What does a Barbie Doll from the 1970’s have to do with a George Balanchine ballet? Everything according to Connecticut-based photographer, Anya Liftig, who finds inspiration in both. Using her lens to connect with the places she visits, from Little Appalachia to Burma, Liftig’s photographs capture the essence of the worlds where she has been. Often the scenes and objects she finds representative - an old Trouble game board or spool of colored ribbon - are not innately visually stimulating. But, with a scrutinizing eye and sardonic sense of humor, Liftig’s photographs highlight the cultural implications of her subject matter. Recently, she looked at eyeglass display cases in Japan and plastic baby figurines from her personal collection. What’s interesting about plastic babies? You’ll just have to look at her work to find out.
Stay Thirsty: You describe yourself as a collector first and an artist second. How do the memories and objects that you collect become the pretext for your art?
Anya Liftig: I’ve always been a collector and I’ve always thought about how objects and materiality can be related to nostalgia and loss. Although most people perceive the collection as an accumulation, I believe it is about filling a void. A child who collects Smurfs is more concerned with the Smurfette or Smurfmobile he doesn’t have than the Smurfs he already has. A veteran collector is somebody who is trying to fill a hole. This void is something that I relate to in my artwork. For me, accumulation is the physical manifestation of loss, be it of the past or of an emotion.
Anya Liftig, image from Sculpture/
3D Object series, 2008
(click to enlarge)
Stay Thirsty: Is collecting an artwork in itself?
Anya Liftig: I firmly believe that the artwork is in all of it. The artwork is in the potential for and execution of the artwork. I feel like I’m making art when I go and accumulate – whether it’s a tag sale or the Salvation Army. Is the collection something that somebody can buy and stick on a wall? No. But, I have a very liberal perception of artwork and art making. Whether it’s my type of collection or not, as long as you perceive a process or object as an important part of your life, it can be deemed artwork.
Stay Thirsty: As a sculptor, photographer and performer—how do you decide which medium to use?
Anya Liftig: I like being fluid because each serves a different function. Sculpture is one way that my brain sketches ideas. It keeps my hands busy. So, I sketch with sculpture and found objects. Photography has two functions: there is the lyrical vein and then the documentary component to my performances. My first love will probably always be photography.
Stay Thirsty: What is it about photography that you love?
Anya Liftig: If you think about it, a photograph is just chemicals, light and plastic. But, when I go into the darkroom I have the ability to bring back a fleeting moment. This second of captured light is brought back on chemicals and paper. It’s religious, or as close as I get to religion. As a photographer, you spend an immense, exhaustive, amount of time and an exorbitant amount of money attempting to recapture a remnant of an image. A moment that ended the second the shutter clicked. It requires an intense devotion to seeing the world and framing your mind in a particular way.
Anya Liftig, Tending the Garden, Kentucky, 2006
(click to enlarge)
Stay Thirsty: Feeling like an outsider, whether you’re visiting extended family in Kentucky or traveling in Asia, seems important to your art. Does the camera help with that?
Anya Liftig: When I work, I think about connecting to a sense of place and becoming an “insider” through the use of my camera. There is something magical about the inside of a camera and the leap of faith you take that allows the lens to function as your eye. I frequently photograph on the horizontal, in my travel work, consciously trying to elongate the frame. By playing with the landscape view, I extend the experience of the viewer. Or, there are instances when I’m photographing children and I’ll crouch down low for these pictures to try and get the perspective of a child. I want to become part of the space when I work.
Stay Thirsty: Is your approach to working in Kentucky, where you have family, different from your approach to working in Cambodia or Burma, where you are a tourist?
Anya Liftig: Of course. When I was younger, I had some pretensions about making “documentary” images of Kentucky. But I came to realize the only thing I was documenting was my personal visual understanding of my family and home. This realization about Kentucky has changed the way I make images around the world. I don’t make any claims that the travel work is supposed to be documentary or about exposing another culture. It’s about a person who lives her life and is just trying to experience the way that we see. Sometimes I’m an insider and sometimes I’m an outsider. What somebody sees when looking at my work is what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling.
Anya Liftig, Baby Infestation
(click to enlarge)
Stay Thirsty: When I look at your work, especially your recent pieces from Japan, I’m struck by your ability to turn something like a window display or day-to-day object into something worth really looking at. What makes you stop and click?
Anya Liftig: Personally, I am a sucker for humor and oddity. I love pattern and color. The things I find funny are not necessarily the things most people find funny. But, I have a lot of inside jokes with myself and I take my camera out when something makes me laugh. I try to just let myself be as weird as I actually am. The less you edit your innate weirdness, the better the art usually gets.