Mario Kiesenhofer works internationally as a freelance artist, photographer, and graphic designer. He is based in Vienna, where he studied fine arts and photography at the Academy of Fine Arts. In his artistic work, he uses photography, video, and installations in order to reflect upon notions of gay sexuality as represented in urban environments, private and public spaces, and clubs.
Alongside his work as a fine artist, he frequently photographs lookbooks for young designers, organizes exhibitions in Japan, and designs photo publications.
FilepMotwary: Mario, talk to me about your sex club photo story. How did it all start? Can you walk us through the process?
MarioKiesenhofer: I’ve been dealing with the political concept of sex in the public sphere for a long time. In the series INDOOR, I’m interested in how the practice of gay cruising is reflected in the interior design of gay clubs. (Cruising denotes the process of searching for sexual partners in public places, especially by gay men.) This interest has led me to spend around two years traveling to gay bars, saunas, and gay clubs in places like New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna in order to probe and question these spaces with my camera. In places like these, there’s usually a strict “gay men only” policy at the door—and this is often joined by other limitations having to do with things like fetish-related dress codes and a person’s falling within certain bodily norms or age groups. I’m usually given a time frame of one-to-two hours before a location opens for business during which I can photograph it as an empty space. This time is quite peaceful and meditative, in a way, since I can explore the dimly lit rooms on my own in order to select pictorial motifs that make sense to me.
I then exhibit the photographic insights I’ve gleaned from these explorations, framed and mounted behind grey-tinted smoked glass. This serves to darken the images, and it restores a bit of the intimacy possessed by these spatial motifs in reality. So I provide glimpses into spaces where access is otherwise quite restricted, although I also filter them—thus once again concealing something. The spatial motifs, which are quite dark to begin with, are lent a hyper-real quality by the glass filters: black areas become even blacker, and the high reflectivity of the glass enables me to also involve the viewer in the work. At the same time, of course, these underpopulated images are also about the absence of bodies and about blank spaces—thus questioning the subject.
FM: How does one decide what to focus on in his or her work? Is it something you discover by accident, or have you always been carrying it with you?
MK: My own sexual orientation does play a role here, of course. Growing up as a young gay men definitely influenced me and my artistic approach. I grew up more or less having to hide my sexuality. So it was all the more exciting, after I’d come out, to discover the gay world for myself and build up a certain sexual self-confidence—the kind of self-confidence that today, unfortunately, has to be defended once more in a world where right-wing populism is experiencing renewed social acceptability and human rights are being trampled upon. I think that queer visibility is very important, here, and this visibility is also a theme of my artistic work.
FM: Fashion stories are a common canvas for photographers and stylists. But how do you compose your own stories?
MK: My artistic photography, objects, and installations always reflect the medium itself. To this end, I often work with various different photographic display materials. One of the important things here is how certain conditions, such as intimacy, can be expressed via materials.
Color as such is also an important component of my work—whether it’s colored paper backgrounds in fashion shoots at the studio or the tinted light at the gay clubs that I portray. A well-considered approach to color is always important to me. Color in the form of text can also be quite inspiring—I’m thinking here of Derek Jarman’s book Blue.
FM: What is the most inspiring thing for you at the moment?
MK: There’s nothing more stimulating than taking a break and admiring the complexity of an urban surrounding or the tension of a nice outdoor gay cruising spot in the woods (laughs).
FM: Do you have any obsessions in terms of characters or models you use? Stories that you always come back to when inventing a photo context?
MK: When it comes to fashion photography, it’s all about the team behind a shooting. I do work very closely with the designers, and I’m always involved in the photo concept—including the model casting process. I love inventing a story for an entire collection in the form of a lookbook, and the models I use have to go well with the story.
When it comes to my art, I usually work alone—without models—and the story I tell depends on the context.
FM: How do you see photography’s evolution over the past 3-4 years? What it is that you find most interesting?
MK: I think that smartphone cameras and the omnipresence of photos and videos on platforms like Instagram have shifted reality more and more towards the digital realm over the past few years. One could claim that the digital depiction of physical reality has become reality as such, and I find it interesting to connect these different concepts. I do mostly digital photography. But the real—or one could say “analog”—experience of the photographic object in the context of an exhibition is essential to understanding my works. The works in the series INDOOR, for example, are often made so dark by the smoked glass they’re mounted behind that they remind one of reflective black smartphone screens.
FM: What do you find interesting in experimenting with alternative photographic subjects or ideals, like architecture?
MK: I like to explore concepts like sexuality, landscape, architecture, and the private and public, as well as to engage with the overlaps between them and how these become visible.
FM: What is the process behind your selection of the images for each project?
MK: The selection process begins when I release the shutter. So when I’m standing in a gay darkroom with a tripod and attempting to portray the spatial concept in my own way, the act of taking the pictures already constitutes a selection in and of itself. Afterwards, in postproduction, I view the individual pictures in the context of the series and choose them accordingly.
When I shoot models in a fashion context, there are usually more pictures than necessary, and a lot depends on a model’s presence. And since I—ideally—also do the graphic design for the lookbooks I work on, I can adapt the selection of photos to the graphic design, which means that all of it ultimately bears my handwriting.
FM: What are you working on right now?
MK: One of my latest works, Island – Elia Beach, Mykonos, is the beginning of a new series that focuses on the insular concentration of desire and homosexuality. I’m going to continue this series on Fire Island in New York, to explore Foucault’s theory of the island as a heterotopia. And for that, I’ve obtained a 3-month artist residency in New York City in 2018. It’s something I’m looking forward to very much.
Artwork order or appearance in the interview:
INDOOR – Magnum, Budapest; 2015
INDOOR – Boiler, Berlin; 2016
INDOOR – Dock, Tokyo; 2016
INDOOR – Eagle, New York City; 2016
INDOOR – Eagle, Vienna; 2015
INDOOR – The Backstreet, London; 2017
INDOOR – The Bunker, London; 2017