I first came across Tarrah Krajnak’s work in the winter 2021 issue of Aperture magazine. A portfolio of ruminative, shadowy images from Krajnak’s series 1979: Contact Negatives (2019) that reflects on the year the artist was adopted to the United States from an orphanage in Lima, Peru. For this series, the artist photographed herself in a Los Angeles gallery among projections evoking Lima and places where women were likely assaulted and raped there the same year.
Moved by Krajnak’s work, I ordered her artist book El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths, 2021). Then, we connected through email and eventually on Zoom in June of 2022. When we talked, I was in Brooklyn and she had just wrapped up an exhibition at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles and was preparing a move from nearby Claremont, California, to Eugene, Oregon, to take a teaching job at the University of Oregon. The nature of her projects and the move contributed to her retrospective mood. We spoke about returns, reclamations, purpose, inhabiting poses created by and for different bodies, expectations imposed on women and artists of color, and time.
El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan borrows its title from a 1941 short story of the same name by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges and takes for its ethos ideas about ancestry and existence as plural and unfixed. Krajnak quotes Borges’s short story toward the start of the book: “Your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever-spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times.”
Tell me about your spring 2022 exhibition, Re-Pose, at REDCAT. It seems to relate to Jorge Luis Borges’s expression of ever-spreading, networked, converging/diverging time.
The exhibition at REDCAT was really an older project that I am returning to as a way of reclaiming an earlier part of my career. I was part of a collaborative team very early on, straight out of graduate school. I worked with a partner and we were both interested in performance and the archive. After several years of working together, my partner left the United States for a new life and gave all the work to me. She stopped making art. At the time, I really had to rethink what I was going to do. I had worked on some projects alone, but this was my main identity as an artist at the time. I put the work aside for fifteen years, and built a body of work on my own. At some point, I realized that a lot of the strategies I used early on were still important to my practice—especially this idea of the woman’s pose. Re-Pose is a way of reclaiming this work or maybe continuing it. I always thought it was such great work, and I wanted to reinvent the performance part of it as live performance. I’m in my forties now. I was in my twenties then, so it is also a way of returning to a younger self, thinking about aging, the woman’s body, etc. Re-Pose is sort of like going back to the beginning for me.
How does it work? Can you explain what one might see in Re-Pose?
At REDCAT, they really wanted the exhibition to be process-based, so I thought, “Oh, that would be fun to bring in all my visual materials that I have worked with in the studio over the years related to this idea of the woman’s pose. So, I xeroxed a lot of different photographs—I have a ton of photo books about the nude figure, and a collection of Edward Weston [nudes] from my recent series [remaking Weston’s work, taking on the role of photographer and model]. I’ve also collected a lot of vernacular photographs from Peru—mostly snapshots of young women. I’ve been living and working with these images, but have never really seen them all at once, so I installed colored xeroxes of everything all mixed up together on the wall, and then I set up a lighting studio on a stage they had at REDCAT. I haven’t set up a lighting studio in a long time. I love to work with film, so I shot with my old Hasselblad for that lovely square format. I had my old strobes there too. You could come in and see the archive that I was working with on the wall, and then people would pick a pose for me, and I would perform it. I had a little darkroom in there, and I would develop the film and print there. By the end of the week, there were twenty poses that I’d completed and twenty silver gelatin prints. It was very exciting. I didn’t realize how intense those days would be. I worked with an assistant, and she was really great in helping to push my body into some of the poses. I had a lot of fun, and I produced a lot of work, so it was good. I was invited to continue the work for a March 2023 exhibition opening at the Pinault Collection in Venice, Italy.1
I would just add that my performance-based installations like 1979: Contact Negatives and Re-Pose were always meant to be ongoing and restaged in different venues. Many institutions are asking contemporary artists (mostly artists of color) to intervene in their historical collections or work within archives in order to reckon with their own institutional past, but I am always a little skeptical of this as an artist and I am not interested in playing this role. Ultimately, I just want to make my work the way I want to make it, so when I was presented with this opportunity at the Pinault to participate in Chronorama Redux [a response to their collections], I used it as a way to continue the work I was already making. It’s the perfect venue to keep working on Re-Pose.
Is it always you?
