"GREETINGS FROM SWEDEN" BY RUVAN

August 20, 2019 3:35 PM

Ruvan Wijesooriya is a self-taught American Photographer, who began by starting a skateboard brand before moving to working with clients such as Vogue, Samsung and many in the nightlife and music scene. He is celebrated for his work which sees a documentary approach to photography, exploring a range of visionary experiences from landscapes, journalistic imagery of people in love, to portraits. All of which delving into the intimate and feminine nature of both individuals and nature itself. 

Ruvan recently published a photo book; ‘Greetings from Sweden’ where he shows dream worthy landscapes paired with political imagery continued with night life parties. It is a depiction of his perspective of Sweden during his fifteen years of travelling the country. 

Hello Ruvan, how are you? 

I’m good! Enjoying a very busy and active summer! I am writing from Bali; here for the first time, shooting for a very progressive hospitality client.

That's good to hear! Okay to kick things off, you were born in Duluth and now based in New York City. Duluth; that’s pretty far north! Do you ever miss it? There has to be a stark difference and change of pace coming from the Midwest.

I didn’t live in Duluth for more than 3 years, and then I went to University in St. Paul Minnesota in ’95 but transferred after a year. There is a huge contrast between Duluth, Minnesota and NYC no doubt. I can’t say I miss it much though! It is a humble town and I’ve always liked the fact that Bob Dylan is from there (or very close by). I was born on Highway 61.

One of my favourites works of yours is: Party Artifact’s. It truly is a beautiful piece. Were they prints that were intentionally damaged?

Yes, they were initially from my exhibition of music photography, “Scene and Herd”, that I showed at various music festivals and gatherings between 2009 and 2013. This show happened mainly at warehouse and club parties. The audience would help me install over 1000 printed images, usually 4x6”. Once the show was installed the audience was invited to take their favourite photos home with them as a gift. I have been giving away 4x6” prints for a long time now, so this was in line with that initiative, specifically to be gifts from one music fan to another. Due to the audience not really knowing how to properly install the show, and it was a rushed installation, the prints fell off the wall and onto the floor. They were pictures about music and the culture surrounding it, so once they were danced and partied on, they became new objects that had lived through what the images sought to capture. Because I was giving the work away, this became an unwitting gift from the audience.

What and Who inspired that series of work? 

There was no real inspiration; however, I was very interested in process and artistic ownership at that time, letting go of control. I remember speaking to an artist named Bosco Sodi about moments in an artistic process where the artist steps back from the process, as part of the process, and lets the unknown take over. It was liberating to let my photos be ruined and for that to become the artwork itself. As you noticed they tell a much different story than the original photographs.

Congratulations on your newly published book "Greetings from Sweden", it was tough to find! In a little excerpt about your book on an obscure Swedish website it mentions that you have met Swedish people throughout your life finding that they were different, and that the series aims to find out why. Did you find what you were looking for? 

That is a good question!  I suppose I have found it in some ways over the years; in understanding why they are the way they are. There are very few countries that do not have religion as a driving force in politics and society in general. Also, there are very few countries since WW2 that have not had a superpower overtly dictating their politics and/or taking their natural resources. Sweden is one of the few social democracies in the world, all of this adds up to a unique understanding of the world. Even their gender relations are completely different because the patriarchy is not as strong there. Power and government functions for the people rather than corporations as I feel it does in the USA.  Of course, there are many contradictions and I can only understand things about Sweden through generalizations, but I do feel I understand the psyche of Sweden better now than ever. I think foreign eyes see this more than Swedes do when they look at the book. For example, there is a lot of casual, public nudity in the book. There are few countries in the world where that is not considered a crime.

I heard you recently shot an event at the Paradise Club, a little homage to the former Studio 54. Could you tell us about this experience?

Oh, it was amazing!!! The Creative Director there; Ben Pundole, put a lot of trust in me in giving me a room for 5 nights and letting me shoot exactly how and what I wanted to on film. Of course, working for Ian Schrager’s new club is a nightlife photographer’s dream. It combined my experience of music photography and party photography, but also put me in the middle of a scene where I thrive. After living in NYC for 20 years, there were a lot of people I know and have met, so I immediately had the feeling of being in the right place because I knew so many people. Having spent the last few years making artwork about light and engaging the abstractness of all matter being simultaneously particle and wave, it felt really wonderful to be back in a club setting focus on particles (people) instead of waves. It’s a specific time and space rather than timeless space. Every night was a treat, the first night featured Diana Ross and Chic followed by Lauryn Hill and Reverend Run (Run DMC), with the turntablist and DJ Ruckus the next night. Then House of Yes did a performance the next three nights along with various DJs like Questlove, Seth Troxler and newer performers like Charli XCX. The entertainment programming specifically took the audience through different generations each night with the last night being about a much younger crowd, it was genderless, rebellious and forward thinking. It made me happy to feel things going in this direction. The job itself doesn’t come up very often at this scale, there is only one Paradise Club opening in Times Square if you know what I mean.

