Q&A: karine laval

By Rafael Soldi | Published November 19th, 2015


Karine Laval is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Paris (France). She graduated from the University of La Sorbonne in Paris, where she majored in communications and journalism. She completed her photography and design education at the Cooper Union School, SVA and the New School in New York.

Laval's images have been featured in international publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, The Sunday TelegraphDazed & Confused, Le Monde, Le Figaro MagazineEyemazingNext LevelEXIT, to name a few. Her work has been widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States, and internationally at such venues as the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art (USA), the Sorlandet Art Museum in Kristiansand and the French Cultural Center in Oslo (Norway), and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (France), Her video Inferno was presented at Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of the ASVOFF International Film Festival in 2011. In 2014 Laval received the Jury’s Prize at the 6th ASVOFF International Film Festival in Rome for her short film State of Flux. Other awards include Humble Art Foundation’s 31 Women in Art Photography (2011), a Peter S. Reed Foundation’s Grant (2005), PDN’s Top 30 Emerging Photographers of the Year (2005), and Magenta Foundation Emerging Photographers of the Year (2005 and 2009), as well as being selected to take part in Photo España's Descubrimientos program (2004). Her first monograph will be published in 2016.

Rafael Soldi: Hi Karine. I began looking at your work again this week and immediately went to your early work, which was rooted in the landscape and the identity of place/space. Whether it was your early landscapes, the French beaches, or your images of Havana and Norway. Your new work takes on a very abstract form, however I can’t help but see them as landscapes in their own right. There is an awareness of space and a topographical quality to your new projects such as Altered StatesHeterotopiaCRASH, and Eclipses. Do you still see the landscape as a driving force in your work? Do you think of these new works as spatial? 

Karine Laval: Our environment and the relationship we entertain with nature have always been central to my work. I think my interest in the landscape and more generally the notion of place/space is informed by my own experience of “displacement” and, to some extent, that of my family. My father grew up in Africa, moving from country to country every couple of years. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was born from parents who immigrated to France shortly after World War I. I myself spent the first couple of years of my life in Algeria before moving back to France and later spent part of my adolescence in Caribbean islands where my father had moved. Eventually I immigrated to the U.S. when I was in my twenties. These personal experiences and histories have nourished my imagination and questioned my own sense of belonging. At the same time it has developed my curiosity for other culture and geographies. 

For the past decade my work has been rooted in the notion of space, not only as a physical or geographical place, but also as a mental and imaginary space, through different projects as you mention. For instance, The Pool series reflected my interest in the social and architectural aspects of the place, which combines the natural and artificial at once, in a man-made environment. I was also interested in the performative aspect of the bathers within the delineated space of the pool, which I see as a stage for the performance of mundane activities and social exchange. I tried to reinforce that theatrical quality by capturing the repetitive body gestures at unexpected angles and perspectives, and by shifting the natural color palette to blur our sense of the real. With Poolscapes I revisited the subject matter of the swimming pool and water. However, this series marked a departure from my previous work in both tone and depth. I used the image of the pool as a metaphor, a mirror whose surface reflects the surrounding world but is also a gate into another, dreamlike world oscillating between the real and the imaginary. The images in Poolscapes are often at the threshold between abstraction and representation, which was also a way for me to address the psychological subtext associated with the image of the pool and the subconscious ramifications of its stagnant water.

In the past few years my work and approach to photography has evolved, moving away from figuration towards abstraction and the deconstruction of representation. Several projects from the past 5-7 years have involved both analog and digital methods, including experimentations with films and in the darkroom as well as with scanners and the computer desktop, as a way to transform the indexical image to the limit of erasure. The new images resulting from this process are paradoxically regenerative: new forms, colors, and textures create a “near-abstract” image that evokes new topographies. These recent projects have definitely a strong spatial component, even when the physical landscape is not the prime subject matter, particularly in their mode of presentation. The format of the work has grown and is conceived more as an immersive installation within the space of the gallery. I also often integrate video and projection. 

