Written by Marina Seretti
« Œil vivant », la caméra de Sabine Mirlesse recueille le tremblement des formes, au bord du désastre : nues déchirées par le vent, vert des pâtis gorgés de pluie, mains tachetées d’âge et de lumière, étoilement du marbre en son point de brisure… D’une vidéo à l’autre, le regard se fait arpenteur du son, guérisseur par la lumière, et fossoyeur d’étoile. Une esthétique de la faille et du fragment, qu’accompagnent dessins, gestes, marches – coups de pioche et ciselures du marbre. Des Bucoliques de Virgile à l’Enfer de Dante, un rituel s’instaure qui relie un à un les éléments du monde – nuages, troupeaux, ombres et reflets – au rythme de l’œil, au mouvement de la main. Sans cesse, quelque chose commence et s’achève ici, dans le battement du ciel et de la terre.
With her latest series Song of Fruit and Contention, which focuses on modern-day Armenia, the Franco-American photographer Sabine Mirlesse looks beyond the genocide to explore the foundational role of myth in the Armenian people’s powerful sense of collective identity.
Before she first visited Armenia, Sabine Mirlesse had no connections in the country and knew little about it beyond a few stories she had heard from friends. When I asked her what drew her there in the first place, she explained, “I think everyone has a list of places they want to go to for some reason. Sometimes it can be because you heard a song or read a novel, or because someone told you a story about that place. Armenia has always been on that list for me.”
Shortly after completing an artist residency in Iceland, a “very positive experience” that led to her first book, As if it should have been a quarry (Damiani, 2013), Mirlesse decided to look into residencies in Armenia. After having been accepted to what appeared to be the only Armenian artist residency, she made her first trip to the country for a period of six weeks in late 2012.
Beyond her instinctive attraction to the region, Mirlesse was intrigued to discover that Armenia is said to be the hypothesized location of the Garden of Eden. Having completed an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and English Literature at McGill University in Montreal, she was fascinated by this idea. “This story raised so many questions. Do the Armenians really believe it? And what if it’s true? Who am I to say that it isn’t?” While she didn’t yet know that it would later become the spine of her project, Mirlesse was curious to see just how that myth would manifest itself on the ground.
Arriving at the airport in the capital, Yerevan, Mirlesse remembers being immediately struck by the overwhelming presence of Mount Ararat, the mountain that overlooks Yerevan. “When you get there, the first thing you see is Ararat. The mountain is even on the passport stamp: that mythology is present from the moment you get off the plane.”
Although it is located in neighbouring Turkey, the Armenians see Mount Ararat as their own, a powerful symbol of their national identity. The potency of the symbol stems from the fact that Ararat is said to be the place where Noah’s Ark landed after the flood. In fact, in the Armenian language, the country not is not referred to as Armenia but as Hayastan or land of Hayk — Noah’s great-great-grandson, according to legend.
Over the course of the next six weeks Mirlesse travelled across the country, visiting sites of national importance, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to those that were in some way related to biblical times. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says. “I was curious about these biblical references, but I wasn’t sure how present they would be.”
Mirlesse compares her photographic approach during this time to that of a “travel diary.” Rather than a studied documentation of the locations she visited, her images are more like a collection of fragments of her experiences, moments gathered along the way that appeared significant to her.
Having returned to New York at the end of the residency, Mirlesse felt concerned that the trip would have been an interesting cultural experience but that she “was going to come out of it with nothing.” While she was unsure of what shape the project would take, she recognized that, “In my process, I need some distance to figure out what it is that interests me.”
Back in New York, she decided to visit the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection, a pre-Internet image archive founded in 1915 that has provided creative inspiration to many artists, from the Mexican painter Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol. Most recently, the archive became the basis for the eponymous project Picture Collection by the American photographer Taryn Simon, a series of composite pieces in which multiple overlapping images question the ways in which we catalogue and hierarchize images and culture.
The archive is made up of over 1 million items, including photographic prints, postcards, posters, illustrations and printed images, many of which have been cut or torn from magazines, books or encyclopaedias. These items are organized according to a complex system made up of over 12,000 folders, each on a given theme or subject.
