluded corner to talk about her and her work. While I wait, I roll through her Twitter feed to see what she’s been up to over the long hot British summer. One recurring theme are the never-ending, relentless posts about her work. Alma is an artist who is dedicated to her art. She is her art and, on revelation, uses herself in her art.
Our chat covered a broad range of topics: from being born in a factory in Germany to why the rigidity of her work has established her as one of today’s rising artists, as well as the use of the ancient art of origami in her work and her love of Radio 4 programmes. METAL delves into the psyche of the artist.
How did you get into art and ultimately become an artist? Have you been educated in the practice?
My parents are both artists. The main aspect of my creativity comes from them.
What was your childhood like and what role does it play in the production of your pieces?
I grew up in the Black Forest in Germany, in an old matchstick factory where I happened to be born alongside my younger brother. We ran around freely through the fields and would make houses. We had a free lifestyle and upbringing. I didn't know what I wanted to do as a child I just knew it would end up focused on art. Watching my mother use a darkroom was what kick-started my passion for photography. Although my work is dark and serious, there's a childish, playful naivety and innocence about it. Since I grew up making things I think I’ve carried over those techniques into my work even if it's just making a prop for a picture.
Viewing your works there is something slightly Stepford-ian, twisted and dark about them. Would you believe this to be true?
I really like paintings from that era. If I photograph someone I like to make them rigid and awkward in the sense of pose and how they feel. I think it adds another depth to the photograph. If they don't look awkward, it makes for a boring picture that doesn't look right. I try to make work that you don't look at once and then immediately walk away. You have to read more into what I do, see what’s going on, what's happened, how did I come up with some techniques. I want people to stare at my work and think.
From start to finish talk us through the process of creating one of your works. Where do you source your inspiration from?
It’s changed greatly in recent times. Since graduating, it's evolved in style, colour and form, but has more core elements. For Cosmic Surgery I created origami flowers, sewed them all together and attached headbands to them so I could put them on and then photograph myself in them. It’s about obscuring one's face. Through doing it, I realized it wasn't the most comfortable thing to wear so I didn't want to put someone else through it. I then came with the idea of folding the face and playing with ‘the fold'. I printed off the photograph of the face and then folded it multiple times and put it back onto the original photograph. I go through stages where I want to put something on someone's face and I then have to find the best and most comfortable way of attaching it to their face without hurting them. It’s a 3D piece and I have to think about how am I going to produce this photograph. The multiple photographing and the image scanning with the origami piece attached to it, causes a loss of colour due to the process, but it adds texture and depth to the final photograph.
Cosmic Surgery is one of your most notable works. Did you create it as a political/social statement on the use of cosmetic surgery?
It wasn't as much a reading on society's idea of cosmetic surgery and the chance to distort or change one's facial appearance. I grew up with dyslexia and, on one occasion, I came home to my family and started having a conversation about cosmic surgery. My mother later corrected me, ‘Don’t you mean cosmetic surgery?’ It made sense to use this as a title, although I’m not an artist to focus on the reality but more on the unreality and non-existent things. The people in the photographs represent the next generation from us - the ‘alien people’. The mother and father (the first generation) aren't defaced, but the others (the next generation) are. Cosmic surgery is a playful statement on that.
I love that you can read so many different ideas into it - there's the idea that it's about the next generation being consumed with technology and the concept of hiding one's face being a computer screen consuming technology and information. Then, there's the idea of living in an age of cameras surrounding us, filming us all the time; it’s impossible to hide your face any longer! The little girl in Cosmic Surgery though, she’s covered in eyes and she's become unrecognizable as she's completely mashed up and distorted in the face. In this sense she's lost all her 'identity'. Many people don't see the eyes but focus more on the brutality and darkness of the image at first, most see it as a defaced person and all they have to read from it is their clothing and bodies.It isn't until further examination of the image does one notice the origami eyes.
Origami and ‘fold’ seems to be a process that stands out in your work. What dimension does this add to your work?
With Cosmic Surgery, each one is a unique fold and each fold is done multiple times to get the right shape on the face. Although it's meaningless, it has hidden depth and intent in it. I wanted to see how much of the face and the eyes I could have on the photograph. On the other hand, my other project 'Paper' is more playful with each picture having its own story and a different shape like a parrot or a plane.
What artists are inspirational to your work and how does your work differ from theirs?