CRASH addresses the physicality of the photograph and my interest in exploring and going beyond the limitations and boundaries of the medium and its connection to depicting reality. It is part of a broader series of works investigating the dialog between different mediums (photography, painting, video and music), and addressing a paradox by inverting the "revelation" process inherent to photography through a succession of erasures and transformation of the real. I had already explored that idea through my previous series of analog photographs, with water and light as the subjects and vectors for altering and reinterpreting reality. Here, through a lengthy and complex process, I recycle moving images of music performers to generate a new mixed media installation piece with a sculptural dimension. The resulting compositions are reminiscent of cubist and abstract paintings as well as impressionistic tableaux such as Monet’s Water Lilies. They allude to virtual or imagined spaces/places.


RS: Tell m about your experimentation with video. When did it start and how has it affected the way in which you make work? Has it liberated you or given you a different platform to explore your ideas? What does video allow that you can't achieve with photography?

KL: I’ve been experimenting with video and super-8 films for more than 10 years. Cinema and my family’s home movies from the 70’s have informed my visual culture and influenced my work. For instance, for The Pool I chose a specific color palette of alternatively saturated or bleached-out tones that echoes the quality of Super-8 movies I grew up with to revisit moments and places from my childhood and reinforce the ambiguous relation between reality, memory and fiction.

Some of my video works were born out of collaborations with other artists working in the fields of music and contemporary dance. I’ve shot a few music videos and films for some of my friends and have worked with dancers as well. For a series of large-scale images of distorted human figures and videos part of my body of work Altered States, I directed a professional dancer to perform underwater in a swimming pool, testing the body’s resistance in an unfamiliar element and under challenging conditions, thus evoking man’s struggle with nature and the uncertainty of the human experience. My work has often integrated aspects of performance or referenced it, as evidenced in the video Inferno (2010) and in the Poolscapes (2009-2012), as well as in The Pool series, where spontaneous scenes of bathers appear to be composed by a silent choreographer once isolated within the frame of the camera.

I definitely see and use video/film as a form of liberation from the limitations of photography and as a way to engage a dialog between mediums in order to explore notions of space, memory and our relationship to the world. However, I don’t really make a distinction between still and moving images and I have integrated both in my practice and exhibitions for some time now. Over the past few years, I have been increasingly interested in the process of image making — as opposed to image taking — and its relationship to surface, texture, and the dichotomy between materiality/evanescence. I’m also fascinated by the ability of photography, and lens-based mediums in general, to create illusion and question our sense of perception. 

The perceptual element is central to my work not only in the way I explore the world around me, but also in the experience of the viewer.  Time based mediums allow me to engage the viewer further and create a more subjective experience. Video installations and projections help me reinforce that aspect by breaking and going beyond the 2-dimensional plan of the photograph, working with space to create more complex images in which the onlooker is immersed or reflected. Sound and music have also been very important and contribute to a multi-sensorial experience. The verbs touch, emote and relate come to mind when I think of my work and my intention in making and sharing it.

I recently presented one of my long-term projects, Anatomy of Desire, as an immersive mixed-media installation, which encompassed photography, life-size or 3D collage, video and sound (see video of the installation here). And this summer, my video State of Flux II was part of a public art project where it was projected at large scale onto random buildings throughout New York City, Los Angeles and Boston. I think this is actually one of the best ways for the viewer to experience these moving images, serendipitously, like if they were giant mental projections onto the urban landscape we inhabit. I hope they offered an escape from everyday reality to passersby, even for just a few seconds.


RS: Lets talk about identity. How has your identity informed your work? Can you share a bit about some of your on-going or past projects that explore your relationships and your identity? 

I’m a little ambivalent about defining my identity through nationality or sexual orientation. I’ve always resisted categorization and I think these notions of identity are becoming more obsolete in an ever-changing world where geographical and gender fluidity seems to become the norm. I already mentioned how my own experience, memory and history have informed my work in some respect.  Anatomy of Desire engages with the performance of sexuality, identity and desire in gay night clubs and sex parties, but also focuses on a notion central to photography and lens-based mediums in general: the gaze and other related questions such as revealing and concealing, voyeurism and exhibitionism, and the tension between private and public. 