While the archive cannot hope to compete with the accessibility and scope of online image libraries like Google Images, it has been able to differentiate itself in another way. Unusually for a picture library, it has allowed library-goers to contribute items to its collections over time, and so its folders often stray beyond the realm of the visual encyclopaedia to present a far more subjective take.
Wanting to further explore the question of Armenia’s hypothetical links to the Garden of Eden, Mirlesse decided to explore the Collection’s folders relating to the Bible. She remembers being “delighted to see that there were folders for each of the Bible stories: the Flood, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, etc.” Going through the contents of these folders, she was intrigued to see that in many of the pictures there were details that were reminiscent of the things she had seen in Armenia.
As the resonances piled up between the archival images and her own photographs, Mirlesse began to question the relationship between myth and reality. She recalls asking herself, “Did I shoot what I already had in my head, because these are stories that we all know, or are these things just part of the fabric of Armenian culture?” By combining these representations of biblical stories with her own photographs, the photographer felt that she could explore “the grey area between what is truth and what is fiction, what is real and what’s not. That is when I felt that the magic started to happen.”
As the Picture Collection allows users to borrow up to 60 items at a time, Mirlesse began to bring pictures home to scan them. Focusing around the story of the Garden of Eden due to its mythological relationship with Armenia, her scans not only show the biblical representations themselves, but also the annotations surrounding each item, which might include the author, the title of the work, a reference number, and often the stamp of the NYPL. By doing this Mirlesse is not only inviting us to consider the visual similarities between these illustrations and her photographs, but also to question how we develop a collective understanding of myth and other foundational stories through iconography.
Mirlesse arrived at a new edit which made equal use of the scanned items from the Picture Collection and her own photographs. Wary of this dual approach becoming “a visual game or gimmick,” rather than compiling a series of juxtapositions, she focused on creating a “natural flow” which helped to bring these biblical stories to life and explore their relationship with contemporary Armenian life. In doing so, Mirlesse projects the questions she began to ask herself onto the viewer. Seeing her images alongside representations of the Garden of Eden, the viewer is struck by the presence of recurring subjects or motifs, from potent symbols such as Mount Ararat itself or the mythical serpent of the book of Genesis, to subtler manifestations such as a young girl’s arms stretched by her side echoing a scene from the Expulsion from Eden, or the simple structure of a birdcage which resembles an illustration of Noah’s Ark.
As with her previous Icelandic work (featured in the British Journal of Photography in April 2012), whose title, As if it should have been a quarry, was drawn from a Robert Frost poem, the title of this Armenian series also has literary origins. Song of Fruit and Contention is drawn from a book of poems by the Armenian poet and essayist Gevorg Emin that has been translated into English. In his poetry, Emin describes his country as a “lyrical nation” and as having been an “apple of contention,” a phrase which both encapsulates the country’s biblical mythology and its hard-fought history.
Mirlesse explains, “Armenia has always been Armenia. The country stretches back to the age of Mesopotamia, Assyria or Babylon. There are very few places like that and that is very important to the Armenian people. Historically they have been taken over many, many times. They have a ‘we’re still here’ attitude that is obvious in the pride they take in their heritage.”
In fact, she believes that the country’s struggle to fend off outside influence, is one of the “reasons why a lot of photographers are drawn to that part of the world. Armenia is a crossroads between so many different influences: the ‘Orient,’ the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, Soviet Russia. It can also feel quite European at times, and there are even American influences” due to the significant Armenian-American presence there.
Naturally, the story that remains the biggest draw for those photographers that visit the country is the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians during and after the First World War. While Mirlesse recognizes the importance of the genocide to Armenian history and identity — she visited the country again for the centennial of the genocide in 2015 — she did not want her project to focus on that issue. “If you tell a photo editor or a gallery that you have done a project on Armenia, they immediately expect it to be about the genocide. I think that is unfortunate, because Armenia is so much more than that.”
