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Interview: ‘Artist+Magician’

David Ethier  interviews for Huckberry Journal
March, 2014 | London

Behind the makings of the most incredible places on earth.

We recently had a chance to correspond with Gus Petro, a Swiss artist whose work you may have become familiar with last summer. His three-part series, Merge, Dense, and Empty, caught the imagination of the Internet as it contrasted New York City with the Grand Canyon.

The surreal images were so exceptionally rendered that some believed his Merge series was an actual place. We caught him as he was coming up for air after a long winter, finalizing his most recent series: Weld, Core, and Edge.

Despite having grown up the son of a fine art photographer, collecting and learning how to use cameras as a child, Gus didn’t have an early desire to become a photographer himself. In fact, he pushes back when asked about what led him to become one:

I like to think of myself as an artist or visual artist, if you will, instead of photographer. I grew up learning how to use film, but, by age fifteen, I’d grown much more attracted to drawing and painting. Later, when the time came to select a direction, I chose to study architecture. I graduated with an MA in Architecture and Urban Planning.

It wasn’t until I’d been in that field for a few years that I began to find limitations. I was having a hard time expressing my ideas through architecture alone, which led me to this medium.

That’s not to say Petro has abandoned his roots. When drawing inspiration, Gus often relies on his experience within architecture and urban planning:

My background has a lot to do with the work I make. I use the same philosophy and principles of composition. Proportion, volume, light, materials and their textures each play a role in the overall aesthetic and concept of a piece. My Master’s thesis investigated sustainable urban area development, which I think is essential; it’s the reason architecture continues to play such a big role in my work. 

His work, known for the juxtaposition of urban and open landscapes, is a reconceptualization of space and mindset. In his Weld series, for example, Petro pushes London to the edge. Literally. When the Center Meets the End point – London on the Edge of Europe elicits a new sense of perspective by reimagining existing places in an unfamiliar fashion. When asked how he developed this style, Gus explains that his contrasts aren’t created simply for novel effect, but to complicate how we feel in a variety of settings:

The difference one feels in urban and open landscapes is an important factor. Nature makes us feel free, as if the world belongs to everyone. Yet, urban – especially dense areas – gives the opposite feeling, as if the space belongs to just a few.

It corresponds with a great influence of his, which centers around the idea of fixed perspective based on one’s country of origin:

People cannot choose where they want to be in this world. The spectrum of freedom is predetermined by nationality. I dream of a United World.

His recent work, Weld, Core, and Edge, is even more ambitious than fitting the NYC skyline inside the Grand Canyon. Petro traveled between London, England and Algarve, Portugal for the series, this time focused on contrasting two symbolically opposite places of Europe. He frames London as the pulsing heart of Europe and the Algarve region as the symbolic edge of it (folks used to think this region really was the end of the world).

When asked about his process – whether he arrives on location with a specific intent or allows a piece to come about organically – Gus is straightforward:

Research and planning is essential. I can get away with a little improvisation, but I have to choose locations in advance. I use natural light, so I need to predetermine time and location as much as possible. I wish I had more control over it; I often have to leave great images behind simply because of incompatible lighting.

Considering travel, location scouting, thousands of images taken on site, and the Photoshop magic that comes afterward, it seemed appropriate to ask how long each project takes:

This took me a bit longer than I initially planned. I did research and planning in summer, shot in autumn, and completed digital manipulation during winter.

What’s in the pipeline for the future?

New projects in the Middle and Far East.

Interview: ‘A Forging and a Fusing’

Patricia Silva interviews for Portuguese American Journal
March, 2014 | New York City

Patricia: How did you come to know London and the Algarve?

Gus: After Empty, Dense, and Merge, I wanted to do my next project in my home continent Europe, and these locations seemed to be the right places for the concept I had.

Patricia: London and Algarve have such different, opposing senses of light. London’s sky is so selfish with its glow while the Algarve is ever generous with sun. How did you reconcile the role light plays in each region for the Weld project?

Gus: Yes, skies and light were different most of the time. Some of the locations, which I wanted to implement in this project, I had to leave behind just because of the incompatible lighting. While working with such big scale real world objects, I have no control over light. The only thing I can do is to be at the right place and at the right time.

Patricia: What sense of feeling and/or emotion does architecture pose for you?

Gus: Even though Merge and Weld projects both contain similar subject matter (urban landscapes) they trigger different emotional responses. For me, these works erase boundaries between the impossible and the possible. It feels like the world can actually change and be more united than it is today.

Patricia: You have said that Weld is about “when the center meets the end point.”

