contemporary art / history of art

Artwork of the Month / February 2022

Irene Kung

Platinum Palladium Print
40 cm x 80 cm on paper 72cm x 112 cm
Edition 1 of 25

The black and white photo “Pingyao” by Irene Kung shows a street in the ancient city in China. Due to the well conserved historic buildings dating from the times of the Ming and Qing dynasties (late 14th to early 20th century) enclosed by the city walls (constructed in 1370), the town is part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

Since the image is taken from an elevated point in central perspective, the curved, cantilevered roofs of the houses alongside the road dominate the scenery. In the lateral backgrounds appear the tops of other edifices. Clearly distinguishable, are the roof tiles and decorated gables of the front houses. Whereas the houses further away become vaguer, until they fade away in the mist. Similar it is with the paving stones of the street. A grey banner, perhaps originally in red or green, pends in the anterior third over the road. Besides a cycle rickshaw and human silhouette in the far background, the place is uninhabited.

This emptiness and the light fog might indicate that the picture is taken in the early hours of the day. On the other hand, the street might be deserted because of the inhospitable weather. Altogether, the photo emanates a gentile chilliness. This might arise of the impression of light snow cover of the farer roofs, even though the anterior tops indicate it as visual illusion. At the same time, the scenery is velvety by the soft mist and the curved roofs. Only the lateral kerbs of the road and the pilaster of the houses constitute relative straight lines. However, they are interrupted by the pending banner and are fading away to an invisible vanishing point.

The actual photo is framed black by irregularly overlapping printing ink. Hereby arises a sharp contrast to the soft atmosphere of the picture, since the nebulous scenery is disturbed by a hard dark rectangle. On the other hand, the outer edges of this square are patchy. By the colour, they generate a contrast to the white paper. Moreover, they liaise to the grey irregular frame lines at the edges of the paper, which for their part assimilate the grey shades of the actual photo.

Besides their quality as contrast, extension and framing of the image, the overlapping printing ink and the grey border makes the picture to unique piece. Additionally, it refers to the printing technique. Irene executed it as platinum palladium print. This is a kind of platinum print containing besides platinum also palladium and goes back to the beginnings of photography. For a long time, it was abandoned because of the high cost of the chemical components, but revived due to the exceptional properties. In opposite to the nowadays conventional photo prints, the results are more divers, due to the manual process. Herewith they remind graphic prints. Induced by the platinum, the pictures are shimmering in metallic brown or green shades, depending on the light incidence. Furthermore, they will not fade and are extremely durable.

Regarding the colour quality, the photos have a larger grey scale and deeper black tones. Therefore, the technique allows warm tone images by the fine gradation or cold tone results by a higher contrast between black and white. Even though “Pingyao” is dominated by the softness of the actual photo, Irene includes the other characteristic, by the black overlapping printing ink. Moreover, she integrates the properties to the image content. Instead of cutting it off, she provides the picture with a double framing, one in deep black and the other one in grey tones.


Irene Kung

Born in 1958 in Bern, Switzerland, Irene grew up with a mother who was painter and so she started painting early. Nevertheless, another of her earliest passions was photography, as she stated in an interview in 2014. When she was aged 20, Irene was shooting portraits. Due to her interest for images, she studied graphic design in Rome and worked for years in the advertising business. During this time, she continued to study painting. Her first subjects were realistic and she was early recognized for her still-lifes. While starting to exhibit her works, her images slowly became more abstract. Stimulated by the Roman gallerist Valentina Bonomo, she concentrated on photography, using it as a new tool of expression after working with different techniques like painting, graphics, sculpting and incision.

In one of the ongoing series, Irene focuses on architecture. Here she isolates classical and contemporary buildings of their surroundings. They are mostly shown with a black background. The artist illuminates only the parts of her interest (Invisible Cities). Since some time now, she edits selected images of this and other series in platinum palladium print. This technique refines the greyscale gradations and underlines the deep black. Our artwork of the month of February 2022 “Pingyao” from 2021 is part of these particular editions.

Moreover, Irene photographs landscapes (Clouds, New Mexico, Water, Mountains) and animals. Another series is dedicated to trees. Here again, the object stands alone; there is no environment in the image only a diffuse background, emphasising the atmosphere. These trees are often surrounded in black, reminding paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. Could this be a glimpse to her beginnings as painter and portrait photographer?

Besides many solo and group exhibitions all around the world (inter alia Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, UK, USA, Argentina, China and Russia) Irene’s works were featured by international magazines like The New York Times Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, Sette del Corriere della Sera and China Daily. Moreover, she was selected at ParisPhoto 2010. For the EXPO 2015 the Contrasto Galleria invited her to a solo show at the Fruit and Legumes Cluster, where she presented 26 of her fruit trees. One of them is our artwork of the month of May 2016: “Melo in fiore” (Flowering Apple Tree), though this tree is depicted with a light background. A selection of her trees entered in a book and a limited edition of 100 original signed prints published by Contrasto Galleria, Milan. Also in 2016, she won the International Photography Award in the categories Nature and Fine Art.

Two years later, in 2018, Porsche asked Irene to make an art edition for the new Porsche 911. For this purpose, Irene created the series “Timeless Machine”, where she embedded the model in urban sceneries like in movie stills. During the worldwide presentation of the new car, the photos were shown in large format. Subsequently, the pictures were exhibited in the Art Hangar of the Saanen/Gstaad-Airport in 2019 and 2020. Currently, Irene’s works are on view at “The Temple” in Beijing (until 8 April 2022) and the M97 Gallery, Shanghai (until 20 March 2022).

Irene lives and works in Switzerland.