Yes. I’m just in white clothes. The first time I performed this, it was much more about the body. I had a black leotard on. There was a doubling effect. My partner would do a pose, and I would photograph her, and then she would photograph me. There was no reference to the source material. This time, you see the source material and you see me trying to imitate the pose. The women in the source material become my double. The lighting that I did last time was also deadpan lighting—desaturated. This time it is much more dramatic. I got really into restaging the lighting.
It was such a short show at REDCAT. [The art historian] Kate Albers came. Some of my friends came. They are all in some way connected to photography and understand the history of photography, so they picked poses for me like [one from] Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975). [The artist] Juliana Paciulli picked that one and waited there for me to shoot it. I did a Martha Rosler. I did a Valie Export.
I had forgotten how hard it was. When I do this again, I’ll have to exercise and prepare. I don’t move my body in those ways. Models are models for a reason. They are good at holding their faces and holding their bodies. A lot of the poses were like dance poses, which are really hard for a body type like mine. I’m Latinx. I have an Indigenous body. I’m 5’4”. It’s so obvious that many of these poses are just meant for white, female bodies. The poses have a kind of whiteness to them, in the sense that my limbs weren’t long enough. These are things that I remembered from the last time I did this, but I think that this time, these things were even more apparent because I’m just older and my weight and flexibility are different.
This work is about physicality and physical challenge.
In part, yes, and getting the angles right and the lighting right and everything that you have to think about in the studio. It’s a different way of working. There are a lot of photographers that only work in the studio. I normally work with available light. I’m not usually staging lighting, and I could tell by the end of the week I was a lot better at lighting, sculpting with light.
When I first started doing the work, I was so sick of the popular photographic visual tropes we kept seeing. There were certain photographers that came of age, who were big in the moment that I was in graduate school, circa 1999 to 2004. There was this show called Another Girl, Another Planet [at Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Gallery in Manhattan in 1999]. It was really influential, and it was a lot of what I thought of as “sad girl art” at the time—a lot of it was really white with fashion influences. I had a love/hate relationship with it because it was beautifully photographed with perfect lighting, and you just couldn’t escape it in critiques. Every portrait of a woman was compared to this work, but for me, as a young brown woman from a working-class background, it just didn’t ring true. That’s not how we photograph ourselves. That’s not the kind of work we make about our lives and our bodies. My collaborative partner and I were thinking about really negative critiques [we received from] a prominent curator who had come to Ithaca, where I was working at Cornell University. It was my first critique out of graduate school, my first studio visit. He said the exact thing verbatim to her that he did to me. This was before we were collaborating. We were doing totally different work. Everyone afterward was getting together to see how the studio visits had gone, and we realized he said the same exact thing to both of us. He said, “As many women who turn the camera on yourselves, your work is overburdened by emotion.” Then he suggested I look at the work of all these recent Yale grads from that show as if I had never heard of them. I will never forget that. There was so much packed into that, especially because it was repeated twice to two different women of color making totally different work. We tried to unpack everything that was in that statement that had so much to do with many of the tropes of photographic history and contemporary art. We thought about hysteria, the “sick woman,” the “dying Ophelia,” these ways that women have been posed and thought of as being overemotional. We started looking at all of those tendencies and then re-performing them and archiving them.
And, this was pre-Instagram.
One reason I came back to this project is that I was thinking, you know, had Instagram been around at that time, it probably would have been a project that would have worked really well on that platform. We were film photographers, so we were shooting film, but I do think that it would have done well on social media.
That was also the beginning of a performance and re-performance moment. Performa started in 2004. In 2005 Marina Abramović created Seven Easy Pieces, her re-performances of Export, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, and others at the Guggenheim.
