Strategic resting points, transient places for refuge, springs of life – these are the typical narratives of the oasis. Artist Léa Porré is fascinated by this type of landscape and traveled in different desert areas. There, she realized that the portrayals of the oasis in popular culture follow Western clichés and are shaped to a desired perfect scenery. Reading Tegan Bristow’s call, she felt an immediate connection to her ideas and thoughts on digital colonialism: Although it is a no-man’s land, the oasis as a subject is, perhaps paradoxically, digitally rendered in an extreme way. This view through a Western lens is due to less access to digital technologies in the Global South. With her video project »Oasis or Mirage« for the web residencies at Solitude and ZKM, the artist explores how the landscape became an icon, questioning the fetishized image.
Schlosspost: What inspired you to investigate this topic and how do you work with the subject? What do we see in the video?
Léa Porré: My fascination with deserts and especially oases gradually grew when traveling in such areas. How they are represented in a western context became the main focus, as well as the very apparent fracture between reality and how it is mediated; its image. Hence the title Oasis or Mirage? which opens the project as a kind of digital excavation.
To me it was significant to build a digital landscape based on the preconception that we have of that space. Rather than aiming at truth, this scene is based on endless clichés and copies of oases that I collected throughout a period of research. So the oasis becomes a kind of set, more than an actual site, and I wanted the video to be able to show its fragility, on the verge of collapse.
I believe that this hyperreal desert demonstrates the constant tension of the real and the fake. Especially when it comes to 3D digital and physical, it seems crucial to me to avoid falling into the trap of the true/false binary. Instead of establishing that the endless copying pushes the original further away each time, the question here was: What does this series of repetitions and replicas add to our understanding of the original? Does it create a kind of fetish or a generic oasis? Does that reinforce the oases’ status as strategic points?
»Oasis or Mirage?«
Schlosspost: What sparked your interest in the call by Tegan Bristow?
LP: The call happened at the same time I was developing those sets of ideas. I felt an immediate connection with the will to explore the postcolonial situation in which countries from the Global South have little access to digital technologies. This is why the representation that we have of them comes mostly with a western bias, which I believe emphasizes the postcolonial divide.
This paradox became very compelling in relation to deserts – the No Man’s Land par excellence – as being at the same time physically isolated from latest technologies and digitally extremely pictured, from tourism strategies to popular culture. It also was an incredible opportunity, as a European, to explore a nonwestern location and the impact of our colonial history.
Schlosspost: Your artistic practice, as you say, is an excavation of our relation to the sacred, the divine, and the past. Could you explain this specific interest and how it is visible also in Oasis or Mirage?
LP: My work is indeed exploring how we relate to this shared idea of the sacred. I have been interested in the process of sacralization; how an event becomes history, how a figure becomes a hero, how an image becomes an icon, etc. My point of focus is the commodification that takes place in our connection to the sacred; how that creates a new dynamic, and to see whether that is a recent process or has always been part of it. I have developed a fascination with collectibles who became the starting point for many projects in 2017.
»I have been looking at representative strategies taking place in mass culture, to convey the sacred to a general public…And then to see whether that ideal is a mirage, a constructed reality – projection of a desire shaped by our collective representation of oases.« Léa Porré
I was wondering if that process of commodification; buying collectibles of the Pope, of our favorite movie hero or artist, creates a bridge between the sacred and the profane in aim to deconstruct their binary opposition. I have also been looking at representative strategies taking place in mass culture, to convey the sacred to a general public; how the past is narrated in the documentary medium or historical films, how news channels shape our understanding of the live event. In Oasis or Mirage? the questions would be; how does a type of landscape become an icon? How has the oasis been portrayed in popular culture? How has this landscape been affected by mass tourism, and shaped to its desired perfect scenery? And then to see whether that ideal is a mirage, a constructed reality – projection of a desire shaped by our collective representation of oases.
Schlosspost: What are the imaginations and notions of oasis you refer to and how do you play with them in your work?
LP: In my work I have used various clichés and constructed representation of the oasis, all collapsing onto each other. Visually, I appropriated the almost-universal depiction of the oasis as an inland of clear-blue water surrounded by beautifully arranged date palms in the middle of a fine sand desert. It is on this basis that the 3D landscape was constructed; the dream oasis. I also wanted to challenge the idea of oases as detached from any communication, removed from the real world, and the current consumerist state.
The symbol of McDonald’s haunts the landscape as a mirage, to show how crucial oases still are on an economic map, as they always have been. Once at the heart of caravan trade – as strategic resting spots – their localization was only known to the nomadic people of the desert. In that sense, oases seem still amidst chaos, insensitive to time, as generations of men come and go, using the same landscape for different economic purposes.
They seem to always imply movement; a transient place for men looking for refuge. Indeed, the oasis has been narrated as a refuge; a welcoming spring of life and eternal youth in the middle of a borderless landscape that seems infinite. Its quest could be affiliated to alchemical quest for gold, philosophical quest for truth. It appears as a mirage along the way, which never makes us certain of its truthfulness; it is by nature hyperreal.
