#WHM Karine Laval
We’ll be tapping our incredible archives in support of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and posting interviews from our Women issue throughout the month of March.
Karine Laval the water bearer
Interview by Andrea Blanch
From Norway to Havana and projects in between, the theme of water is recurrent in your work. Can you talk about how the aqueous landscape informs your work?
I’ve always been attracted and fascinated by water. We too often take it for granted and think of it as a simple, common substance, but it is a rather mysterious and complex element, with many implications in our lives. The constant presence of or reference to water in my work can be interpreted as a kind of ode to this primordial element and more generally to nature, which we alter, contaminate, and “denature” in a way, but which we cannot live without.
Personally, I’ve had a strong connection to water ever since I was a child. My father was a competitive swimmer and I learned to swim at a very young age. I was also sailing with my family growing up, and spent part of my adolescence in the Caribbean islands where my father lived for a while. I even chose New York City, incidentally also an island, as my home partly because of its proximity to water. I find water to be appeasing, meditative, and exhilarating, and I spend a lot of time in and around water bodies, so, the element naturally became a central subject matter, which I have extensively explored through different series, particularly The Pool (2002-2006), Poolscapes (2009-2011) and Altered States (2012-2013). Although my early work on swimming pools was in part a way to revisit memories from my childhood, it also reflected my interest in the social and architectural aspects of the place, which combines the natural and the artificial, man-made environment. The dichotomy between nature and artifice is one of the themes I’m also exploring in my latest work, Heterotopia.
More recently, I also became interested in the psychological subtext associated with the image of the pool and the subconscious ramifications of its stagnant waters, which, like images, can be layered with ambiguous connotations. In the series Poolscapes and Altered States, water has shifted from being primarily a subject matter to the substance or tool I use to create the work. I employ it as a distorting lens and a revealer of transformed reality. In that sense, water becomes almost a metaphor for the medium of photography itself.
Your work also exhibits a brilliantly powerful color palette. Can you speak about your choice of color in projects like Poolscapes and Altered States?
Color is a very powerful and creative tool to trigger emotions and evoke an atmosphere and mood. It is central to my work and I have used it to create images of transformed reality that can activate the imagination of the viewer. The role of the onlooker is very important to me in establishing the meaning of my work. I’m not trying to establish truth or give answers, but rather spark off questions. I feel my images are successful when they achieve that goal. I also like to explore notions of perception, memory, and dream. For example, in The Pool series, which evokes moments from my childhood, I used color to reinforce the ambiguous relation between reality, memory and fiction. I chose a cool unified color palette with alternatively saturated or bleached-out tones, reminiscent of the quality of the Super-8 movies my family made in the seventies.
In Poolscapes and Altered States, the stark choice of colors, combined with skewed angles and perspectives, was a way to create images veering to the surreal and explore the dimension of dreams and the subconscious. I would also like to be precise that all the images in The Pool, Poolscapes and Altered States were shot with my old Rolleiflex camera and the color palettes were the result of a chemical process of the film followed by in the darkroom manipulations.
In Altered States, how do you test the limits of the photographic medium to depict the experience of a transient moment in water?
With Altered States, I was not really trying to depict the experience of a moment in water. I rather used this image as a metaphor for our existence in constant flux. As the title of the series and the exhibition alludes, I was more intent on evoking different states of transformation such as physical transformation and distortion of the body, altered states of consciousness and perception, mythological metamorphosis, and environmental transformation. I also tried to challenge the way we see and test the limits of the photographic medium by using water as a distorting lens and by shifting the natural color palette to create images that oscillate between representation and abstraction, bringing to mind a state of flux. In this sense, Altered States also evinces the transformative power of the camera.
