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Gregor Sailer’s surreal photography: architecture on the fringes of civilization

In the new exhibition “Unseen Places” at Kunst Haus Wien, Gregor Sailer looks back on 20 years of work in inaccessible landscapes, sealed off territories and restricted military areas

The places that Gregor Sailer visits in his long-term projects are geographically and visually beyond perception. They are places of raw material extraction, political buffer zones, deserted landscapes, “backdrop” cities, places of camouflage and deception.

His photographic journeys are preceded by meticulous research and often years of preparation to uncover the dynamics that lead to the existence of these places. Sailer presents them in a reduced, calm and deserted imagery.

Under the title “Unseen Places”, the thematic exhibition at Kunst Haus Wien orchestrates parts of six photographic series by Sailer on two floors. The works range from his early days photographing underground spaces in German cities (subspace) on his latest project, The Polar Silk Roadwhich culminated in an impressively illustrated book, including a collector’s edition that was published by Kehrer Verlag.

University of Dortmund2005, from the series subspace © Johannes Naumann, Gregor Sailer, Stefan Tuschy, image rights Vienna 2022

The exhibition, curated by Verena Kaspar-Eisert, opens with pictures from The Potemkin Villages capturing the deceptive appearances of settlements composed only of cheerfully painted facades and the Russian myth that underlies them. With shots of backdrop cities for military close combat training and vehicle testing in the USA and Europe, as well as detailed replicas of European cities in China, Sailer’s images give the viewer access to the world of forgeries and question the absurd excesses of today’s society.

“Three oversized images printed on tarpaulins demonstrate the tension between truth and deception even more drastically,” explains Kaspar-Eisert. While Sailer’s work often takes him to remote, inhospitable parts of the world, he is not afraid to uncover the unnerving truths on his doorstep. This is strong in The box, which sheds light on a dark chapter in Schwaz, Tyrol, where the photographer was born in 1980. During World War II, forced laborers worked underground in historic tunnels that became a factory for aircraft construction. To shed light on these tunnels and their complex history, Sailer brought his equipment 2,000m underground.

Gregory Sailer, Industrial Site, Ras Laffan, Qatar, 2010, from the series closed cities. © Gregor Sailer, image rights: Vienna 2022

During the series closed cities highlights artificially created urban zones that are hermetically sealed off from the outside world, The Polar Silk Road deals with the economic exploitation of the arctic regions. Enduring snowstorms and minus 50 degrees Celsius for more than four years, Sailer documented research stations and oil platforms, but also the silent arms race in neighboring countries and made the global power struggle for the Arctic economic area tangible.

Sailer describes his curiosity about capturing the structural change in the landscape and the complex political, military and economic implications of architecture: “I’m much more interested in conveying substantial content through architectural objects than in showing people.”

Subway Bochum2005, from the series subspace © Johannes Naumann, Gregor Sailer, Stefan Tuschy, image rights Vienna 2022

Sailer’s father worked as an architect and offered him formative access and sensitization to architecture, space, spatial effects and the context of light and landscape from an early age. Today they shape the characteristics of his work: diffuse light that illuminates rooms and empty spaces and shadows. This is how the architecture comes into its own, he says. Giving space to the objects and rarely getting caught up in the details; quiet, poetic transcendence prevails in Sailer’s often surreal images. With only one shot per subject, he is a perfectionist when it comes to photography with his analog large format camera. “It’s very slow and static, and I have to accept the basic assumptions of the setting, the geography and the elements,” Sailer says of his process.

Curator Kaspar-Eisert alludes to the severe uncanniness of his pictures: “Gregor Sailer is not an artist who makes things easy for his audience. He challenges because he works so concentrated and precise… Sailer doesn’t let you look the other way.” §

Gregory Sailer, Military Station, Norway2020, from the series The Polar Silk Road © Gregor Sailer, image rights: Vienna 2022

Portrait of Sailer at work in Siberia, ©Philipp Sailer

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