Fine Art Photography

Karine Laval’s Enchanted Gardens

June 22, 2016

By Conor Risch

In a 1967 lecture, French theorist Michel Foucault spoke about utopias and heterotopias—spaces that don’t quite exist in reality. “Utopias…present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces,” he said. However, heterotopias—a term he coined in the lecture—may exist physically. They are, he said, “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which…all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” One example, he said, was a garden, a space that assembles and represents organisms that occur naturally elsewhere. “The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world,” he explained. “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).”

As photographer Karine Laval searched for a title for her series of colorful, confounding photographs made in public and private gardens in the United States, France and elsewhere, Foucault’s discussion of utopias and heterotopias resonated with her. The photographs are “projections of my imagination,” Laval says, “but also what could be a perfect [natural] world without us.” She wants the viewer to wonder: “Are they real or are they fictions? They come from reality but they are transformed through the way I photograph them.” The images “were created to confuse the viewer’s sense of perception,” Laval explains. To make them, she used mirrors, filters, and natural and artificial light to enhance and manipulate her camera’s view. In the images, which are single frames that look like composites or multiple exposures, small areas of gardens become massive, and their colors otherworldly. The series, “Heterotopia,” was on view at Benrubi Gallery in New York City this May and June.

Laval first began thinking about “revealing and concealing and distorting reality” as she worked on previous bodies of work, made in and around swimming pools, that played with the reflective qualities of water. “It became natural,” she says, for her to want to experiment with mirrors. As she explains her process, she says: “I’m going to give you one of my secrets…one of the [types] of mirrors I use are two-way mirrors.” Depending on the light and camera angle, the two-way mirror “reveals what is behind it or conceals it,” she explains, and also reflects what is behind her and her camera. “It’s also a metaphor for photography and that’s why I was so interested in using two-way mirrors; they reveal and conceal at the same time, and I think this is what photography does, it’s a very paradoxical medium.” This work can also be seen as a sort of meta photography, which pushes the medium by multiplying some of its essential elements—mirrors, filters and natural and artificial light.

The colors in Laval’s photographs also disorient the viewer. “The use of color allows me to transform the natural world that I photograph,” she explains, noting that the hues result from her use of strobe lighting and filters, not post processing. Depending on the viewer’s interpretation, the colors might appear “candylike” or “acidic and chemically altered.” Laval says she was interested in “underlining this paradox between a world that is very psychedelic, sweet, welcoming, enveloping, and a world that’s toxic. I use those colors to convey those ideals and trigger questioning in the viewer.”

Some of the gardens Laval chose to work in were familiar to her, and others she found by chance. She photographed in her 92-year-old grandmother’s garden in the South of France, for instance. “For me it was a very personal connection, especially as she is approaching the end of her life. I thought it would be nice to spend time together in the garden and memorize that space,” Laval recalls. She also knew and wanted to photograph in the Central Garden at the Getty Center, and she worked in public gardens in Germany and New Orleans, as well. As she continues work on the series, she wants to “go to more tropical places that might be a little wilder.”

Her process for creating each image is “very experimental,” she says. While it may not be evident in the finished artworks, fun is an important element of what she does. “I really enjoy this adventurous, experimental way of doing things, a little bit like traveling—you don’t know where you’ll end up and you’re also surprised when you end up places you’re not familiar with.”

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