Tonight sees the opening of Mona Kuhn's Acido Dorado at Shoreditch's Flowers Gallery. HOTSHOE's commissioning Editor Gregory Barker recently caught up with the LA based, Brazilian photographer, to talk about eroticism, deserts, glass cubes and Californian hedonism.
Gregory Barker: At what point did the nude become the focus of your work?
Mona Kuhn: It was a bit daunting. I knew I like people and early on I understood I have a natural easiness for relationships and photography. But I was also aware of how time specific this medium can be. I came upon the nude as a reaction and a challenge; I turned my back to trends and fashion and embraced the nude because it is a timeless canon. I’m interested in the nude/body as a residence to us. Gauguin has a wonderful painting titled "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" from 1897. I think it summarizes a question we all have, but one that I decided to use as basis to my creative source. I realized I ought to photograph the human in us, without shame, without regret, free and timeless.
GB: I cannot escape the sense that what I'm looking at in Acido Dorado is not quite real, more the fragments of a dream or a memory half forgotten. Is this ambiguous quality intentional?
MK: Yes, in “Acido Dorado” my visual narrative shifted from the nude expressed in the physical body to the abstracted expressions of the body. The desert light and glass architecture presented the perfect platform for a certain mix of California hedonism and surreal desert hallucination.
GB: What was it that drew you to the Californian desert and to Robert Stone's gold and glass structure?
MK: I was drawn to the desert because of its magical golden light and raw mystic landscape. Robert’s house is placed in the middle of this raw and vast desert environment, next to Joshua Tree National Park. There is nothing manicured about that environment. It is a rough and wild setting. The house itself is a mostly empty structure held together by glass. These large glass walls provided a surface for my work. It worked as a translucent plane between inside and outside, but also linked us to the desert, which was reflected all around its multiple layers. I felt at ease in its minimal but complex space. It wasn't confusing to me, it was clear. It was also fascinating to work with variations of sand, materials like glass and mirror. These surfaces offered a great setting for reflections and at times worked as a prism for the light. With so much reflected, there is a sense of disorientation, which we eventually absorbed into the work. It was the perfect setting to let go and create, to find a balance in blending figure, landscape and variations of abstractions.
GB: In your previous works, we have generally been given a cast of characters, but within this series the attention has been shifted onto a single young woman. How did you find the move to a single subject?
MK: It happened naturally. There is a lot of solitude in the desert; so working with one person was a natural consequence of being submerged in that emotion. You travel miles before seeing someone else. The desert gives you a sense of freedom and loneliness at once. Also, I wanted to embrace the idea of repetition. Once I narrowed to one model, it became less about portraiture, and more of a conceptual exploration.
GB: Would you say that you are interested in the person that you are photographing as an individual, or do you see them as a surface to be manipulated to your will? Do you approach portraiture as a form of collaboration?
MK: My best work has been collaborations. Jacintha and I have been working together for over 10 years. We first collaborated during the “Evidence” series, when she was 14 years old. When she turned 15, she came to NY to see some of her large scale images exhibited at Charles Cowles in Chelsea. It was fantastic. It is a privilege for me to work with someone I know so well, we share a kindred spirit.
GB: How would you describe your relationship with beauty and eroticism?
MK: I like to think of my visual vocabulary as figurative. The figure offers a multi dimensional platform to project a wide range of emotions, beauty, fears and passions. My curiosity has an existential and possibly anthropological source of reference. Just like the cave drawings, I am interested in leaving a trace of how we represent ourselves at this point in time. Eroticism disappoints, as it is one-dimensional.
GB: Within this series, the perfect body that we have come to expect to take center stage in your work is ruptured through a series of reflections, distortions and grid-like patterns to the point that in some cases the body becomes barely recognizable as a human form, collapsing the figure, the building and the landscape into one. How did your interest in this disruption of the body, its amalgamation with the environment, come about?
MK: Invariably, music comes to mind. I used photography as a way to bring balance to what I was experiencing. I am still trying to figure this out, I love to look at the large exhibition prints and let my mind wonder.
GB: Knowing that you have taken inspiration from Robert Graham's miniature work from the early 60s, this work takes on a somewhat sinister edge (for me, at least), as if the figure in your series is somehow trapped within a cube. It raises questions of voyeurism and control. What are your thoughts on this?
MK: There was a mutual curiosity on how far we can abstract and dissolve the body into abstractions. Both Jacintha’s and my own voyeurism was related to how far we can push that visual narrative. But there was no control in the creative process. On the contrary, it was playful, intriguing and complex all at once.
GB: This series is being released at the same time as another series that also takes place in the Californian Desert entitled Private. Do you see the two series as interacting with one another?
MK: “Acido Dorado” has a force of its own, it was the first time I truly let go of representing the figure as we know it, and pushed it further into abstraction, as far as we could go.
“Private” is quite apart. It is a calm and introspective series, a lot more enigmatic. It is a meditative collection of images I took over a period of 2-years. I entered the heart of the American desert, travelling through the Mojave and Arizona regions, entering for the first time the remote parts of a Navajo reservation, areas close to James Turrel’s Roden Crater. “Private” is a personal journey, weaving together the desert beauty with its brutal sense of mortality, understanding mysticism and our place in it.
Acido Dorado is on show from tonight until 10 May at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Rd. London E2 8DP
— Gregory Barker