Gus: I looked at Europe as a whole, with its pulsing heart in the center—’core’; and the skin on the border—’edge’. I chose not only iconic but symbolic locations: London, which once used to be the center of Europe (the core of western civilization), and the Algarve region in Portugal, which was once considered as the ending point of the world. The project ‘welds’ together the ‘core’ and the ‘edge’ of Europe.

Patricia: Are you aware of the socio-political history between Portugal and England? Not only do Londoners love to vacation in Portugal, but the Brits got their tea time, marmalade and India via Portuguese marriage. Both countries are linked by Port and textile trades, as well as colonialism.

Was this part of your research for Weld?

Gus: I’m glad you pointed this out. It was as an insight to me. Coming up with this concept and knowing the Portuguese-British history, it felt that these locations were the right choice in many ways. I’m always after a strong concept which has many layers of readability.

Patricia: How much time have you spent in Portugal, and what impressions has my country of birth left with you?

Gus: I spend 10 days in Portugal, and drove from Faro to Porto along the coastline. Portugal is great. I mean it! Its nature first of all, both seascape and landscape. Fresh seafood all over. People are really nice, friendly and welcoming. Every time I had an interaction with someone it felt like I made a new friend. There were some special moments which will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. Like driving at 3AM alongside edge of Europe, at Sagres, to meet sunrise at the location I had scouted a day before. Down in the beach

I saw a tent in a cave where a guy slept. While I was on the Edge, he got out naked and went to swim. Whole beach was only his. He is present in one of my works.

Patricia: What a great story! And what was your first attraction: architecture or photography?

Gus: When I was 16-18, my first attraction was painting and drawing.  My second was architecture. My father was a photographer so I collected old film cameras during my youth. That’s when I learned to use mechanical cameras. I still think they are much more magical than digital ones.

Patricia: I completely agree, the further back one goes, the more magical cameras become. Do you identify as a photographer?

Gus: I don’t take many pictures, only when there is something I want to say in that way. That’s why I think of myself as an artist, not a photographer. I don’t like it when journalists call me a photographer instead of an artist, but they do so because it is more intuitive for most readers. You see, here is another boundary which needs to be erased. For me camera is just a tool; and digital images are just the medium with which I work.

Patricia: Do you have any influences that have stayed with you as you develop your art works?

Gus: My background in architecture and urban planning has a lot to do with the work I make. My Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the Academy of Arts was heavily orientated in artistic expression, mainly based on philosophy and principles of composition, proportions, volumes, light, materials and their textures: overall aesthetics, concept and of course, functionality. Actually, I use the very same principles while I create my artworks.

My Master’s thesis and final project in Architecture and Urban Planning program were set around ‘sustainable urban areas development’. This background is essential for me, and the reason architecture plays such a big role in my artworks.

Patricia: How long did it take you to develop Weld?

Gus: It took me much longer than I initially planned. I planned it in summer, shot in autumn, and completed digital manipulation during winter.

Patricia: I can see why PhotoShop would easily enable juxtapositions, but what about the emotional side of such layering?

Gus: Working with images, instead of paint or other medium, enables me to create photo-realistic pictures, which can be a very powerful emotional trigger. But for some, it’s just a nice photograph. These are reflections of the society we live in.

Patricia: Colour and mood are so integral to the experience of a thing, and so much of a digital workflow is rooted in going beyond the pixel, it’s actually a very…human process of mediating perceptions.

Gus: We could make a whole discussion on this. In Edge, I wanted to represent a state of mind when one feels as if they are standing on the edge, but gazes from a distance at the core. That’s why the sky and the sea are so heavily desaturated, nearly black and white, while the land is in colour. In my work, the concept drives the outcome, not the skills or the software. I don’t mind if people don’t understand that colour and mood are an integral part of the work. I don’t ask them to appreciate how hard it was to achieve. The most important thing is how they experience the artwork. When they look at it, it becomes a part of them—a real-time performance, and what happens in their head at that moment, and the moments to come, is the key to me.

Patricia: Do you see that performance as cultural, spatial, or both?

Gus: Even though I create the parameters, I think that it heavily depends on the personality and which performance the viewer enters. It might be only spatial, which is probably the easiest to enter, but could be also cultural, social, political or other, which requires not only knowledge to enter in all those layers, but also willingness. There are always those who look at it and say ‘I don’t get it’, but there are also those who tell me ‘When I saw it I stared at it for two minutes and I just couldn’t do anything’. And what happens inside of them during that time is the performance I’m going after.

PressGus Petro