An interview with Alice Miceli
Alice Miceli creates conceptual visualisations for extreme, often socio-political, issues, dealing with subjects such as time, memory and death. With an interest in the meanings inherent to media and documental production, she seeks to re-signify facts and stories, creating a poetics of the “unportrayable” and invisible, rethinking strategies of perception. Alice was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and graduated in 2001 from the Ecole Supérieure d´Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris. Her work has been shown at exhibitions and festivals around the world.
Alice, in your Chernobyl Project you are exploring the notions of visibility by creating a series of radiographic images of invisible radiation from the most contaminated regions, located on the Belarusian side of the border. How did it come to this project?
I was first interested in Chernobyl as a situation; it is intriguing in itself, the exclusion zone. I saw this picture - I remember what happened when I was a child and I was aware of that. But what triggered my interest in the first place were the images of the exclusion zone that could be found today e.g. on the Internet, and it interested me as a problem: what were those pictures showing, and by what means? And what traces would we see, in regular photographs?
Another idea, in the beginning, was that I was thinking about silence, e.g. if you consider the construction of silence in a film, silence doesn’t mean the absence of sound, of course it can be the negative space of sound, as you have the negative space in a drawing, it’s the white you don’t draw but it’s indeed an active part of the form. And then there is also the fact that evidence of sound is of course always in relation to something … for instance, creating the impression of silence in a film can depend on having a very wide shot of a place, while the ambient sound is very low, meaning that the ambience is very silent, so silent that you can actually hear tiny details within a large view.
Is there a connection between the idea of the silence you were just mentioning and the conceptual outcome or general idea of the project in Chernobyl?
I think there was this awkward connection of imagining the exclusion zone as a very silent place, very literally as a place that has been left alone and that has been abandoned. But it is not only a place that has been left alone and which is empty. It is indeed empty in a way, but also actually full of something that fills that whole silence. This is what you don’t see; it’s the negative space, in a place that, by definition “excludes” you. It crossed my mind that what is then at stake in Chernobyl is precisely the negative space, the blank spaces on a drawing,
And there was actually another starting point, which is more related to another project I was doing in Cambodia, which was very historically grounded, touching historical events in Cambodia. What really draws me are the formal – and I don’t mean formalistic – ways of generating sense in a certain situation, within a specific medium. So in the Cambodian project I wanted to work with death as a subject. It turned out that I knew these pictures of Cambodian prisoners, who were executed by the Khmer Rouge at the S21 Prison, in Phnom Penh. I had seen the images in a documentary class at university, years before. They really stroke me as very powerful. These were the last images of all those people alive, and another important thing was the fact that the people knew, at the moment their image was taken, that they would die. I thought these images were horrific, but compared to all the pictures we see everyday in the media, which are full of blood and exposing all sorts of excruciating suffering, these mug-shots of the Cambodian prisoners were quite the opposite. As I was researching a significant way to display them, one that would be built in to the very way the images themselves would come into being, it became clear to me that the central issue here was a matter of ‘duration’, given that those were the last shots of each person and taken when they would enter their execution place.
After you have been travelling back and forth several times for your project, where did the idea come from to leave a built monument in Chernobyl? To whom is this comment addressed to?
The monument was actually, also, something from the beginning of the work. I had been thinking about Chernobyl in the sense of history, as I had been working on the Cambodian project just before, which was very connected to the traumatic history of a country, and the attempt to build an active remembrance of it. I mean, this is also the case here in Berlin, with all the monuments built for the Holocaust, how do you actually deal with the past and especially with this kind of dramatic past? I had been thinking about Chernobyl in the same perspective, so if somebody would think of building a monument for Chernobyl, what kind of monument would that be? Another formal question that interested me was: what do monuments stand for and what is elaborated in them. How do they relate to whatever event they are trying to commemorate. So there are of course these very traditional, big historical monuments, which are generally built in noble materials, made to last forever.
Referring to the obvious invisibility you are picking out as a central theme in the project, it seems very interesting to me how you would see this special monument, which would be built in this area. Is it another way of making something visible, or having an image of history?
For sure it is not just the physical visibility of a very interesting matter, which happens to be invisible, radiation, but also the political and historical visibility of an issue that is dealt upon in the project. When we think about monuments that are made to last forever, I was thinking that it would be more interesting to build something, which would be designed to last for a certain period of time, for a period of time that would be necessary. I came across Christian Boltanski’s work, which deals with issues of historical trauma. He was asked to build yet another Holocaust monument in Austria, I think. He didn’t do it, but suggested to build a very fragile one, which would need to be rebuilt everyday. And in this act of continuous reconstruction, would lay his hope of an active remembrance and not just an excuse to walk away. I found this very touching. I thought then that my idea for a monument for Chernobyl would be connected to radiation and the time period of 300 years, which is the time in which radioactivity in the exclusion-zone is supposed to have lowered down to levels that would allow people to come back and live there again. Not that this monument itself would literally take the contamination away, but symbolically it would stand there during a necessary duration. And also material-wise, the point would be to build the monument out of a material that originally was radioactive itself, like led, but that in its present form is one of the very few that can actually stop it, being so dense. Another interesting material property of led is that it is very dense and heavy, but also very soft, to an extent that it can even be altered by gravity. At the first year of the work, it would start with a defined form. Along the years, this form would be altered by gravity until being completely flattened. This is precisely how it would be projected to last for 300 years, the point here being a necessary duration and the specific material informing the piece.
An interview with Alice Miceli by Valeska Bührer/SEVERAL PURSUITS. It took place in summer 2009 in Berlin and is a preface to the publication with Alice Miceli published by SEVERAL PURSUITS in July 2010.
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