“A Conversation on Nature’s Real Estate”
Soazic Guezennec, artist and Veeranganakumari Solanki, independent curator and art-writer
VS: ‘Be one with nature’, ‘Experience relaxation and tranquillity with nature’ … ‘Why go far to be close to nature’? These are a few phrases that immediately draw one into what should really be one’s natural surroundings, but are not! They are now being used by architects and real estate agents as marketing techniques to give back what has in a way been taken away from us. Through your works and various projects that you’ve created, you address this issue and reveal the ‘real situation’ that one faces at the risk of civilization. Could you briefly describe your concerns with this, and the manner in which you feel art as a medium (particularly your works) are an extension of dealing with this matter?
SG: In 2002, I travelled across Africa for one year, backpacking, living with nature, andspending a lot of time trying to satisfy my basic needs, from fetching wood, looking for food to filtering water and organising shelter. I realised that everything I took for granted growing in a city had a value, and also had its limits! At the end of it all, the most important, yet basic thing was – I had to rely on nature to survive! I agree it sounds like an episode of “Lost”, but it completely changed my perspectives on nature and on life in general.
Since then, the tension between culture and nature became my main subject. I use art to immerse the viewer into poetic, yet tragic situations, while expressing the fragility of nature; thereby connecting them with both – emotional and intellectual levels. I also feel that art can be used as a way to maintain hope and inspire dreams.
For instance, my “projet d’embellissement” explores the border between cities and nature while measuring the resilience of nature and the power of urbanization. I began working on these when I returned from Africa by merging the images of my trip with the landscapes of the city. This resulted in a creation of architectural projects where nature became invasive. I then advertised them in the city as real projects, and a fantasy trying to become reality in order to keep dreams alive. The real estate office is directly related to this former work.
VS: ‘A journey of self discovery’ – your works have always been ecologically inclined, and after coming to Mumbai, there is an inherent presence of the unavoidable snares of real-estate, which you have clearly experienced in depth. Could you speak about the inception of your current series – ‘Subjective Architecture Realty’ – with reference to your earlier works?
SG: Moving to Mumbai has been a very inspiring step for me. I had visions of entering my own imagination, and diving into one of my “projet d’embellissement”, sleeping under my “Dreamcatcher” full of insects and observing urbanisation while feeling powerless in the presence of nature. While documenting the destruction of the forest in front of my windows to build 12 towers of 50 floors each, I was warned of snakes and leopards seeking shelter in my neighbourhood, along with sad stories of children being taken by these creatures…not unusual incidents in this part of the city. The omnipresent constructions make the city look like a battlefield where man and nature constantly fight for space. Although the high-rises are growing at an amazing pace, nature is incredibly resilient and takes over the constructions after every monsoon. It creates a tension which I have clearly experienced and find very interesting to observe and use. It is like an incredible laboratory where unnatural experiences take place with unknown scores!
In contrast to this, I was amazed by the real estate ads that one can see everywhere in the city, which use the concept of nature-city so far away from the reality I was experiencing! I find it interesting, to see the way that marketing is misusing the concept of nature to sell concrete, and the manner in which it influences the idea that people have of nature. Real estate agents use fantastic metaphors to sell us the Garden of Eden, while what I see is actually nature being erased and replaced by a pale artefact for the few privileged.
Observing this gap between the market and reality was a logical field of research for me. This gave me the idea of offering nature the possibility to “take revenge” by taking those slogans and creating architectural projects which would give nature the city it deserved.
Thus I created the “real estate office”, like a play from the “theatre of the absurd”, where humour co-habitates with a dramatic scenario, depicting imaginary solutions to the absurdity of the reality.
VS: With reference to ecological balance, there have been a number of artists who have worked on this in the past and have also, in some instances, incorporated it into various projects. Could you talk about how your work is different from these, and how it takes this concern further?
SG: There are so many artists who have worked on this topic, and many more are turning to these issues as it is unfortunately a contemporary concern. I can only name a few who personally inspired me: As a teenager, I was very impressed by the Tragedy of Landscape in German Romanticism painting. Looking at Caspar David Friedrich’s painting was like experiencing the sublime potential of nature marked by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I have also been very influenced by land artists, such as Robert Smithson, especially his “walks in the desert”; James Turrell’s “skyspaces” and “Roden crater”; Pierre Huygue’s work, with its mix of poetry and tragedy that gives a huge importance to the idea of expedition. My influences also include science fiction cinema, comics, literature, philosophy and ethnology.
I can’t really say in which way my work is different, but it certainly is my own vision nourished by my personal experiences. I’ve always considered it an artist’s responsibility to experience the world he or she is depicting. I have extensively travelled from the Amazonian forest to Indian tribal villages, which resulted into a series of paintings of red forest. My video “Melting mountains” is the result of treks in high altitudes in Himalayas, and my installation” Abysses” is a direct reference to deep dives I made in the Red Sea.
Each of my works’ is a result of an expedition into a wild environment, and I consider the journey which as part of the work itself. I similarly extend this experience with my current project by adding a studio component, displaying objects, sketches, newspaper articles, photographs – documenting my concerns collected during the last three years in this city.
VS: The correlation between man, nature and created situations is also an important strain is several of your other works such as your “anthropological boxes” series. Could you briefly relate these to your primary concern of man and nature’s relationship?
