Michele Marcoux – Nostalgic Identities
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It used to be thought of as a sickness but social psychologists now believe it has a positive impact on us, that it makes us happier and even makes us feel warmer. Is it an emotion? Hundreds of products are sold to us with ‘vintage’ style packaging, appealing to our feelings of nostalgia, a nostalgia for eras we sometimes have absolutely no experience of. For example, how many Steam Punk fans were around during the industrial revolution?
In a curtained room off the courtyard where Hidden Door Arts Festival set up this year, Michele Marcoux’s installation of work, Fan of Memory seeks to explore some of the intriguing aspects of nostalgia.
You seem to be a fiercely determined lady, with such a strong work ethic, which is something really admirable about you as a person and an artist.
Thanks for your kind words! I guess it was something I was brought up with - the work ethic. I have always believed that if you work hard enough you can accomplish what you set out to do. Both my parents worked incredibly hard so I am sure I learned it from them!
Tell us a bit about your experience working with an artistic collective like Hidden Door.
I really enjoyed being part of Hidden Door and saw it as an opportunity to meet other artists in Edinburgh and further afield and get to know them while working on the Festival itself - not in the usual setting say at an opening or whatever. Working together with people brings you together in a different way. I spent hours shovelling dirt and picking the moss from between cobblestones with a crew of fantastic people!
Did pulling together to get the venue exhibition / festival ready add to your experience, did you find it brought out your determination or would you prefer the ready set up gallery situation?
Often as an artist you have to pull together all aspects of an exhibition by yourself; marketing, press, installation, organisation of food/wine etc., which can be isolating and a bit dispiriting, not to mention exhausting! I was attracted to Hidden Door by the fact that we were all going to support each other and also that Hidden Door was going to support us with marketing and equipment and also with a small production budget.
To be represented by a gallery would be fantastic and is my ultimate goal however this doesn’t happen easily and if artists wait for galleries to show their work well they won’t be shown very much will they? A huge part of my work is engaging with people; finding out what they think and getting feedback. For this reason I think the DIY ethos has to be taken up by artists themselves. Like musicians have done I think artists more and more need to take control and create opportunities for our work to be seen. Hidden Door was a fantastic way to do this.
Your last exhibition, Hag-ridden, touched on the theme of Nostalgia, more specifically to do with feelings of being haunted. Can you tell us a bit about your progression from Hag-ridden to Fan of Memory and how the theme of Nostalgia has grown ‘ever mightier’ for you?
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion for most people and as someone with a sentimental bent I am particularly susceptible to it! However I also think it is important to deconstruct Nostalgia as well. There are hidden dangers in succumbing to the rose-tinted view of the past. Hag-ridden was for me an exploration of the imagery from my past and from the films and literature that I grew up with, to tease out the themes that were important to me then and are still important now.
In a way I don’t really think I got to the end of the exploration with Hag-ridden, I felt that there was still a lot to cover. Fan of Memory similarly is an exploration of personal imagery but I wanted to be more focussed both in the imagery I chose and also the structure of the work.
I was reading a fantastic epic poem by Alice Notley called The Descent of Alette which is a kind of feminist Dante's Inferno. The entire world exists below ground on an endless series of subway cars. Only the Tyrant and his close advisors live above ground. It becomes the task of Alette to somehow get above ground and kill the tyrant. The imagery is astounding as it explores all aspects of humanity, animal life, the natural and supernatural energy that exists on the train cars - the entire universe is there. I loved the way each car was a kind of stage in Alette's progression toward her ultimate goal. And Notley's brilliant use of quotation marks throughout the poem to frame the poetic phrases creates a feeling of immediacy as if you are being directly spoken to while at the same time existing in the formal structure of an epic poem. I loved the idea of referencing a classical structure and at the same time breaking it up, breaking through it.
I thought a lot about how I could do this in Fan of Memory and decided to explore the use of windows as a medium - something I had done a bit with Hag-ridden. The use of the window frame (an obvious nod to different kinds of framing) also allowed the possibility of seeing things from different sides and playing with that. From a technical point of view there was a lot I could explore in terms of hiding and revealing and it also became a kind of metaphor for how the past is mutable, how there is no definitive version of it.
