I chose Santiago Vanegas as the first Saatchi artist to feature on Realize because, though I often find contemporary photography to be facile or hackneyed, his work forces me to stop and look, and look again. Not only is his subject matter arresting, but his technique is stunning.
Focusing on locations both topically relevant and resonant with meaning, Vanegas urges the viewer to enter a world both known and unknown, both actual and symbolic. In some cases his imagery appears unadulterated, in others he has interjected new elements either with great subtlety or intentional brashness.
In his Poisoned Earth series, Vanegas makes a powerful statement about our presence on this planet. He uses monumental rock formations to stand as haunted witness to noxious emanations, bloody wraiths that curl upward with unctuous inevitability. The images are both unsettling and gorgeous.
Through the implicit juxtaposition of Earth’s archaic geological history and our own deadly, evanescent dance, it is clear that these silent monuments will endure even if we self-destruct.
In his Antarctica series, Vanegas captures the infinite splendor of terrain that encompasses outlandish formations of ice, so monumental yet so fragile. We see their mighty, unfettered stature in some of his images, and in others, their glory subdued and defanged. The stark and radiant beauty of this unpopulated wilderness presents a challenge to the viewer. How do we engage with these images, with these remote regions apparently disconnected to our daily lives? How can we afford not to?
I've never been to another planet, but I imagine this is the closest I'll ever get to one. Ironically, being in Antarctica is probably the closest I'll ever feel to Earth. The experience has fostered images of absolutes. Vast landscape, infinitesimal human… I went to Antarctica because soon it will be a very different place. In the past few years, ice shelves as massive as countries have broken off the continent and are melting into the ocean. Death and Beauty. Antarctica is dying.
In his Considering Mortal series, Vanegas steps fully into the world of altered photography with surgical precision. The environments seem real, yet are in fact illusory stages upon which a darker and more metaphorical reality takes place. Working with towering Transformer-esque robots, who appear to be enduring human ordeals, Vanegas poses another question: Into what sort of creatures are we ourselves being transformed, and what of our human selves will remain? In the image above, is Vanegas posing a penultimate suicide scene? Or is it this new species revelling, from a superior vantage point, in a moment of power?
We are slaves to our technology with our computers, email, our life.com, smartphones, S.S. numbers, digital identities, online aliases, navigation systems, social media, etc. Without it, we are nothing. With it, is all we are… The robot metaphor functions in a literal sense, and a figurative sense. Literal, through us becoming our technology. Figurative, through humankind becoming sedated into one collective machine of mass produced thought.
What makes these fabricated scenes so provocative, even as they reflect our excesses and lapses, is that Vanegas brings to them a sense of deeply black comedy. And where one can laugh, there is always hope.
In his Iceland series, Vanegas explores another nearly alien terrain. But this particular image points to an eerie symbiosis between this no-man’s land and man’s mechanical enterprise. Is this what the entire earth will look like in the future?
I love this image. From deep within this glacier, pocked and dirty, slashed by monstrous cracks, one can almost hear a benthic roar, as if Pluto lurks beneath. And yet, the translucent pastels of the distant landscape give the scene an almost heavenly aspect, as if the glacier, in yielding up its self in mist, is already yearning to ascend.
Brooding as is much of his work, this image, with its vertiginous point of view and its succulent, psychedelic greens, the obvious currents of the sea and the steam rising off it, points to the primordial strength of this planet, one in which we should remain in awe. Vanegas’ work begs us to anthropomorphize; the thrusting rock formation in the foreground stands like a muscled, behemoth surveying its dominion, reminding us what really rules on this Earth.
About Santiago Vanegas
Born in Philadelphia and then moving back and forth between the United States and his native country of Colombia, Santiago is inspired by his mother, a painter, Surrealist art, Latin American magic realism, music, and the world of cinema. "I see the world in a way that even to me is a bit strange, but very real," he explains. "The world is a strange, complicated, and fascinating place. I’m constantly drawing metaphors of how I see the world and its future. My images are about the relationship between reality and perception." His work has been featured in WIRED, Flaunt Magazine, GRAPHIC Magazine UK, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, etc.