Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Klaus Pichler's Viennese Allotments

all pictures copyright Klaus Pichler

I have posted previously on Andrew Buurman's lovely book, Allotments. It ties in with my own experience of allotments and growing vegetables and flowers (Cosmos mostly - millions of them, in great big fecking bunches!). 

So it was with some fascination that I saw Klaus Pichler's wonderful series on Viennese allotments - a very different story with dashes of claustrophobia, solitude and paranoia.

It was with that in mind that I asked Klaus a few questions. Below are his excellent answers. 

See also his Urbanautica interview here.

Klaus will be in the November edition of the BJP in an artcile of mine that features 7 different photographers and their collaboration - don't miss it. It's absolutely fascinating. . 

1. Who uses allotments in Austria:

This is a very good question, because in the last few years a major change in the social structures and population in those garden colonies was noticeable. At the moment, there are 26.000 allotments in Vienna (where most of my project took place), which is a quite high amount compared to the population of Vienna (2 million people). Initially the gardens were invented to create space for a subsistence economy and the question of living in the colonies had no relevance or it was forbidden to live there permanently. In the past 15 years the law that regulated the usage of the gardens was changed, and now it is possible to build bigger houses and to live in the colonies throughout the whole year. Before that most of the users came from a working class background, using the gardens for growing vegetables and fruits, and as a retreat from their small flats in community buildings. Within the last 15 to 20 years, the population has changed a lot and the 'old' users now more and more get replaced by younger people or even families who live there throughout the whole year. They combine the two advantages of the gardens – living in 'green'  surroundings within an urban area. Besides that, some of the older people that were using 'their' allotment over the last decades are still there, but now living in compact houses and enjoying their retirement in the gardens. I visited the 'Allotment Fair' in Vienna last year, expecting to see a variety of garden gnome designers and seed producers, but surprisingly instead of that, most of the exhibitors were architects or companies that have something to do with construction – which was an indicator for me that allotments indeed are a market and that a massive change is going on in the usage and population.

2. What are they used for:

As I said above, there was and is a major change in the population, and with that also the usage of the gardens is changing. The spaces for growing vegetables and food, formerly the biggest part of the gardens, have almost disappeared and now there are mostly spaces for recreational purposes or for cultivating flower gardens. I always describe them as some kind of outdoor living rooms (at least in summer), bearing a lot of recreational functions (pool, deck chairs, suites) and a lot of adornment and flowers.   

There are a lot of hedges and boundaries - does this say something about the Austrian psyche?

Haha, maybe, although I don't think that this is a specifically 'Austrian' thing. I think it is some kind of a (not only) human elemental need to set boundaries, to claim a territory as one's 'own'. And since the space of the allotments is limited and people are living really close to each other, the hedges are somehow 'necessary' to feel private.
One strange thing I noticed is that the height of the hedges definitely says something about the personality of the people who live behind it: the higher the hedge, the less the chance to find people behind it who were interested in taking part in my project. And vice versa: if I noticed a garden without high boundaries, I was almost sure that I would meet a person with an open mind.

Why did you choose to photograph allotments?

I have always been fascinated by the somehow surreal and picturesque world of the garden colonies. I originally grew up in a small village in the countryside and always loved being in the woods and enjoying nature. When I moved to Vienna in the mid-90s I began to discover these allotments and was intrigued by them for, in my opinion, being an attempt to create an artificial 'nature' within an urban area. The mixture of cultivated garden idylls, depicting a petty bourgeois ideal of 'green living', and the strange mood of calmness and, somehow, paranoia always caught my attention. Over the years it has always been clear for me that I will make a series about these colonies one time, and in 2010 I felt ready for realizing this idea and to capture allotment life throughout a whole year.

What specific features did you choose to focus on?

There are certainly more series that focus on allotment gardens done by other photographers from other countries, and when I began to prepare my own work there, I noticed that one thing was, in most of the cases, missing: the work and effort it takes to cultivate a garden. So this was a major point for me, to capture the permanent work that has to be done to put nature in her place. This never-ending work sometimes felt like an end in itself to me, like a therapeutic approach to fight against inner unrest. This is maybe also a reason why so many gardens look like outdoor living-rooms, styled and trimmed over the top.

The other thing was a more emotional thing: I noticed that I felt something whenever I entered the gated world of the garden colonies: some feelings of paranoia, reclusiveness, perfectionism and sometimes also loneliness. This didn't fit to the perfect idylls and I began to take these feelings more seriously and to include them in the basic concept of the series. The pictures of the series are to a good amount staged pictures, but not in a way where you notice at first sight that it is a staged picture. I tried to combine the appearance of the allotments, the permanent work of the inhabitants and my personal feelings towards the gardens into the pictures- this all with a little exaggeration to capture the absurdity of garden life. My way of working was to walk through the colonies and to get in contact with people who were working in the gardens. I explained my project to them and, if they were willing to take part in it, we together began to develop ideas for the picture – sometimes the persons came up with their own idea how the picture should look like, sometimes it was my idea, sometimes a cooperation. As soon as it was clear what the picture idea was all about, we realized it together. And, surprisingly, almost everyone who was photographed liked the photo of himself – although the appearances in which the persons are depicted definitely aren't the most flattering ones...

What are the difficulties of photographing allotments?
I maybe say nothing new, since this is probably the major issue with all photo series that focus on people, but: the main difficulty was to find people who were willing to take part in the project. I didn't contact any of the community administrations in advance, because I wanted to find people at work, unprepared and out of their everyday life to work with. This was a tricky situation, because it was hard to convince people that I didn't want to see their Sunday dress, but to capture them in their everyday actions. Of course, there were plenty of people I met who were not interested at all, some telling me about that in a quite harsh way, but on average around 15% of the people asked were interested. One thing that made work difficult was that there are lots of housebreakings and I was more than once mistaken for a burglar. This led to sometimes quite annoying situations where I got threatened and treated not so well.

One other thing was that getting in contact with the inhabitants was not so easy because of the amount of hedges and other boundaries – I just heard that there was someone behind the boundaries, but I didn't see anyone. I didn't want to seem obtrusive, so I just contacted people I was seeing and didn't ring any bell or open any door to get in contact, so this was kind of inherent to the concept.
All in all it was a really interesting experience to spend so much time in the gardens, meeting some nice people as well as some really strange or nasty ones (which was an experience for itself), getting to know a lot about everyday needs in garden life and, sometimes, also being a substitute (kitchen) psychologist for some of the people I have met there.

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