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Exclusive: Inside the Surrealist World of Asger Carlsen

To see Asger Carlsen’s work is to be privy to a world evoking both sideshow oddity and organic nightmare. The Denmark-born, New York-based photographer is a master at creating images that leave you thinking of the clash between organic and inhuman matter, even when you’re not seeing them anymore. Having fortuitously begun his career as a journalistic photographer, Carlsen has in the past years adopted a style that blends the surreal with the real by engaging with the craft in highly original ways, like blending images of clay with the human body. The artist talked to Milk Made’s Ana Velasco about recurring dreams, shock, and finding subjects in unlikely places.

Your photographs have this vintage, surrealist, kind of freak show voyeuristic feel to them. What’s your creation process like and what drives you to combine this element of the real and unreal?

Well basically I think it’s interesting with things to sort of familiarize something. It has elements of something that doesn’t seem familiar. I’m interested in the contradiction between reality and the unreal.

I have made many different projects and one of them was all based on archival images, which were all mine, and so I made a lot of props for it that I inserted into the pictures. But for a lot of the pictures I make elements that come from pictures that I’ve had for many years. It’s a lot of post production and time in front of the computer without me actually taking the photos. For instance a 20 minute photo shoot for me could be 2 years of work. It’s not about capturing a good image, it’s about collecting material for future use. One piece comes from multiple images. If I can’t get what I want through a model I shoot myself for these pictures to get that element.

What is your first memory of photography?

I guess I was around 16 and my friends and I had made a huge fire on the beach. We had stolen a lot of wood and things from people who lived around the beach and then burnt it all. The police came and I had taken a picture of my friends and the police. Then I sold it to the local newspaper. I always had my camera with me at that age. They gave me money and I was super happy so that’s how I went on and became a newspaper photographer.

You photograph in a different way, like you said it’s not about getting the perfect photo it’s about creating it in post. In your opinion what is the most important aspect of photography?

These days I don’t care so much about photography. I think back to the days when I was a newspaper photographer and commercial photographer and now it seems perfect, because it feels more creative to work that way. I don’t waste time creatively, and that’s what I was lacking before. I had to travel to all these places and find subjects so now it’s just 100% creative practice within my studio. That’s one of the reasons why I began making this work more.

Since your work is very surreal I was wondering if you get inspiration from dreams or nightmares? If you do is there a reoccurring dream that inspires you?

It’s hard to tell where it comes from and as people we never really know why we do the things we do so I think it really comes from a place I’m not always aware of. There is sort of a struggle to figure out where I belong so this work is getting a little closer to that. I’ve experienced one dream that makes me think I need to see a therapist haha. In it I feel like I always need to run from my life.

Do you know from what?

No, it’s just something I notice that reoccurs and comes in different forms.

That’s interesting! It definitely means something.

I’m ready for a therapist!

Somebody told me if you dream about a celebrity that means you’re trying to emulate their energy but I don’t know if that’s true.


Yeah I don’t know how they would know that, though.

Yes haha. Well I just think this dream comes from somewhere inside me that’s trying to belong. You’re not belonging to anything and then you just make up your own to carry you.

You’re not from New York but you’ve been living here for so long. How do you find inspiration? Do you have inspiration from Denmark that you know you’ll never lose? How do both cities play into your work, personality, and the way you live?

If you’re a foreigner I think you’ll always be a foreigner in a way. I think we all know what New York is like. Everyone is about their work and here to do their work. That energy never allows you to be lazy. That’s the feeling I get. There’s also a lot of creativity where I’m from but it’s allowed to just sit in your studio all day and make whatever you want. There’s that energy.

After spending hours and hours in your studio how do you decide a photo is finished?

You kind of just look at it and think “it’s done.” You feel like it’s one piece. After compiling and compiling the final product cannot feel like it’s a collage. That’s when it’s done. The material builds and at some point the physical and organic mesh. It’s something between overly fantastic and boring. I feel like a lot of things, especially in Hollywood, don’t work out because it’s just too much.

Interesting. Your work is eye-catching and different, very in your face in a subtle and sometimes not so subtle way. What do you expect as a reaction from your viewer?

I don’t expect anything. I don’t want to tell people what they should feel. Also people get different things out of looking at art and that’s what makes art interesting. It’s open to interpretation so I don’t want to tell people directly where they should arrive when they look at my work.

Right, but is there some sort of visceral connection you want your audiences to have with your work? I read somewhere that you reference Francis Bacon as one of your influences and you can see that. Bacon incites that reaction of terror that you want to be comfortable with.

He said that he wanted to create a shock feeling. That’s what he went for in his work a lot. And I can relate to that, certainly. One of the things I didn’t mention about photography is I think it would be interesting if you could pretend it was no longer photography and you. That was just a kind of material that you could take anywhere you wanted and you work under the same freedom as a painter. They can just make anything abstract. If you want to create a piece that has some sort of form then you could just make that in photography. Work with that level of freedom is one of the things that inspired me.

You have an upcoming show in Berlin in June. What can we expect from that show?

It’s a new body of work I’ve been making. I worked with a lot of clay and it’s basically a self portrait show. It’s going to have some photographs and some drawings I had made. There’s also going to be a sculpture. Just all those elements tied together by materials. This project is very inspired by my floor in my apartment. I looked at my floor a lot, it was one of those fake marble floors, and I started to see all these faces so that’s what inspired it.

If you could describe your work with a film or a song what would you choose?

I don’t know really. I guess I like lot of computer music. I don’t know specifically. My fascination with music and film changes. I like the way a lot of electronic musicians work. I can relate to that process. One of my favorite albums is made by DJ Shadow. He made the world’s first album that was all sampled from things he found so he didn’t produce anything for that album. When I found that out I could really relate to the process so I found it very inspiring and just thought “maybe I can work the same way.”

That makes perfect sense what with being inspired by your floor and just seeing what’s there and using it.

There are great things everywhere. Any subject can be a good subject.

I can relate to that because in my childhood home there was a marble floor and one part of it looked like a dog. When I was young that was my friend.

Exactly, I’m making work about that feeling.

Photographs courtesy of Asger Carlsen

Be sure to check out Asger’s website here

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