Interview with Michel Varisco

I came across the work of New Orleans artist Michel Varisco, whose photographs, assemblages and site-specific installations are based on themes of loss and regeneration. Her photographs explore the complex relationship between the natural and the engineered environment which is carved out of a delicate delta system.

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Effervescent Pond, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

Through her work she depicts her homeland to educate, inspire, transform and heal what is essentially an ecologically and culturally rich place which is struggling for its survival.

She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Would you describe yourself as an environmental or eco artist ?  Yes, more and more I do. Often a theme arises, and I follow my interest through a simple question like: “as a species, how do we live with nature?” When humans see nature as a commodity to harvest, spoil, entrap, contaminate and so on, the outlook looks bleak for our future. If however we as a species used our intelligence to respect life and sustainability of resources, then my work would reflect that most likely. I title my work with adjectives that suggest a change is coming. “Shifting”, “Turning”, “Fluid States”. We need to be agile and see things as they are, without glorification or magical thinking. And we need to be ready to act- and be the change we want to see. I “act” through my art and through my purse. The natural world responds to our collective action for better and for worse. For instance, the melting of glaciers, the loss of lands due to engineering foibles, the climate changes underway, water scarcity and air and water pollution-for every action, there is a reaction. Unbridled capitalism is undoing the planet. I see environmental and social justice interwoven in many ways. In 2001, I studied housing issues in New Orleans in a series called “Displaced”. Little did I know at the time that the largest mass migration in the United States was just around the corner with Hurricane Katrina- and with it, a disproportionate displacement, larger than the Great Dust Bowl migration in the 1930’s.Going back even further, slavery in the U.S was the illicit “energy source” of its era. A war was fought over its end because the powerful couldn’t accept the inevitable. We are in another period of abuse, but this time towards the planet. What will happen now will be determined sooner than later- due to limited resources on a planet that’s facing the 6th greatest mass extinction in 65 million years-the Anthropocene extinction. What we do now matters, and to more than our own species. It’s about time to use every tool at our disposal to work towards a future worth its weight in gold- by leaving the gold in its place.

When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?  I fell in love with photography looking at a “Time-life Book -30 years in pictures” (Or something to that effect). And the Family of Man catalogue from a traveling show, when I was about 7 studying those books. But I didn’t shoot until much, much later. I drew all the time, and painted, studied sculpture and printmaking and graphic arts, even music. Eventually I learned photography in college and I felt like it was a great honor. I still draw and make sculpture. Some of my favourite artists are those that use multiple mediums in their works.

What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape through glass?  It’s a meditation. When I shoot, I like to let life lead me although there’s a lot of conscious reflection in the process. To observe changes the observed. I treat the viewfinder as a way to appreciate and “feel” what I’m looking at in that moment with complete attention. Cartier Bresson said “it’s where the heart, the mind and the eye align”. When I’m excited about the subject I can shoot far longer than I probably should. I become almost like a hound dog in hot pursuit on a trail, or a cat that sits and watches the light change. It’s no fun to be with me when I’m shooting because I’m a terrible host to people. I have wonderful friends that understand this about me, and don’t mind the long, long silences. The ineffable comes in unexpected moments.

You describe your photographs as events – does the camera act as a personal diary for you?  The camera is like a journal or sketchbook of sorts- or a field notebook. I learn about something, through observing and returning, and moving through the landscape of experience. I do learn from photographing-almost like a scientist with an artist’s eye.

Your work touches on some serious environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to capture the spiritual aspect of landscapes (genius loci) within your work?The land and rivers and waterways teach me about how to live amidst change. (“To bend and not break like bamboo” like the Tao Te Ching instructs). But when I see our damages to the lands and waters, it’s like returning to the bedside of a dying friend…too painful to mention, but too deep a love to walk away. It’s also about looking deeply. Just when I think it’s too late, the land teaches me that it’s not. I find refuge in deep time- and study how things change over millennia. This helps me to relax in the thought of the planet’s ability to self-correct. What’s alarming though is that humans may not be in the future equation though if we don’t self-correct around limited resources and the protection and sharing of replenishing resources.

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Ballet Trees, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

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Marshland Bones, Lafourche Parish (copyright) Michel Varisco

The trees in your ‘Fragile Land’ photographs (above) seem to be trying to communicate with us – as if they are have their own “presence” or spirits within them, they remind me of some of the photographs of British Neo-Romantic artist Paul Nash. Have you come across his work, and if so, do you share a similar vision to him?  Thank you for reconnecting me to his work. I think one thing we had in common is that we both suffered from post-traumatic stress- World Wars 1 and 2 for him and Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill disaster for me. We both retreated to nature in order to heal. Nature taught me about regeneration and grit. Yes, the trees seemed to be communicating to both of us, because we were paying attention to the intense changes around us at the time. I truly don’t know how he survived seeing what he saw. I couldn’t have walked the road he walked. After reinvestigating some of his writings about his process- I can relate to his despair. To be an artist during this century is a delicate tightrope walk between sensitivity and toughness. To foster the ability to bend and not break.

Have you explored any other lens-based media, such as video/ film/ projection? If so, how do you rate using it compared to the medium of photography? I’m using video too now- and I am just as engrossed with it- although I previously preferred the darkroom to the computer. Now computer is an inevitable part of my practice- despite all resistance. My neck and back can tell you more about that. To heal from the tools of the trade, I swim, and then shoot video and stills of the beauty of water or its inhabitants. I tell you while I seem grim in some of my comments, I do find the world riddled with incredible beauty. Oftentimes beyond lens based anything!

Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?  That’s a great question. It could go either way…but I don’t think it necessarily connects them- they can avoid nature because of or in spite of technology. Many in America complain that the harried life they live with all it’s technological advances has them on a short leach of time and they end up sacrificing some of their time in nature as a result. It’s with encouragement and guidance, inspiration and education that they venture into the wilderness. I take them there sometimes- into some muddy tangled woods and get their cool clothes all messed up-and they seem to like it in the end. I think they “remember to remember” when they enter into nature. (“Oh yeah, I forgot I liked nature” kind of thing). Sometimes they ask to shoot film instead of digital media- because they want the risk of messing up and the challenge of crafting a difficult print. But digital or analog, the important thing is that they encounter the landscape and come out of the experience enamoured even more by it. The important take away is that they will want to encourage, (and demand even) a cleaner more sane future that respects nature- that gives us life. And more than the medium used, and I think a great act of resistance, is the crafting of one’s time. Make time for nature, and it will payback those moments in infinite returns.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information?  Thank you for your interest in my work. I enjoyed looking at your blog and photographs very much as well. Your own sense of discovery and process is magical and inspiring. I love the way you blend science and art!

Some great resources in the form of books are:

  • Rachel Carson- The Sea around us
  • Naomi Klein- This changes Everything (book over film)
  • Kate Orff and Richard Misrach: Petrochemical America (the maps are incredible)
  • John Barry’s Rising Tide
  • Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest

Let me know if you have any further questions- and I hope your research paper turn out successful.

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