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In the Realms of Dreams and Memory via Photography - A Karine Laval Interview

August 2, 2016
Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

The fact that Karine Laval has been compared to great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Eggleston is reason enough to realize she’s a talent, although the comparison has been made for two different things. While Cartier-Bresson could be seen as her inspiration for spontaneity, it is Eggleston’s use of color as a tool of expression that perhaps represents the backbone of her artistic pursuit and her most endorsed forte. Karine Laval’s fascination with the secrets of the surrounding world and the endless possibilities of a visual medium such as photography led her towards a number of fascinating discoveries, all of which resulted in experimentation with techniques and sometimes the mixing of media. Whether it’s digital or analogue photography, moving image or sound, luscious color or stark black and white, the art of Karine Laval is unusual and beautiful. Her work has been featured in major publications worldwide and exhibited in renowned galleries like Benrubi, and she was just nominated for Prix Pictet, whose theme this year is Space – and it surely won’t stop here. We talked to Karine about her remarkable work, her transition towards abstract imagery and the techniques she employs in order to achieve the visual impact we can hardly forget.

Karine Laval – Heterotopia

Karine Laval Interview – A Journey Towards the Abstract

Widewalls: I’d like to talk about your first two photography projects, “The Pool” and subsequently “Poolscapes”. While the former sticks to realism in photography, the latter embraces a certain kind of abstraction. What brought this transition?

Karine Laval: Although some of my earlier images convey a form of realism as you point out, these images can’t be seen as pure representation of reality. Although the images in The Pool series are figurative and depict what seems to be a familiar environment, I also tried to create visual narratives that echoed moments from my childhood. And beyond my personal memory I think it’s also a collective memory I reveal through the common and universal experience of leisure and bathing. To underline the ambiguous relation between reality and fiction, I developed a particular color palette through chemical and darkroom manipulations, with saturated and bleached-out tones reminiscent of the qualities of my family’s Super-8 home movies. In a way, I think it was a first step toward a form of abstraction from the real world. With Poolscapes, I pushed this aspect even further through color, but also distortion and fragmentation. I used the image of the pool as a kind of metaphor, a mirror whose surface reflects the surrounding world but is also a gate into another, dreamlike world oscillating between the real and the imaginary. The images in Poolscapes are shape-shifting and often at the threshold between abstraction and representation, which was also a way for me to address the psychological subtext associated with the image of the pool and the subconscious ramifications of its stagnant water.

Widewalls: Was there a particular photographer, or an art movement, that inspired your way toward the abstract?

KL: My shift toward abstraction was not particularly inspired or influenced by an artist or art movement. It came rather naturally as the result of my experimentations with the medium and exploring its limits. Over the years, I have been increasingly interested in the process of image making – as opposed to image taking – and its relationship to surface, texture, and the fragmentation or dissolution of the image. I’m also fascinated by the ability of photography, and lens-based mediums in general, to create illusion and question our sense of perception.  After The Pool series, I started to focus on water not only as a subject matter, but also as a tool to create the images, using the aqueous substance as a distorting lens and a revealer of transformed reality. In that sense, water becomes almost a metaphor for the medium of photography itself.

I think the way I distort reality through color, light, optics, reflections and unusual perspectives creates a space that gives more room for the viewer’s subjective perception to project his or her own memories, experience, or imagination. The tension between representation and abstraction allows that space to exist. I also see my move toward abstraction as 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 constant state of flux, which can create a sense of chaos and confusion, or a kaleidoscopic and polyphonic perception of our lives. These are some of the ideas I’m trying to explore through these more recent works.

Karine Laval – Anatomy of Desire

Widewalls: How do you combine analog techniques and digital technologies in your work? What do they provide, individually and together?

KL: One of the key characteristics of photography that keeps me interested in the medium is the possibility for experimentation, whether I use film or digital technologies. Coming from a background of analog photography, digital technologies opened up a lot of new possibilities for me, including new experiments, and broadened my practice from the field or locations to the studio. I also enjoy playing with the dichotomy inherent to the medium of photography where its precision and technical aspect can be played down or overridden by accidents. As a matter of fact, I often break the rules in the process of creating my images: while shooting, processing the film and exposing the paper in the darkroom, or by using the wrong parameters while using digital equipment. The camera is only a starting point for me; the process of creating the final image or work is sometimes slow and can involve different stages, including darkroom or chemical manipulations (like for The Pool and Poolscapes series) or other forms of alterations. For instance, several projects from the past 5-7 years have involved both analog and digital methods, including experimentations with films and in the darkroom as well as with scanners and the computer desktop as a way to transform the indexical image to the limit of erasure. The new images resulting from this process are paradoxically regenerative: new forms, colors, and textures create a “near-abstract” image that evokes new topographies or constellations. Some examples of these works are my series Eclipses (2014), Anatomy of Desire (2008-2015), which was shot with the first generation of cell phone camera back in 2008, and Chroma (2012-2013), in which I basically used the desktop of the computer as a canvas and various video clips as fluid pigments to create both new abstract videos and stills.

Karine Laval – Heterotopia

On Color and Technique

Widewalls: There is a strong presence and influence of color in your photography, for instance. Will there ever be space for some black and white, or monochromatic experiments?