For a group of large-scale images of distorted human figures, I directed a professional dancer to perform underwater in a swimming pool, testing the body’s resistance in an unfamiliar element and under challenging conditions, thus alluding to man’s struggle with nature, the uncertainty of the human experience and ideas of vulnerability, impermanence and physicality. The isolation of the figure within the field of color strips the image from any narrative reference and focuses the attention on the body as an “icon” emerging from nothingness, caught between being swallowed and escaping. The blurriness and elongated limbs of the body reinforces the idea of dissipation. The remaining abstract form is then like a trace, which becomes a metaphor for the passage of time, and the impermanence of our existence, struggling between survival and transcendence.
The images in the series, and State of Flux, the video trilogy I produced and directed in conjunction, also touched upon notions of identity. Not just sexual or gender identity (the human figure in the images is often indistinct and people tend to wonder if it's a man or a woman), but also human and metaphysical: the body sometimes seems to turn into an animal or some strange creature, almost extraterrestrial, alien... I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of otherness and this is something I’m also exploring in my new series Heterotopia.
This summer, State of Flux II was selected to be part of a public art project conceived by the art and culture magazine CRUSHfanzine. The video was projected at a large scale onto random buildings throughout New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston during the month of August. I think this is actually one of the best ways for the viewer to experience these images – serendipitously – like if they were giant mental projections onto the urban landscape we inhabit. I hope they offered an escape from everyday reality to passersby, even if it is for just a few seconds.
Can you speak about experimenting with Mylar and how that furthers your message?
I have explored the tension between representation and abstraction for a while now in still and moving images. It started with the use of water as a distorting lens and shifting the natural colors captured on film through a chemical process and in darkroom manipulations. In the past few years, I have used Mylar and other reflective surfaces that echo the distortive qualities of water in an attempt to deconstruct the image further. Most of my projects since Poolscapes have to do with the fragmentation or dissolution of the image. Distortion and fragmentation help me underline the ambiguous nature of images and their connection to the subconscious. Like mirages, images are not always what they appear to represent but are determined by the interpretative faculties of the viewer. I also think that my move toward abstraction is a form of response to the fluidity and dematerialization of our contemporary existence. Most of what we experience or communicate is mediated and therefore transformed and in a constant state of flux. It can create a sense of chaos and confusion, or a kaleidoscopic and polyphonic perception of our lives. Color, Mylar and reflections in general all contribute to explore these ideas.
Your projects Poolscapes and Altered States, along with the series Leisure Time, look more like paintings than photographs because of their defined color palette. Which painters inspire you?
I love painting and used to paint as a teenager. My work often blurs the boundary between photography and painting and at times, people have mistaken my images for paintings. My pictures of pools are often compared to David Hockney’s, which I take as a compliment, although I was not really aware of his work when I first started my work on pools. Since then, I have become familiar and fond of his work, particularly his experimental approach to painting, using photography and new technologies as a starting point. When I worked on the Poolscapes series, I had in mind Italian Renaissance frescos, particularly Michelangelo’s and his Slaves series of sculptures. I’m also fascinated by Monet’s color palette and use of fragmentation in the Nympheas (Water Lilies), which I recently revisited at Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris. Although his influence can probably be easily felt in my water-related work, I actually produced a small body of large-scale works in 2012 that more specifically references his Water Lilies. It is impossible to make a list of all the painters I find inspiring and I’m sure I’m going to forget many if I do. Some include Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Magritte and the surrealists, Egon Schiele, Peter Doig, Diebenkorn, Cezanne, Gauguin… I'm also interested in artists painting space with light (Dan Flavin, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell), allowing for a full spatial and sensorial experience. However, my inspirations originate from diverse experiences that go beyond the realm of painting and art.
Your latest series, Heterotopia, is comprised of photos taken in gardens. Why did you choose that title?
The title of this new body of work is derived from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s essay Des Espaces Autres, in which he uses the term ‘Heterotopia’ to describe “spaces of otherness” that are “neither here nor there,” such as the moment one sees himself in the mirror. He also refers to gardens as heterotopias in the way they represent truly ambiguous and contradictory spaces where nature and artifice collide in a form of utopia.