Yes, because it no longer exists, it’s lost. It’s really interesting that the images of the ladies on your work for Fan of Memory have been cut out, lost. There is a theory that our lives are a constant struggle against loss, pain and difficulties and that nostalgia, or having feelings of nostalgia allows us to indulge in these feelings of loss, etc., without becoming ill. Like a vaccine for a virus, a broken down version of a memory becomes a cure, a way of coping because we get to keep something. What do you think about this? How did you decide what to keep and what to cut out in your images?
Ahhh the Ladies! I have a studio filled with cut-out naked women - like hard-core paper dolls! I guess early on when I was thinking about looking at Nostalgia again I got pretty judgemental of myself and realised that my own nostalgia verged on a kind of personal pornography. The details you latch on to and retain! I wanted to make this connection as a way to talk about Nostalgia but also the way that we all use and are attached to imagery. I considered using the full graphic images of the naked women but realised pretty soon that they would become the main focus, so I decided to cut the Ladies out of their context and just refer to them by their outline. I let the backgrounds; the bad furniture, old fashioned telephones, harsh lighting of the original porn photo-shoot, give the context.
Also I felt that the graphic images of the naked women were really only part of a monetary exchange (the money shot, as it were) and very far from the woman that were actually in the pictures. I kept thinking what was it like for them and where are they now?
In terms of nostalgia being a comfort - yes it is! I think sometimes that time spent in my studio is like being in a mental health clinic (smiles). But I also feel it is incredibly important to question these tendencies toward high emotion as somehow the only catharsis. I feel a definite emotional connection to my work and making it is often quite emotional, however it is important to side-line this in favour of focussing on the physical act of making which has its own mysterious process that is hidden - almost primal. I feel this is a very important energy to tap into as well and that it is somehow more powerful.
Human beings are incredibly good at constructing meaning out of something that we’ve experienced, do you think we do this as another way of comforting ourselves?
I think as human beings we do search for meaning as a means to comfort ourselves but also as a way to connect with the present and hopefully give resonance to our actions. The older I get the more I think that it is what you do that is important not what you feel or think. However obviously these things are interlinked!
The film in your installation features a lady who isn’t cut out, but her dancing is repeated on a loop and out of context from what the rest of the film might be. Like a peep show we are given a blinkered, edited view of something. Have you thought about this fragmentation and repetition in connection with identity?
Yes, very much so. I think one of the key themes for me is the exploration of identity. Like the past I don’t think there is a definitive version of ourselves - we are all of us fragmentary and subject to our surroundings. Growing up an identical twin I was constantly confused with someone else! Now as an expat I am often presented with versions of myself by others that I don’t recognise. It is an odd thing where you feel you know yourself when others can’t possibly, but also that perhaps there is no self at all unless others recognise it. A sort of ‘if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it’ sort of thing... Perhaps that is why I make art. An attempt to get people into the woods to have a listen...
Can you tell us a bit about the role profanity / pornography has to play in this?
The obsessive use of images to conjure up emotion is really the definition of pornography! However there is the larger idea of the perception of women within society and the mixed messages presented especially to girls about what their role in society should be and the impact this has on both women and men. I am also interested exploring more the sex industry itself - I did a bit of research on the Peep Show industry - there are trade shows for them believe it or not! Perhaps a subject for future work?
Definitely! I think you could do a lot with that idea as there are a lot of angles to explore it from, particularly in terms of being perceived by others and existing in this perception. Getting back to you, is there anything you feel especially nostalgic for?
I am very nostalgic for my family. Having lived in the UK for almost half of my adult life I find it gets no easier to be away from them.
Would you care to guess at what your strongest memory of the Hidden Door experience might be?
Hidden Door isn’t over yet so have high hopes of good memories to come this weekend! Opening night was absolutely fab! Popping down from a great chat with people in my exhibition space to see Lonelady in the concert space below was a real high point. Overall though, it has been feeling part of the incredible space that we have brought to life for only a brief time - a place that had lain empty and unused for years. The life in the courtyard will be fleeting but potent like a really good memory.
You can keep track of Michele’s work by checking out her website: www.michelemarcoux.com following her on Twitter @Michelemarcoux and joining her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MicheleMarcouxArtist