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Floating on the edge of fantasy

Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland immerses herself in the environments she photographs
Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Vanishing Traces from the series Soft Horizons (2006), Bolivia


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Scarlett Hooft Graafland's fantastical, but wholly realistic photographs seem like spontaneous moments conjured from a magical imagination. Salt flats are turned into carpet, bowler hats are strung across a smoke filled valley, antlers line up on a frozen lake and a spiral of white balloons floats on a lake echoing Robert Smithson's land art piece Spiral Jetty.

These images on the verge of documenting performance art are not as spur of the moment as the Dutch photographer would have you believe - they are the result of sometimes months of Graafland immersing herself in the environments she photographs. 

"Spontaneous photos can only happen when you stay in a place for some time. Like the Polar Bear photo, a performance I did wrapped in a polar bear skin," Graafland tells Phaidon. "I saw the skin hanging outside a house, the hunter, an old woman, killed the animal a few weeks before. After some negotiations I was able to rent the skin from her and together with my assistant, an Inuit woman, we scouted the area on a snow mobile to find a good spot. I wanted to have the immense grey sky, the heaviness of it. At the horizon you could sometimes see a stripe of white light, so we waited for many days before the circumstances were right; the grey sky, the sea ice just freezing up in the background. The temperature was extremely low that day, minus 25, so right after the photo was taken I had to put on caribou skin boots and jump to get feeling in my feet again."

Graafland studied at Parsons School of Design in New York and The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. She chooses to travel farther a field and for long periods of time for her work, often in places such as Bolivia - where she has spent eight years going back and forth - Laguna Colarada and arctic Canada. "Most of my works happen in remote areas; places where the circumstances for the locals are quite tough with the over all power of nature. These places fascinate me, maybe partly because I come from a country where every thing is 'man made', in the Netherlands we have no wilderness at all."

Inevitably after spending long periods of time living in these places Graafland's works become influenced by local art, custom and legends as with her series The Day After Valentine, which she photographed during a stay in Fujian Province, China. "A Chinese legend tells the story of seven girls living in heaven," Graafland says. "Only once a year, on Valentine's Day these girls come down to earth on the head of an ox. One of the girls falls in love with a farmer and decides to stay on earth but the others leave again for heaven."

The time Graafland spends in one place is continually important: "Once I come to a place I tend to stay for quite a long time, and over time the projects develop," she says. "Though I have some ideas before hand, most of the time it changes, the interaction with the local community is a crucial factor in my work. Where they bring me, who is willing to help, so the context of the place is important."

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Land and Environmental Art

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