Gregor Sailer: Unseen Places

Gregor Sailer´s photos of empty places are sensational, but not sensationalist. In a major exhibition at Kunsthaus Wien (at Hundertwasserhaus) you can still view the exhibition until next weekend.

Gregor Sailer lives in Tirol, his “quiet zone”, where he plans the often very complex and difficult photo tours to remote and hard to visit places – places that are “unseen” by the majority of the global population. What we see in his images appears as utopian, strange worlds far from most viewers´ reality.

I’m not interested in bold or spectacular visuals. That would distract the outside viewer too much. The aim is to convey a certain calmness in the picture in order to be able to draw attention to the content.

Gregor Sailer
(Interview for Kunsthaus Wien)

Sailer captures surreal seeming places that are nevertheless real. For his photo series he visits almost inaccessible landscapes, sealed off territories or restricted military areas, and places where the facade hides the reality behind it. His photographs are for the most part unpeopled, with the exception of a few small human dots in the landscape, for example in his polar landscape pictures.

Photographs from Sailer´s series “The Polar Silk Road” at the Kunsthaus Wien

For his series “The Polar Silk Road”, Sailer´s aim was not to document climate change, although that forms an inevitable backstory to what is happening at the Pole, but to explore these territories, where military tensions among neighbouring countries are rising continuously. He gained access to several military zones, creating sober, yet somehow beautiful and often dystopian seeming images. The Polar Silk Road is a term created by China, which, like other countries, is counting on the direct North Pole sea route will be navigable by ship all year round at the latest by 2050 due to climate change, leading to big plans for using this route for shipping commerce. As Sailer explains, states inside and outside the Arctic are already staking their claims and the situation is very tense. Photographic working conditions were extremely difficult, both because of the freezing Polar nights and the challenges of carrying heavy equipment around, but also because of the dangers of being classified as a spy.

A certain thirst for adventure is part of it, a certain willingness to take risks, and also the ability to endure loneliness.

Gregor Sailer
(Interview for Kunsthaus Wien)

Sailer photographs in analogue, either in large or medium format, and he only made one photo per motif, not only because it would be difficult to bring along a lot of film material into such conditions. Primarily, he says, he does it because it sharpens his perception and contributes to the quiet, neutral imagery he aims for: It takes time and much deliberation to pick the motif that will tell the story the way he wants it told.

From the series “Potemkin villages” by Gergor Sailer at Kunsthaus Wien
Images from a fake Arabic village in the Mojave desert – the scenes come complete with fake street sounds.

The series “Potemkin villages” was really a great surprise to me. As I learned, militaries around the world build entire pseudo villages to train their soldiers. It was very strange to me, seeing a perfect replica of a mosque or of a butcher shop with Arabic writing in an apparent village street – located in the Mojave desert! Sailer spent two years in seven countries researching and photographing such contemporary “Potemkin villages.” They seem like scenes from a movie set, almost Disneyesque architecture actually created for people – who prefer not to live there, even in those instances where they could.

There are also contemporary instances of “Potemkin villages” where shabby facades have been “beautified” in advance of the visit of a high politician or an international political summit, for example in Russia.

In his project “Subraum” (subspace) Sailer photographed six specific interlinked locations in the German Ruhrgebiet, heavily industrialised area in West Germany. He focused on the architecture and functionality of generally inaccessible, but fully operational, underground spaces.

From the series “Subraum” by Gregor Sailer at Kunsthaus Wien

Another project that is featured in this exhibition is Sailer´s project “Closed Cities”, a term that comes from Russia, where Sailer also started his project in the mining city Mirny. The city is hermetically sealed, located in Siberia, where temperatures are extremely low, everything is monitored and censured by the state. He had permits for one visit per location and had to be very careful how he moved around there. He purposely did not include the people living in these places in his pictures to show their surreal character. Organizing the trips took months and sometimes years and also a high tolerance of frustration. In his final selection he wanted to show various cities in different “life stages”, some at the beginning, some already at their end of life.

But not everything is from very far away from the photographer´s home. His series “The Box” is from the so-called Messerschmidt Halle in Schwaz in Tirol, where during the Third Reich a former mine was used to build airplanes through forced labour. It is completely dark, and Sailer had to bring in electricity and lighting, which he says, resulted in a stage-like setting. The horrible history of the place, while important, was not the only thing that mattered anymore, but also the artificial character itself.

This artificiality that has been a key aspect of my work for some time now gradually evolved to a main focus here, and is then intensified in the project “Potemkin villages”.

Gregor Sailer
(interview for Kunsthaus Wien)
From the series “The Box” by Gregor Sailer at Kunsthaus Wien

If you speak German, I highly recommend watching Gregor Sailer speak about his projects on the Youtube interview videos made available by Kunsthaus Wien. There is only one more week to see the exhibition!

You may also want to visit the artist´s website.

A little bonus for visitors of the exhibition: a free poster by Gregor Sailer!

(Sources: Kunsthaus Wien website, exhibition captions, interviews with Gregor Sailer, available on the website of Kunsthaus Wien and on Youtube.)

More info

Gregor Sailer. Unseen Places. Kunsthaus Wien
Until 19 February 2022

Opening hours
daily 10 am–9 pm


2 thoughts on “Gregor Sailer: Unseen Places

  1. Thank you Karin for a great blog of a great exhibition. For me, visiting this exhibition was like a lesson in photography. Fantastic and I also encourage to visit – possible for one more week!!!


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