As with her previous series As if it should have been a quarry, Mirlesse seems to be using photography to go beyond the surface of the contemporary world to explore its deepest roots. When I asked her about this interest in the pre-historical, she told me that as a child she remembers dreaming of becoming an archaeologist. “Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to sit in the yard at school in Los Angeles and dig up rocks, thinking that I was going to find pieces of Egyptian mummies.”
Whether she is exploring the local relationship to the land in an Icelandic village that was rebuilt in the wake of a volcanic eruption, or the broader collective understanding of myth in defining the Armenian national identity, Mirlesse’s photographs of the contemporary world act primarily as windows onto the past.
While she still intends to return to Armenia once more to finish photographing certain locations, Mirlesse has already started thinking about how the project could become a book. She told me, “I think this project is really suited to the form of the book, not only because of the rhythm that I am trying to create between my images and those I collected from the New York Public Library archive,” but also because the book is the form both for the Bible and for the travel diary that she sees as representing the approach she took to photographing this series.
With Song of Fruit and Contention, Mirlesse hopes not only to tell an Armenian story that is not that of the genocide, but also to achieve something more universal. “While it is a very Armenian story that I’m working on, the idea of this legend giving you a sense of strength to keep going as a people, is also a microcosm of the human condition. There is something universal about this idea that the story of who we are is what keeps us going.”
Toward the end of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, the protagonist Geryon—a red-winged monster who has learned during the course of his life to express himself by taking photographs, what he calls “memory burns”—is told about a village called Jucu in the volcanic region in the mountains north of Huarez. He is told that, in ancient times, the inhabitants of this village worshipped the volcano as a god and even threw people into it, not as a form of sacrifice but as a test to see who could go, see, and come back as an eyewitness of the inside of the volcano, an eyewitness to a catastrophe survived. He is told that the ones who returned would return as red people with wings, “with their weaknesses burned away—and their mortality.” The book closes with a series of sections that appear as “photographs” in verse, with the last one describing a photograph that was nev- er taken, but which remains as the last photograph presented: a photograph in which Geryon takes flight toward the crater of Icchantikas and, once over it, peers down into the volcano’s “earth heart” from the “icy possibles” of its cold exterior and sees it “dumping all its photons out her ancient eye.” At that moment, he smiles for the camera and remembers “The Only Secret People Keep,” a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem in which the secret people keep is revealed to be “immortality.” That Geryon recalls Dickinson’s line without its reference to immortality makes it unclear if he survives the volcano’s shot, an ambiguity that already had appeared in the story he had been told, since it is not clear if the ones who return to bear witness to their survival return with “their mortality” or if this mortality is itself “burned away.” Identifying the aperture of a camera with that of a volcano, mortality with immortality, and destruction with survival, Geryon here associates photography with geology. The shutter clicks and, freezing time, captures Geryon onto a kind of film negative that brings Geryon to recognize himself in the image and leads to the final chapter of the book, which is entitled “The Flashes in Which A Man Possesses Himself.” If Geryon possesses himself in this flash of red light, it is because he comes to view himself as a photographic being, as a being that exists between life and death, memory and forgetting, and presence and absence. The red-winged monster’s photographic existence is confirmed by the fact that it shares the color of the darkroom light under which the photograph emerges from its chemical bath to be printed on paper, and the color of a volca- no’s fiery lava, the “earthly liquid glow emanating from below
the solid black fragments of rock” which break apart in the force of the volcano’s eruption. In Geryon’s world, volcanic eruptions are associated with the eruption of the image onto photo-sensi- tized paper, or even onto the pages of Carson’s book.
