Melanie Manchot's "Liminal Portraits" was exhibited at Rhodes+Mann Gallery last month. Her work is characterised by exploration of the human form and the reaction that it evokes on the viewer and its interaction with the environment. Despite appearing simple and formal, her photographs have an air of intensity and challenges values that we take for granted. In this interview, we asked Melanie about her work and motivations.
I've read that you studied art and education at City University and photography at Royal College of Art. Could you tell me how you started your career as an artist?
I initially came to art from more of a theoretical background through an interest in philosophy, cultural theory and art history. However I became increasingly involved in making art myself while living in NY between 1989-1990. When I came to London, I knew that I wanted to work as an artist, and had become passionate about photographic images in particular. I really needed to be an artist and express my ideas. Amongst other values specific to the photographic medium, it is its capacity to deal with physical and psychological intimacy which makes it one of the most important media in my pursuit as an artist.
How has your studies influenced your work?
Being at the Royal College allowed me time, space, freedom and gave me a critical environment in which to develop my ideas and my artistic concepts. I think it is important for young artists to find the right context to work in, which allows them to take risks, make mistakes, yet also gives constructive criticism through which the work can evolve. I also think that an environment like the RCA gives you a range of contacts to get started with after college and the degree show can be a good platform to get people interested in your work. Contact with other young artists at similar stages of development has long lasting effects and is one of the most important aspects of such an environment. Exchanges of views and critical debate are vital and in my case, continue to this day.
Are there any particular artists who influenced you or your work?
is difficult to answer succinctly as there have always been artists that have
been important to my development and there is a continuously changing and expanding
list of artist who I look at a lot. The first major influence right at the beginning
of my career was Cindy Sherman. Her work was vital in my decision to become an
artist as it was seeing her "Untitled Film Stills" which convinced me
to work photographically. Those film stills are still seminal to me, very groundbreaking
in their performative approach to image making and their critique of images of
femininity. Following is a list of artists that I look at a lot and find inspiring.
They tend to fall into categories of photography, video, performance, film.
*Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, August Sander, Philip Lorca di Corcia (especially the new "Heads" series), Sharon Lockhart
*Sophie Calle, Eleanor Antin, Marina Abramovic
*Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci,. Eija Liisa Ahtila
I also look at a lot of "old" paintings, such as Renaissance paintings or German Romantics, in particular as inspiration for the work I have been making with my mother.
"Liminal Portraits" was shown at your solo exhibition in London recently. Like many of your other works, it features a nude, but this time, its your mother. What led you to choose your mother as the model?
I started photographing my mother in 1995 and worked with her almost continuously until 2000. It started from previous investigations of images of femininity and an increasing questions around accepted notions of beauty. I wanted to work with a woman who through the sheer process of going through life and growing older, had moved beyond the accepted standards of beauty, and had become visually marginalised. When thinking through these ideas it became clear to me that I did not want to work with a model in a traditional sense. Hiring someone as a model would have made me feel intensely voyeuristic. I realised that the only person that I could work with for this project was my mother. By working with her, the resulting images are based on notions of trust, respect and collaboration rather than that based on renumeration or commercial transaction.
Melanie Manchot, The London Eye I (Liminal Portraits), 2000
Courtesy: Rhodes + Mann Gallery, London
It's not a common practice to photograph elderly people in the nude. What was her initial reaction when you asked her to pose nude? Did her reaction change later?
We are very close and so asking her was not difficult. She thought about it for a while and then suggested trying it out to see how we would both feel about the work. Her reaction changed as the work progressed and she became increasingly active and collaborative in constructing the images. She also became increasingly proud of making these works. I think her naked body talks eloquently about the issues of our current obsession with beautiful bodies, with our image-oriented culture, our desire to control our bodies and the fear of aging. Aging has come to be seen as a problem and is no longer accepted as a progression through life.
The presence of a nude is a characteristic that is common to many of your works. How significant is the nude in your work?
I think the naked human body brings up many intense and important psychological issues in all of us. It is at times both vulnerable and strangely threatening when stripped of its facade, mask, persona and signs which clothing provides us with. So a lot of my work attempts to explore the complicated feelings that we all have when encountering the naked human body; our feelings of delight, shame, amusement, embarrasment, or indifference.
I noticed that some of the pictures were taken in London. Do the places in the photographs have a special meaning to you or your mother?