For the past decade, I have explored the notion of space – not only as a physical or geographical place, but also as a mental and imaginary space – and our relationship with nature and the environment, between the natural and the artificial. Heterotopia is kind of an obscure noun and I liked the idea that probably most people wouldn’t really know its true meaning. I also liked that it rhymes with and could allude to utopia or dystopia. The images in the series were taken in private and public gardens, as you mention, and they paint, so to speak, a disorienting representation of a nature that we recognize but don’t know at the same time, leaving the viewer in balance between the imaginary and the real. At first glance, the natural landscape seems familiar until one notices elements of strangeness. Distortions, superimpositions and colors, contributing to a vision of enhanced reality, act as a vehicle to translate a world in transition, oscillating between a psychedelic vision of nature and a toxic and artificial world. I see the images as a projection of what could be a post-apocalyptic realm, devoid of humans, or a post-natural one resulting from our intervention and interaction with the natural world. But they could as well just be projections from a vivid dream or from an altered state of consciousness and perception.
Heterotopia was also featured in Jon Feinstein’s “Radical Color” exhibition, which was centered on manipulation of color in digital photography. What do you think about the experimentation of color as a tool in today’s age?
Actually, as I just mentioned, the work I exhibited in “Radical Color” was not digitally manipulated while many artists in the exhibition used Photoshop or digital technologies to alter their images. Throughout history, the advent of new technologies has always triggered artists to explore and experiment with them. I think it’s only logical that recent technological developments not only in software and digital devices, but also in printing techniques and image dissemination through the Internet and social media, have contributed to experimentations and pushing the limits of color photography. Color feels very contemporary and immediate. It reflects the cacophonic world in which we live and the desire to affirm one’s presence to the world. What was used as an attempt to depict a truer representation of reality a few decades ago is now being used to explore alternative realities, emotions and layered levels of meaning. I also think that the use of color in today’s age is a way to address and reflect on contemporary issues such as virtual or computer-mediated reality. Somehow, I think that color translates better than black and white the complexity and fragmentation of today’s reality.
Can you speak about your experience in New York City’s gay nightclubs and illicit sex parties that inspired your series Anatomy of Desire?
Anatomy of Desire engages with the performance of sexuality, identity and desire, but also focuses on a notion central to photography and lens-based mediums in general: the gaze and other related questions such as seeing and being seen, revealing and concealing, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and the tension between private and public.
Music and dance have had a great impact on me ever since I was a teenager. I came of age in the 80s’, an era of incredible inventiveness, rebellion and anti-conformism. It was particularly visible in the domains of fashion and music, where designers and artists were questioning sexual conventions and gender identity before it became mainstream. Jean-Paul Gaultier was putting skirts on men and Boy George and Madonna were toying with gender identity and sexual orientation in defiant and provocative ways. The gay subculture and nightclubs were one of the arenas where individual expression and an atmosphere of liberation, especially sexual liberation, were at their height. I started to frequent gay clubs when I was 15. It was exhilarating to participate in this subculture being the curious and rebellious adolescent I was, and the illicit nature of homosexuality and gay clubs [spoke] to my desire to participate in it. Many of my friends are gay and sometimes they encouraged me to come with them in backrooms, using my androgynous appearance as a disguise. I think it excited them also to share that side of their life with me and somehow perform it in front of me.
