There are times we come across photos taken by strangers, and decide to pause for a while. The LA-based artist Arielle Chiara evoked an alike situation the first time I came across her posts on Instagram. The endless deserts embraced by all their rocks and soil, those maps of pastel colors tracing the individual histories of nature. We look at them— tenderly, yet timid—at times it seems absurd to be alive amongst such immediate truth that’s that surreal. Sure, these days (almost) everyone is able to take a picture of something beautiful. However, it’s the presence of a heightened sensitivity that translates visual recordings into an experience that surpasses the abstract life of personal memory, and persists as a reflection in which we notice ourselves too. In waves, at the very least.
Chiara, a Californian native, possesses a raw kind of emotional subtlety that turns every outcome of her artistic practice—whether photography, installation, or performance—into an innocuous romance with nature and the artist, herself. The more time spent within her world of skins—both earthly and human—the more one is sedated by the relationship with external existences that for many of us seem unreachable because of the ever-present matter of time. Chiara’s work prioritizes vulnerability and feeling, a type of purposelessness that’s symbolic and seemingly imperative. I could last in them, almost forever.
What’s been on your mind these days?
Earlier this summer I was traveling through southeastern Utah and Death Valley. Before that I spent a week in Joshua Tree at Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West, I have just begun going through the material from those places. Mostly have been working with photo and video from a big dry lake out in the Mojave, upon which a salt mining chemical company operates. They dig these massive channels into the salt flat on the lake bed, pump brine up from below and allow the salt to evaporate out. It forms thick layers of salt crystals in rings around the water. There’s another spot out near the Salton Sea with mud volcanoes, where I did my Seep work, casting and performance and stuff. The area is owned by a geothermal plant which operates on the adjacent lot.
The human component is not actually what interests me about these places, but it is important, and it is a part of the desert in its actuality and its mythology. I do think the language that is used to describe these spaces is interesting, the idea of places of dissolution, the breaking apart of the landscape. Thinking of the water that preceded the visible geological formations, the sea that formed the desert, the laying down of layers. Often those sediment beds hold fossils and sometimes opal, a couple of months ago I visited a filled in opal mine in the Mojave and found a few tiny pieces. I think more than anything it is the physical act of memory recording and holding which is present in the rocks, the kind of memory that is recorded in geological strata in relation to human memory, bodily recording, the resonance between those forms.
When did you start documenting life around you?
I think the experience I’m attempting to allow for is built up through a kind of self-contained visual world or language, in which the individual images are both discrete and continuous, stratified. With photography specifically I think I kind of surrendered to it as a tool, really because it allows for the most straightforward and accessible representation of this feeling space. I have found it invaluable as such, but I feel very uneasy about the concreteness of the medium as a part of my personal identity. I think its effectiveness, as well as its failure, lie in its simplicity. Its conceptual lack of subtlety turns me off a little. I have not yet found a more potent or practical means of documentation and formation of space, specifically the development of a felt landscape, reliant on memory-image or intuition rather than cognition.
The presence of nature continuously suffuses your work. Why is nature important to you?
I feel like the physical world is often the image component of my work, but I’m not sure if it’s completely the subject. I’m trying to understand the emotional content of the landscape, the haunting of space, these connections to memory, to the experience of sensory-saturated embodiment. My personal connection to these places and to the rocks is simple and is adoration or maybe servitude, I’m obsessed by them.
Within your statements, the subject of memory often comes back. Is there a specific sort of memory,a soft spot, you like to revisit in you head?
I feel like there’s a distinction between the kind of memory that is a reminiscence or concrete image and the kind of memory I am trying to understand, which is more so a kind of phantom image or impression. Like the kind of memory from childhood that feels like a dream, where you can’t actually distinguish reality from fabrication and re-remembrance. This kind of memory image is very subtle, it feels sometimes menacing or off-putting, because of how intangible it is. There’s this feeling of pulling. The softness and veiled quality of this kind of memory I relate directly to geological memory, and to the memory held in fabric and in the physical body. For example in the recording of chemical information in human hair.
You were born in California, growing up around the desert must have had internal implications. Your connection to soil, etc. Were you already drawn to the desert as a young child?
