We are pleased to present a solo exhibition of photographs by Karen Knorr. The American/British artist is known for her sumptuous, conceptually driven images that employ opulent palaces, museums and temples of Western Europe and Asia to frame issues of power rooted in cultural heritage.
The London-based artist, whose work is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Tate, London, presents a curated selection of images from five of her most powerful series, including India Song, Fables, Monogatari, Metamorphoses and The Lanesborough. The exhibition includes photographs created earlier this year as well as images from her Monogatari series on view for the first time in the United States.
ABOUT KAREN KNORR
Karen Knorr was born to American parents in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1954 and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She studied art in Paris and London, where she eventually settled in 1976 and still lives today. Knorr's multi-cultural upbringing was deeply influential, especially in the formative years of her career, when she used photography to make sense of her world as a young Puerto Rican American assimilating to life in London. Her experience as an outsider is part of what sparked her longtime interest in exploring issues of culture and society.
Knorr was also inspired by the artistic practices of friends and contemporaries, including photographers Bill Brandt, Bill Owens and Diane Arbus, as well as conceptual artists Michael Asher, Martha Rosler, Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke, one of the leading proponents of institutional critique. In the 1970’s, she studied under noted photographer Eileen Cowin and artist Victor Burgin, who opened her eyes to new ways of critically engaging with photography and its relationship to institutions and heritage.
Over the course of her career, Knorr has used video and photography as a method of critical inquest. Her work has consistently examined the meaning of place, often drawing from folklore, myths and allegories to express contemporary ideas. More recently, her titles reference historic works of literature, such as Aesop's Fables, the poems of Ovid and ancient epics from India, including the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata and the Panchatantra.
Knorr uses this layered storytelling approach to distance herself from more literal documentary photography. Lush, playful and spectacularly colorful, her images of exotic animals digitally fused into grand architectural settings are as aesthetically thrilling as they are thought-provoking.
Knorr’s most widely recognized series, India Song (2008–2022), began with a 2,000-mile trek across Rajasthan in 2008. The life-changing experience altered the focus of her practice, shifting her gaze to the upper-caste culture of the Rajput in India and its relationship to the “other” through the use of photography, video and performance.
In these skillfully crafted images, Knorr focuses on the interiors of sacred and secular spaces of Rajasthan. Photographed with a large-format Sinar P3 analogue camera and scanned to very high resolution, the images celebrate the rich visual culture of northern India and the layered, syncretic nature of the architecture, where motifs from Hindu and Islamic culture merge and migrate from room to room. Inspired by the Indian tradition of personifying animals in literature and art, Knorr digitally imposes images of tigers, elephants, peacocks and monkeys within these lavish spaces, which she photographs separately in reserves and zoos.
The settings are symbolic of wealth and social hierarchies and the animals who wander through them disrupt and disturb the power dynamics. The conflict between culture and nature, the fragility of the buildings damaged by earthquakes and mass tourism and the animals themselves, threatened by climate change and extinction, add a melancholic air. “I also see these photographs as documents of architectural heritage that may disappear,” says Knorr.
The series India Song is the subject of a large-format monograph with a preface by British writer William Dalrymple, released by Italian fine-art publisher Skira Editore in 2014.
Unlike traditional parables, where anthropomorphized animals often embody or critique human folly, the animals that inhabit Knorr’s series Fables (2003 – 2020) are not dressed up to resemble humans nor do they illustrate any explicit moral. Roaming freely in human territory, they draw attention to the unbridged gap between nature and culture, encroaching into the domain of the museum and other cultural sanctuaries that resolutely forbid their entry, except in the form of representation.
Photographed in temples, shrines, gardens and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in Kyoto, Nara, Ise and Tokyo, the Monogatari series (2012 – 2017) takes its name from the centuries-old Japanese literary genre. The series imagines animal life and Japanese cultural heritage, referencing Buddhist Jataka folklore and Japanese tales of the supernatural, such as Kaidan (ghost stories) and Shinto kami (ancient spirits). Knorr also found inspiration in Japanese art, particularly ukijo-e, a style of painting popular in Japan from the 17th to 19th century.
In the series Metamorphoses (2014 – 2018), which is set among the breathtaking villas and palaces of Italy, Knorr draws from the epic poem Metamorphoses by Ovid to explore ideas of legacy and heritage in modern-day Europe. In these works, pagan and Christian allegories intersect, expressing the tension and uncertainty stemming from contemporary international migrations that may change the face of old Europe forever—which for some, presents a cultural precipice.
The Lanesborough (2015) is a series shot in what used to be a hospital but is now one of the most expensive hotels in the world. In these images, Knorr wryly parodies the notion of living well in the most exclusive and aspirational locale in London.
COLLECTIONS & AWARDS
Karen Knorr has exhibited extensively, including at Tate Britain; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; San Diego Museum of Photography, California; Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow; Kyoto Modern Museum of Art, Japan; Seoul Museum of Art, Korea; and the Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai. Her work is in prestigious collections such as Tate London, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the United Kingdom Government Art Collection, England; Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Centre Georges Pompidou, France; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan, among others.
Knorr was awarded the Photography Pilar Citoler Prize in 2011 and she was nominated for the Deutsche Börse in both 2011 and 2012. She also received nominations for the Prix Pictet in 2012 and 2018. As an advocate for women in photography, she was made an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Photographic Society in 2018, as well as Honorary Chair of Women in Photography.
Knorr is an activist as well as an artist, advocating for transnationality, equality and diversity in the art world. She is a Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, Surrey, United Kingdom.