When I moved to New York in the 90s’, I naturally explored the nightlife intensely for a few years with my friends, particularly gay nightclubs and private parties. Some of my favorite spots or parties were Jackie 60, Bar d’O and later, Mr. Black, which changed venues regularly. In 2008, a personal event triggered a long period of insomnia, during which I started to go out again at night. The spectacular, almost theatrical aspect of the scenes I witnessed (some including sexual encounters between two or more guys) fascinated me. I had just acquired a small Blackberry, which boasted the first generation of cell phone camera with a very low-resolution image quality. The file sizes didn’t exceed 100KB or so. Although it was not that long ago, there was no Instagram back then and Facebook was still in its infancy. I don’t even think the iPhone had a camera yet. I started to take pictures with the phone while dancing and interacting with people surrounding me, in a very intuitive and random way, almost as if using the camera like a paintbrush into space. I became intrigued by the way the extremely low resolution of the images created texture and gave the bodies a sculptural quality while at the same time blurring the contour of the human figure and reinforcing its dissipation. The dematerialized surface of the images seemed to mirror the fleeting character of the close and brief encounters I photographed.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to present Anatomy of Desire as a site-specific installation at Theaterlab, a non-profit performance space. I transformed the space by wallpapering fragments and rescaled images from the project. The room was immersed in obscurity with just a few black lights, which reinforced the texture of the images. The resulting effect was reminiscent of an augmented 3-D pixelated image enveloping the viewer into the fragmented landscape of my own memory.
What has your experience been as a woman in the art world and how has that informed your work?
I don’t how to respond to that question because I’m not sure I know how the fact I’m a woman has informed my work. Probably many elements have informed my work: the fact I’m an immigrant, my French background, experiences growing up in a divorced family, my education, a life of traveling ever since I was a child…
How will women artists push the limits of art in the future?
Women have always been at the forefront of the avant-garde, be it as artists or muses. They have seldom received the attention and recognition male artists have, though. About a century ago, artists such as Claude Cahun, Hannah Höch, Florence Henri or Dora Maar were pioneers and contributed to pushing the boundaries of the medium. Some of them even experimented with moving images, an art form which was still in its infancy at the beginning of the 20th Century. More recently, female artists such as Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin have played a critical role in influencing countless photographers, male and female alike. Two other female artists who have been very influential to a new generation of image-makers and have been completely underrated and underexposed are Barbara Kasten and Sarah Charlesworth. They are finally given the attention they deserve now, after decades working and exploring the limits of the medium in new and unexpected ways. I can’t predict the future, but I think it’s safe to say that women will continue to be influential and a driving force in challenging and redefining photography. I feel today’s most interesting practitioners are female artists such as Liz Deschenes, whose experimental work combines a conceptual approach with poetic, even meditative depth, and who is inspiring many of today’s younger generation.
You majored in journalism in college and then in photography and design education. How did your schooling affect your work?
I first followed an intensive French college curriculum called Hypokhagne, focused on literature and philosophy, before going on to study communication and journalism. I think these formative years reinforced my sense of curiosity and constant questioning about the world at large, what we believe is true or established as such. I was the kid with 1,001 questions and still am in some ways [laughs]. I also see my lack of formal art education-- I didn’t go to art school and didn’t major in photography, but just took a few classes in web and graphic design, darkroom and color theory when I moved to New York-- as my strength, which has kept me from falling under the influence of a particular curriculum or established masters. Instead, my discovery of the medium has been very intuitive and experimental, at times even playful. I believe a certain form of ignorance can be empowering. Not knowing can be a motor for curiosity and in turn, fuel creativity.
Along with my travels and curiosity, my background in journalism nurtured and developed an appetite for investigation. When I quit my job to focus exclusively on photography and left behind a career at the UN and then in publishing, I initially thought I would pursue a path in photojournalism or as an editorial photographer. Although I enjoy very much working on assignment for magazines and/or clients and still do so, it turned out differently. Instead, my sense of exploration has fueled my artistic practice, which has taken the forefront.
What projects are you working on?
These past two years I’ve been very busy working on my latest project, Heterotopia, and I’m still developing and editing this new body of work. I am currently preparing for my fifth solo exhibition at the Benrubi Gallery next spring in New York. I’ve been working on my first monograph, Poolscapes, to be published by Steidl in 2016. I am also very excited to start working on a commissioned project for Hermès’ new store in Downtown New York in 2016, which will include a video installation and window display. This summer I also started a new body of work (Pool related!), which will be quite different from my previous works on the subject although still connected, of course. It is an immersive multi-media piece exploring notions of space, time and memory. I guess I have enough going on to keep me going for the next couple of years