Contemporary artist and photographer Gina Soden tells us about finding beauty in the haunting decay of once-glorious architecture.
To understand this story, one must first visualise this. Huge, sweeping arches, rich Rococo detailing, domed canopies, and cracked windows — all heavy with dust, and the weight of history. Ornate frescoed villas, palaces and theatres, their colours once bright, now faded, and interiors dilapidated over years. Each is lit with gentle sunlight breaking through, shadows cast over the stories and dramas lived under grand chandeliers and heavy curtains in spaces once filled with life.
“I want to evoke a sense of narrative and the life of the building, and try to avoid a documentary look,” says the award-winning British photographer and artist Gina Soden. “I love bright colours, patterns and that ‘wow’ effect. I also love a bit of mystery, so try not to give too much away. I want to leave the viewer with more questions than answers.”
For the young British artist, it’s all hinged on emotive images of beautiful buildings and interiors in states of decay, with nature sometimes invading abandoned human construction. She’s staked her claim in the art world with this niche, recently taking commissions from The Hoxton hotels (for its new Paris property) and Soho House (to produce new works for the Barcelona, New York, London and Amsterdam houses and its London hotel The Ned).
Her work packs a powerful punch, in 2018 winning her UK Artist of the Year and Photographer of the Year at the Rise Art Prize (the biggest open art competition in the UK) with Klinik, a photograph of an abandoned sanitorium.
These forgotten buildings are given regal presentation with Soden’s stunning knack for photographic composition, symmetry and Renaissance-esque perspective. Viewers are usually soothed when looking at the works, but some reactions have been more extreme. “Someone cried once at an art fair, as they were so moved,” Soden recalls. “That was surprising!” Perhaps it’s due to the elegant classicism, beauty in the midst of desolation and collapse, or how colours sometimes drench a piece, overwhelming the gaze with emeralds, turquoises, dusty pinks, powder blues and sunlight hues ranging from soft amber to hot terracotta. Or maybe it’s the poignant reminder of time, death and decay.
“A few of my pieces really illustrate the passing of time,” explains the artist, distinguished by her ever-changing, rainbow-ranged locks, as she shows me her spacious new studio in Reading, South East England, via Facetime, “Thermale is an abandoned spa complex and looks so ancient and grand. Ivy is from an abandoned asylum and the ivy creeping along the floor was just beautiful. And Tree in Room – this was photographed in a summer camp and on the second floor a tree was growing through the floor, and during my second visit it had already grown massively! Some buildings seem to decay more than others … it depends on the country and location though, and how well-known or well-guarded it is.”
Most recently, Soden exhibited at The Other Art Fair and Archaeologies, a 2019 group show at the Charlie Smith Gallery, curated by Zavier Ellis. Her work has shown at New York’s Pulse Art Fair, London’s Art15, The London Art Fair, The Photo Art Fair and Photo London, held at Somerset House. A Hong Kong connection comes from being exhibited early in her career at the now-closed Cat Street Gallery in Sheung Wan, before she picked up prizes like the 2014 The Naylor Award for the Finest Photograph, and The Secret Art Prize the same year with a piece called Les Histoires.
She blends different exposures together to capture all those details in a single image, creating that very painterly look. She’s deviated from realism with a kaleidoscopic series, an abstract departure that plays with geometries, and has developed a process of hand-printing her images on to found antique “mirrors, marble and metals, treated and corroded with industrial tools and materials, culminating in the Corrodium series – a current self-professed career highlight. The Ingresso series also holds a special place in her heart, but she tells me that the most meaningful would be Retrogression.
“It came from a huge week-long road trip in 2012 with three friends. I was shooting not knowing I’d be creating a series from it and so was fully relaxed about the outcome. After that, everything changed! This was my first step into the art world. The series was really successful, I got a huge amount of press and lots of things happened afterwards, for which I am very grateful.”
Soden’s process is so much more than just taking the picture. It involves months of research, often through dense forests and meadows, abandoned complexes and locked-up buildings deemed unsafe for the public. She could be hiding or being chased by security guards around closed-down schools, asylums, villas or power plants.
The victory of finding something breathtaking and incredible is punctuated by occasions when “hours of research is down the toilet as the building was demolished a few months ago” – the whole affair can be a hugely emotional rollercoaster, she says. No doubt these rollercoaster pursuits have paid off handsomely, landing her in CNN Style and on the pages of the Financial Times, the Telegraph, Dazed & Confused magazine, the British Journal of Photography and Casa Vogue.
Her work has been focussed on Europe (Italy specifically) so far – not surprisingly, for the sheer wealth and density of grand old buildings: “Italy just had me hooked for the last few years and I simply can’t get enough of it. I’ve not even travelled further south than Naples, so there’s still so much more to do there.” From there come the Italian Renaissance references: seen in that sense of depth and her obsession “with single-point perspectives while creating a painterly aesthetic in post-production … unconsciously, it perhaps all ties together to that look.”
That being said, Soden is keen to explore Georgia, Japan, Cuba, Taiwan, Lebanon and Russia next. The USA is also high on her list, despite being put off by gun-toting security guards and police.
Unusually for modern photographers, Soden prefers to use natural light, occasionally – but rarely – adding a torch. Ideally, she visits locations first thing in the morning “with diffused light creating soft shadows and picking out the highlight details”, or else, she explains, “it’s golden hour for obvious reasons” if logistics allow.
Admittedly, I love her work – there’s already one piece hanging in my new London apartment, and I’ve just ordered three more. Her knack for enlivening these ruinous structures pushes the boundaries of beauty, decay, nostalgia and neglect. It’s perhaps all the more appreciated when thinking of Soden’s journeys to each location.
“The act of gaining unlicensed access is a full-body workout, soaked in anticipation, nerves, excitement and the paranoia of getting caught or disappointment when you can’t find a way into the building,” she says, laughing. “Then all the hours of hard work and long-distance travel ends in one of two ways: either the sheer dismay of all the work up until that point amounting to nothing, or utter elation of stepping into an amazing location and being completely undisturbed.”
Art in The Time of COVID-19
Cancelled shows, fairs and gallery events, people told to stay at home, public life gone — the creative economy (among others) is under threat because of Covid-19. So how are Gina Soden and her fellow young artists adapting to this?
“Oh it’s such a crazy difficult time for so many people,” she says. “I was meant to start work on a new series at my five-week art residency at Villa Lena in Tuscany, which will now be postponed until next April,” she says. “I was so gutted about it, but I think it’s reminded me what’s important — to have a roof over my head for my husband, family and friends all to be safe and well. What more can you ask for in these unprecedented times?”
Working alone in isolation is nothing new for most artists but selling in isolation is proving to be harder. Digital platforms, and apps such as Instagram have helped hugely. Soden has taken up a “genius” initiative by Matthew Burrows: artists selling artworks priced at a maximum of £200, and once each artist reaches £1,000-worth of sales, they pay it forward by purchasing another artist’s work. She’s received a flood of orders by eager fans over her Instagram account already. It’s proved a great way to support young creative talent and acquire accessible pieces that bring beauty into our homes, especially since we’re now spending so much time in them.