A short conversation with Talisa
Do you welcome traces of people or labour in your work? Do these traces hinder you from taking photos, or do you intentionally seek them out to bring them into focus?
The term “Spur” (German for “trace”) stems from the old German Spor and means footprint. Ichnusa is the title of my new publication and the original name of Sardinia: it comes from the Ancient Greek (Ichnôussa), which translates to footprint (in this case meaning God’s footprint that shaped the island). Traces play an important part in my photographs and are sometimes more, sometimes less visible. I often photograph landscapes or places that look like untouched nature but are in fact man-made (landscaped gardens, botanical gardens, zoos). In doing so, I try to conceal any indication that may reveal their “artificiality”, as I want the photographs to preserve the illusion of a primordial nature.
Having said that, built structures also feature in my work and function as traces of another time. They no longer serve a purpose and are absorbed by the surrounding nature, but the old spirits still linger.
How important is absence to you?
Absence is very important to me. It’s tricky, I often take photographs at times when the places I visit are also frequented by many tourists. Sometimes I have to wait a very long time until the last colourful backpack has disappeared from my field of vision, so that the place in the picture looks the way I envisioned it. The more I look at the pictures afterwards, the more the moments I experienced fade in my memory and the humanless motif increasingly becomes the perceived reality in my mind.
The only human-like figures are statues.
Statues are great because they give the impression that they have always been there and will continue to be there forever.
Timelessness / Being too late: You couldn’t have been there at that time. Some of the things you photograph already lie in the past, like the children’s hotel. The places have evolved into what they are now…
It is precisely this past that I find exciting. The buildings would have been irrelevant to me at the time when they were still intact and inhabited or worked in. They only become interesting to me when human life disappears from them and nature takes over. Plants grow into (and out of) the building, the weather causes the material to crumble and sometimes so little of the original structure remains that one can barely imagine what it once looked like.
In this sense, I wouldn’t say I get there too late, but rather at just the right time.
Is it important for you to create a timeless space in your work, one that is free of, say, current political influences? In 30, 40, 50 years, would we be able to tell that your pictures are from today? Is that something you value? Or do you consider timelessness an integral aspect of your work?
I want my photographs not to depict reality, but to take on the quality of vague memories or dream sequences that can’t be assigned a specific time. Thanks to the analogue optics, you can’t tell when the pictures were taken; they may as well have been made 30, 40, 50 years ago. So I hope that they will seem just as timeless in the future.
Your work began in botanical gardens. Do you remember what you were looking for?
At the beginning of my studies, I visited the botanical garden because I was looking for a place where the photographs wouldn’t look like they had been taken in Düsseldorf. I took close-ups of plants and later, at the academy, was made aware of Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs. He had the same idea, but over 100 years before me.
Do you already know where you’re headed next or what you’re looking for?
Not at all, but I’m already looking forward to it.
translated by Rebecca Grundmann
Excerpt from Towards any forlornness
As a child, I once dreamt of an unknown town that neighboured ours. I discovered it by accident, as my journey there led through a reed-covered moor, similar to the damp meadow behind the woods where we suspected snakes but never found any. The colours of the reeds were muted yet bright, some kind of in-between tones with new colours whose names I did not know. The neighbouring town was actually quite ordinary — people and houses just like ours — and yet it had a certain glow about it, an immanent beauty and intrigue that I can still recall to this day. That period nearing the end of my childhood, leading up to the last time I would play without knowing it, to the very moment I became conscious of what I was doing, entering the one-way street to self-awareness with no turning back — I often spent that remaining time searching for the town but never finding it.
The sight of ruins evokes a similar moment of awareness, like a turning or tipping point … perhaps because we are reminded of the fabricated nature of houses. Even the houses we would consider old haven’t actually been around for all that long — at least when compared to natural dwellings such as trees, holes or caves — and yet we often take their existence and protection for granted. The higher the buildings and the more synthetic and impenetrable their material, the more alien they become, when really they are nothing more than an extension of the body itself, whose availability we presume in just as ungrateful a way. At the sight of ruins, we get a sense of stone-on-stone, of scaffolding and facade, of hands, time and labour; it trickles through our eyes and into our consciousness, revealing the house as that what it really is: a temporary home — just like the body, even if we spend most of our time evading this fact. And our body is the only temporary home that doesn’t require us to pay or prove our worth in some way. The room in which we sleep, the rooms in which we work and care for; cellars and warehouses, viewing platforms, hotels, spaces of mobility such as cars, trains, planes and ships … the more expensive and exclusive it becomes, the more we value our stay there.