On the subject of experiencing both the new and the old, coming from a generation prior to the Internet and the digital age of photography; has that changed the way you work and view things? If so, for better or for worse? 

It took me a while to get into digital photography, I don’t find it as beautiful as film photography, but I have found a place and appreciation for it. This means it is more valuable to me now than it was before. In some ways, I feel our visual expectations as a society have lowered in the digital age. There is far more space for everything, including crap. For fine art commissions I tend to shoot film, sometimes digital looks too slick and clean for the depth I need. Greetings from Sweden was shot on film, and it is instantly timeless for this reason. Had the photos been shot on digital I doubt I would have made a book from them. Film is more nostalgic than digital, and this is a pillar of what I am trying to communicate in the book. For sure it has changed the way I see things and has definitely changed the way I work, in that I can take way more photos without it being a huge expense. Some subjects look much better shot digitally. There is a difference with film grain being round and pixels being square. I suppose the shift to digital has made me a better photographer and afforded me new opportunities in what I can shoot, as film doesn’t have the same latitude and records light in a very different way.

My digital life moved beyond photography a few years ago. I felt that the possibilities in new media, with virtual reality, dome films and projection mapping, was something I wanted to contribute to. Few others were engaging in it, and it felt like as an analog photographer I would have to do things in a different way to keep things manageable and affordable. Usually this leads to a strange advantage; like when a fashion designer does an architectural project or vice versa, something unexpected can emerge. I was initially commissioned to direct the first VR fashion editorial, it is called “Unstitched.” Once I understood the medium a bit more, I dove into a kind of minimalism by turning my book, Yucatan, into a meditative, immersive, multi-sensory (sound, scent and vision) VR experience. I was able to get help to make a cubic website for the project, which means the website is a cubic space people can visit, which can also be mapped to a physical space. The whole thing is insane and most of what I do is to come up with simple solutions using old technology in new platforms. Companies and studios are at the mercy of clients and most everyone seems to want the work to lead to advertising. I have a very different objective in that I want to make beautiful digital experiences that are more connected to our inner selves, making work that is made for our human experience as a wave as opposed to work that appeals to the part of us which is a particle. I hope that makes sense, because the concept is pretty abstract.  When I had my daughter I felt even more committed to this kind of work because I feel there is a lack of beauty, intimacy and subtlety in new media art. Taking myself away from editorial photography was very difficult because it was so native to me and I was celebrated for it, placing myself into the world of technology expos and VR has been professionally uncomfortable. Like the opposite of shooting nightlife or musicians or fashion where people know me. But I have learned so much and my immersive work has been able to change the way a person feels both physiologically and emotionally. I realized there is a new way to use still photography, and now I find myself making still photos to put people inside of. Alfred Steiglitz; a pioneer and champion of photography, did a project called “Equivalents”; photos of clouds. In my Yucatan experience, nearly 100 years later I speak to this by putting people inside my photos of clouds in the beginning of “Yucatan”, which is abstractly about a light particle that goes through photosynthesis and becomes life.  

How is little Roshi? She truly is adorable! 

It has been such a life change to become a father; it is like Roshi adds a new dimension to my life. When she was born, we did a home birth, she stared into my eyes and I had never experienced such clear telepathic communication, it was the most surreal experience of my life to be communicating with and making promises to this brand-new human. This confirmed to me that people are born with their soul and intelligence fully intact. I have been treating her as if she is the smartest person in the room since then, we have both flourished from this trust and approach, she is notably individualistic and confident, which people notice in my photographs of her. 

For the first few months I could feel my senses heighten in order to protect her. I heard things I never heard before and smelled things I had ignored. I was forced to see and experience the world through her, which gave me a whole new vision of the world. My work has been informed by this; in that I make work for her to experience one day, for example a virtual world I have been making with my photographs of rainbows. It is so calming and so pretty, a contrast to most other immersive experiences, in that it is really simple with the goal of being beautiful and meaningful just from colour and texture. I want her to grow up in a world where less frantic, calming and minimalistic digital projects are plentiful. Unfortunately, these projects don’t make themselves. Yet. An artist making meditative digital artwork leads to very different visual results than a VC funded tech wellness start-up app.

In closing, your Instagram profile picture features you riding with your dog on a skateboard. Can you do a kickflip? You don't have to answer that! 

Ah, yes!! Though it is a friend’s dog, not mine. I can still do kickflips! I don’t think I would be where I am today had I not grown up skateboarding, repurposing the world as my playground and being entrenched in rebellious subculture. I grew up when skateboarding was a crime, and I suppose there was something badass about being a skater at that time. I got my first job in NYC with a portfolio that was all material of running a skateboard company out of my garage, when I lived in Portland in the mid to late 90’s. I still love skateboarding, though I can never find enough time to do it. And falling hurts a lot worse than it used to!
 
Thank you so much for your time Ruvan! 


RUVAN'S WEBSITE

EDITED BY SHO ISHIKURA

INTERVIEWED BY EU JIN LEE

COPY WRITEDED BY ANNA SPROUL

 

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