An Interview With Mona Kuhn
Interview by Betsy Morales
Mona Kuhn’s Bushes and Succulents continues her aesthetic in unraveling the sensuality of the raw feminine shape. After 20 years of celebrating the human form through photography, Kuhns book showcases mother-earth and woman through a botanical comparison. Pastel succulents and serene bodies are paired together to cast a hypnotic spell on the viewer that ultimately compliment female essence. Alluding to Georgia O'Keefes floral paintings, the ephemeral succulents are photographed from a close up angle highlighting the calming hues of each plant. Kuhns ideals of contemporary feminism are exposed through the use of the solarization process that reveal imperfections on the bodies and demonstrate the resilience of womanhood.
How did you decide which succulent and figure to pair together?
I started this work when I was first invited to an annual event at The Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. They have one of the most beautiful outdoor collections of cacti and succulents I have ever seen. So whenever I found extra time, I would stop by in the early morning or late afternoons, and wander around the garden on my own, admiring the exquisite beauty of such plants. It gave me the feeling of no longer knowing what I am looking at, their fractal dichotomy seduced me. It felt like a visual riddle of pure biological wonder. After some time, I had enough works to start pairing them with the solarized “Bushes”. It has been noted, from a Freudian interpretation of my work, that one could assume I projected visually both sides of my sexual being. A straight forward rather masculine view of a woman’s body part, perfectly balanced with a more feminine and poetic interpretation of herself. I am not opposed to this interpretation, although it did not cross my mind while creating this work. Later on, while editing the images for the book, the publisher Gregory Barker recommended a classic layout with one image per page spread, allowing individual attention to each photograph. Each page turn was brought together with precision. We edited the photographs in a way that a detail from one image would lead to details on the following image as you turn the pages of the book.
I experimented quite a bit and ended up using a combination of solarization processes to push the images away from straight reality. The darkroom solarization process had this striking way of revealing imperfections and bringing to the surface metaphors surrounding women's struggles, their strength, and their power. To me, both the“Succulents” and “Bushes” have alluring forms related to notion of origin and survival. As a photographer, my female gaze highlights an unfiltered admiration for the female form and the works of other women such as Lee Miller and Georgia O’Keefe. Additionally, I am honored to include a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I have great respect for the women who collaborated in this work and the artist women who inspired me to push myself forward.
Why did you decide to showcase the succulents and bodies under different guise?
Not that long ago, women would find recognition in the arts mainly if they worked with botanicals or craft. So earlier this year, i thought i ought to start, sooner than later, my first botanical series .The irreverent title “Bushes and Succulents” bring a sensual and witty tone to the much discussed aspects of current feminism. With this series, I decided to take a stand and continue a conversation that probably started with Courbet's painting "L'origine du monde".
My own initial intent was strongly intuitive. This photographic series celebrate the female form and addresses women’s rights to express their sexuality in a way that is both playful and provocative. The plants, in this case “Succulents”, were chosen because of their power of endurance. I wanted them to be color photographs because of the alluring tonalities of those plants. The “Bushes” were harder to conceptualize. My intention was to abstract the images while still holding on to the history of the photographic medium. I wanted to bring back attention to Lee Miller’s process of solarization. Man Ray was well known for that, however it was Lee Miller who discovered it. Solarizing the body parts helped me abstract from reality, and the "au naturel" look worked as shield to what most people prefer to keep private. I was photographing an intimate part of a woman’s body without showing much! As a counter point, the close-ups of succulents evoke a more heightened sensual emotion. The succulents embrace a sense of wonder, you no longer know what you are looking at, they are in a way reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe’s large flower paintings. This new series is about juxtaposing images and playing with how the mind brings them together, the viewer feels allured, yet nothing is quite revealed. This series plays with the power of perception.
How do you feel about the beauty standards that are expected in the art world?
I like to be open and inclusive to all forms of expression and current trends. I also believe, as image makers, we are responsible for the images we bring out into the world, because they continue to resonate a message beyond our intent. At times, women have used their bodies to show images of suffering attention to their stories and works And art establishments have favored a more suffered representation of ourselves. Those works and images are powerful and continue to propagate that message forward to younger generations. As in any worthwhile dialog, it is interesting to analyze counterpoints. As for my own works, I do not believe in images of suffering as a statement of power or recognition. I would like to bring attention to a new feminism, where artists like me decide to bring light and hope to this conversation. Women’s bodies and natural beauty is what makes us powerful. We will only be cherished and respected when we respect ourselves. Women are beautiful and worthy being admired as they are. Beauty to me lives in the respect we have for ourselves and one another. This message of self respect and confidence is what i would like my work to resonate, and what i believe is my contribution to a wider conversation.
You unapologetically resist the idea of beauty standards for women, such as being shaven as a sign of being well groomed, do you feel we are evolving as a society in our expected standards?
I am in no position of telling women what to do with their own bodies, that is their own personal choice and must be respected this way. That is exactly the conversation I find important to bring up with this work. In the last years, I noticed a peculiar habit among young women who completely shave their pubic area. Now a days, it is common for young people to see nudes online. It is all over. And the shaved look, initially adopted for clear visuals, has now spread into mainstream young culture. There is a certain expectation of a shaved look among young lovers. I am not opposed to free choice. But I am opposed to young women being forced to shave and sustain a look that is not necessarily their wish just because of cultural and peer pressure. I would love for them to feel confident as they are, and make conscientious choices based on their own aesthetic values.
You’re consistently approaching new ways of observing the human form, where do you draw inspiration for this?
I am constantly in awe that we exist. It is a basic yet at times overwhelming notion. And I draw a lot of energy from that notion. I like to tap in that energy when creating new series and expanding my understanding of ourselves and creativity. I like to think our bodies are vessels to an all encompassing unconscious that communicates back and forth. My work is about keeping that communication channel open. I have been chiseling on the same subject for years and will continue to do so.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I would love to mention this current project “Mona Kuhn: Experimental”. It is my first fully immersive installation, pushing the boundaries of photography. It is a site specific installation at The Fruit, a performance and arts space in Durham, North Carolina. The works encompassed a 5000 sq. foot area, where we hung large prints size 10ft tall, and used multimedia projectors to create an immersive experience for the viewer walking into the installation. I collaborated with composer Boris Salchow who inspired in the works, created 2 separate spatial sounds for each are, but that also work together as one spatial sound design. Inside the installation, I explored notions of the unconscious in two different spaces, emblematic of the body and the mind, As a result of these new experimental direction, curator Joshua Chuang selected 3 works to include in the “Anna Atkins Refracted: Contemporary Works” exhibition at the New York Public Library. The exhibition runs till Jan 6, 2019. Gerhard Steidl and I brought this experimental nature of the works into the printing press and the result is a stunning book titled “She Disappeared into Complete Silence”. This new direction, escaping the frame and pushing forward the boundaries of photography has been very exciting to me. I am already in conversations for an exhibition in the west coast, where i can bring all these elements together once again.