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Artwork Tobias Gremmler

For Björk visual artist Tobias Gremmler, nature is the source of all beauty

Off the back of the singer/songwriter’s Cornucopia tour, we hear from her stage visualist about how the natural world, metamorphosis, and our inner selves shape our perception

To celebrate Björk hitting the cover of Dazed, the Icelandic genius has taken over Dazed Digital and Dazed Beauty, inviting you into the world of Cornucopia, the experimental theatre show that Björk has brought to London this November.

Before skyscrapers, roads, iPhones, and face filters, there was nothing on our planet but the natural world. From this, grew man, followed centuries later by the urbanism we know today. It’s because of our evolution directly from nature that our perception is based entirely upon the natural world. It was the first thing our Homosapien ancestors saw and the only life form they knew, and therefore it forms the core of everything we perceive and know visually. 

This is the key sentiment of Björk collaborator and digital artist Tobias Gremmler who believes because of nature’s role in our perception, that the natural world is the source of all beauty. We see this boldly in Gremmler’s work, particularly his digital, moving image artworks whose structures simultaneously grow and fluctuate across the screen, as they burst with muted tones and temper with ideas of metamorphosis to beautifully mimic the natural world. 

Gremmler started his career as a media artist and designer in the early 1990s. For over 30 years, he has witnessed and been a core part of the way in which technology has excelled our ability to create beyond physical restrictions by working across theatre, music, digital production, film, and more. For Björk, Gremmler created music videos for two tracks from her 2017 album Utopia (2017) “Tabula Rasa” and “Losss” – both of which delicately project the artist’s deep connection to nature – and most recently made the stage visuals for the singer’s 2019 Cornucopia tour. 

In “Tabula Rasa”, Gremmler turns Björk into a floating natural organism with petals for limbs as she fluctuates harmoniously between different shapes. The video’s harmony lends itself to the physical algorithms of plants, which Gremmler used in the visuals in order for Björk to mimic nature – deeply fitting for a song with a title that refers to the human mind at birth, when it is thought to have no innate ideas (the kind of mind man would have had when he only had the natural world). 

Gremmler’s work is not only a symbol for the importance of nature, but his work unlocks the power of technology in transforming the self beyond physical limits. His visuals for “Losss” are an ode to this, as they take us on a journey between the many dualities of the self – the inner and outer self, the pessimist and the optimist – as two identical Björks who appear like mythical sea creatures face off with one another. 

With nature at his core, Gremmler’s work allows us to tenderly ponder life’s biggest philosophies around metamorphosis, the projection of our inner selves, and our relation to dimensions beyond our understanding. As part of our Björk takeover of Dazed and Dazed Beauty, we hear from Gremmler on the themes that inform his work and what beauty means to him. 

Nature is a key theme of your work. Why do you believe nature is so important to us as humans?

Tobias Gremmler: It’s a very important aspect because if we didn’t have nature we wouldn’t be here. We rely on nature and nature is a very important aspect of Björk’s Utopia. For these music videos, I was trying to bring this idea in on a level where nature is incorporated into the digital by using certain algorithms in order to create visuals which actually also appear in nature. In these works, certain formulas trigger growth or expansion, or movements we see in nature. That’s why most of those visuals appear in a very organic way.

Can you give us an example of the kind of algorithms you used between the two videos?

Tobias Gremmler: In “Tabula Rasa”, a human body more or less shapes shifts between different organic forms. What’s happening here is a natural algorithm that’s responsible for the formation and transformation of shape. So it’s almost like mixing a plant or flower with a human shape. There is also a certain level of unpredictability in there, it’s not just a controlled creative procedure, there are elements that act by themselves, like the way things are shifting or details of patterns appear.

And that’s all left to the algorithm?

Tobias Gremmler: Yeah. It can be seen as computational algorithms but basically these are things you can find in nature that you can also translate into digital forms and functions.

How do you think nature shapes our understanding of aesthetics and beauty?

Tobias Gremmler: Nature shapes our understanding of beauty to almost one hundred per cent because we are formed by nature and what we perceive is basically what we learned to perceive of nature. All of our receptors are based on the range of elements nature wanted for us to see. Our contemporary receptive elements came into our vocabulary only relatively late, for example, a few thousand years ago we didn’t see concrete walls or urban landscapes, we saw vegetation, the animals, the sky, the lakes and these elements formed our perception. It’s important we retain a certain empathy towards natural aesthetics because this is where we come from and what our perception relies on if we want to survive right, because without nature we will not survive. We cannot survive isolated in skyscrapers for example in urban environments. This connection to nature is transported through this visual language in the Björk works.

“Nature shapes our understanding of beauty to almost one hundred per cent because we are formed by nature and what we perceive is basically what we learned to perceive of nature” – Tobias Gremmler 

How do you define beauty and aesthetics?

Tobias Gremmler: I remember Björk and I had certain discussions about what is beauty or what we perceive it as. For example, why do we perceive certain flowers, like an orchid, to be very beautiful? To me, the orchid has a very refined structure that had a particular purpose in evolution to attract insects in order to replicate or camouflage. These patterns which emerge out of such structure or such interactions with the environment are, in my opinion, very refined and delicate, and what I perceive as beauty. But they are to me not beautiful in a sense of decoration, they are more beautiful in their sense of purpose.

