Portfolio/Interview in Marie Claire Italy (February 2011)

Interview (English version)

When did your “Mise en abyme” project start? And why did you choose this title?

I could say it started several years ago with The Pool series since I am revisiting the same subject matter in this new body of work: the swimming pool. However, I think this new series marks a departure from my previous work in both tone and depth. It is more about shape, color, texture and the depiction of a world at the edge of the real and surreal.

At the end of 2009, I decided to photograph swimming pools in people’s private homes as opposed to The Pool series, for which I focused on man-made and natural public pools around Europe. Unlike the Pool series, for which I was more focused on the social and leisure aspect of the places and the mundane activities revolving around them, I’m trying here to explore the friction between the real and the imaginary. In this new work, the pool is not the main subject in a literal sense. I see it more as a metaphor, a mirror whose surface reflects the surrounding world but is also a gate into another – dreamlike – world, a world within a world, a sort of mise en abyme.

The term is originally from the French and means “placing into infinity” or “placing into the abyss“. The commonplace usage of this phrase is describing the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, seeing an infinite reproduction of one’s image. The meaning of mise en abyme also includes the idea of a dream within a dream and refers to the confusion between reality and the imagined. This is one of the characteristics of photography I’m interested in exploring, particularly in this series.

The term can also be interpreted as a self-reflection and somehow I perceive the ambiguity of the work – oscillating between hell and heaven, stillness and movement, darkness and lightness – as an echo to my personal experience these past 2-3 years and my quest for a new beginning in my life and new direction in my work. I also chose to spell abyme with “Y” instead of “I” because it’s close to abyss.

Few years ago you produced the Swimming Pool series, now you present Mise en abyme series: do the pools obsess you?

I guess in a sense I am. But I would say that I’m more obsessed by water. I’ve always been drawn to water and water’s edges. I learned to swim very young, grew up sailing with my family and regularly visiting my father in the Caribbean, where he lived when I was a teenager. And I surf. I find water to be appeasing, healing and liberating. I have also been interested in architecture for a long time – especially modernist architecture, which often integrates the natural elements and materials with simple, geometrical lines and shapes. Swimming pools unite both qualities and combine the natural with a man-made environment. I also find swimming pools interesting because they represent a dominant theme of our culture and lifestyle, and there is a theatrical aspect to them in the way that people’s activities and gestures are contained within a delineated space. A little like a theater or a dance stage. Actually, contemporary dance was a strong inspiration when I started to work on my initial Pool series.

Many of your shots recall some abstract paintings: is that an evolution of your last project? And why?

When asked about my influences in photography, I always have a hard time answering as I find my inspiration more in the world surrounding me, in my travels, music and painting. I think that my work has always had a strong pictorial quality – especially with the use of my color palette. But I have pushed that aspect in this latest body of work where painterly layers oscillate between abstraction and representation. Some of the images in the series are definitely inspired or echo some painters or paintings although they were not specifically staged to mimic them. To name a few: Francis Bacon, David Hockney, the night landscapes of Van Gogh, collages of Rauschenberg…

2 years ago I worked on a project photographing body parts and scenes in gay clubs in New York with my blackberry. It was an interesting experience and completely different way to approach photography and the relationship with the subjects as I was using the phone without framing or staying still but more like a paintbrush, kind of “photographing with gesture”. The results definitely approach abstract painting and I decided to emphasize this by blowing up some of the images or cutting others as to deconstruct the representational aspect of the images.

There is also another important aspect in the work: the relationship to the senses and the body.

Tell me the main aspects to describes your pools…

Sensual – abstract – imaginary – hellish – heavenly

If your swimming pools could talk which kind of words could speak?

They would talk the language of the senses and the dreams. But they could also say: “I want to be on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!” I see them as frescoes. That’s why in the exhibition I will present some of them in large scale or as triptych, like in an altar.

Your shots talk about clearness, reflections of trees, shading off bodies: it is difficult to understand what is the reality and what is our personal projection. Why did you choose this way to portray the pools?

I’m glad that you perceive the blur between the real and the unreal or the imaginary. I like to use photography to challenge the familiar perception we have of the world and I often see my pictures as a bridge between the world we live in and a more surreal and dreamlike dimension. I want the viewers to be drawn to the images and be able to relate to them on a personal level. I’d like them to be enveloped by the pictures and tempted to touch them, if not jump into them!

Is the water a sort of language?

Definitely. I see water as a vehicle for transformation and self-reflection and I think that water speaks to the senses.

Do you understand better (life, people, feelings) by looking through the water?

I guess it’s just another way to look at the world and comprehend or interpret it. I think it’s important to remain open and question the way we apprehend life, people and feelings. I like to use photography partly for that reason. It gives the impression to represent reality but that reality has already vanished the moment the shutter is triggered.

In your photographs human figures are blurred: which kind of role they have in your work?

I think that the notion of senses, especially body and gesture, is very present in my work when it touches to the human figure. The flesh and its color, immersed in water and distorted, is a way to magnify the body and to give it a shine and brilliance, like a precious fabric one would like to touch and caress. But the blur also creates a feeling of alienation for the distorted bodies seem to float in the ether or slip away into the depth of water and almost vanish. The body then becomes unattainable. I like to question this tension between the desired and unreachable. I also think that by blurring the contour of the body, it transforms itself into a landscape and becomes a metaphor for a far-off land, an exotic island… a paradise lost.

What the pools have more compared to the open sea? And what the pools have less?

Swimming pools are contained and the open sea is uncontrollable and unpredictable. I like them both for their different qualities but I’m more attracted to the openness and limitlessness of the sea. I like that particular moment when the skies merge with the waters and the horizon line is blurred. It gives a sensation of wholeness and peace.

Have you got a swimming pool at home?

Not yet. But I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by friends with swimming pools.

Why did you choose to be a photographer?

To me photography is a way to communicate with the world, explore it and understand it. But it is also a way to explore and liberate myself and express my own feelings at times. At first I wanted to be a photojournalist because I thought I could speak of the injustices and contribute to make the world a better place. Since I was a child, I’ve always tried to find ways to express myself through drawing, painting, building things and photographing. It wasn’t that clear that I wanted to be a photographer. But my grandparents lived in Bievres, the town that welcomed the first museum dedicated to photography in France. They also owned a restaurant in Paris, where Nadar developed his first aerial photographs. Both the technological and magical aspects of photography fascinated me. But I have started to explore other mediums such as video and I think my work may evolve and include mix-media components.

Which is your favorite place for inspiration?

By the sea and by the side of my beloved one.

Should one day Obama or Guggenheim be in competition to be portrayed in one of your photographs, whom would you prefer?

I would definitely be more interested in portraying Peggy Guggenheim. She played such an important role in the history of Modern Art by embracing and supporting the avant-garde. She was a visionary of her times and also embodied the image of a free and powerful woman in a world where women often consigned to a secondary place. Even in today’s art world female artists don’t get as much attention and recognition as male artists. And I think it would be more challenging to portray someone who’s dead and therefore impalpable, elusive.

About karinelaval

Karine Laval has been is a French artist living and working in New York. She works primarily with photography and video and shares her time between New York and Europe, alternating magazine and client assignments with an artistic practice, wherein she combines portraiture with images of geographical locations and visual narratives. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, The New Yorker, Elle, Eyemazing, among others. Her work is exhibited worldwide in galleries and festivals. Laval was selected by Photo District News’ (PDN) 30 Emerging Photographers in 2005. Bonni Benrubi gallery in New York City currently represents her.
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