SG:The “anthropological boxes” question the relationship between nature and culture. What appear to be insects pinned in real entomological (anthropological) boxes are at a closer look, cut-outs of businessmen figures from management magazines. Responding to human nature these boxes raise the question of “What makes men animals?” inverting the common perception of evolution theory.
Again, in some of my other works such as “Acid Raid”, “Maison finale”, and “Dreamcatcher”, I use objects that protect men against their environment like umbrellas, mosquito nets, tent’s and deprive them of their initial function by making them inefficient. In the fight against nature, man becomes weaker and exposes himself to natural disorders.
VS: You’ve created a set of business cards and flyers that subjectively jeopardises the real-estate market and the projects that you have drawn references from. Similarly with your ‘Anthropological Boxes’, the businessman becomes a creature ready for dissection and inspection. Have you had any encounters with real estate agents, architects and/or designers who have questioned your projects or refuted it? Could you share your experience and your response to any such experiences you’ve had?
SG: I really enjoyed designing a logo and business cards for the real estate company, and calling myself a CEO! It is funny how people take you more seriously with those three small letters. I went to a professional construction exhibition, where I first managed to get a free pass. Then, I can assure you, that I got every contractor’s attention as soon as I was giving them my card: CEO of Subjective Architecture Realty! They were a little concerned when I showed them the flyers with the projects though, since it clearly involved numerous physical challenges to build my projects nevertheless I have an appointment with a laboratory of a famous concrete company who would love to build the tree tower!
When showing my work at Studio X, frequented by many architects and designers, I was a little anxious about how the work would be perceived but it turned out to be a very positive response. A lot of architects told me I was depicting the kind of struggle they had to face in their everyday practice. I am sure they would like to make a difference by implementing sustainability in their creations. They do however, have to face the reality of the market where each square-foot of building is a potential economic profit.
Unfortunately, no real estate agent has come to talk to me. Though I remember once, when I had to ask for an authorisation to photograph a high rise, the real estate agent refused to let me photograph the building but privately confessed to me that he would personally love to hang my poster behind his own desk.
It is true that my work is quite provocative and targets the real estate market, however I still respect the fact that they have to deal with a complex reality.
VS: In your ‘Real Estate’ project, you have also picked out certain lines that clearly and cleverly revert to one’s reaction to the comfort zones of one’s artificial surroundings. Some of your works have involved participation and active interaction from viewers, such as selecting a place as a home in a huge tangle of trees and nature. Could you speak about some of the reactions your works have received?
SG: There is a huge difference in the feedback and response to my works in a gallery space in comparison to the same images shown on billboards in the city or glued on construction sites.
Displayed on billboards, the images dissolve into the influx of advertisements, thereby becoming camouflaged. Some people still react, but most cannot imagine that art is taking over advertisements, so they will always look for the trick! I like showing them on construction sites as it creates an ironical mise en abîmes, which is more visible. I am quite happy to see that most people understand the humour in the concept and are caught day-dreaming of an alternative city.
In galleries, visitors are more critical usually asking for real proposals. In most of my work, I always try to combine a poetic vision with a sense of threat. People first see the beauty of the projects before getting the political meaning. Someone once told me, “actually, you are making fun of us!”. Some people ask me why I am angry at the city! However, when it comes to choosing a location for their future home, they are all very happy to put a sticker on the top branches where they can breathe and have a view. If only that could be true!
VS: Would you refer to your reactions and projects as social-activism through art?
SG: I don’t like to consider myself as an activist. I don’t make any official statement. I let politics handle that department. I am an artist, and I am only expressing personal feelings and concerns about what surrounds me. What I like to believe, is that art is like a mirror. What people see when contemplating art is a self-introspection. That’s why everybody can see something different in it. It works when it creates an emotion, or encourages reflection. In the case of this work, I’d be happy if people question their own desire of nature in the city and let their dreams lead them to a conclusion and ideally action.
VS: Within a broader context, the issues you are addressing are global concerns. Do you plan to travel your current project to different cities? Could you briefly share with us ‘where the future lives’?
SG: In 2014, I am going to open real estate offices in 8 different cities in India through the Alliance Francaise. I have hopes to move the project to other countries as well. I have also designed a website which gives a wider audience to the project. (www.subjectivearchitecture.org) I hope to convert many more Happy Owners to join the community and help in building different cities. All visions are welcome to build a new future made out of dreams and fantasies!
As for “where the future lives” that would be very presumptuous of me to make any assertion about! But I do believe that people will have no other choice than to listen to nature. There are already many incredible sustainable projects all around the world which take inspiration from nature. Compared to those, my projects are not utopian at all! A building inspired by termites’ mounds, new construction material which can grow some plants, living architecture, urban farming… All these initiatives provide a glimmer of hope that the relationship between nature and culture may be more symbiotic!
Veeranganakumari Solanki (b. 1985) is based in Mumbai, India. She studied English Literature and holds post-graduate diplomas in Indian Aesthetics, Art Criticism and Theory, as well as a Masters in History; she was a participant of the first Gwangju Biennale International Curators’ course. Her curatorial experience has involved research, curating and co-curating exhibitions and writing for several art publications and journals on emerging Indian, Asian and international artists and art practices, in India as well as internationally.