Another Girl, Another Planet was 1999. I just remember working in the shadow of all of that work. We couldn’t escape that work. It was Justine Kurland, Dana Hoey, Katy Grannan, a lot of the women from Yale—very white. Malerie Marder. And they all studied with Gregory Crewdson. It was like Alice in Wonderland. Fictive strategies, documentary style, but looked like fashion in a way. Narrative. And there was a kind of voyeurism to it. There were some other people in the exhibition that [I see] now who are surprising, that I don’t remember. Like, what is Dayanita Singh doing there? I don’t know. I didn’t want to make work like that, but I felt like everyone else did. There is also something very playful about that work in the way of relating to fashion and adolescence. It wasn’t issue driven. I feel like a lot of the work now, there’s a demand. Remember “photography is magic?” There was that moment—Charlotte Cotton, Lucas Blalock—all that work that’s about the materiality of photography. It was abstract and a lot of “wink-wink” to the camera, photography about photography. Everything that’s happened in the last five years—COVID, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Trump—there’s this kind of very conservative backlash. I think white artists are still allowed to make magic, but artists of color are forced to make work that deals with these serious issues directly and to deliver social justice, and I don’t think that’s the way art works. I think it’s so much more complex and subtle and slow. We are living in this post-Trumpian, hyper-identity-focused time. Artists of color have to perform their identity, and they have to perform it for white audiences. Not only do we have to be making work about “our community,” but we also have to heal the world, and sometimes I just want to make magic or make photographs or write a poem and not have to heal the world. These demands on artists of color right now are really limiting. And, I do think they’re demands.
It’s interesting to me how this kind of situation might become restrictive, as I think you are expressing. Perhaps we can address the expansive thinking behind a project like your amazing book, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths)?
In all of the work I make, I’m trying to figure something out about photography, its limits, the ethics of it, and how it shapes life experience. There are a lot of questions I pose across different projects, but in that one, those were really hard questions. The book is about pain, loss, or an impossible journey. I’m a transracial adoptee in an Indigenous body, but I have no connection to where I come from. I’m an orphan. I have no ancestors. I’m untethered.…I’ve been unraveling that over the last ten years through archival research and lately I’ve been speaking to other Indigenous adoptees and thinking about how our lives are connected to larger global forces that we had no control over, that our biological mothers had no control over. To think about our life circumstances as a result of these larger forces, I mean, there are so many ways in which Indigenous people have been oppressed through things like family separation, forced adoptions, corrupt adoptions. The book is about how one comes to terms with all of these larger forces that have shaped one’s life so profoundly. You can see me grappling with these issues. You can see how I use photography, and how photography fails. There has to be a way photography makes visible these histories that have been submerged. There has to be a way that I connect to my ancestors through the medium. The writing in the book is, I think, on the same level as the photographs. It took me a long time to write those poems. And, I feel like you do need the poetry in the book to understand what is going on in the photographs.
I was surprised when I opened the book. It’s certainly as much a written project as a photographic one. There’s even a booklet within the book. The booklet is about a missing pyramid. One page reads, “Here is a photograph of a photograph of a missing pyramid. This photograph will stand in for the original photograph of the pyramid that is missing. You can hold it in your hand now, the photograph of a missing pyramid, but it is still not the photograph of the pyramid that is missing.”
There’s a certain school that believes that photography shouldn’t have to explain itself, that text or captions sort of do the work for the photograph or somehow diminish the role of the photograph. In this case, I think that there’s a dialogue between the photographs and the writing. That’s also why I wanted to work with Shawn Bush on the book. Shawn was the perfect bookmaker to work with because he’s also a photographer and took a lot of care in thinking about the design, text, and conceptual elements. It had to be only two hundred copies. It had to have a low-fi Xerox quality. The materiality is humble but beautiful.
It’s very successful in that way. When I take the body of the book out of the cover sleeve, for instance, the spine is exposed and vulnerable. But you talked about failure. Where do you locate failure in this project?
I have read a lot of memoirs of transracial adoptees and at the center is a story about return. I wanted to make a book that was about the impossibility of that, the impossibility of return. The cliché narrative of the adoptee is about going back and locating one’s rightful origins, when in fact, the idea of origins is a false one to begin with. I was researching a lot about the figure of the orphan and orphaning. We’re all piecemealed. There is no original essence. I think that is one of the reasons I am claiming ancestors in my work, and locating other ways of belonging through photography. In this way, my work has to do with genealogy and weaving myself into a history, making my body a part of history.
I think there’s something important here about you as an individual following a meandering path. For example, your series 1979: Contact Negatives has appeared in various ways—in a book, in a magazine, as exhibition prints. That’s almost a kind of travel, having the photographs live in and move between different situations and then seeing how their meaning might change as they change context. Perhaps this is somehow similar to the kind of movement that people experience, that you’ve gone through?
I like that a lot, this kind of movement that you’re talking about. I think that one of the things that I’m grappling with is that now I’m represented by a gallery. I’ve been making work for twenty years, and this is the first time I have to think about, “How does one collect the work?”
