Catherine Hyland · Universal Experience

Sep 10, 2018

Catherine is a young British photographer who focuses her work on landscape photography in a quest for the sublime experience and to reflect about our human nature and interaction with the land. In her project "Universal Experience", Catherine wants to portray the strange and the sublime of the barren landscapes of China and Mongolia. Alternating places of pilgrimage with stunning landscapes, Catherine's work shows the contradiction of these areas, on one hand they are absolutely beautiful, but at the same time they represent danger, uncertainty and the human attempt to conquer them.

am - First of all thank you very much for your contribution to our project. Can you please introduce yourself for us?

CH - My name is Catherine Hyland, I'm from Nottingham, I studied Fine Art in London at Byamshaw School of Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design and then completed my masters at the Royal College of Art.


am - How did you start in photography?

CH - I think of photography as a blend of experience and imagination that is what drew me to it initially. I started using photography almost immediately, the second I started my fine art degree and moved to London. It’s very cathartic for me and I realised very quickly I wasn’t somebody that thrived creatively by sitting in a studio for too long. I started off painting and made the transition almost instantly.

I think the main role of the photographer in society is to make people see the world in a different way. To freeze a moment and really make people look at that one singular moment and most importantly to provoke people to ask questions, and leave people to find their own answers. How are we imagining our present? How are we sharing this time? How are we picturing this time? How are we experiencing our time? I feel photography does that better than any other medium.


am - What is "Universal Experience" about?

CH - "Universal Experience" was very much about the immensity of the Landscapes. From the mineral-stained hills of Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in China’s Gansu Province to 128m high statues in Lushan and the Warrior GuanYu looking over the mountains in Yuncheng. The project is compiled of expansive images where the horizon disappears into a haze of barren mountainsides. Many of which are devoid of life with no vegetation to soften the impression of aridity and heat. It is a series of wild landscapes but at the same time landscapes that have been tamed for human consumption. There are fences and viewing points throughout many of the images, marking the right spot to view from, the right picture to take.

On the one hand this fencing off represents an enclosure, on the other it recognises the danger of the landscape. People are fenced off for their own protection because this is a landscape that does threaten human life. It is a desertified landscape that encroaches and invades and through history has brought death and destruction. I’m interested in our attempts to transform nature into a theme park for contemporary consumption. Implicit in this attempt is the idea that the earthquakes, the landslides, the famines, invasions and the floods are a thing of a great and colourful past. They are part of a history that has been transformed into nostalgia.

A major theme in this body of work is both nostalgia and abandonment. Giant Buddha’s that exist in small desolate villages in rural china, mountainscapes with barely any visitors, the aim is to shine a light on both the strange and sublime nature of these spaces. The way in which landscape and architecture are invested with individual and collective memory. The title is consciously ambiguous, and I would hope that the images are too, it’s why I don’t caption my work, I don’t feel that by listing the locations or dates it adds anything. I think successful photographs rest on an ambiguity that makes you unable to stop looking at them or thinking about them. A didactic image, is almost always forgettable. As John Urry wrote in ‘The Tourist gaze’ ‘ All tourists... embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other “times” and other “places” away from that persons everyday life'. This is partly why so many of the locations I chose feature monuments thought of as sacred. Reproductions of ideas that people use to try and ground themselves. It’s a futile endeavour the tourist is taking but an optimistic one. That optimism is so important to my work.

am - What inspires your work?

CH - I’ve always had a keen interest in the idea of the sublime. The idea that embracing how small we are, and vulnerable can be empowering if looked at in the right way. Landscapes became a fantastic tool by which to experience the world and I saw it as exactly that, a tool that helped/helps me to experience things I otherwise wouldn’t. It allowed me to tell stories about places, and about our connection to land, in a way that can only be done by getting out into those spaces so that was what made me focus on it initially. It took me out into the world, to experience the unexpected. To feel small myself, to see how far I could push myself and most of the time just be open to strangers and new places. I want my photographs to provoke people to look, to ask questions, and to find their own answers because that is exactly what I am doing through taking them, that is and was my main motivation.

We experience the world through encounters, mostly seemingly inconsequential short experiences, tourism specifically in its universality helps us understand and digest the complex nature of the world. I’ve always believed that the most trivial acts, are the most telling, the pleasure of discovery and adventure, no matter how choreographed encourages us to be curious.

It is important to me that my photographs be connected to my principles, that they ask questions about human nature and our desires. To bare witness to this collective striving for transcendence that seems to be engrained in the modern man, my project "Universal Experience" in particular is an attempt at that. To make people feel something, some kind of truth that resonates with their own lives or their own actions. I think people constantly try to escape our mediated world because it’s very difficult to find something truly authentic, so much of our lives are based around reproductions and mass manufactured illusion, we start to get that overwhelming feeling that we are all occupying the same space and so we seek out new experiences as a remedy to that feeling. This is an ongoing theme throughout all my work but as opposed to the previous project "Belvedere", "Universal Experience" aims to focus on the more surreal and unexpected locations in which these sites exist primarily in and around China and Mongolia, with a specific focus on scale and vastness throughout the project, which in turn enhances that element of human behaviour.


am - Who are your favourite photographers / artists?

CH - Domingo Milella, John Hinde, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Matthew Barney, Ed Burtynsky, Julian Rosefeldt, Adrian Ghenie.

am - What’s your favourite movie?

CH - "Brazil" by Terry Gilliam or "Blade Runner" by Ridley Scott.


am - What is your favourite photo book?

CH - Domingo Milella's monograph published by Steidl, I'm forever looking through it.


am - Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to analog magazine.

All images © Catherine Hyland

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