I wanted to begin with this story, and with this identification between photography and volcanoes, because the details that enable them are at the heart of Sabine Mirlesse’s beautiful pro- ject, As if it should have been a quarry. Juxtaposing scenes of Ice- land’s remarkable and heterogeneous landscape with portraits of Icelanders, many of whom bear the traces of the earth on their faces, Mirlesse’s camera returns to Heimaey (whose name literally means “home-island”), the only inhabited isle in the Vestmannaeyar volcanic archipelago and the site of one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions in the history of Iceland on the morning of January 23, 1973. If Mirlesse takes her title from Robert Frost’s late, lyrical poem “Directive,” it is because, for her, this poem touches on the loss and transformation effect- ed on the Icelandic landscape by this violent volcanic eruption. The poem tells us about the erosion that results from time and the weather, about the glacier’s force of writing, as it chisels and writes its way to the southeast and northwest, leaving its traces on the landscape as a kind of archive of its movement, a move- ment that later might be mined as if it were a quarry in which we could read the history sealed within the landscape. It suggests that we have to experience loss, and even the loss of ourselves, if we are ever to find ourselves—as the ones who learn that living means living with loss and ruin. And, finally, it tells us about the relation between persons and nature, the most legible rela- tion explored in Mirlesse’s photographs, and one that is already confirmed by the play between the poet’s first and last names.
Indeed, in returning to Heimaey, Mirlesse seeks to capture the traces of the volcano’s devastation but also the acknowledgment among the inhabitants of the area—many of whom lost their homes and, most poignantly, their photographs—of the essen- tial relation between the wildness of Iceland’s climate and seismic activities and their capacity to endure, to exist in relation to this always-possible destruction. What these photographs record, then, is the desire to preserve but also to survive, and even in the face of the most life-threatening circumstances. The strength these photographs capture—the strength and force of nature as well as that of the Icelanders who live on after this catastrophe—gives them their moving beauty.
Mirlesse’s photographs show us steam emerging from the earth in Iceland’s Rekyjanes region, abandoned homes near Ísafjörður whose now skeletal frames reveal windows that in turn offer a kind of framed photograph of the landscape sur- rounding them (as if the ruined house were able to become a lens through which we might view the ruin inscribed inside the landscape itself), geysers and bubbling earth in seismic regions, obscured by clouds of steam that seem to remind us of our incapacity to see things clearly, or to see what is not visible to the eye, whether it be the history that is sealed in the ground, or the almost illegible movement in the interior of the earth that can rise to the surface at any moment, waterfalls falling from glaciers that touch against volcanoes, lava fields covered in moss, aban- doned excavation sites, images of the sunken holes that punctuate the ground in the Snæfellsnes peninsula (the legendary site of the volcano on which Jules Verne based his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth), most likely a consequence of the in- teraction between lava and sea water, the shifting traces of the weather as it mediates what we can see or not see, glacier formations and lagoons, often alongside the volcanic mountains, and the more than thirty facial imprints that, formed by pressing clay-covered faces on canvas, look like so many aerial shots of geothermal, seismic areas. This visual echolalia between visages and the many faces of Iceland’s geography confirms the ines- capable interplay between the landscape and the people who live in it that motivates Mirlesse’s project. She and her camera understand that there is something strange and uncanny about landscape, and perhaps because, among so many other things, landscape is always a space in which disappearance takes place. Indeed, Iceland’s landscapes perhaps tell us what is true of all landscapes: that they are never the same from one moment to the next, that there is nothing fixed about them except for their constant transformation. This is perhaps particularly the case in a landscape that experiences all sorts of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the slow movement and dissolution of glacier formations, and rapid changes in meteorological and climatic phenomena.
