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Back in the balmy summer, I interviewed Katelan Foisy, one of my great inspirations. In that piece I featured photos by one of her collaborators, Veronika von Volkova. In the months since then, Veronika’s work has been getting more and more under my skin.
A few weeks ago, Veronika kindly let me use one of her photos of Katelan for the cover of my new collection of short stories, Ode to Jouissance. I’m absolutely thrilled that I’ve now been able to spend some time asking her some of my usual obscure questions about her art, and I’m delighted she has responded so generously and graciously.
All the images here, and full copyright, are of course Veronika’s. Do go to her site and look around, and then go and buy something from her Etsy.
1. The Dreams and Mythologies collection is fascinating. There seem to be two collections going on, one of them harking back to Victorian fairy photographs that uses layering and transparency to talk about the way we construct memory and reality; the other grainy and stark and rooted in the underground exploitation culture of the 60s & 70s…
Thank you ever so much.
One thing the Victorian fairy paintings provided was an acceptable space to explore sexual themes. Nudity and some sexuality were largely seen as okay so long as you included a set of wings, just as elsewhere the use of roman gods as subjects made the depiction of sexual acts admissible. Exploitation culture surged in the 60s and 70s as North American and European attitudes and censorship laws began to relax. So these two eras represent movement in different directions in terms of how directly a subject could be approached, but both situations involved finding a means to bring in otherwise restricted topics. For instance, during that era of exploitation culture, there was a greater allowance for sexual depiction if it was declared as being for sexual education. This led to a subgenre of film that tended to have a minimalist style with people dressed as doctors introducing sexual content in a straightforward manner. This seemingly forthright manner of presenting the material was in fact a means of sufficiently obfuscating intent to make it past American obscenity laws. This all suggests that while sometimes there are things to be discovered in the layers, there are also stories hidden in what at first glance appears uncomplicated.
Stylistically, I love the grainy film noir aesthetic with its severe lines, but I also have a love of ornate details and enframing foliage. I get pulled back and forth between the two approaches as I create. The first image in the Dreams and Mythologies collection is a photo of beautiful dancer Ronda Clark in a Paris courtyard over which I have layered the dark blurry tree line which I extracted from photos I shot from a train during a storm. I like that something so connected with motion and transition has been combined with an image that has such a static, almost sculptural feel. It is an exploration of form, with the human body as sculpture reflecting the geometry of the surrounding architecture, and I have enframed it in a dark, almost smoky, variation on fairytale foliage that was in turn captured while aboard a train on a dark stormy night. I think that demonstrates my confused attraction to possibly disparate styles rather well.
(As an aside, I met Rhonda through the very brilliant Katelan Foisy, but that is a story for another time.)
2. Which brings me to the portrait of Erika Donald in Icons and Interfaces, which is so strikingly reminiscent of one of the most famous portraits of Andy Warhol I wanted to ask to what extent the references we bring to the pictures form additional layers of the pictures themselves…
An interesting thing about that portrait of Erika Donald is that she wasn’t actually posing for me at all. She was, in fact, in the middle of performing with various new electronic musical instruments in front of a video camera, which is what she’d been doing for hours at that point. I’d set up the lighting at the beginning of the day, and after that I spent my time quietly taking photos from the shadows while everyone was too busy with the main activity of creating a video to much notice me. What seems like a held deliberate imitation of the Warhol portrait is a fleeting transitional moment accompanied by much off-screen activity.
I think that the references we bring very much contribute additional layers. Our experiences shape us; they determine what we are capable of perceiving, and not only at a metaphorical level. As an example, what we hear is influenced by the sounds we have been exposed to. Hearing is perception — as opposed to being some pure acoustic signal from the environment — and the more we are exposed to sounds the better able we are to distinguish between them or perceive them. Brains are plastic and constantly changing, so that layers you see in an image will always be partly determined by what you came in with.
3. So I guess drawing that together I felt that your work invites us to consider the relation between memory and truth, and the search for an elusive core. The more striking, *obvious*, and solid an image seems, the more easy it is to pick apart to reveal what little lies beneath.
The layering is definitely linked with my desire to depict dream, memory, or fantasy. I’m interested in the joining of physical and mental space, or a representation of the transitioning between them. Memory is a malleable shifting thing, and there is certainly a connection between the physical and ideas about the nature of truth, so your feeling fits with my intentions here.
I’m not sure that the more solid images are necessarily easier to unravel. They can seem that way at first because they can be visually uncomplicated, but as a result they offer fewer points of connection or entry. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to explain why it is that we found a particular image so immediately striking, not unlike the way we can perform some skills so naturally that we don’t know how to describe the component steps involved. I think what you’ve said is sometimes the case, but that there are also times when a simple image remains very compelling and becomes wedged in our thoughts the way a catchy melody might. I think at that point it is worth considering what lies beneath something simple yet so resonant, and how deeply it might connect to our past visual experiences.
4. Finally, a proper question. The titles of the collections here, referencing icons and mythologies, suggest how conscious you are of symbolic histories. Do you think of your works as demythologizing those traditions, or contributing to their mythology?
I create mythologies around the people and places in my life. For instance, the second image in Dreams and Mythologies (of La Chanteuse) is a portrait of a close friend in a space (Opera Garnier, Paris) that is an influence on her work and the object of a life-long fascination. It resonates so strongly with her that she becomes brighter upon arrival, and so I show her daydreaming and dancing through it.
I’m also really fascinated with the Catholic idea of icons as interfaces. When I create a portrait, what type of connection am I offering to others or possibly inventing for myself? I feel it is a form of adoration to invest one’s time and thought into a portrait.
So, my participation can be seen as a contribution to the mythology, but the catch is that I do not reserve it for culturally recognised figures and instead I fill it with people from my own personal life. Is there room for all of us, or does it fall apart when it isn’t reserved for a few widely recognised greats? I’m not sure, but I do like this idea that we are all deserving of reverence.
Image as icon as interface.
To steal from Leonard Cohen: Let us compare mythologies.
Such a pleasure. Thank you very kindly for your attention to my work.