We are not usually aware of the passing of time. But when we stand and gaze at a sunset, it’s a rare moment of communion with the planet, a few minutes’ meditation on the nature of time and space. Artist Sunny’s new show Sunny Side Up brings together a series of beautiful sunset images, but things are not quite what they seem.
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We are obsessed with the sun going down. In 2017, 286 million pictures of sunsets were uploaded to Instagram. Way out in front was California, where 5.7million sunsets were snapped, but with Sicily, Bali, Paris and Sydney making up the top five, it’s clearly a worldwide phenomenon.
There’s a scientific element too – psychologists have claimed that gazing at a sunset can boost emotional well-being, connectedness with others and life-satisfaction levels. The artist and curator Sunny has long been fascinated by the reasons people are so drawn to sunsets, why a hush descends in even large groups when the sun finally dips below the horizon and why we are so compelled to share pictures of sunsets with our peers.
Was it possible, he wondered, to recreate our communal relationship with sunsets in a gallery setting, to go beyond the Instagram square and recreate one of nature’s finest experiences?
No. No it’s not. Because this whole thing is nonsense. Solar Views is a project by the German-born, Amsterdam-based photographer Mirka Laura Severa. She was thinking about product shots of sunglasses and how to make them more interesting, when she hit on the idea of an art show where everyone had to wear sunglasses to view the work – not as a fashion statement but as a necessity. Sunny is fake, the images are fake, the show is a fake. In her unique way, Mirka is playing with us, parodying our obsession with sunsets, lampooning the art world and asking us to question everything. Her serious commitment to this silly idea is impressive. “I think what's important, no matter if you document in the streets, on film, in black and white or color – you have to have a vision. You have to an idea of what you want to do, and then it doesn't matter, I think, if you do a thousand things before it becomes the final image.”
There are two types of images featured in Sunny’s new show. The first are the sunsets themselves – big, immersive photographs into which we viewers are compelled to lose ourselves. These are the types of sunsets that launched a million Instagram posts – vibrant shows of nature played out against impossibly candy-colored skies.
Alongside these, Sunny has placed solar images taken high up in the atmosphere. These very different, but equally intriguing shots create a nice duality in the show. On the one hand we have the sunsets, which we fetiishize to an incredible degree; on the other we have the sun itself, shot deep in outer space, stripped of all human context.
The nature of his work means Sunny is always wearing the strongest sunglasses known to optical science. As he spends hours gazing at the sun, he needs to protect his eyes as well he can, although he insists any damage is a small price to pay for his art.
Again, total rubbish. The images are mainly stock images that Mirka licensed and printed for her fake show. Then, to add her own touch, she superimposed raw eggs over the actual suns in the pictures. Yep, you read that right. Raw eggs. “The eggs are a symbol for life,” she says, “and the sun makes us feel more alive.” The solar images in the show continue the household theme. “I really love NASA and its imagery of the universe,” Mirka explains. “But when you look at the images, they’re so abstract they seem almost fake. It reminded me of a ball, so I just photographed different balls to create a series of solar images.” In both cases, Mirka likes the questions her tricks ask about how we consume photographs. “You don’t see within the first moment it’s an egg, and it’s the same with the balls. When we look quickly at something, we don’t realize what we’re seeing.
The opening of The Sunny Side Up attracted artworld movers and shakers, as well as figures from the worlds of politics, entertainment and environmentalism. The popularity of the opening reflected the eclectic appeal of the subject – we are all, it seems, suckers for a good sunset.
Although he spoke to journalists on the opening night, Sunny gives little away. He prefers the work to speak for him and wants viewers to submit themselves to the power of his pictures without too much conceptual thinking. The effect, as you can see, is almost unbelievable.
This is where the hoax really steps up its game. The whole exhibition is staged, a mixture of performance art and camera trickery that brings Mirka’s idea to its logical conclusion. She is a like a choreographer at this stage sketching out in detail how she wants thing to look and then painstakingly recreating every element – the floors, the outfits and the poses of her fake gallery-goers. “I really love stories,” she says. “I always love to have a story behind the image, whether it's a still-life, a product, or a bag. So I really liked creating this from scratch, bringing it into a three dimensional room and seeing how it developed.” She continues, “The photography itself is the smallest part. It's literally all about the preparation – when everything is ready, then I put my camera on the tripod, and I set up to shoot. I don't even really consider myself a photographer because of all these other elements. It’s definitely more about production than it is about making a picture.”