I think I spent a lot of time as a child thinking about space, the orientation of objects and physical features in relation to my own body. I liked to climb, I remember thinking that climbing on the rocks was the best thing in the world. It’s difficult to describe. Engagement with those spaces and forms allowed for unique impressions. There’s something about textures, too. I was very privileged to have these experiences with nature at a formative age.
Generally speaking, you seem to focus much more on earthly matters than on water. Is that intentional? At least in terms of the recording of memory, a history seems much more traceable in rocks than water….
I actually think water is very much present, but that’s probably because I have a very basic understanding of the formative geology of the landscapes I am making images of. Water is present in its absence, I guess. It’s the active force in the way that it determines the physicality of the landscape. Symbols of the sea are present, I have found calcified sea shells out in the desert, there is a connection visually which has been described, a kind of resonance between the color and quality of desert air and that of the sea, especially during sunrise and setting, and in mirages. In direct response to your comment on the tangibility of memory recording between these materials I would agree, it seems under these conditions that the water is the force which records upon the stone and upon the landscape.
In some ways you seem to make a choice—conscious or not—of presenting nature in a state of fragility, a type of softness really that’s also feminine.
This is interesting to me, I have been told before that my work is feminine and I’m not sure how to respond to it. Obviously what we imagine to be feminine is learned to be such, like it is related to the imagined and fabricated feminine that is totally social and cultural. But is also archetypal maybe. It seems too easy to assume images with rosy palates or silk textures are intrinsically feminine, though I know it is often read to be. You equate femininity with fragility, I think that is related to texture and to softness, which is definitely present in my images. That’s not necessarily a connection I feel is lasting, though. Fragility is continuous and present in literally everything. I wonder if and how I could represent these things without the presence of a gendered reading.
I suppose these are well-ingrained culturally-fixed notions, hard to get rid off. I wasn’t so much referring to the spectrum of color within your work, but rather the seemingly visible approach to softness. Is it important to you to get rid of such gender-related sensitivity?
I think my issue is when the reading of those qualities ends with a feminine reading, like it is capped off by those limits through contextualizing within other systems that are already available. Nothing can be free from association, I mean I think my work really relies on a bodily association in a sense, but I think there is something a bit more subtly resonant that can happen with the work. Also I think I am just trying to figure out why the softness thing, especially in landscape, feels so good in my own body.
The type of textile used in your work is also representative of certain types of female connotation. Sometimes we see corsets, nightgowns, expressing sensuality within fragility, purity in some ways. Why choose material that’s loaded with such meaning, if the definition of gender is something you don’t necessarily believe in or would like to avoid within your work?
I think you are right that the fabric is dense with conception, that itself may actually allow for a real impression of body presence. I have been interested in antique textiles since I was in adolescence, maybe I use the fabrics I do as a result of tactile excitement, climbing into the storage boxes for my grandmother’s old silks, pulling them out carefully to avoid the fabric crumbling and shattering.
Why do you prefer using textiles instead of real bodies? Are bodies too distracting, too representative of certain or many pre-conceived notions?
I don’t really know entirely, I do feel that there is something about the absent-present body, like a ghosty body, or a body stain, that feels heavier and thicker than the image of a real physical body. This leads back to the memory image ideas, hidden pasts made only slightly visible, the same thing I am talking about with the rocks.
I also feel a degree of longing within the work, especially the photographs of the desert. Do you fetishize the landscape in some ways? Well, I suppose there’s always a certain level of fetish for the things we spend time on….
Yes I think so, a physical desire absolutely, but I don’t know what the limits of fetishization are, like is there pure love within that?
It’s also interesting to note that many of your images are simply devoid of humans. Is there a reason why you prefer capturing nature on its own?
For me it feels like there is already a bodily presence in the majority of the images, or at least it feels like the trace of a body is present. Maybe this is because of my own conflation between my body and the rocks. I definitely am not the only one who thinks the rocks can resemble bodies, that their movement can be felt in the body in the same manner as tracing the curve of a hip. I often use textiles as a stand-in for the body.
Images courtesy of Arielle Chiara
interview LARA KONRAD
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