Interview with Sjoerd Knibbeler

Foam curator Claudia Küssel talked to Sjoerd Knibbeler (1981) about his works, his process, folding paper planes and what fascinates him in photography.


Current Study #3, 2013 © Sjoerd Knibbeler

Moving air, wind, a tornado; the work of Sjoerd Knibbeler (1981) concentrates on visualising invisible natural phenomena through photography. This year seems to become an important year in his career. Knibbeler recently won the Grand Prix du jury Photographie at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography, published his first book Paper Planes, was selected as one of the Foam Talents 2015 and has a show titled Digging up Clouds in the 3h space for upcoming talents in Foam till August 23.

This exhibition joins several recent projects which relate to the movement of air and themes like flying, clouds and climatology. Knibbeler creates and simulates in his studio environment and follows his almost boyish curiosity in carrying out his mostly fragile ephemeral constructions with simple materials like paper, plastic or MDF.

Knibbeler is a master of creating suggestive images that have an ultimate aesthetical presence and create substantial tension which makes you doubt the realness of his images. However, everything that he photographs is real. Using the illusionistic, or as he puts it, “the magical” qualities of the camera, is what Knibbeler finds most intriguing in the medium. Both through the materials he uses for his constructions and the conditions he tries to visualise, he explores the paradoxical relation between the still, two-dimensional character of photography and his often transparent, moving, voluminous subjects.

CK: You have titled the exhibition Digging up Clouds, can you explain the title and your fascination for capturing natural phenomena like air, wind and clouds?

SK: In the summer of 2013, I travelled to Iceland and visited a geothermal power station at the Krafla caldera in the north east of the island. Right beside this breath-taking volcanic crater a huge steam vent was continuously releasing water vapor as a byproduct of the energy that is generated in the power plant. The sheer magnitude and force of the clouds that were released in to the sky was mesmerizing and left me feeling really small and insignificant. At the same time I realized that I was witnessing a natural phenomenon, harnessed and constructed by man. I think this paradox has become part of the human condition and, looking back now, was the same paradox I addressed when I set myself the challenge to photograph the wind.

The objects that you photograph are formed through meticulous research and result in  experimental constructions in the studio using a diverse range of materials. In this sense your process resembles the approach of a sculptor. Can you explain the importance of capturing these objects in an image instead of presenting the real object?

The images feature objects, but I like to think of them as sets. The assemblage of the sets featured in the Current Study series, serves to conduct, capture or obstruct the current of air that flows through or around it. What excites me is to find and capture a balance between the visible reference and the invisible subject. That search consists of adding and taking away elements in a set and shaping them in such a way that the function of the camera shifts from being the least capable tool to capture the wind to being the most perfect. It is a trial and error process from which an image should result that has a presence rather than a reference, since I believe that that presence might be the most adequate way for me to visualize what I cannot see.


Current Study #1, 2013 © Sjoerd Knibbeler

Besides photo works from the series Current Studies, this exhibition presents some spatial works, a slideshow of the series Paper Planes and a video of a concentrating stunt pilot as he prepares his flight manoeuvres. Can you describe your process that results in working with different media?

I am interested in creating a world that follows its own logic and in which the associative process is key. Although I create most of my work in my studio, a lot of inspiration comes from research that I do outside of the studio. I visit places and question people, mostly in the fields of science and engineering. My findings inform the work I do in the studio, which can vary from simply coming up with a new technique to inviting a stunt pilot to collaborate on a video work. My studio then becomes a sort of laboratory where I try to establish connections between large subject matters like aviation, aerodynamics and climatology.

How do you create a tornado in the studio?

Tornadoes can appear in very different scales. From hurricane size to much smaller dust devils that can even develop here in the Netherlands on a hot summer day: the mechanism of these phenomena is the same. The tornado I was able to capture for Vortex, was in fact quite small. I built a glass case with gaps between each of its four corners. Using a vacuum cleaner inserted on the top of the case, I then created a pressure difference. Air flows inside through the gaps, creating the vortex and by adding fog – made from dry ice – it became visible.


Wamira, 2014 © Sjoerd Knibbeler

In the exhibition you present a slide projection of the series Paper Planes which is also presented in your new eponymous book, published by Fw:. Can you describe how you came across these objects which you have recreated in paper yourself?

There is a very dedicated online community of aviation enthusiasts who share their knowledge on these historic aircraft on Internet fora and other specialized websites. There I found design drawings, photographs of mock-ups and prototypes, descriptions and other information on which I based the origami models for this series. Some of these aircraft designs are over eighty years old and what struck me is that though they have failed as physical aircraft, they still fly around the world in the virtual form of data.

The airplane represents man’s ultimate desire to overcome one of the greatest challenges of mankind. Like Icarus was punished for his recklessness and failed to fly, the airplanes you have recreated in paper never made it into air. Can you explain your fascinations with these technical failures?

The engineer who wants to excel and, in pursuing his ambitions, loses sight of reality is a story I believe we can all identify with. In aviation, but also in a lot of other technology we make use of today, inventions and developments are often first initiated for military purposes. There is a big gap between this rather pure dream of an invention and the purpose for which such a technological advancement is made. For me, these aircraft represent that paradox.


Unfold (Project Y), 2015 © Sjoerd Knibbeler

Are there more aspects within the themes of this project that you would like to further explore?

At the moment I’m collaborating with the aerodynamics department of the Technical University of Delft to create a new work. There I can make use of their wind tunnels to do tests and create new images. It’s the first time that I am really working in collaboration with scientists and I’m really excited about this.

About Sjoerd Knibbeler

Sjoerd Knibbeler graduated from The Royal Academy of Fine Art, The Hague. His works were featured at Unseen Photo Fair by his representing gallery LhGWR, in 2014. This year Sjoerd Knibbeler was selected as the winner of the Grand Prix du jury Photographie at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography 2015 (30th edition).
He was selected as one of the Foam Talents 2015 and his exhibition Digging up Clouds runs till 23 August 2015 in Foam.

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