During a time of global crisis due to COVID-19, we can be reminded of the dangers of xenophobia, particularly towards vulnerable, displaced immigrant communities. Popular media often portrays immigrants seeking a better life as victims or criminals, rarely recognizing them as heroic figures blazing new paths through foreign lands. That’s where the work of artists Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer begins.
Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, their new series of elaborately staged photographs and videos reveals the noble and courageous aspects of immigrant and first-generation narratives.
“We started working together 14 years ago at University,” Cooper says. “We did our Master’s thesis together. When you are in grad school, the sky is the limit and you have impossible ideas. Even though we come from different backgrounds, we share similar ideas. Nina came from architecture and I came from classical photography but we found a common ground of creativity: we were exploring the world and could use any medium.”
After reading an article about the West losing its ability to imagine utopia, the artists became intrigued with the possibility of discovering a space where it might exist today. “How can you create a better world?” Gorfer asks. “We have tried so many times to construct it. When you think utopia you think architecture and political systems — very mind-based creations. We are creating utopia outside ourselves. Whereas you read Eastern philosophy, you look inside and that’s nirvana.”
Fascinated by the possibility of discovering utopia within, Cooper and Gorfer set off on a project that would take them on an inner journey to become the change they wanted to see in this world. At the time, Cooper was living in Sweden and Gorfer in Berlin, while Europe was beginning to address the refugee crisis. As the feeling of distance and disconnection surrounded them, the desire for utopia increased. But where might they find it?
They started exploring youth culture and “the idea of hybrid — of having one foot in religion or philosophy, then having the other foot in another space,” Cooper says. “For us, the young immigrant had the key to the future. There were possibilities in a past place and also in this new place, while also dealing with issues of acceptance and non-acceptance. They became our avatars of a curiosity of what they felt and had to say combined within our own yearning and searching.”
Cooper and Gorfer began meeting immigrants and first-generation Swedes coming of age, on the cusp of adulthood but not quite fully occupying that space. Here, in a tender state of transformation, their latest project was born: Cooper & Gorfer: Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, a forthcoming exhibition at Fotografiska New York featuring hybrid portrait photographs and a documentary film.
The artists began by meeting young women for an unrecorded interview. “It was an intuitive process. We didn’t know where it’s going to lead,” Cooper says. “Sometimes a person will break down and we realized it was too difficult to continue. Other times, someone realized they had something to say and they hadn’t been able to do so. We were able to give them a voice and introduce them to one another. It was beautiful for them to create a group, define themselves as women, and share their knowledge with each other.”
Understanding the limitations of the classical photograph is a fragment of time frozen in place. Cooper and Gorfer embraced elements of painting, film, literature, and music to create photographs that would render invisible but ever-present elements like memories, moods, and wounds in the work. “We are interested in storytelling and how the mind works as opposed to what we call reality,” Gorfer says.
“An image doesn’t really contain all of the aspects of a moment, person, or a place. In Magical Realism, there is a mix of reality, fiction, and philosophical ideas that haven’t been explored in photography in the same way. In our work, you see the deconstruction and reconstruction of the image, like a patchwork of different memories — an overlaying of different threads merged together into one continuous visualization of an inner space.”
In constructing a theatrical environment Cooper and Gorfer invite their sitters to create characters of themselves. “It’s almost like a masquerade,” Cooper says. “We gave them the chance to make their own personal avatars where they become a higher version of themselves. We do very gigantic prints so that when you see them in a gallery they are larger, lifelike goddesses towering above you. We are meeting them in a fabricated world, a utopia that is neither here nor there.”
For the sitters, the journey to their moment in front of the camera takes many forms. One of the young women in the project moved from Afghanistan to Iran with her family, then made the trip to Sweden on her own over a period of one to two years. They asked her to read a statement for the documentary film and ended up shooting 40 takes to ensure the wording was perfect. “This was a process of defining what had happened and how it affected her,” Gorfer says. “It’s not easy for anyone to go through what she went through, then to tell someone who will listen and care.”
Fotografiska New York is temporarily closed due to COVID-19; however, Cooper & Gorfer: Between These Folded Walls, Utopia will be installed once it reopens in the near future.