Natural Histories: Karen Knorr in Conversation with Rebecca Comay

The following e-mail exchange took place over several days in January, 2002, between Karen Knorr in London and Rebecca Comay, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature in Toronto.  It was first published in the monograph Genii Loci, a comprehensive overview of Karen Knorr’s work from the 1990s to 2002, published in 2002 by Black Dog Publishing, London.

Part One: Natural history and the museum.

Rebecca Comay: Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the European cabinet of curiosity — successor to the medieval Church treasury, precursor to the modern museum — embraced in its collection both artificialia and naturalia. Without necessarily seeing the need to distinguish or classify these two broad categories of objects (although the day would soon enough arrive), it would array before the spectator the most marvellous specimens of both human and natural provenance — narwhal tusks and miniatures, gems and tapestries, exotic plant specimens and various ethnographic booty from voyages of discovery in the new world.

Karen Knorr at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, 2023

This text was published on the occasion of Karen Knorr’s retrospective solo exhibition at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris, France (11 March–29 April 2023)

Karen Knorr has been refusing(1) since the beginning of her career, without ever rejecting, no, she refuses, which permits friction with the multiple political and societal issues she has traversed since the 1970s. Does she know today what she is looking for by lining up this constellation of works that are like so many arguments? Let us understand argument in its original sense, that of debating, so the photographer, through her medium, joyfully employs her analytical mind, without ever taking a break. Alone or accompanied, Karen Knorr descends into punk clubs, becomes familiar with private circles, wanders museums, invites herself into luxury hotels or travels down American roads. Although much has already been said about her work, and that which is presented here is by no means a monolithic whole, it is clear that this renowned counter-relief drawing of which Angamben speaks reveals a committed and militant spirit.

The Virtues and the Delights: Reinventing History

This following text was published in June 2018 as part of The Photographers’ Gallery Viewpoint Photography and Landscape.

This essay was written in 1993 as an accompaniment to the body of photographic work The Virtues and the Delights. It first appeared in Portfolio Number 19 in 1994. The work was reviewed in the UK with incomprehension and criticism for being too intellectual and complex. In writing this essay I was attempting to unpack the layers in the work, to contextualise it and explain it to a predominantly British audience. The work was installed with wall text transfers and  first shown at Portfolio gallery, Edinburgh  in 1993. A frieze of text surrounded the work: Equality with Respect to Difference with Respect to Equality. 

Interview with Karen Knorr by Rosa Maria Falvo (June, 2014)

RMF: There is evermore debate about the real purpose of art and the motivations behind it. Who or what is an artist?

KK: I think an artist is someone who is part of an artistic community, which includes contemporaries and peers engaging critically through whatever chosen medium film, performance, photography, painting, etc. – with the world and the community they live in. Art is part of everyday life and creativity can be found everywhere, from ordinary domestic gestures like rearranging your home to ambitious initiatives in public spaces. It’s certainly not limited to a gallery space. Since the Fluxus movement, there are so many forms it can take, from agitprop to playful, and more recently a do-it-yourself aesthetic and collaboration between artists is coming to the fore again. Contemporary art is still hindered, in my opinion, by patriarchal attitudes. Very few women are given solo shows in museums and major galleries compared to men. And art by women doesn’t appear at the top of auction sales. The ‘Guerilla Girls’, an anonymous collective of feminist artists formed in the 1980s, have long since pointed this out with humour.

Interview by Niccolo Fano for Italian online magazine Fotografia : Punks, Elites and India’s Secular Culture 2014

Hello Karen, thank you for this interview. I would like to start from the beginning, from your first photographs and the start of your career. The origin of your practice is particularly relevant today with the ‘rediscovering’ of your first body of work Punks (1976); a collaboration with Olivier Richon, now Professor and Head of the Photography programme at the Royal College of Art. Tell us about how it all started.

Interview by Nirita Agrawal published as the Cultural Documentor Marwar Magazine, Mumbai , India 2012

The following text is based on an interview between Karen Knorr and Nirati Agrawal, from the Indian magazine
Marwar. The interview took place during the Delhi Art Fair in January 2012, where her recent work, India Song, was exhibited at the Delhi branch of Tasveer Gallery, a pan- Indian network of photographic galleries based in Bangalore. The images following the interview are all from India Song.

Interview Photo Espana 2008

Interview by Ana Bergueta with Karen Knorr PHOTO ESPANA 2008

– Why did you choose a uniform format for your earlier black and white work? What determined the choice of typographies?

A conceptual approach structured the series. Similar lighting, camera angles and conventions of environmental portraiture were employed throughout the work. The typographies vary depending on the series: Gentlemen uses ‘Garamond,’ Country Life uses ‘Boldoni’ and Connoisseurs ‘Times.’ Belgravia utilises ‘Century Schoolbook,’ evoking a school textbook on upper class ideas and attitudes constructed out of conversations.

Challenging the Order of Things

Challenging ‘The Order of Things’: a call to arms in Karen Knorr’s Academies.

Established in 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts aimed to elevate the status of the artist. Instead of teaching practical skills to the commercial artist, the Royal Academy encouraged its students to create works of high moral and artistic worth. The monkey perched before the easel in Karen Knorr’s ‘Painting after Nature,’ photographed in the Life Class Room of the Academy, can be seen as an example of a civilised post-Darwinian gentleman engaged in a refined and educated endeavour. Yet traditionally the monkey is known for its ability to ‘ape’ or imitate reality. In photographing the monkey, Knorr draws upon a nineteenth century trope of the photographer as an organ-grinding monkey who cranks a handle to generate a tune.

The Grapes Are Sour Anyway!

Considering the recent period, where much UK fine-art photography is either minimally abstract, suggestive of the banality of the everyday, or full of bleak (and dare I say dull) representations of the post-industrial landscape, it is in fact rather satisfying to consider a body of photographic work by an artist that remains faithful to the meticulous development and consistent refining of her own oeuvre, as opposed to the ever-changing and unpredictable morphology of trend.

In his book Science and the Arts (1935), Jacob Opper describes the change in the theory of nature from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries as one that involves a shift from Cartesian and Newtonian mechanics, to biology – the science of life.

Où les pigeons nous donnent une leçon de savoir-vivre…

Dans le sillage d’artistes aussi fameux que La Fontaine ou Chardin, Karen Knorr s’intéresse depuis longtemps aux rapports entre l’animal et la société. En mettant en scène la gent animale dans des intérieurs ultra chics, aux antipodes de son habitat naturel, l’artiste anticonformiste nous balade, un sourire espiègle aux lèvres, dans les labyrinthes de son univers.
Qui aurait pensé qu’en installant les animaux dans les musées et les châteaux, ils allaient nous enseigner la sagesse plus efficacement que n’importe quel théoricien ? Karen Knorr, en fée de la photo, est parvenue à rendre les bêtes beaucoup plus éloquentes qu’elles ne le paraissent !