It’s changed a lot lately - Tim Walker and Tom Hunter, who does recreations from paintings. Erwin Wurm- he's work is brilliant with these really amazingly strange sculptures and photography. They are other ones but I’ve forgotten their names.
I think I’ve set myself quite a difficult challenge trying to move on from the Cosmic Surgery series as that's set my name and I’m still figuring out where to go from there. All the new projects I’m working on right now are quite different. I’ll always be known for my paper aesthetic, which I don't mind; it's just moving it along towards a bigger thing. It’s like the second album syndrome where the first album is received well and then the second album can either be hit or miss. I’ve got the style down in what I’m about, but should I do something different? Otherwise I risk being a one trick pony. Every project I do has a seamless continuous thread to it and goes from one to another effortlessly. Cosmic Surgery was a product of my self-portraits.
So do you feel any pressure to continue your rising success?
Yes - I feel the need of having to do something different and stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m now doing band photographs and advertising campaigns where I’m using my techniques in a different way.
Tell me about these collaborations. How do they come about and how much of an input do you have in the final image?
Most of the time it's companies approaching me and asking me to collaborate with them. They ask me to do a photo story, into which I can’t put my own touch, so it is quite limiting. I recently did an advert for an American television show called ‘Perception’. They hadn't realized that I was a photographer as well as a paper folder/prop maker, so they got two for the price of one - bonus!!
In your early works, especially the 10 Second Project, you use yourself as the subject of your work. Was that a conscious decision? And what element does this add to your work?
That was after I finished graduating. I lived in a very small town, so I had no one willing to be a lamb to the slaughter for me. I just had myself to experiment ideas on. I did a lot of projects to get myself back into the groove of things. Using myself was a great starting point for me to know what I wanted to do and what I wanted it to look like. If you look at the video of the '10 second project' you'll see an example of me working alone. In it, I record and photograph myself playing hide and seek. The idea for this came from my mother, who thought it would be good to capture the moment on film. It also brings my work back to the idea of it being based on childhood, as my dad used to film my brother and I playing hide and seek when we lived in Germany. Getting into that small space to hide is the funniest part of the whole experience. It’s great to have the film of me getting into the space alongside the final photographed work.
There’s a website where people upload videos of themselves doing the same thing from all over the world. Amsterdam, Indonesia, America and Canada following the 10-second project rules and hiding. The videos are hilarious. I’ve always had a thing of never showing my face, so in my film I try not to reveal it. I’m always hiding and running back to the camera in a way that I can obscure my face with my hair.
Digital media has opened up a whole new range of opportunities for artists like yourself. What is the relationship between your work and digital media? Do you find it to be an advantage or a hindrance to your creativity?
It used to be an obstacle when I had a smaller printer. Doing Cosmic Surgery images on a small printer I would print them on multiple sheets of paper because I would need the image to be at least A3 size, so I could fold their faces. On an A4 sheet the origami shape would become too small and pointless. Now that I have a big printer I can do it all without a need to follow a scan and multiple print process.
What piece of work that you’ve created are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the Ventriloquist and the Cosmic Surgery series. Those two are the ones I’m most proud of but I’m struggling the most to move on from. I have so many ideas that I need to commit to and do. They are quite ambitious, so they'll end up taking longer than I would like them to. I get quite impatient sometimes.
Could you tell us about your plans for future works?
I have just had a show in Toronto which came to London and later next year goes to Boston as part of the Flash Forward 2013. I don’t really reveal my future work, until I have more of an idea how it will turn out.
When you’re not busy creating work, what do you like to do in your ‘downtime’?
When I’m not doing any work, which is not very often, I like watching ‘Breaking Bad’ and listening to Radio 4 and Radio 6. I love all the comedies and ‘Just A Minute’, which my family play occasionally amongst themselves. I listen to the ‘Museum Of Curiosity’, to which I tweeted to ask when they’d be back on so I can go watch it live. ‘Woman's Hour’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’ are great as well, and I find the complaints show rather funny to listen to. Lately, when I’ve been listening to it, it's been people complaining that something's been said that the school kids have heard while on summer holiday. I constantly quote information I’ve heard from Radio 4 to my boyfriend.
Walking away from our two-hour talk I realize something about Alma – like her work,she is full of layers and ‘folds’, some of which I don’t even think I managed to scrape. She is an artist filled with intrigue and mysterious aspects that seeps from the photographs she takes.