Cosmologies of the inner world
by Alessandro Trabucco
Watching Lauren Semivan’s photos (Detroit, 1981) the very first impression is to be in front of a collection of images that are very intense, both in the strictly technical sense and in the contents they express. To begin with, the artist’s choice to use an old-fashioned photographic device, providing it with black and white negatives of big size, puts her work on a difficult ground of research, not much for the unavoidable comparison with the whole photographic literature of almost two centuries that came before (nonetheless always necessary in the critical analysis of a creative route) but rather for its correct reading and interpretation, especially due by virtue of the technological age it expresses itself.
A choice that we could define even as courageous for an artist only 32 years old, who demonstrates a wide knowledge as well as a complete consciousness of the technical and expressive power of the means at her disposal, made more and more effective by a masterly fusion with other languages.
Lauren Semivan’s work, that can be considered part of the so-called staged photography, surpasses this narrow classification putting itself on a different expressive level that rather makes it closer to a photography of great visual suggestion, wavering between the pure abstraction (that is combination of graphical signs tangled as pure emotional space) and self-portrait, still life (with points of light that attract the glance) and performance, whose absolute protagonist is, obviously, the artist herself.
It seems to me that you do not need much room for shooting, just a little closed space that anyway represents all your creative world, apparently restricted in its spatial dimensions, but that you can make infinite in its expressive potential. What is the route that led you to do such a particular stylistic choice?
I think about this idea often – the microcosm – the small model that in some way could mimic or reference some larger plan or entity. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera writes “humans live between the abyss of the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things.” Kundera uses the structure of a Beethoven symphony as a way to illustrate this point. As in a symphony, smaller patterns are repeated inside of a larger structure, and the two mirror or reference one another. This concept has always fascinated me and fueled my creative process. I think this is another way of talking about metaphor. Without metaphor our experiences can seem uninteresting and flat. I think of my studio space as a laboratory for examining larger problems or questions, and to draw comparisons or show inherent similarities or relationships between disimilar things.
You consciously avoid all the available digital technology and, with your black and white, you have also eliminated any chromatic excess. It is as if you were more and more eliminating and if you made use of the bare minimum, a sort of back to the origin of the photography. Is it so?
As a student I was exposed to 19th century photographic processes, and was taught to appreciate these labor-intensive methods, so I think this has always stayed with me as an artist. I felt that the lack of precision, and the amount of physical and emotional energy that went into their production also somehow added value. I have always felt that photographs possess an inherent metaphysical energy, an emotional charge, and have always been drawn to the invisible and the unseen in art and in life. My prints are made by either contact printing 8×10 negatives as cyanotypes, or scanning the same negatives and making large format black and white digital pigment prints. I do involve the computer as a tool for enlarging the images, but I prefer to not digitally alter or manipulate the images. The negatives themselves are always interesting enough to me as events. I enjoy the limitations presented by black and white, and aesthetically tend to gravitate toward the hand-made. However, the scale of the large black and white work is very moving in a different way and creates a different physical response. With the 40×50 print size, the viewer can experience the space on a level that is almost directly 1:1.
Your photos appear like images dense of symbolic meanings but also autobiographic. Are there basic themes you are particularly interested in and that you think you have developed in a satisfying way?
My work usually in some way references larger ideas about truth, knowledge, intuition, memory, perception. These broader terms can be associated with self-exploration, but I am more interested in looking beyond self-portraiture toward a much less specific place that can be relatable to a larger audience. I use my own environment and experiences as a tool for building a personal language through photographs. This visual language continually evolves and grows as I do as an individual, so it is autobiographical in that sense. In a way, it is like looking at a map, but I can’t say exactly what every icon or point on that map means. When looking at photographs, ambiguity is usually the only thing that engages me. I am interested in facts and truth as they can be recorded by the camera, but questions keep me engaged in an image, and allow me to experience it more intimately over time.
It is always interesting to follow the specific creative route of an artist, especially when his/her works are the visible result of a complex process of execution. Can you give us an example of your method of work, from the preparation of the stage to the creation of the image?
I can plan a great deal of a photograph, but what is most fascinating to me about the process of making art is that something previously unknown, unplanned and beautiful can be extracted from a choreographed event. This is similar to the scientific method. I have a single wall inside my studio which functions as a stage that I continually re-work and change each time I make a photograph. I sometimes paint white or black over the entire scene as a way to refresh and start again, but often leave traces of previous drawings as it creates a starting point for something new and often a conversation with the last piece. I don’t know if I can speak about any particular piece in great detail, but I often begin with an object, a drawing, or a more abstract idea; a character from literature, for example, and attempt to illustrate that idea through metaphor. The image, Wind 1 was inspired by the nymph, Echo, of classical mythology, but I believe that images should be open enough so that a viewer can imagine his/her own personal meaning or associations.
Photography has been approaching its second century of life. Have you any reference “sacred monsters”? Can you address your thoughts when you are starting a new photographical project?
I am always inspired by the work of artists who utilize the studio or staged environment in a way that calls truth or fiction into question. As a student, I discovered a book of surrealist photography called Els cossos Perduts (The Lost Body) and saw images by a Belgian writer/artist named Paul Nouge, as well as the work of Man Ray and Claude Cahun. This work was very influential to me. I began to think more about how photographs should contain some kind of mystery or question and this began a longer path of research. Most often I try look outside of photography, no to reject photography, but in order to see things differently. Film, literature, painting are equally important to my process. I think there is a unique element of time involved in my process as a result of studying music and seeing the silent films of Maya Deren. I paint or draw for several days and then begin to work other elements into the scene. The construction of a photograph often feels like an extended performance. I have been inspired by the gestural paintings of abstract expressionists and color field painters of the 1950s-1960s, by magical realist authors, as well as many 19th century “spirit” photographs by anonymous photographers. The things I am drawn to always seem to have some kind of emphasis on the invisible or immaterial.
Could you briefly illustrate to us the project you present to your personal exhibition at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York in September 2013, please?
The work in this exhibition at Bonni Benrubi is edited from my larger series and represents about five years of my work and research. There are several large black and white prints, as well as a collection of 8×10 contact prints in cyanotype. I am very proud of the selection of images for this exhibition, and feel that they are some of my strongest pieces that speak most clearly to my ideas.