All the locations are meaningful in my mother's life. Many are places where she spent significant periods of her life and are very familiar with. London and the images in front of the London Eye have the least direct connection to her life since it is merely that I live in London.
Despite some pictures being taken at busy sightseeing spots, like the London Eye, they show no one except your mother. Some pictures even give the impression that she is floating in a panoramic landscape. How did you take these pictures?
In each of the images she is photographed from inside buildings, often in front of large windows, balcony, doors etc. Yet these images are never manipulated in the slightest, i.e. they do not involve any digital work at all but are totally simple and straight photographs. To me this is important since the meaning of the works would evaporate if they were made digitally.
This series also features a recurring theme in your works. A combination of a naked body and a landscape. Could you tell me why you are taking photographs outside?
I am interested in the boundary between the privacy of the body and the public nature of the environments in which it is often expected to exist. There are endless codes of social behaviour that we all have internalised through the process of socialisation when it comes to our presence in public spaces. So the use of locations is not necessarily an investigation of the genre or category of landscape but a placement of the subject in context. It is often through the tension of the body in relation to these carefully chosen locations that the meaning of the work comes to the foreground.
Melanie Manchot, With Blue Clouds and Laughter (Liminal Portraits), 1999
Courtesy: Rhodes + Mann Gallery, London
Though in Liminal Portraits the model is your mother alone, many of your other works involve two people performing an act with physical contact like kissing. What's the sigificance?
Most of my work explores notions of physical and psychological intimacy. Coming from a background of studies which included psychology, I am continuously fascinated in exploring human emotions, motivations, interactions, drives and desires.
Physical contact is one of the aspects addressed in your recent series, "Gestures of Demarcation". Could you elaborate on the themes explored in the work?
In these works there is a very intense and unusual exchange between two people. One that can be read in terms of power and control, pleasure and pain, care, intimacy or aggression. They represent conflicting and intense interpretations of a moment of physical contact.
In this work one of the two models is you. Who is the other person? Are they passers-by as in your previous work, "The L.A. Pictures"?
They are people I knew chosen for how they look with their backs to the camera. I wanted them to look as androgynous and anonymous as possible while still looking interesting when photographed from the back.
Please tell me what led you to serve as a model in this work?
I am modelling in these pictures through absolute necessity. I think it is necessary for the person whose skin is being stretched to be myself. This is so that the issue of control and power, an apparent dichotomy is interrupted and further complicated. Otherwise these images could otherwise be read too easily as representations of active and passive roles. If you know that the person whose skin is being stretched is the artist, by , then the viewer realizes that I am the one who set up the situation and by implication, retains control. This allows me to raise more questions about the relationship between the two people, and the notions of trust and respect which are central to my work.
What did you try to express through this work?
The series came about through thoughts on where and how we define our borders, in other words, where do I finish and the rest of the world begin. The skin is an important aspect in many of my works as skin serves as a border. It keeps the insides contained and does not allow the outside to penetrate. Yet it is highly complicated in its functions. I wanted to make images that address this curious and complicated borderline of the body. To explore whether by extending that line temporarily by pulling that skin to reach out into its surrounding space, how that would change our perception of the body and how it might change the space surrounding it.
Melanie Manchot, Kenka Kisses James Baldwin (L. A. Pictures), 1999
Courtesy: Rhodes + Mann Gallery, London
Many of your works involve actions by the participants and as such, have a quality of performance as in "Gestures of Demarcations" or "The L.A. Pictures".
Yes, a lot of the work has elements of performance, in fact increasingly so. This element of performance is important to me in devising strategies for the work to point beyond itself, i.e. for the work not to be constructed purely as an aesthetic proposition but to have a broader conceptual approach.
What themes and areas are you currently interested in?
I am further exploring the element of performance in my approaches to photography and video. I am aiming to explore the potential use of sound in conjunction with visual work. Within this one of my aims is to investigate how I can make the subjects in the work increasingly activevand to use the camera to set up more collaborative or participatory situations. I would like to see how the subject can use the situations I create either through still or video camera, to present aspects of themselves. I am curious to which extend the camera can create momentary stages, platforms that the person can use as a platform from which to talk, to construct themselves towards the viewer. Verbal exchanges are becoming more prominent and video has become a more central element in my practice.
Do you have any exhibitions planned in the near future?
Once the new body of work is completed, probably middle of next year, I will show it at Rhodes and Mann in London and probably elsewhere deomestically and abroad. In the meantime I am participating in group shows in Germany, Russia, America.