Mirlesse’s photographs seek to respond to the history that is commemorated, displaced, and ciphered in this landscape—a history that includes not only the history of the destruction and preservation of Heimaey but also, as a kind of secret, the his- tory of photography itself. In a perversion of temporality made possible by these photographs, the history of Heimaey, and in- deed the history of Iceland, tells us something about the es- sence and history of photography. This series of photographs begins to cast an interpretive light on these questions and, in doing so, tells us that the geological and seismic phenomena that define Iceland’s landscapes are themselves photographic
apparatuses. We need only recall the most significant details of a story that became a common reference for the eruption at Heimaey, the story of Pompeii—a story whose details resonate with the volcanic eruption around which Mirlesse’s project is organized, and that led Heimaey to be called the “Pompeii of the North.” Built on the shores of the Bay of Naples—on an area of prehistoric lava flow called the “burnt fields”—Pompeii was raised on the site of the fabled battle between the Giants and the Gods, in which the Giants were cast down and destroyed by Zeus’s thunderbolts. A site whose history is entangled with that of fire and light—and of a light that, cast down from the heavens, left its flashing and burning signature in the land as a kind of memorial—Pompeii could be said to have been born on the soil of photography: or, perhaps more precisely, to have been one of the several birthplaces of photography.The photographic dimension of Pompeii’s history—a history traversed by the play of light and darkness that defines the photographic space—be- comes even more palpable as we remember that, when Vesuvius erupted in August 79 A.D., the city was buried in volcanic debris and ash. The ash and fire that burst forth during the violent eruption of Vesuvius was said to have overshadowed the air and, like an eclipse, to have hidden the sun. Contemporary accounts tell us that the day turned into night and light was transformed into darkness. “Clouds of fearful blackness overtook the skies, pierced through and through with flashes of lightning,” writes Pliny the Younger (our chief sources of information on this event are the two letters that he wrote to Tacitus), and “it became dark, not as on a cloudy night when there is no moon, but as in a room which has been completely closed.” Transforming the en- tire landscape into a gigantic dark room, the cinders that came forth from the eruption of Vesuvius worked to both destroy and preserve this city that, becoming in its own cataclysmic turn a kind of museum, to this day still bears the traces of this massive photographic event. Like the photograph that is so often said to be a force of destruction and preservation, the ashes of Vesuvius became a means of forgetting and remembering the death and ruin that took place within Pompeii’s walls. This story of the fire and light that made Pompeii what it is, the Vesuvian fire and ash that destroyed and preserved the buried city, erases as much as it shows, blinds as much as it enlightens, separates as much as it gathers.This delirious history tells us that photography involves the burning of its contents, even as it seeks to preserve them, a fact that Mirlesse sees inscribed everywhere in Iceland.
The landscape of Iceland is fabulously heterogeneous, wild, and, as its name suggests, irreducibly linked to ice, and to the glaciers that punctuate, and often form, its terrain. If Mirlesse evokes Iceland’s glaciers throughout her project, though, it also is to suggest another form that photography has taken, and one that even preceded photography itself, since the glaciers— themselves staging the relation between ruin and survival, be- tween the frozen layers of compacted soil and the decaying and living vegetation around them—appear as a kind of allegory for the relation between the interruptive force of the climate, on the one hand, and that of photography, on the other. Indeed, the glaciers are structured by a play of freezing and unfreezing that evokes the immobilization and displacement that characterize the photographic act. The glacier also reminds us that the most important work occurs in what we do not see and cannot be seen, that, like the photograph, the traces and vestiges of a glob- al ecological history carries life beyond present life or actual
being-there not toward death but toward a living-on, a trace in which life and death come together. The glacier is, like the vol- cano, a kind of templum for the photographematic project that Mirlesse has so beautifully created and realized, for this glimpse into what Carson calls “volcano time.”
Bringing together the past and the present, the history of Pompeii with that of Heimaey, and, like Carson, photography with geology, Mirlesse’s Iceland tells us that “now” does not name a present, just as “then” cannot be reduced to the past. Every effort to read the image therefore must expose it there where the image does not exist. It must displace it, and this because the truth of the image is, in the wording of Walter Benjamin, “loaded to the bursting point with time.” It is because the traces carried by the image include reference to the past, the present, and the future, and in such a way that none of these can be isolated from the other, that the image cannot present the traces of the explosion it recalls—without at the same time exploding, or bursting, its capacity to (be) present. Mirlesse’s photographs tell us that history is something to which we can never be present because it is sealed and encrypted in the plural faces of persons and geographies as if they were a kind of quarry. With her and her photographs, however, we are at least given the glorious chance of mining them.
