The Great Unreal, and Other Fictions

From Robert Frank’s American road to Zaha Hadid’s Azerbaijan project, photographs of engineered unreality.


Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs are a team of Swiss artists, based in Berlin, who poke at the facades of modernity, slyly exposing the conceptual constructions and absurdities that undergird the built world. Their series The Great Unreal simultaneously reinforces and undermines the mythology of the American road. Here, Onorato and Krebs mix straight shots of real-world strangeness with prints that have been physically altered (though never digitally manipulated) and trompe-l’oeil constructions that twist our perspective. Although the tricks they deploy are purposely obvious, the artists nevertheless manage to plant a seed of doubt about what you are seeing, creating a woozy sense of reality as you go back and forth between altered and unaltered images.

A recurring motif is the image of a solitary road winding into the distance, made famous by another Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, in his 1958 book The Americans. But Onorato and Krebs don’t photograph a road — just a triangle of cardboard propped up against the mountains or laid down in a mock landscape of motel-bed blankets. The cars here are similarly unreal constructions: a jalopy built from road-trip detritus piled on junked tires, a sedan in a motel parking lot transformed into a glowing ball of light.

The world they create is not faked. Not exactly.

The world that Onorato and Krebs create is not faked, exactly, but it is a reality sustained by belief and illusion. That approach is an obvious match for the engineered unreality of the American West, but the artists have also taken on the solidity of the Old World. In a later series, shot in Italy and Germany, they built sculptural armatures out of 2×4s to emulate buildings in the background. In the flattened space of the photographs, the wood frames look like supporting elements or extensions of the buildings. The ramshackle constructions are transposed into brick and stone, so that the buildings seem held together by nothing more than some ephemeral notion.

Most recently, Onorato and Krebs photographed former Soviet states in Central Asia, juxtaposing Cold War relics with shiny new buildings made by states flush with cash from energy reserves. These scenes are unaltered by the artists, but they are no less strange or pointed in their questioning of reality. In Turkmenistan, grandiose marble and glass towers in the shape of the Rub el Hizb — the eight-pointed Islamic star — are clearly physical manifestations of ideology. Less clear is the meaning of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan — where workers prepare for placing one of the final slabs in its undulating, gleaming white topography. It seems an unsteady edifice whose existence, like everything we build, rests above all on our conceptual construction of the world.

Editors’ Note

Taiyo Onorato’s and Nico Krebs’s solo exhibition The One-Eyed Thief is on view at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center through February 22, 2015.

Aaron Rothman, Taiyo Onorato, and Nico Krebs, “The Great Unreal, and Other Fictions,” Places Journal, February 2015. Accessed 26 May 2022.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.