Beyond the visible
The work of Danish artist Annette Merrild
INTERVIEW BY PAULA YACOMUZZI
In its prologue, Eulàlia Bosch writes: “The visible may remain alternatively lit or hidden, but once apprehended it is a substantial portion of our livelihood”.
Annette Merrild transforms the visible. With her series ‘265’ she deconstructs pornographic portraits of women by painting over magazine pictures, while with Icons ‘1400-2010’ she makes her interventions using the male subject. At the end of the process there is almost no trace of the original pornographic content: the new figures are erotic muses and religious icons that exude a charmingly feminine energy, partenaires divested of their domain in the case of men, stripped of their clothing to reveal their fragility.
In her sculptures ‘The Story Tellers of the Remakes’, she reflects on the construction of discourse and introduces an example of the literal ways in which it operates. She bathes collections of Barbies, Kens and other dolls from childhood with a golden magma; the sculptures are placed on a pedestal and protected using a thick glass bell jar in imitation of precious jewels. There are trinkets patently lying about their condition, innocent-looking artefacts from the past informing the contemporary man who has become overwhelmed by his body, capable of undergoing plastic interventions (amongst many other acts that can be perpetrated on the body) in order to attain the physical ideal.
Reality, says Eulalia Bosch, is the “realm of the visible” which, once trapped, “may not be able to ever renounce that kind of existence that it obtains on the conscience of the one who has noticed/perceived it.” From The Room Project, a purely conceptual and photographic work that appears far removed from her most recent output, Annette Merrild explores the construction of identities: an apartment, a doll, a pornographic image, a folktale. These are the objects of her studies.
What do you love most about being in Barcelona?
I love the mix you find here in everything. People, architecture and city structure: its beauty and its hardness. Here I find the chaos that makes me see and feel life. I am from Denmark and I lived in Hamburg for 14 years, where I studied for my MA in art. Everything around me was always clean and safe. I also lived in Mombassa, in Kenya, and in New York, and I always loved these two cities and their energy. Barcelona was a compromise between my husband and me, as I wanted to move to New York and for him it was too far away from family. In Barcelona I find some of the same energy, I feel alive and daily life never becomes boring.
Has Barcelona inspired you in your art and, if so, in what ways?
Indeed it has. When I first came here, my art was very structured in the same way as the environment from which I came. I was finishing my photographic piece ‘The Room Project’: I still show it, and many people only know me as conceptual photo artist. I think Barcelona inspired me in a sub-constructive way when I started doing porn paintings. Every day I was inspired by the sexuality I saw and experienced in Barcelona. I had never seen so many people with such a desire to mark their bodies with tattoos and piercings. The fact that it is so hot here most of the year means that the body becomes more visual than it would be in the north of Europe.
On the beaches I saw a freedom in the way people are ‘naked’ and interact together. In the streets, people look at each other directly in the eyes, give signals through their bodies, using their bodies as a canvas to create their own personal version of it. At the same time, I had prostitutes around me, drunks, people of all nationalities with relaxed attitudes to clothing and punkish hair styles. People enjoy city streets here being together outside and then at the end of every day, Barcelona’s filth has to be cleaned away by the authorities, using water every night. This, and also the fact that I was pregnant at the time with our first child, made me search out the body theme. Life and pregnancy led me into a world of porn.
I wanted to enter a world that was for me as a woman very hard to relate to, as it’s primarily aimed at men. I didn’t recognise the sexuality I felt or saw in those women in the pictures. I wanted to rewrite images and stereotypes that everybody would know. For many years I had kept my desire to paint hidden, as I couldn’t honestly do the type of painting I used to do. So after not doing so for five years, I started in a very private way to paint again.
“The emphasis is transformed into one of eroticism, one could almost say heroic or religious portraits of women”.
I didn’t show my paintings to anybody for two years. I think when you start something new, you need time to relate to it: a time where no one interferes with your process. This is so important for an artist. I had basically changed everything people knew about me so I had to be sure about my work. I had been painting soft porn for three years before I organised my first exhibition. After your intervention, the pornographic representation disappears, together with the distinction between pleasure and fear, desire and disgust, being as they are distinctions between healthy and depraved sexuality and identity. The emphasis is transformed into one of eroticism, one could almost say heroic or religious portraits of women.
Are you a religious person?
I believe that everyone is spiritual on some level, no matter what God they believe in. My latest work, Icons 1400-2010, also has a touch of the religious about it. I’ve worked with the naked male body for this series. I painted over the images with layers of gold colour paint, erasing the body of the woman in the process. So the role and significance of the male has changed from being the hunter or the macho into one of a more fragile nature.
The focus moves to the man as the one who is now in sole possession of his own naked and isolated body. He becomes the focus, and he doesn’t look powerful anymore: you could say that his feelings have become exposed for the first time. The gold paint transforms the original pornographic photographs into icon-like images, in the sense of Russian icons, with their proto-miraculous qualities.
You host dinners in your studio. Why and how do you get time?
Time is very abstract but I have started to create my own little tradition. Every two months, I invite 30 people to dinner in my studio. We talk about art as we all have that in common. This is significant for me and I think that at a time like this, with all the crises, we need to meet each other in a new way. My motto is to go backwards meaning, I write my invitations by hand and I try to set a nice table that invites my guests for an evening of conversation. I have been very lucky to get to know many lovely and interesting people in Barcelona, and internationally, and I believe in bringing people together as well as I can. I believe in creating environments of which we all want to be part, through art or new ways of thinking.
I know your studio from big events, where lots of people came. Does this mean that you won’t be doing this anymore?
No, but when I do big events, I never have time to talk to everybody, which often frustrates me. I will still be arranging events that are open to everybody, but I do like the intimate. Lately, I have started to rent out my studio for events, advertisements and productions, as a lot of people asked if they could rent it. This is a “win, win”, as I have a lovely space to offer in the middle of Barcelona city and, as an artist, extra money is always good.
Will you stay in Barcelona you think?
I have fallen in love in Barcelona, my children are “Catalan” born, and I think that, no matter how my life may move on, Barcelona will always be my home. My dream would be to have a home here and another one in New York.