Sabine Mirlesse by Dominique Baqué (French version followed by English translation)
D’études religieuses interrogeant le mysticisme jusqu’à la photographie, il n’y eut qu’un pas à franchir pour la jeune Sabine Mirlesse qui, convaincue que la photographie s’inscrivait dans le champ de l’art, vécut trois mois, après un master en photographie à New York à Parsons the New School for Design, en résidence d’art en Islande, terre mystérieuse, énigmatique et magique : là où la terre respire, bouge, tremble, où les secousses sismiques se multiplient, où les volcans éructent leur lave brûlante, où le sol bouillonne, se creuse et se gonfle – terre de vie et de mort.
Là où les contes et légendes nourrissent une culture, là enfin où le lien entre un peuple et son sol s’avère d’une extraordinaire intensité.
C’est le début d’une aventure, placée sous une double égide : le mythe de la «Pompéi du Nord», ce village qui a bravement survécu à l’éruption inattendue du volcan Heimaey dans les années 70 ; et, plus étonnant, un vers de Robert Frost issu du poème «Directive» - «comme si c’était une carrière» - enseigné dans les écoles américaines où l’artiste passa son enfance, sorte de refrain qui revint sans cesse à ses oreilles lors de son séjour en terre islandaise.
Dernier vers d’un long poème qui évoque la recherche de sa propre source, en creusant loin, profond, pour y trouver de l’eau, certes, mais aussi et surtout sa propre identité.
Loin du reportage et du documentaire, c’est à la recherche de cette «source» que s’est vouée l’artiste, interrogeant la puissance de leur lien à la terre pour qu’après la destruction de leur village, les habitants aient choisi de combattre les éléments et de rester – envers et contre tout.
C’est que l’identité islandaise se fond dans la terre, comme l’explique ce couple âgé qui refusa de partir, malgré l’indemnisation du gouvernement, comme en témoignent aussi , à leur façon, les visages enduits de boue et leurs empreintes sur la toile : sous une couche de terre mêlant le gris et le vert céladon, les visages s’unifient, retrouvent une dimension primitive d’avant la «civilisation», puis s’impriment sur une toile blanche, contours plus ou moins définis, formes plus ou moins ressemblantes, renvoyant doublement à la photographie comme empreinte et aux premières mains imprimées sur les grottes pariétales. Quelque chose de l’origine, de l’originel et du primordial se dit ici. Fierté d’un peuple qui aime d’amour fou sa terre, et sait tout autant se fondre en elle que se battre et la maîtriser quand le volcan se réveille, et qu’il faut contenir les flux de lave.
L’œuvre de Sabine Mirlesse offre ainsi à notre regard ébloui la sauvagerie des laves incandescentes, le jaillissement des geysers, les brumes grises qui métamorphosent les paysages en contrées fantasmatiques, les gigantesques excavations qui creusent le sol – empreintes de créatures monstrueuses, surnaturelles ? - , mais aussi les tissus qui, partout, enserrent et protègent. Jusqu’à cette épaisse et chaude couverture de laine blanche dans laquelle s’enroulent, comme dans un cocon protecteur, une jeune fille et sa grand-mère, toutes deux prénommées Edda, un nom de saga viking...
Ni athée, ni croyante, Sabine Mirlesse accepte cependant les flux d’énergies , les mystères des éléments, comme elle souscrit à la quête d’identité. Nul hasard, dès lors, à ce que son prochain travail porte sur l’Arménie, ce légendaire Jardin d’Eden, un pays comme l’Islande, éclos au milieu de nulle part. Ni en Asie, ni en Europe.
Et là où, il y a des siècles, palpitait un autre volcan : Ararat.
With a background in religious studies questioning mysticism to photography, a young artist Sabine Mirlesse went to live three months in an artist residency in Iceland after receiving her Masters in Fine Arts in New York. Iceland-- mysterious, enigmatic and magical country where the earth breathes, moves and trembles and where earthquakes shift the landscape daily, where boiling lava forces its way its way up from volcanoes, where the ground bubbles falls concave and then expands - i.e. a land of life and death.
This is a land with a culture of stories and legends and where the link between people and their land is extraordinarily intense.