1979: Contact Negatives was a performance. The 8x10 negatives were made in that performance and contact printed as part of that performance. What I think of as post-performance objects are residual performance objects that get disseminated. In the performances, the images that you see projected over my body were ones I rephotographed ten years before in Lima from magazines published the year that I was born. I rephotographed them again in order to project them. The photographs in the magazines, those were false images. I found out that these images were meant to be documentary images of sites of violence against women in 1979, but those images were also stock images. They got reused for different stories. Where do these images actually come from?
I’m thinking about what you just said. We have these images that exist in so many different places and ways and forms, right? The confusion about the source material is one place where I locate the failure of photography, in the same way that searching for personal origins can only end in failure. There’s a way in which photography begins to mirror my own experience as a transracial adoptee and my inability to return.
As we’re talking, I’m wondering about what’s behind you there on the wall?
They’re rocks. They’re my hands holding rocks. I’ll hold a rock, and I’ll write a poem about the rock. I’ve been doing this for three years. The rock becomes a way to invent ancestors or think about the place this rock comes from and how old it might be. It’s an ecopoetics project, genealogy and geology. I’ll contact print the rocks on paper. They make these really strange unknowable orbs, and they get to be strange colors. I’m using vintage paper. I’ve also been solarizing them. They do weird things when I take them out into the light.
What are the poems like?
I can read you one. This is called “Rock of River Sound/Rock that Drowns Men’s Laughter”:
This one’s called “Sister Rock/Rock That Tries to Forget”:
These are beautiful.
I’m kind of embarrassed about the writing. I was writing them and then photographing the writing in my notebook. You might think of them as me or my sister or grandmother, but they’re made-up stories that are inspired by holding the rock or thinking about where the rock might have been.
I love how time is a function in these poems, which relates to time as a function in photography.
I might try to edit them, but maybe I shouldn’t. When I talked about having made work without having to think about the market, I still work that way. I’ve been teaching, and that’s what has allowed me to fund my art practice, but I think working that long in obscurity, I learned to do whatever I want, to keep the world in the studio living and breathing no matter who was or wasn’t paying attention.
You seem to trust your gallerist. You must have chosen a good one.
Thomas Zander chose me. I truly was discovered at the Arles Photo Festival, Rencontres d’Arles. I won the Discovery Award, and I had no idea that it would bring so much attention to the Weston work, but also that work is just a sliver of what I have been making the last twenty years. There is so much and hardly anyone has seen it. Thomas saw the work at Arles and when I got off the train for the festival, there was a text on my phone from the director of the festival saying that Thomas was trying to reach me. Thomas represents artists whom I’ve long admired, and they might sound boring to you, but Lewis Baltz, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, Helen Leavitt. I love modern photography.
That’s not boring to me.
Thomas was surprised that I was forty-two and selling my work for the first time. I’m trying to figure out how the work might exist in all these different ways, and how to think about packaging a work. For example, if the museum is acquiring something from a performance, does that also mean that the performance is then reperformed? When I think about Ana Mendieta’s work and a lot of early video work, I think the whole point of it was that it was ephemeral. How does the museum preserve that history? Mendieta’s performances were never meant to be restaged. You’ve got the documentation and that’s what is shown. Is the photograph a photograph or is it a documentation of a performance? Is it both?
There are contemporary prints of vintage work like Arbus’s by very good printers. The vintage work by Arbus is darker than the contemporary prints. It has a lot more flaws. Sometimes artists give a museum an exhibition print and one that’s the actual print that’s never shown. I don’t know if I would want my work to exist that way. It’s like, “Show the work! So, it changes, so it gets darker. So what? Cyanotypes get darker. C-prints change too.”
With Robert Rauschenberg, some of his works we see in museums, sometimes the newspaper has browned, or something else has aged. I like that.
Whenever I see a Rauschenberg in person, I’m always blown away. The way it’s made, it’s objecthood. It reminds me that artwork has a lifespan and it is living and breathing and changes. The environment affects the artwork. I don’t believe in these Epson prints that are supposed to last a thousand years. I hear they test-bake them in an oven to simulate what could happen.
Chronorama: Photographic Treasures of the 20th Century, Pinault Collection, Venice, Italy, March 3, 2023–January 7, 2024.