A discussion with digital photographer Isabelle Menin by imaginarium SiouxWIRE
Looking at Isabelle Menin’s current work, it isn’t surprising that she worked with paints for a decade before moving into digital photography. Her works integrate multiple images in a visual cornucopia of hyper-natural beauty that avoids the obvious while still being engaging and accessible. There are sharp sparks, soft billows and subtle hints like an e-fit of a half-forgotten dream.
WOULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU CAME TO BE WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
After my formal studies in Brussels, I’ve explored painting for 10 years while working in graphic design and illustration. After several exhibitions in Belgium, I’ve decided to quit painting and to work with digital photography. Anyway, I ’ve always worked using nature’s elements, particularly flowers.
Yet my real source of inspiration is life – pain, joy, fear, enchantment, anger and gratitude –, Marcel Proust, my family, some friends and lovers…
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF COLOUR TO YOU AND YOUR WORK?
I think it’s related to vibration and turbulence. Though we can produce vibration and turbulence with black and white as well, my work has grown with colour’s effervescence from the start. I’ve always felt the need to produce little explosions with colours.
Working with colour in order to obtain the expected vibration is extremely sensual. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to the infinite colour variations than to potentiality of black and white. Maybe because black is the locus of secret. Actually, it reminds me of that teacher who was showing black and white photographs to little children and one of them asked him: “So, the world used to be in black and white in the old days?” Indeed: how is the world?
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TECHNOLOGY?
Digital technology has been a total release. The “Undo” click is one of the greatest inventions ever!
It was a brand-new device, and it was so fascinating that it gave me the illusion of removing from me all the ballast of the art, my education, my analysis, and the critical distance. Definitely a bewitching tool, but also worrying at the same time because of the unlimited possibilities of manipulation it provides. It is so fast, so vertiginous that you can sometime hardly keep your path on the straight and narrow.
Going digital allowed me to push back my limits, to find a much wider sphere of activity where things tied up fluidly and were reversible.
WHAT ROLE DOES RELIGION OR FAIRY TALES HAVE IN YOUR WORK?
I find it quite amusing that you link religion and fairy tales in the same question.
What we usually like in fairy tales is the moment the big bad wolf appears, it’s the twisting of reality, when a dark zone lights up all of a sudden and allows something till then unrevealed to emerge. It is the transition from smoothness to crookedness, the swing from light to darkness, the revelation of a different reality through gloom. If there is a link between fairy tales and my work, it is precisely in that particular aspect.
Concerning religion, I don’t exactly know what you mean. Are you referring to the form a group of people attributes to the mystery of God? That form only interests me in what it says about our societies. Yet the strange path we travel in the mystery of God is indeed very important and plays an important part in my work. However, I don’t really feel like talking about it as I consider it something very personal.
AND HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERISE YOUR WORKS’ RELATIONSHIP TO NATURE?
I call my work “inland photographs and disordered landscapes” in reference to nature’s strange complexity that looks to me like human strange complexity. The uncontrolled forces, the shapes’ complexity, the interweavings and the synergy of the elements, they all look to me like a mirror of human spirit. We are no straight lines, we are like nature, a very large network of interferences that work together to produce something which sometimes looks accomplished and then gets destroyed in a perpetual coming and going between order and disorder.
Also, nature is the place where I can get rid of human figures, human noise, human arrogance. Nature looks like it doesn’t give a shit about us and that is very relaxing!
HOW MUCH OF YOUR WORK WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE SCULPTURAL?
That question surprises me inasmuch as I have never thought of my work in those terms. I create a space that unfolds through the depth I get by accumulating layers, by light, by transparency and opacity; I put elements together that create a kind of fake landscape, I photograph and then manipulate them in order to twist them and show the sometimes hidden sides. But in the end, it remains an image, thus two-dimensional.
To apprehend a sculpture, one must be able to turn around it: its link to space is an intrinsic part of it and, it interacts with space. I also have the feeling a sculpture belongs to a much less intimate space than an image. Now I rather lean towards an intimate and solitary relation with the image.
IS THERE ANY ELEMENT OF YOUR WORK WHICH YOU FIND PEOPLE COMMONLY MISINTERPRET?
Yes, most of the time people mistake me for a florist!
People often refer to past centuries paintings when seeing my work. Flemish Primitives, Rubens, Watteau, Fragonard, whatever. Though I’m much more fascinated by “ancient art” than by contemporary, it’s not something I am in any way striving to, it just happens. It appears at the end of the process, but it’s not intentional. I realize that it’s like if I were regurgitating years and years of art loving, but I don’t want to transform past in something contemporary, I’m not playing with the tension between ancient and new, between past and modernity, I’m not playing with modernity at all: I just want to put things together to rebuilt, to discover in what way I see the world and I happen to do it with a computer rather than with brushes. That’s all.
