Marseille-based artist Marie Bovo captured the depths of Russia from a train carriage in search of ordinariness. Interview by Anja Grøner Krogstad.
Anja Grøner: Why did you choose the name Cтансы (Stances) for your latest series?
Marie Bovo: I thought Stances was a good way to define this work, because on the one hand it refers to a stop, and on the other it recalls the term ‘stanza’ or verse. Every train station is a pause, and at the same time, every stop makes sense on its own as a frame and a place. Every stop represents a particular landscape and a distinct time of day.
For three weeks, I travelled on the slow local trains between St Petersburg and Murmansk. The process was the same every time: the train would stop for about 20 seconds, and because I never knew whether the doors would open on the right or left, the decision about where to point the camera had to be made in seconds. I used a view camera, which isn’t exactly the lightest, handiest camera out there, but the cold made it impossible to work digitally. The hardest part was at dusk, when the indoor lighting altered the perception of space, and the challenge was to transform the hostile metallic overhead lights into something golden.
AG: Stances was first shown in the Église des Trinitaires Church in Arles, then at OSL contemporary in Oslo, and now at Kamel Mennour in Paris. What are the important factors about a space when you show your work?
MB: I always consider the relationship between the photograph and the exhibition space. While the gallery and the white cube is probably the most common space in which to present art today – and as such a neutral and extremely standardised one – the church in Arles was exactly the opposite. It was constructed as a religious place of worship, and those qualities remain, although the church is now desacralised. I found that really interesting for Stances, because previously I’ve explored how our relationship with the image differs from one culture to another. In the Western tradition, one of the first places in which we’re confronted with images is the religious space. In Russia, there’s a particular devotion linked to the icon. It’s a sacred image that serves as a link between the divine and the secular. When presented in a church, icons are hung in specific places to create a pathway, to accompany the spectator step by step and tell a story. And in Orthodox churches you have the iconostasis, a wall of icons and religious paintings that separates the nave from the sanctuary. I was inspired by this idea and decided to recreate an iconostasis in Arles. The icon is an entrance, a door that separates the holy and the profane, and the work I did in Russia is all about train doors opening and the relation between two spaces. At Kamel Mennour, I recreated that arrangement to make a wall of images.
AG: You consider the Mediterranean to be your base, and your earlier series are set in Cairo, Alger and Marseille, to name a few. What was it like working with cold scenery like this?
MB: I rediscovered Malevich’s oeuvre through the Russian landscape. During days of snow, the train would cross lakes that were several kilometres long, and I had the impression of being in a white mass. Malevich’s White on White and his way of thinking took on a new meaning for me.
AG: How did you interpret him before?
MB: I think in a more conceptual way, certainly one that was less sensitive and less sensual. Still, I remember seeing his work in group shows, and a Malevich would always draw me in from afar. There’s a return to figuration in his later work, but even his most abstract paintings bear a certain resemblance to the icon painting. While passing through that white mass of snow, it was as if the landscape took on a new dimension. And that’s not conceptualism; it’s literally a physical experience.
AG: You went to art school and initially wanted to become a sculptor. You’ve often incorporated literature and other art forms into your work. So did any other artists or writers nourish this series?
MB: Literature was particularly important to get a deeper understanding of Russia. I read everything from the classics such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, to Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn and contemporary authors like Andrei Gelasimov. I read a beautiful text on drawing by Gelasimov called Thirst. It tells the story of a young man who’s sent to Chechnya and comes back completely disfigured. All his former facial features are gone, and the book is about how he learns how to draw and search for new traits. It’s a profound reflection on drawing, on form, figuration and disfiguration. All these different books allowed me to plunge into Russia’s history, but each time through the perception of the author. It was very educational.
AG: And what did you learn about Russia?
MB: I think European history was largely written in the margins. Take the city of Königsberg, the birthplace of Kant, as an example. Today, it’s the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and when you look at it on a map you almost have the impression that it’s not in Europe, whereas in the eighteenth century, this was a centre for the Enlightenment movement situated right in the heart of Europe. Culture grows and matures in the margins and Russia is interesting in that regard because it constantly interrogates us on the question of being inside or outside.
AG: The human presence is always evoked in these works but never in a direct manner: we see no one, but we see a trace. Why?
MB: A human presence immediately creates anecdotes. No matter what you look at, the presence of a person always takes centre stage; it becomes the architecture or the place of someone. The absence of humans is disorienting, which is why the trace is interesting. Besides, the places I travelled through were practically deserted. In France we say that from each village church tower you can see the next village church tower. In Russia that’s simply not possible.
AG: Is it a goal to travel to as many places as possible? Is there a place you’d never set foot in?
MB: It depends, but there are places I feel more concerned with than others. I prefer Russian literature to American literature, for instance. I know the work of famous American authors, but it quickly ceases to interest me because I feel like it doesn’t concern me. There are definitely places that inspire me more than others because I already have an interior dialogue with them through literature. I recognised several familiar elements in Russian literature and painting where I didn’t expect to find them at all. Reading Mandelstam was one the first times I read poems about Odysseus, for example.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that American culture has become so dominant, even in art history. After World War II there’s an imposition of an art history centred on the United States, which is an interpretation that should be criticised, or at least relativised. At the same time, I don’t think one should fall too deeply in love with Russia either. We need to stay aware of the negative aspects. To love the country is one thing, but to be in love with it is different.
Marie Bovo was born in Spain and lives and works in Marseille, France. “Cтансы (Stances)” is on view at Kamel Mennour, 6 rue du Pont de Lodi, Paris 6e, until 3 March.