An Interview with Michele Oka Doner
ANDREA BLANCH How did you start working on Into the Mysterium? How did this book come to be?
MICHELE OKA DONER: I approached Nancy Voss, a marine biologist at the Marine Invertebrate Museum, to vet captions for the book I published in 2004 called Workbook. Workbook is a series of working drawings, most of which come from the Miami Airport floor, A Walk on the Beach. There was a lot of marine biology in the drawings, and I wanted people not to just see a pretty picture, but to know this was a diatom, or this was an alga, etc. So before the book went to press in August, I spent the summer researching the captions. I wanted to make sure that somebody of Nancy’s caliber could look at the drawings and know what they were, and not say, “What was this artist thinking?”
So that was how I engaged with her initially. Then, while I was visiting her at the museum, I saw rows upon rows of extraordinary glass jars with shimmering contents floating in alcohol, having leached extraordinary juices and inks into their waters. 90,000 specimen jars holding almost a million specimens. The colors were purple and red and golden as well as translucent, and I said quietly, “Do you mind if I go and take a look?” She said, “I suppose not.” So I became an explorer temporarily, and then asked for permission to go back, which I did a year later with a macro camera.
AB: Why did you present the images in this way, a foldout?
MOD: I did it this way for myself, originally. I made a fold-out that connected the dots so that I could look at the snapshots I’d taken in relation to each other. I was making patterns for myself; It was a learning tool. I made two boxes, one that had more color and rounder materials, and another that had more black and white and was more branching. I’ve always divided the world up into form and shape, with color taking a back seat.
Then Phaiden Press was over to look at another book, and said, “What’s that?” I said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I think I’m going to use it for source material for Miami City Ballet’s A Midsummer Nights Dream.” But they insisted on taking a look at it. So I opened the box and pulled out the accordion of images and they said, “We’d love to publish this, and we can do it on time for the ballet.” They loved the format; They thought it belonged like that.
Judith Regan of Regan Arts, a division of Phaidon Press, took my maquettes and we refined them for publication. There was so much material, so I had to have themes that related. I used shape, pallet, density. Basically the shapes that were chosen for this particular book had mystery. For me, this is a magic show. This is the primordial soup.
AB: The specimens come from mysterious places, but your photographs represent them very simply. Is this documentation or art?
MOD: I don’t think that I would make a distinction. I think that the aggregate has come together to create a work of art. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
AB: What did Nancy think when you were working on Mysterium?
MOD: She didn’t see what I saw. And she didn’t understand my nicknames for certain things (like how I nicknamed the museum the Mysterium). She kept shaking her head and saying to me, “If only you had photographed them showing the labels!” And, “I don’t know why you kept choosing the unidentified ones!” For me it was very simple: the unidentified jars had lots of stuff in them, and no labels hampering the camera. It was so frustrating to her. But, on a deep level, she understood and allowed me to keep coming back. She was so generous, even though she felt somewhat thwarted in her ability to explain to me what I should be looking at. I have so much gratitude to her for letting me in. I hope I’ve honored her with this presentation of her world.
AB: Is this the first time you’ve used photography?
MOD: Almost. I’ve had bits and pieces before. But I’ve always considered myself primarily a person of ideas, which I express visually. The ideas carry through the body of work, and the form it takes, or the materials, are secondary. I am a visual philosopher. I have no need for those traditional boundaries.
AB: You wrote that you were “desirous of scientific specificity,” and of “pushing readers beyond the visual beauty.” What do you hope to achieve through this?
MOD: The beauty is there to seduce them. Did you know the Latin root for “seduce” is to educate? When I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan I was exposed to African art for the first time. A world opened up. One of the things I remember reading at the time was about how the King of the Benin Empire (in pre-colonial southern Nigeria) said that the definition of “barbarian” was someone who did not pass on his knowledge to the next generation. So seduction and education are very connected for me. I seduce by raising people into what I think is wondrous. I want them to fall in love. And then I want them to care for the loved one, so that we have something to preserve and pass on.
AB: So what do you think lies beyond visual beauty?
MOD: The core of meaning. It’s still the biggest mystery. Elaine Scarry wrote that what happens in the face of beauty is that we un-self. We come out of ourselves. Why do we stop and watch a sunset? What is it that stops us? It’s that ability to lift off. And you can actually feel in those moments that you have a soul. It’s a deep connection, and it’s what makes us human.