New forms of knowledge
Ph. Jessica Soffiati & Francesca Iovene
Ed. Jessica Soffiati & Francesca Iovene
Soundscape. Nicola Domaneschi, Marco Verdi, Luca Mucci
C.M.: You usually work with mythology and its impact on contemporary art. Why and when did you start working on this theme? We know that sound has had a central role in your work as well, by evoking memories from the distant past…
M.H.: At the very beginning, back in 2010 when I graduated, I was working on a project called The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures. My idea was to resuscitate the roars of prehistoric animals by reconstructing their vocal tracts. So I started contacting people at the Natural History Museum in London to get data, 3d models, of prehistoric animals vocal tracts – the vocal cords, the larynx, the trachea, the lungs – but really soon I realised that they are made of soft tissues so they do not fossilise. They had disappeared forever. Even the scientists I had been in touch with, at the time, didn’t have these data, because the animals I was working on (a mammoth, a walking whale and an ancient pig) had disappeared for millions and millions of years, so there was absolutely no way they could actually get the real data of these soft tissues. At this point I understood that what could be interesting was to jump in the speculative realm – to use the scientific data that I could find and to start to speculate on what these things could have been, to fill in the gaps in knowledge. So, by speculating, I also meant to re-design them. That’s when I started to work not only by consulting scientists, but also when I started involving fictions and myths in my work to be able to recreate the things that I wanted to recreate.
Since then, this way of working has developed as a pattern, so my projects always start from a mystery, an enigma related to human existence. For example, I’ve been working on creating an elixir of life, trying to create immortality, trying to resuscitate prehistoric creatures, and reviving the voice of Cleopatra. In another project I reenacted sounds from the gate to hell that is supposed to exist in Siberia, where screams of humans were heard from the Earth crust. All these projects deal with things that we don’t know about or that humans have been researching for years. I am trying to connect different eras, our contemporary era with different ones, by trying to find the roots of these obsessions and ancient dreams. That is how it all started, and since then I have been working across different fields involving scientific knowledge: with palaeontologists, or biologists, or zoologists, and so on, depending on the project, then diving into mythologies and across different cultures and involving different forms of knowledge that are not normally connected together.
«So far, the way that I have been working was pretty much about controlling the production line from the start, knowing exactly how I wanted a sculpture to be before I even started making it. »
C.M.: You have almost always worked with digital techniques, such as 3D-modelling, and materials such as resin: a set of techniques and materials aimed at achieving perfection. Do you contemplate the possibility of error or that of “human marks” on your sculptures?
M.H.: I have to say that so far I wasn’t really giving any space to mistakes. My work is very much controlled, maybe also because I didn’t study art but I studied design, so my background is in product design. I think that, so far, the way that I have been working was pretty much about controlling the production line from the start, knowing exactly how I wanted a sculpture to be before I even started making it. I am trying to create high-definition sculptures and I am using technologies that are also highly sophisticated and that I could not use myself. I am not normally producing my own sculptures because the effect I want to achieve would be too difficult to achieve as an amateur like me. I have been always working with fabricators, highly specialised with specific skills; and with machines such as CNC machines that can sculpt a shape at a high precision level from a digital 3d model.
I feel this has been shifting a little bit recently: for instance, in my last project, for Versailles, and also for Zurich – I produced two monumental sculptures. For these sculptures, something unexpected happened, a misunderstanding with the fabricator. We were working on a mask, and because of a misunderstanding, it ended up with a smooth front, but not a smooth back. We discussed but then somehow I had to find a compromise. There was not much time left. I thought that it was actually really interesting. The mask would be high definition on one side but not on the other. We would keep the metallic structure visible at the back and also the trace of the human hand visible. This decision was really far from what I had been doing so far. In that case it made sense, because it was a sphinx. A sphinx is a figure that was invented by humans, at the opposite of my other works which were reenactments of existing creatures, that were extinct or that could have lived in a parallel world. In any case they did not / do not need humans to exist, as opposed to the sphinx that was created by humans. This is why I decided to include the human trace in the sphinx sculpture. And this situation opened new territories for me and it was really exciting. With bronze it is again something really different because so far I have only been working with resin and fibreglass and bronze is a very different material, it takes time to understand its fabrication process. So far, I have always been briefing the fabricators by telling them that I wanted to erase any trace of the human hand, but with bronze it is the opposite process. Because this casting technique can only be made by humans. With the artisans here we talked a lot about the fact that it is one of the only industry where one can only get the knowledge from someone else. This is not something one can learn on the internet and a human will never be replaced by a machine: you really have to learn the techniques from the master. It is really interesting to think that the production line can only exist with humans, as opposed to what I have been doing before, working predominantly with machines. I am interested in exploring the extremes.
C.M.: Is this the first time that you have worked with bronze casting? You said that bronze it’s very different from the materials you have used in the past, because there are a lot of delicate passages in the making of the lost wax from the model and in the finishing process.
M.H.: So far I have only been working with sculptures made of resin, fibreglass, and often there would be other kind of components in my projects, like sound, voices, light, sometimes other elements like a carpet, a fresco, a scent. In terms of sculpture I have only been working with polystyrene, or polyurethane foam, and resins. I would say that there’s a sort of ritual that surrounds the bronze production process … one can feel it with the bronze casting, this material has been worked with for thousands of years and you can really feel it when you are witnessing the casting process. When I was studying product design I learned how to work with ceramics, I worked with wood and I worked with metal, and I think that for each material there is a certain tradition and certain rituals that are associated to that specific material.
C.M.: What is the first work that you consider important for your career as an artist?
M.H.: I think it was The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures. It was my graduation work at the Royal College of Art. At first, I worked specifically on a mammoth. After that, I managed to find some funding and to finish the opera with three monumental creatures, so I feel it was really the work that launched my career, and that’s when I felt that I was working on something that was really important for me and also for society somehow. I felt that I was inventing a new type of knowledge that did not exist before and that was really important for me. Also, I like to work with different communities of people, and by getting all these different people to talk together and to talk with me, and gathering all this knowledge, creating bridges between disciplines, I feel like I am always trying to invent forms of knowledge that don’t exist yet. Working on The Opera of Prehistoric Creatures was the first time that I felt I was really doing that.
«I like to work with different communities of people, and by getting all these different people to talk together and to talk with me, and gathering all this knowledge, creating bridges between disciplines, I feel like I am always trying to invent forms of knowledge that don’t exist yet.»
«I would say that there’s a sort of ritual that surrounds the bronze production process… one can feel it with the bronze casting, this material has been worked with for thousands of years and you can really feel it when you are witnessing the casting process.»
C.M.: Who are your heroes? I mean, not only in the art field but people you learned from or that have been inspiring you.
M.H.: One of my hero is Sylvain Tesson. He is a French explorer who is also a writer and he went through a lot of extreme experiences. He went to Siberia, to the Lake Baikal, to live there for six months without electricity or food. He is a poet, he is an amazing writer, and a wonderful philosopher. He is an explorer who always tries to make people think about society, his travels are ways to reveal systems. For example, he traveled from China to Turkey to follow the path of oil, to see where oil is extracted and then how it is used, and his challenge was to travel without using any car or means of transportation that would involve oil. He did all that by walking and cycling, so it was also a journey to think about what using energy means today, on a physical and also on a spiritual level.