On Friday the 22nd of July, a very special exhibition launched here in Sydney. Titled ‘The Necessity for Excess’, it was a photographic culmination of two years of stunning images captured at well known hard dance festival Defqon.1 Australia, captured by photographer Urs Bulhman.
Born in Switzerland, Urs emigrated to Australia in the 70s. From there he became a professional fisherman before turning to photography. He worked first with commissioned briefs before turning to his current focus, advertising. Given his journey both as a person and given that event photography is not Urs’ usual focus, it makes the end result of the exhibition that much more surprising and fascinating.
The images are gritty and moody, yet capture the irreverent and light-hearted nature of his subjects. Many of the images are simultaneously dominated with the heavy grey of the skies, cement and metal stages pieces, but brought to life by bright splashes of colour in the lights, lasers and ravers’ costumes. Deliberately blurred images with points of clarity managed to perfectly capture the feverish sensation of walking through Defqon.1.
There was something about the photos that made me reminisce about my high school art classes dedicated to the Impressionists. That is, the images were about immediacy, they were about movement, the candid nature of the subjects and the way the quickly changing lights and lasers impacted on the overall photograph. Urs himself said improvisation and the question of ‘do you want the shot or not?’ was a key aspect of his overall approach. I asked him how he was able to tell what made a good shot on the run, and he replied that whilst the technical components were part of it, it really just came down to a sudden clicking, realisation that what he was looking at was ‘right’.
My favourite image (and the favourite of many others I spoke to) was ‘Defqonater’, a striking photo of a punter dressed as a sort of cyber-gothic Predator. Gunmetal grey from almost head to toe, the eye was instinctively drawn to the contrast with the bright orange of the punter’s synthetic dread falls, the two defqon symbols emblazoned on his head and chest, and the opalescent blue reflected in the Predator mask’s eyes. The subject’s posture demanded attention, there was no way not to notice the image immediately. Whilst all of the photos were stunning, it was this one that I, and many are others, kept circling back to view again. In short, it was the quite the work of art.
Upon speaking to Urs himself though, he was very hesitant about agreeing with me when I called his photos art. He laughed a little awkwardly and thanked me, but was quick to deny the exhibition was a work of art. Personally though, I still maintain the belief that the exhibition is very creative.
The thing that really impressed me about Urs and how he approached the project was the surprising degree of open-mindedness, especially for someone who not only doesn’t really shoot events/festivals, but also doesn’t listen to dance music, let alone something as intense as hardstyle and hardcore. Urs admitted his preferred kind of music was progressive rock, names like Black Sabbath, and that he wasn’t really into hard dance. For someone so outside their comfort zone, it honestly amazed me how quickly he understood his subjects. He described Defqon.1 and the larger rave scene as ‘extreme entertainment’ and ‘extreme escapism’, that despite it’s theatrical nature, was still a genuine culture. We discussed briefly the negative stereotypes of dance music and it’s followers, how those on the outside would never understand the fact it was more than just music to so many people. Yet in all honesty, Urs was on the outside, was a stranger to Defqon.1 and it’s denizens, and yet almost immediately seemed to understand, to just get it.
It was that open minded approach, that thirst to work outside his comfort zone, that I think in part gave Urs his success with this project. Not everyone is capable (or willing) of deliberately placing themselves in such a wildly unfamiliar environment and still sharing their experience in an objective manner. Urs described Defqon.1 as ‘explosive’ and ‘messy’, and this carries through to his work, there’s something about his photos that make Defqon look alluring, like a post-apocalyptic carnival.
“The Necessity for Excess” was born of Urs Buhlman’s desire to work outside his comfort zone, to learn and to improvise. Suitably named and true to the beautiful chaos that is all things rave, it succeeds in such an unexpected manner. As a raver and defqon punter myself, I thought the idea of an exhibition dedicated to my scene was strange initially. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of the gritty, chaotic whirlwind of colour and sound that is Defqon with a cultured, refined perusal of it’s denizens. I was a little worried, nervous even, that the culture that helped create the person I am today would be picked apart and judged by disdaining strangers who didn’t understand any of us.
My fears were thankfully unfounded. From the photographs themselves to the way Urs described his experiences at the festival during his speech, it’s clear that “The Necessity for Excess” does not offer it’s subjects up as artistic sacrificial lambs, but rather grants it’s viewers a very unique and fascinating perspective on what could be arguably described as one of the world’s most misunderstood subcultures. Urs recognised the excess, the less than perfect nature of the festival’s punters, but still did not judge. He asked himself and those at his exhibition the very valid question “What is normal anyhow?”.
For those who want to experience Urs Buhlman’s exhibition for themselves, it will be running until the 31st of July at Sunstudios in Alexandria. Visiting hours are from 8am-6pm Monday to Friday, and 8am-4pm Saturday and Sunday. To view the entire collection online, simply click here.
Special thanks to Urs Buhlman for kindly answering all my questions and Josie King for sending through images for press use.