KL: Color is definitely central to my work; I find it’s a very powerful and creative tool to trigger emotions and evoke an atmosphere and mood. Color also feels very contemporary and immediate to me. It reflects the somehow cacophonic and complex world in which we live. Color photography was initially used to depict a truer representation of reality a few decades ago, but I like to use it to explore alternative realities, the realms of dreams and memory, 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.

That said, I’ve always found space for black and white and monochromatic experiments. It really depends on the projects I pursue and what I am trying to convey. My project Altered States (2012), for example, was an ode to the color red as a metaphor for fire, passion and our existence in constant state of flux. For Artificial by Nature, my last exhibition at Benrubi Gallery this past spring, I had one of the rooms painted dark gray and presented a selection from Black Palms, a series of monochromatic images of Los Angeles palm trees, shot from below and solarized, leaving behind vast black fields jaggedly slashed with silver etchings. The zigzag tracings of the palm leaves recall photograms or the stylized manipulations of light in film noir (in which many of these trees once featured), while the inky gloss of the images simultaneously reflects viewers’ gaze and sucks them into an interstellar vastness.

Widewalls: In your practice, you also use video and installation/projection. What does the process of choosing and incorporating sound to match the moving imagery look like?

KL: I’ve been experimenting with video and super-8 films for more than ten years. Some of my moving image works were born out of collaborations with other artists, particularly in the fields of music and contemporary dance. I’ve shot a few music videos and films for some of my friends and have worked with dancers as well. For me video and film provide a form of liberation from the limitations of photography and allow me to explore further the notions of space, memory and our relationship to the world. The perceptual element is central to my work not only in the way I apprehend the world around me, but also in the subjective experience of the viewer.  Video installation and projections tend to engage the viewer further by breaking and going beyond the 2-dimensional plan of the photograph and integrating the physical space to create more complex images in which the onlooker is immersed or his/her shadow reflected. The viewer thus becomes part of the work itself. Sound and music are very important to me for they also contribute to this multi-sensorial experience. They can add texture and an emotional dimension that I find akin to color.

However, I don’t necessarily use sound to match the moving images. Actually, often I use sound as a dissonant or surprising element. I created what I call ‘soundscapes’ for several of my video works, collecting found sounds and mixing them with distorted everyday noises and tracks. I also enjoy collaborating with composers/musicians and I have invited sound artists to improvise in response to some of my video installations. One such example was during Artificial by Nature, my recent exhibition at Benrubi Gallery, where I presented Heterotopia {Remix}. The John Cage-inspired event included a video installation and performance in which I employed larger-than-life projections of my latest video Heterotopia and musical accompaniment to add multiple dimensions to an otherwise purely visual experience. Sounds I had recently recorded in the Costa Rican rain forest intermingled with live improvisation by Aaron Kruziki on bass clarinet in response to the video projection and the rain forest soundscape. Aaron and I are now planning to produce an LP record, which will serve as a documentation of our collaboration, but will also be an object and a new artwork in itself. It will be a sonic sculpture activated by a turntable, which can be presented alone or in the middle of a room with the moving images projected on all surrounding walls.

Karine Laval – Heterotopia

On Her Latest Projects

Widewalls: Your latest exhibition at Benrubi Gallery marked your move on to other media as well, such as sculpture, in order to emphasize the notion of perception in your work even further. How did this happen?

KL: The human-size sculpture I conceived for the exhibition derived from one of the images in the show, presented as a large-scale 3-panel wall installation. I isolated an area of this image, printed it directly to a sheet of clear acrylic and created a wide wooden structure that functions as a stand-alone frame with a mirror in the back. As the viewer enters the room, she’s confronted with an image within the same image in three-dimensionality. As the viewer moves within space, perspectives shift. And when the viewer walks around the sculpture, he/she comes face to face with his/her own reflection projected into the picture of the wall installation behind, also reflected in the mirror. Because I used a 2-way mirror, the image printed on the front of the sculpture appears in transparency through the surface of the mirror and intermingles with all reflected images in a surprising and almost hallucinogenic effect meant to unsettle and question our sense of perception. In a sense, the viewer becomes part of the work, a performer that activates it.

Widewalls: Can you tell us about your recent collaboration with Hermès? What was the result of it?

KL: For my collaboration with Hermès I created Heterotopia, a new video work presented on a large display made of 3 seamless screens embedded in the wall, and an exclusive window installation inspired and drawn from the same series. Although I have worked with video and film for over a decade, the project for the window installation allowed me to expand and translate my still images into three-dimensionality and to work in a new medium for me: sculpture. The works are on display through the end of August at Hermès’ new Parfumerie boutique at Brookfield Place in Downtown New York.

Left: Karine Laval – Heterotopia / Right: Karine Laval – Poolscape
Karine Laval – The Pool
Karine Laval – The Pool
Left: Karine Laval – Altered States Collisions Untitled 14 / Right: Karine Laval – Altered States Echo Untitled 24
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Left: Karine Laval – Crash / Right: Karine Laval – Eclipse
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Karine Laval – Black Palms Collision

Featured images: Karine Laval. Photo by Nora Wilby; Installation views of Karine Laval exhibition at Benrubi Gallery, Heterotopia project at Hermès and the Anatomy of Desire installation at Theaterlab, 2015. All images courtesy the artist.