NORTH ADAMS - Photography team Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick create elaborate photographic realties that might not actually exist, but the images would never reveal that.
Their work will be part of "Other Hudson, Chapter Two," at MCLA Gallery 51, which holds a reception on Thursday, June 20, at 6 p.m., for the kickoff of Downstreet Art.
The team's projects have take viewers to fictitious and alien landscapes - sometimes literally, as with "Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea." These are populated, in turn, by fictional societies that seem hauntingly real, acting out portions of their culture with a hint of depth that requires the viewer to fill in.
For the show at Gallery 51, "Truppe Fledermaus," the team has devised a series of works including photography, as well as drawings and sculptures, to capture the secret performances of an imaginary troupe in an alien land.
"The idea is that there is some kind of traveling in a Weimar era-influenced troupe traveling around the landscape putting on these performances," said Selesnick. "Our notion is that they do them out in nature and usually there's probably no audience."
"We had the idea that with these performances the troupe were doing, there would be photographs of the performances but also the troupe would be making posters to advertise these non-existent performances, or performances that no one sees."
The sculpture featured at Gallery 51 is culled from props in the story as revealed through the photographs, but their purpose in the gallery is to add extra dimensions to what the photos capture. They don't capture the sort of space that can be mapped, though, but a much more abstract plane.
"They're also magical mask heads that you look in the back of them and you see a world inside them," said Kahn. "It's the dreams of the mask, when you look inside the holes of the back, through their mouths or into their eyes. It's another world, so it's a very dreamy project and often going in and out of different types of dream spaces."
The work, when brought altogether, hints at a fully realized world that the viewer is only getting touches of and is left to wonder about and fill in the blanks. It becomes a collaboration of imaginary space. This is exactly their goal, the team says, and typical of their previous work.
"We try to create a whole world, a whole universe, that's believable within its own rules for every project," said Selesnick. "It's also supposed to be believable by being relatable to things that are actual historical events. Our Iceberg project related to the hyperinflation in Germany in the early '20s, or this has a Weimar kind of feel, or our project about the moon related to NASA, Apollo stuff in the late '60s and early '70s."
"We tend to stick some element of little red herrings, you know these aren't true documentary things," said Kahn, "but that is a bit of the work that the audience has to do and some are more obvious than others, but we do like to attach it to a possible historical thing rather than doing something completely like Tolkien, where you know this has never happened and never will happen."
Kahn and Selesnick craft their visual stories with a troupe of actors, that is mostly made up of them in multiple exposures, though filled out by friends when needed, in front of the camera, Their photo shoots are part puzzle, part expedition, all discovery, involving a response to the actual location and the utilization of the material they decide to lug along with them.
"Usually, what it involves is giving the other a lot of props and outfits, heading out to wherever the shoot is, which is usually a fairly remote and often bleak place," Selesnick said. "We'll hike out with all these bags of outfits and stuff. And then, generally speaking, sometimes we'll use the selftimer and both be in a single shot, but a lot of it is we just shoot each other and then figure it all out afterward.
"Sometimes we have a good idea of what we're trying to do and we'll take a little sketch with us, but other times we'll just go out there and just start improvising, and then have a lot of material and not even necessarily know what we're going to do with it, and then figure it all out afterward, so it varies. Almost always it involves a long march out to a remote place."
When out on a shoot, the team might have some form of thematic or narrative plan, but it is often built from their themes of alien lands and forgotten people, and planted in a dream-like surrealism that relies on a dream-like surrealism in their imagery to come to further and more clear realization without enforcing clarity on the viewer.
"It's almost like an outline of the overall arc of what we are trying to do," Kahn said. "Sometimes we know if it would fit within the story or not, it's quite obvious. Both of us go into fugue dream states and come up with concepts and little sketches about ideas and can communicate in very few words a concept to each other, so we know what we're after."
"When we're in the field, should an opportunity arise, should some natural prop show itself, or a location leads to doing a particular shot that we've discussed at some point or have on our sketchpads, then we go for that. Other times, we'll search out an absolute exact landscape to match a sketch as close as possible. It varies quite widely in how strongly it's predetermined."
Their expeditions result in a series of images that work together as a narrative that helps the viewer decipher in a back and forth that might resemble a game of Exquisite Corpse, where the photographers make their marks, and the audience adds on. Each photo pushes the game a little further.
"It's a mystery that each is a little clue toward and, hopefully, is being used to want to know more," said Kahn.
Although the series are considered narratives, that does not always dictate the order in which the story unfolds. In some projects, the team says that it can be helpful to see the images in a specific order, but in others, it is not important, and this project was designed to benefit from the randomness of a viewer's approach.
"We thought of this as being like a novel that you could shuffle," Selesnick said, "so you could put the photographs in any number of different orders and you'd still basically get the flavor of the story that you build in your own mind from all these pieces, however they were scattered."
In this artistic scenario, Kahn and Selesnick's work becomes an act of collective world-building, which only heightens the mystery of what you see. You never know what part of the strange universe some one else has unveiled in their own head.
"Every piece, taken on its own, indicates, like a hologram, it's a section of a whole world that's complete, and you can get clues enough from it," Kahn said, "but you need all of them to get the true, full story. Hopefully everyone builds that world in their mind to some degree."
Kahn and Selesnick can be found online at kahnandselesnick.com