Also, there are people who just see the “gorgeous” and “romantic” side of my work. In the most pejorative way. I recently read a Diane Arbus quote saying “I’ve never taken the photograph I intended to take”, and it made echo with me. Between what I want reach and the final image there is a lot of fight, and I’m not always the winner. Actually, most of the time I’m the loser. But what’s important is the new things I’ve discovered and was obliged to explore by loosing the battle. And maybe I go where I didn’t want to go and maybe I’m lost in “beauty”. But maybe, finally, that’s where I want to be: lost in beauty. Of course, if it’s only “gorgeous”, it means that I failed.
IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU THAT YOUR WORK IS ABLE TO MAKE A CONNECTION WITH A BROAD RANGE OF PEOPLE BOTH SEASONED ART LOVERS AND LAYMEN ALIKE?
Honestly, I don’t know…”People”, “a lot of people”… It doesn’t mean anything to me.
I thereby mean, and it’s probably very selfish, that I work first and foremost for myself. I don’t exactly work for “myself”, I just work. I’m not sure I want to know how many of “these” or of “those” people like or don’t like my work. In other words: for me, the image really exists as long as I’m working on it. Once a picture (or a series) is finished, once it goes out “into the world” I feel like a stranger to it. It’s already somewhere else.
Furthermore, nowadays the web allows a large spreading: one does not know who is reached, nor why. The web is very voracious, everything circulates very rapidly, everything travels, everything is fragmented.
So, whether they are amateurs or professionals, I guess that like elsewhere all that matters is that a real connection happens, that a real exchange takes place, driven by curiosity and surprise.
WHAT’S A SOUND, SCENT AND FLAVOUR THAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHY?
There are too many of them! But what I would like is to picture a scent; I would like to make a photograph of a scent! A scent can be a sound, a sound can be a flavour, etc. They both can be each other. Anyway, sounds, scents and flavours are shapes to me. They are rounds, broken lines or arabesques, squares or pyramids, things like that. More often they are shapes rather than colours.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SUBJECT MATTER OR THE CONTENT OF YOUR WORK?
Life. Death. The constant mystery of being on earth. Perplexity.
My driving force is not in the critical distance. I’m interested in expressing basic human emotions even if there is a fight between what I want to do/say and what the “image” wants to do/say. It’s all about life, love, death and personal progression. An inner conversation with the world of emotions and impressions by walking the path of life. My images stand at the intersection of my different perceptions of life and express the abundance of possible answers. Everything is reflexion, mirror; everything responds to everything. That’s why I keep on adding layers upon layers and layers. I try to finally produce something as swaying, blurred and uncertain as our strange lives.
It’s not about escaping from life, it’s about digging deeper into it.
WHAT WAS THE LAST ARTWORK TO HAVE AN IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
A band, Wovenhand. They are very important to me. They gave me strength and courage. Faith.
A Belgian visual artist recently discovered: Thierry de Cordier. I went to see an exhibition of his paintings lately. I thought I had to cross the whole museum before reaching the room where his paintings were exhibited, but actually as soon as I entered the museum I saw them. And my heart jumped into my chest like when you see somebody you’re in love with in a crowd where you didn’t expect to see that person. That painting is to be seen, not to be talked about. It’s a place without words, a strange silence that you can see. Silence can actually be seen.
In literature: Dostoyevsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and Russell Banks’ novel ‘Cloudsplitter’.
Actually, all these works are about darkness and light, about how to walk as human being with the terrible mystery of God that some are feeling and some are not. They are all rough, scarred works full of dust and sweat. “O the heights and depths” sings David Eugene Edwards.
WHAT IS A RESPONSE TO YOUR WORK THAT LINGERS IN YOUR MEMORY?
Somebody once said about my work: “inspiration junkie”. I like that.
I don’t do drugs but I often act as if I were.
BIO / CV
Born in 1961, Isabelle Menin lives and works in Brussels. After graduating from the Graphic Research School (ERG) in Brussels, she has explored painting for 10 years while working in graphic design and illustration. Nature has always been a recurring theme for the artist, particularly flora. After exhibiting several times in Belgium, Isabelle Menin decided to abandon painting to turn to digital photography. Taking pictures, scanning pieces of nature, the artist constantly plays with textures and colours, transforming them, mixing them, in order to give shape to a fictional nature, dense and flamboyant at the same time. Isabelle Menin has held exhibitions several times in Belgium, as well as in China at Hongqiao Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai, and at the Setup Contemporary Art Fair, Bologna.
Karen Margolis and Isabelle Menin - Muriel Guépin Gallery - New York
Round it up! Muriel Guépin Gallery New York
Art Market San Francisco - San Francisco
Total Flora - Galerie hristine Knauber - Berlin
Belgium Modern Art Exhibition, Hongqiao Museum, Shanghai, China
OFF Art Fair - Brussels
Kunstraï - Amsterdam
MIA Fair - Milan - Italy
Setup Contemporary Art Fair, Bologna - Italy
Fotofever - Carrousel du Louvre - Paris - France
The Perception of Beauty - Group show - Sophie Marée Gallery (La Haye)
Femmes de Belgique - Group Show - Sophie Marée Gallery (La Haye)
« FLORA » , Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons, Belgium