17 May 2015 . By Tristan Hooper
Nadège Mériau’s work is as intriguing as it is perplexing. The impact of her often-surreal imagery lies in the fact that at first it confuses – making you question what it is you are seeing – and in doing so it leads you to re-assess your understanding of the world around you.
I met Mériau at her home and studio in North London to talk about Petites Morts, the most recent addition to her extraordinary body of work. A work-in-progress centred around what she fondly refers to as a ‘collaboration with mushrooms’, this ambiguous series of images depicts mysterious forms and trails of what looks like light or smoke – an organic process captured visually through an interaction between naturally occurring organisms and digital technology.
Tristan Hooper: How did you initially discover the remarkable effect that’s visible in the pictures from Petites Morts?
Nadège Mériau: I guess through experimentation. I had used my flatbed scanner to make work before, because I liked the idea of combining organic materials with new technology and kind of soiling the scanner. So I had done something similar with roots and soil. I had used mushrooms in an installation, but I wanted to make photographic work as well, something two-dimensional. I took inspiration from the spore print method, which is the classic way of identifying mushrooms – you position the mushrooms upside down and they deposit their spores overnight and create a print. But through experimentation, or when I moved a mushroom by accident or didn’t position it correctly, this effect started to happen. I think maybe the spores ended up moving away from the gills. I would leave the mushrooms for over 24 hours and a lot would happen. The resulting pictures remind me of early daguerreotypes as well as sci-fi imagery.
In the statement that you sent me there’s a line that I really love – the concept of collaborative imagery. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes. I think in my practice in general, and with this particular project, my methods are increasingly experimental and collaborative. I guess I’ve always been interested in the representation of nature. I’m very aware of the tradition of still life – which in French is actually called ‘Nature Morte’ meaning ‘dead nature’ – and how you can very easily turn plants into objects – aesthetic objects – rather than representing biological processes or representing them as part of a larger ecosystem. In my project I’m trying to find a way of representing biological processes and to give the plant or organism some kind of agency. It’s almost a way of listening to the plant – it’s less predatory. But, having said that, I do collect these mushrooms and when they deposit their spores it’s almost like it’s their last breath. There is something significant about taking the mushrooms out of context and isolating them, observing them – it’s akin to the scientific approach and sometimes it almost feel like torture. And when I’m finished I dispose of them, so there is a darkness to the work.
Tell me about your experiences going out to the woods and picking the mushrooms.
To an extent it feels quite ordinary. The woods are local to me, so I just walk the dog and take some bags. But there is a part of me that doesn’t want to be seen, I don’t know why. I guess I collect a lot of mushrooms. I get excited and I now collect them depending on size and colour. As the project progresses I am getting more selective, while initially it was quite random. I got to know the areas where they grow. Picking mushrooms has become part of my daily routine. I think it’s important to say that I don’t want to know what type of mushroom I’m picking – I’m not interested in this knowledge.
Mushrooms are so interesting symbolically and in a cultural sense, there are so many contradictions surrounding them. They are a possible foodstuff but they are also potentially toxic and deadly. Then there’s the phallic shape of many mushrooms – which for some cultures represents fertility – and I guess that’s another layer to your work.
Yes, there is the sexual aspect, but then there’s also the mystical aspect – fungi is often used by shamans. In fact, when I made Mycotopia – a dwelling-like sculpture made out of hessian bags that appeared defensive from the outside and nurturing from the inside with mushrooms growing – it was interesting to see how varied the responses to the work were. Some people were actually quite scared – they found the mushrooms alien – and others found them sexual, while some just really wanted to eat them there and then. Some thought they were really beautiful – they didn’t think that they were real.
What about the title for the work – Petites Morts?
The process to me evokes the mushroom’s last breath, but it’s also kind of like an orgasm. ‘Petites Morts’ seemed a fitting title – in French it’s a term used for orgasm – but you have the word ‘Mort’ so again you’ve got this dual aspect – sex and death.
And instead of showing prints – you were thinking of showing the images in lightboxes?
Yes, as a way to refer back to the scanner. I want a glass surface that is backlit – actually something of a similar size to the scanner. I’m also thinking of showing them horizontally, perhaps with the light boxes at different levels.
So to talk about an earlier project – Au Centre de la Terre. Your work really plays with photography’s ability to show something that at first purports to be one thing, but is in fact something else entirely. Are you trying to disorientate the viewer?
Disorientate is a word I use a lot. I seek to disorientate myself when I look through the camera, and it is my intention to disorientate the viewer.
For me some of these pictures almost seem to depict nebulae or solar systems or some subterranean, geological events…
Or the inside of a volcano – it’s all quite elemental.
I think your work is interesting because it seems to forge or perpetuate a connection between the everyday and the epic and monumental.
Yes, I anchor myself in the present moment and the everyday by transcending it. The work draws on a Romantic cosmology, the blurring of the inside and the outside, the internal and the cosmic. There is the idea of being immersed in nature – being a part of it, not separate from it.
It’s interesting to see on your website the evolution in your practice – especially comparing Mise En Scène and Au Centre de la Terre. They are very different, but there’s a distinct vein running through them, connecting them. Do you think you’ll eventually return to working with people as you did in Mises En Scène?
I think I might have moved on from photographing people. I might work with parts of people in the future. But I’m not really interested in representing human beings at the moment.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I want to develop this project further. I feel that there is more to do with this, and I’ve actually started working with snails as well.
I’m just interested in engaging people with the natural world, with other organisms. We go through the same processes, it’s just life – we’re part of life, just like they are.
Please visit Nadège Mériau’s website