Music and dance have had a strong impact on me ever since I was a teenager. I started to go out in gay clubs when I was 15 in the 80’s, an era of incredible inventiveness, rebellion and anti-conformism. The gay subculture and nightclubs were one of the arenas where individual expression and an atmosphere of liberation, especially sexual liberation, were at their height, but it was also a period of dark times and uncertainty with the specter of AIDS. It was exhilarating to participate in this subculture for the curious and rebellious adolescent I was and the illicit nature of homosexuality and gay clubs participated to my desire to be part of it. My gay friends sometimes even invited me to come with them in backrooms, using my androgynous appearance as a disguise. I think it excited them also to share that side of their life with me and somehow perform it in front of me. When I moved to New York in the 90’s, I naturally explored the nightlife intensely for a few years with my friends, particularly gay nightclubs and private parties. In 2008, a personal event triggered a long period of insomnia, during which I started to go out again at night. The spectacular, almost theatrical aspect of the scenes I witnessed (some including sexual encounter between 2 or more guys) fascinated me. I had just acquired a small Blackberry, which boasted the first generation of cell phone camera with a very low-resolution image quality. The files size didn’t exceed 100kb or so. Although it was not that long ago, there was no Instagram back then and Facebook was still in its infancy. I don’t even think the iPhone had a camera yet. I started to take pictures with the phone while dancing and interacting with people surrounding me, in a very intuitive and random way, almost as if using the camera like a paintbrush into space. I became intrigued by the way the extremely low resolution of the images created texture and gave the bodies a sculptural quality while at the same time blurring the contour of the human figure and reinforcing its dissipation. The dematerialized surface of the images seemed to mirror the fleeting character of the close and brief encounters I photographed. 

The images in the series Altered States and the video State of Flux also touched upon notions of identity. Not just sexual or gender identity (the human figure in the images is often indistinct and people tend to wonder if it's a man or a woman), but also human and metaphysical: the body sometimes seems to turn into an animal or some strange creature, almost extraterrestrial, alien... I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of otherness and this is something I’m also exploring in my new series Heterotopia.


RS: There is a lovely thread in your work, from the landscape to the beach, from the beach to the water, from the water to the pool, and from the pool to the subjective perception you address in your abstract water submersions. Tell me about your process, it seems like you often riff off of something you have created previously, what are your working on now?

KL: It’s true that my different projects have a thread and come out of a natural continuation from a previous project, whether consciously or accidentally. Over the years, my focus on water has shifted from being primarily a subject matter to the substance or tool I use to create the work. I employ it as a distorting lens and a revealer of transformed reality.  I naturally became interested in other reflective surfaces such as Mylar, mirrors and glasses, which echo the distortive qualities of water, in an attempt to explore the tension between representation and abstraction and deconstruct the image further. Mirrors are like virtual or metaphorical spaces. They create an oblique view that reveals and deconstructs reality at the same time by showing what’s not immediately visible in front of the camera. I use these reflective surfaces not merely to reflect an image or broaden the field of vision, but rather to create a parallel world that seems at once familiar and alien. Most of my projects since Poolscapes have to do with the fragmentation or dissolution of the image, which contribute to underline the ambiguous nature of images and their connection to the subconscious. I think the way I distort reality through color, light, optics, reflections and unusual perspectives creates a space that gives more room for the viewer’s subjective perception to project his or her own memories, experience, or imagination. The tension between representation and abstraction allows that space to exist. 

Lately, I’ve been working on Heterotopia, which will be the subject of my upcoming exhibition at Benrubi Gallery next spring in New York. This body of work explores the notions of place/space and otherness. I created the images in private and public gardens, as you mention, and they paint, so to speak, a disorienting representation of a nature that we recognize but don’t know at the same time, leaving the viewer in balance between the imaginary and the real. At first glance the natural landscape seems familiar until one notices elements of strangeness. Distortions, superimpositions and colors, contributing to a vision of enhanced reality, act as a vehicle to translate a world in transition, oscillating between a psychedelic vision of nature and a virtual or artificial world.