Do you think beauty has a value in art if you look across the decades in the way of how it’s changed, and people’s perceptions of good art and bad art?

Tobias Gremmler: It depends. For art, especially for contemporary art, it always depends on what message you want to send and how it’s transmitted. What I explained before with the flower, for example, it means that you can see structures in an object that are very complex, that were born hundreds of thousands of years ago by evolution. These structures dictate how flowers communicate with other life forms like insects, and the way they send out but also receive signals. Personally, for me, I perceive this as beauty. You also can see the decorative part, but for me it’s rather secondary. Every piece of art has a different purpose and this purpose maybe beauty or concept or political or social or whatever it is. Depending on the preferences, the aesthetics might shift. I guess it’s always perception-based and about the context too.

We talked about “Tabula Rasa” but what about “Losss”, can you walk me through the technical processes of that video and the ideas behind it? 

Tobias Gremmler: The basic structure comes from the song, which is a dialogue between two different personalities or characters, which might be even be held by one person – the interior and exterior personalities we have. So the video features two of the same faces. We recorded each of the faces separately and then doubled them. One of the most important elements to the video is the idea of the mask – there’s a point where the face itself almost vanished, you could only see the outer structure like a mask. 

Masks were something I focused on a lot because it’s something Björk does a lot. In my research on masks, I discovered how certain cultures use masks to reflect internal reality. In Western art culture, if you represent a particular human, you do it by a portrait while in other cultures humans are represented in a way that you don’t really characterise particular recognisable features, but you try to create a mask that brings out one’s inner features or inner characteristics instead. Looking at the portrait from the inside out something that I was trying to integrate into the visuals for “Losss”.

Is that something you work with quite a lot – the interior, the internal, the hidden aspects of humans?

Tobias Gremmler: Yes. A mask always symbolises something to hide or reveal. In some cultures, masks are used to hide, but in some cultures the mask reveals something that is hidden. A normal face might not reflect one’s inner feelings, yet a mask could reflect your inner state and better than the original face. It was really interesting to play with the paradox between hiding or revealing something.

What do you think beauty is in the internal reality of humans? 

Tobias Gremmler: I’m more interested in the unfolding or unveiling aspect so that a personality or inner characteristic is projected. This is the idea for me when creating virtual characters. 

Metamorphosis is a key theme for you and that really comes out a lot in the music videos that you’ve done for Björk. How important do you think metamorphosis is to beauty and understanding ourselves as humans? Which I guess ties into nature a lot as well too…

Tobias Gremmler: When you think of a personality, in most cases it’s not a fixed thing. It’s always something that shifts. Sometimes it shifts between different extremes, or sometimes it shifts between other elements. I think that in order to define a state it needs to shift – there’s a saying that difference makes a difference. Or that something can only be seen from the perspective of a certain shift in differences. That’s why to me the transformation aspect is very important because if something starts to transform into something else then the initial state becomes more clear.

How do you think this concept of beauty has changed in art since you began as an artist? Obviously since technology has come in and unlocked this new realm of digital art and AI and things like that.

Tobias Gremmler: Beauty and art is always difficult. For every person, beauty means something different. In the field of art, there are so many different themes, people and levels, and they all have different preferences on what is beauty or even try to avoid beauty or define beauty in a different way.

“I’m more interested in the unfolding or unveiling aspect so that a personality or inner characteristic is projected. This is the idea for me when creating virtual characters” – Tobias Gremmler 

We can personalise it for you – in your specific practice of work, how do you think your concept of beauty has changed since you started? Have your aesthetics changed a lot since then?

Tobias Gremmler: I’ve been doing this now for almost 30 years working in different areas of digital media. Back in the early 90s, media didn’t have the features it has now, so you couldn’t, for example, manipulate images to the level I’m doing it now. But, I’ve always tried to push the possibilities to the limit to try and get closer to something I’ve imagined from reality. With the help of digital simulation, you get closer to something which embodies what you have in mind or what you think is in that song. Of course, it’s definitely easier to do it now than 30 years ago because technology has improved a lot.

With all of these technological advancements, where we can enhance different parts of the way we look, especially online and in the media, how do you think this has changed our perception of being human?

Tobias Gremmler: There is a certain feedback loop between the digital world and the real world. At the moment it’s more happening on a social level, on social platforms where communication is affected or the speed of communication is effected rapidly. This is why people use it so often and why society is affected by it. It’s not that people are all wanting to become virtual characters that have different forms that might affect themselves in reality. If that would be the case, then maybe it has a certain effect on real perception but as it’s rather seldom, so far I don’t think it has a strong impact other than triggering imagination. It’s more like a trigger for imagination I would say rather than having an impact on how one sees themselves. I actually think fashion has a much broader impact on society than virtual graphics.

Nature being the biggest inspiration for you, do you have any thoughts on climate change?

Tobias Gremmler: We need to understand that there is only this planet and if we mess it up, then there is nowhere else we can go. Just for the sake of self-survival people should become aware of this. Other than that, this is a beautiful planet and we have beautiful nature. It’s sad to see that our values are put more into commercial areas which are not so important and less attainable than nature. To preserve our planet and survive, a healthy environment should be our highest priority.