Even the place we call “home” we do so first out of habit and without much thought, then more consciously, after some reflection and not without anguish or doubt. For it is a place that wants to be earned, that needs to be held onto against all odds, uncertainties, struggles and liaisons, and still requires our constant re-evaluation. There is nothing self-evident about our heritage and home — regardless of whether it consists of people, places or (hi)stories — just as every feeling that has a name comes with a certain nuance that might only exist for a brief moment in a single consciousness: its many facets cannot be grasped in a name or description, at least not in a simple five-letter word like anger, which every individual experiences differently.
In this respect, I can be thankful to have never found the unknown town, because the moment I enter it, it is destroyed. Only in my dreams does it retain the source of its glow: the knowledge that it is mine alone.
The places that exist only in our imagination, as well as those that are deteriorating or have already been destroyed, are kept alive in our memory, unchanged in form, just as we initially experienced or dreamed them — like the children’s hotel Casa al mare – Francesco Sartori, which gave miners’ children the first and perhaps only holiday of their lives in this resort with sea view, spacious dormitories, its own pool and a cultural programme. Today, while the marine colony decays into ruin, its initial purpose — the people it was built for, who inhabited it, their stories and encounters — lives on in the narrative of Iride Peis Concas, who worked there herself.
Places like these, that overrule the supposedly natural social and hierarchical order and instead open up a new time between the seasons, often also come with a shorter half-life than those with an exploitable, capitalist benefit — but, like Iride Peis Concas’ report, they also evoke particularly intense memories. Telling these stories is what keeps the essence and existence of these places alive.
We can prepare and brace ourselves as much as we want, but ultimately it is the weather that determines how we truly feel and the place that decides which of its faces it reveals to us. The sea alone has infinitely many.
At the North Sea, I found myself tempted to retreat behind a sand dune and stay there forever, while the Baltic Sea greeted me with an overwhelming jellyfish infestation. In the middle of the beach sat a little boy in the sand, who seemed to understand the jellyfish as insentient material, neatly dissecting them with his shovel with an oblivious painlessness so unique to children. Then, with the solemn yet comical earnestness akin to that of a seasoned professional, he meticulously sorted the individual fragments into various sand holes according to a certain order that will likely remain unknown throughout the course of history. Because that is what we mean to the world in general and the places we travel to in particular: more or less brutal but always inappropriate interventions, noise, dirt, a deep dependence on natural surroundings, the persistent expectation of a warm welcome, the desire to align what we encounter with our own supposedly intricate complexities, and the endlessly obtrusive search for a reflection of ourselves in found objects, talismans, street goods, amidst trinkets and self-discovery.
But even the streets belong to goats, the ground with its endless depths and cavities to everything that creeps and crawls. The night we never knew to claim and in the air we could only ever scrounge a temporary, machine-dependent stay. As vehicles of mobility, our bodies are insufficient, for real high-altitude flights too ill-equipped and, in general, our thought-swamped water-heads hinder the speed we would need to escape the discomfort of self-awareness (of introspection), as we have hastily been trying to do ever since the journey began.
But an experience that truly pushes us to our limits can, if necessary, even or especially be had in a soft hotel bed or on an unmown lawn, so long as we are on unfamiliar terrain and the emergency exit is out of sight.
Such is the way we travel: uncertain, vulnerable, exposed to ridicule; in constant search of a familiar moment and with too much baggage.
Talisa, on the other hand, ventures down an unexplored path at a spot we would have missed, leading to the auspicious place nearby that I never found. In the midst of a crowd beneath a blanket of noise, the safety of a vaguely familiar scent awaits behind coarse glass; a resting place for a moment of peace, like the typical gait of a person you once knew or even loved, on the street, or catching a glimpse of the window to the room you once lived in. She returns from her travels with a picture of this one place among many that we will never find, but will always miss. It looks out at us from the confines of its frame, from a sanctuary preserving the force of a memory of a homeland yet untouched: unscathed through time, through all weather and all days, against all forlornness.
ICHNVSA by Talisa Lallai // 2023, Verlag für moderne Kunst
design by: Studio Thomas Spallek // text by: Thea Mantwill // translation by: Rebecca Grundmann // printed by: Druckerei Kettler
Talisa Lallai lives and works in Düsseldorf.
In her work, she explores questions of origin and identity, which begin autobiographically in her own origins as a child of southern Italian parents. While travelling, she develops a repertoire of images of an abstract and idealized idea of her fictitious homeland. Talisas smells of home are fireplaces in winter and year-round: tomato sauce. In questionable times she watches trash tv or birds - someone always knows what to do.