RS: On a more practical note. I'm amazed at your dedication and diligence, I know that you work incredibly hard and it shows in your consistent involvement with exhibitions, books, festivals, art fairs, and other exciting project. What advice may you share with younger artists looking to be as prolific and busy as you are?

KL: I’m not sure I’m in any position to give any advice in the ever-changing world we live in and given my unusual background (I didn’t go to art or photography school). Everyone’s story and experience is different and what may have worked out well for me may not be applicable or beneficial to someone else today. I think it’s important to diversify, remain flexible and open in general, follow your heart and intuition and enjoy what you’re doing as this is the best motor for discovery and to keep going. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of working hard and relentlessly, even when success arises, and regularly question and reevaluate what you’re doing and why. In general, I find that patience, curiosity and a genuine sense of playfulness and openness are keys to achieve one’s goals.


RS: Who are your influences? Artistic or not, in the past or in the present. 

KL: My sources of inspiration are diverse, and some are probably even unconscious: in the world surrounding me, through my travels, in music, dance, cinema, nature, conversations and many other things. I love painting and used to paint as a teenager. It is impossible to make an exhaustive list of all the painters I find inspiring, but some include Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Magritte and the surrealists, Egon Schiele, Peter Doig, Dibenkorn, Cezanne, Gauguin…When I worked on the Poolscapes series, I had in mind Italian Renaissance frescos, particularly Michelangelo’s, as well as his Slaves sculptures. I’m also fascinated by Monet’s color palette and use of fragmentation in the Nympheas, which I recently revisited at The Orangerie in Paris. Although his influence can probably be easily felt in my water-related work, the body of work CRASH (2012) more specifically references his Water Lilies. Besides water, there is another element that plays an important role in my work; it is light. Some of the artists who have worked with these natural elements and whom I have been drawn to are James Turrell, Dan Flavin, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson, to name a few. Other artists that had an impact on me and my work and my practice are John Cage, Pina Bausch, and William Forsythe. As I mentioned, music and dance have been very important in my life and I regularly collaborate with musicians/composers and performers/dancers. One of my latest collaboration is with the contemporary music ensemble called Self-Imposed Exile. On September 11, we presented a piece in homage to the victims of 9/11, during which the musicians responded to an immersive projection of one of my new video works with improvisations based on the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.


RS: Where can we find you next? What's on the horizon?

KL: You can expect more of these multi-disciplinary collaborations and, of course, my next solo exhibition at Benrubi Gallery in New York in May-June 2016. I am also very excited to start working on a commissioned project for Hermès’ new store in Downtown New York in 2016, which will include a video installation and window display. And a couple of other projects I’ve started working on, but that will be the subject of another interview, I think.


    Calchaqui Valley (Argentina, 2005).   From   Horizons

    Calchaqui Valley (Argentina, 2005). From Horizons

   Untitled #07 (Cascais, Portugal, 2002). From   The Pool

   Untitled #07 (Cascais, Portugal, 2002). From The Pool

     Poolscape #62 (Fire Island, New York, 2010). From   Poolscapes

   Poolscape #62 (Fire Island, New York, 2010). From Poolscapes

    Untitled #14 (Collision), 2012. From   Altered States

    Untitled #14 (Collision), 2012. From Altered States

 From   Heterotopia

 From Heterotopia

 From   Heterotopia

 From Heterotopia

 From   Heterotopia

 From Heterotopia

From   Eclipses

From Eclipses





From   Anatomy of Desire

From Anatomy of Desire

Still from   Anatomy of Desire   installation at Theatrelab NYC, March 2015

Still from Anatomy of Desire installation at Theatrelab NYC, March 2015

All images © Karine Laval