This is the beginning of an adventure under the double aegis of : the myth of the “Pompei of the North” i.e. the village that bravely survived the unexpected eruption of the Heimaey volcano in the 1970s and, more surprisingly, a line from a Robert Frost poem called “ Directive” , taught in the American schools in the region the artist spent her adolescent years; a kind of a refrain constantly coming back to her during her stay in Iceland.
The last line of the poem is about the search for a water source, by digging far away and deep to find a physical spring but, also and most of all, our own identities.
Far away from reportage or documentary photography, the artist kept searching for this “source”, questioning the nature and strength of the link between the residents of the destructed village who chose to stay and battle the elements and the land they inhabit.
Indeed, the Icelandic identity merges with the land as shown by an elderly couple who refused to leave in spite of the Government’s counsel. as it may be seen also in the faces coated with mud and their prints on the canvas. Under a layer of soil mixing grey and celadon green, faces become a united whole, summoning a primitive dimension harkening back to a period before “civilization”. Then, printed on a white canvas with rough edges, they reveal their organic shapes, and call to mind the very nature of the photographic medium as print, as well as the first hands printed onto the walls of pre-historic caves.
Here we witness something from the origin, something original and essential.
We also witness how proud these people are of their land. They have it in their blood and thus are able to merge with it as well as to fight its force when the volcano erupts.
The work of Sabine Mirlesse then shows us a magnificent wildness of incandescent lava, geysers’ spray, and grey mist transforming the earth into phantasmagorical landscapes, the huge excavations hollowing the ground – like the footprints of supernatural beings – but also the fabric that encloses and protects. There, we can see a young lady and her grandmother, both named Edda, wrapped in a thick and warm wool blanket in a protective cocoon.
Neither Atheist nor religious, Sabine Mirlesse nonetheless embraces the idea of streams of energy, the mysteries of the elements and the search for identity. It is not at all surprising that her next work will be about Armenia --a legendary country of Eden, like Iceland, which has bloomed in the middle of a space between, neither in Asia, nor in Europe and where, centuries ago, where the heart of another volcano once beat, a volcano named Ararat.
Sabine Mirlesse's monograph As if it should have been a quarry captures the Icelandic island Heimaey and its people 40 years ago after a volcano, presumed extinct, erupted. It happened in the middle of the night without warning, showering the area in torrents of ash and fire. The only town, a fishing village of 5,300, was evacuated, as buildings disappeared beneath debris. When the eruption ceased five months later, almost everyone returned. They unearthed most of the village. They continued living.
Yet the threat of an active volcano looms still. "The landscape boils and erupts, and seems to bleed. It's like a giant emotional entity," says Mirlesse, who discovered Heimaey in 2011 while visiting on an artists' residency program. "A lot of people might be deterred from making that their home. But they are proud of their island." The collection of photographs, named after a line in Robert Frost's poem "Directive," contrasts the hushed, simmering terrain with its inhabitants. Images visually link individuals to the land, prompting viewers to consider the relationship.
Mirlesse shot some subjects' with their faces caked in clay, mimicking the pale gray of the earth they're encrusted in. Unexpectedly, the effect was eerily corporeal: "The color of the eyes of each Icelander would match the color of the clay," recalls Mirlesse, who collected earth from nearby seismically active spots with a soup ladle.
Also included in the book are prints of muddied faces on canvases. Mirlesse explains that these are meant to evoke the ephemeral human presence on Heimaey. Through the island has been inhabited for centuries, "Residents haven't been able to leave an imprint... just because the ground shifts and erupts," Mirlesse describes. "How do you leave a trace?" In juxtaposed photos, smeared human features mirror the cracked ground, as though faces are looking up from the earth.
Mirlesse imagines the act of applying Heimaey's soil to its residents as a "reverse gesture" to the possessions, identities, and memories buried in the eruption. She got the idea when she photographed an elderly couple standing on the site of their former home, which was unrecoverable after the disaster. Mirlesse asked the wife why they didn't leave Heimaey. " 'Why would we?' she answered. 'Our whole lives are melted into the ground. We're part of it now.' "