The series Phénomènes by Marina Gadonneix is one of the highlights of the Rencontres d’Arles 2019. For nearly five years, the artist photographed the reconstructions of natural phenomena such as avalanches, earthquakes, and lightning in scientific laboratories. We are talking to her in sweltering Arles.
What drew you to this subject, that is natural phenomena reconstructed in scientific laboratories?
In my early work I was very interested in staging, the décor, simulation... In 2006, I published my first book entitled Remote Control as part of the HSBC photography award. There, I explored staging in the media. I photographed the sets of various TV shows after hours. We are already dealing with mental images and projection surfaces... I asked that the studio be plunged in darkness, but that the screens be turned on. While working on this project, I discovered green and blue backdrops, such as those used in weather forecasts, and I pursued this subject. I photographed some TV studios. Then I became interested in staging disasters. I did a series called The house that burns every day. The houses in question were structures used in firefighter training, furnished with things that never get consumed in fire. The staging of the disaster, however, was not enough for me, and I turned to natural phenomena studied in laboratories. I started with avalanches before focusing on atmospheric phenomena. So I started with disasters in order to find the marvelous.
How did you go about taking photographs?
It took a lot of travel and research. I developed a vocabulary list that used mental imagery. Everyone has a mental image of a lightning bolt or an avalanche. I then did a lot of research to figure out which laboratories reproduced these phenomena. The labs are very localized depending on the phenomenon. Hurricanes are studied in Florida, earthquakes in California... I received a grant from the Institut Français which allowed me to go to the United States for two months to meet some fascinating researchers.
"So I started with disasters in order to find the marvelous"
The exhibition opens with photographs of pages from science books representing inaccessible places, such as the planet Mars… Why start with these images?
When I arrived in the United States, I thought that I should first go to the Smithsonian Museum, which, I had learned, housed fourteenth- to nineteenth-century books recording some early attempts at understanding atmospheric and geophysical phenomena. I looked at phenomena that I could then document in laboratories. It was important for me to show these early documents, this early research on the subject of natural phenomena.
By showing scientific laboratories working on something that is outside of human reach, do you seek to show human attempts to master what is beyond our control?
Yes, of course. Early on in my research, I jotted down a phrase that Man Ray borrows from Mallarmé: “A roll of dice will never abolish chance.” This is true, and what is interesting is that in the United States, they do not call them “phenomena,” but “natural hazards.” So this raises the question of chance, something unpredictable... In this work, the idea was also to move away from the notion of danger represented by natural phenomena, and move in the direction of wonder and re-enchantment... It’s a poetic journey with humorous captions which also contain some hard scientific data.
You like to show spaces where things are getting done, such as dormant TV studios or firefighter training structures... What point are you making by highlighting these sites of activity and experimentation?
I always start with the reality, with what exists in concrete terms, and move toward mental images as projection surfaces. My previous work also explored the idea of making things: I followed photographers who photographed works of art and I photographed just after they did, which produced something quite minimal. It evoked mental imagery. What interests me is the making of images rather than documenting the making of things.
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Marina Gadonneix, Phénomènes
July 1 to September 22, 2019
Mécanique Génerale, Arles