»Indeed, the oasis has been narrated as a refuge; a welcoming spring of life and eternal youth in the middle of a borderless landscape that seems infinite. Its quest could be affiliated to alchemical quest for gold, philosophical quest for truth. It appears as a mirage along the way, which never makes us certain of its truthfulness; it is by nature hyperreal.« Léa Porré
Finally, I was also interested in how our conception of oases involves the notion of authenticity; there are protected, genuine, untouched by human construction. Which of course contrasts to the reality of many artificial oases; sometimes responding to water needs, becoming attraction parks or a nice addition to a hotel complex.
Schlosspost: How did you get interested in hyperrealistic aesthetics and what is your specific approach here?
LP: I don’t think that my practice relates to hyperrealistic aesthetics in the sense of extremely truthful to the real, (as is often seen in contemporary paintings), even too real to simply be a copy of reality, which makes us doubt of their nature. Even though I appropriate codes and symbols known to most – and have a tendency to overstate the point, using parody and mimicry – I do not intend for my work to be at that stage of being confused for the real thing.
Because I employ familiar images, at first sight they might seem to be »the real thing,« but as it goes along they reveal that they are out of synch, often not fit for their purpose, their function not being clear anymore. I push those well-known customs until their point of rupture. In a way, I believe I use that strategy to show the inherent fissure in those elements, rendering it visible to the audience.
Schlosspost: What about the sacred or the aura of digital art works?
LP: This is a very interesting question, and a debate I found myself having fairly often. Obviously, we are inclined to thinking of digital, in the sense of reproducible, as totally opposed to the sacred, whose aura is attached to its uniqueness.
Even for me, I see my works as complete when they are installed in a physical space, I really do not feel like I am a digital artist, even though lots of my work uses digital practices. I would argue that digital technologies have constructed a different relation to the sacred in various ways.
Traces can be used as a device to hold memory of an archaeological site for example, helping to preserve and reconstruct. Also, experiencing the sacred through the digital; popular culture, 3D imagery or VR technology (as has been done in various antique sites), could revive our connection to the sacred, to our collective past.
But maybe our reflection here is too constricted by our own context. It could be said that not only digital, but all new technologies at their time of creation have had the same impact, and have similarly challenged the understanding of notions of sacred, aura, and authenticity. Painting, later writing, and photography or even electrical lighting for example, have completely shifted our experience of the sacred.
»It could be said that not only digital, but all new technologies at their time of creation have had the same impact, and have similarly challenged the understanding of notions of sacred, aura, and authenticity.« Léa Porré
In my practice, it is more about the fragile balance between the physical and digital that makes sense. How latest digital technologies can inform us of ancient practices; just as laser technology has taught us that ancient Greek statues were not white but colored.
As a matter of fact, I have recently been using the technique of CNC – for my Royalist Dream project – that is a machine that sculpts a 3D model into a block of any material. When I explain it, I often mention that it is not far from sculpting a figure from a block of marble.
Schlosspost: What role does the Internet play in your artistic practice? Does or did the Post-Internet Art movement influence you aesthetically or topically?
LP: We could say that my practice is de facto Post-Internet, by its very localization in time, but also because of my interest for affiliated artists whose influence have shaped my practice, such as Jon Rafman or Hito Steyerl. If we think of a movement defined by a time zone, and ongoing topics I believe I would be part of Post-Internet, but I have never identified my work in such way because I think that any labeling will be done a posteriori more efficiently, and especially by someone other than the artist.
Obviously concerns such as the Internet’s overload and dissemination of information and images and how that affects our understanding of reality, or its enabling of an endless copying process, are very present in my practice. Internet frames and suggests what your point of focus should be next; so I believe that it is highly important to remember that it isn’t neutral, but a very biased device with which to access knowledge. That being said, it has immeasurable impact on us just as any context has ever had throughout history: We are products of our context.
»Internet frames and suggests what your point of focus should be next; so I believe that it is highly important to remember that it isn’t neutral, but a very biased device with which to access knowledge.« Léa Porré
Schlosspost: In 2017, you also created the Hyperreal Documentary Channel to explore how the past is portrayed in the TV medium. Could you tell us a bit about this work too?
LP: Hyperreal Documentary Channel explores how the past is portrayed in the TV medium, from documentaries to TV shopping. This channel could be described as a parody of those constructed narratives that stage our collective past. The focus here is on the process of commodification in which this fetishized relation seems to take place.
The video displays an advertisement of tourist shop items portrayed as ancient artifacts. This is juxtaposed to an authoritarian documentary that supposedly offers a scientific and truthful insight in the excavation of our past. Their bringing forth challenges the implicit hierarchy of authenticity, as well as the multitude of constructed truths feeding information to the general public —through mass culture. Similarly to Oasis or Mirage?, it was crucial to have all those different narratives crash together. I like the tension that occurs when you push the usual to its limit; how much »breaking news« can you hear until it doesn’t properly function anymore? (to try it out, see my Royalist Dream video)
Schlosspost: The hyperreal truths you assemble in your artistic work blur the line between the true and the false, constructing artifacts and new narratives. Is there a concept of truth you work with?
LP: All truth is relative up to a certain extent. But I want to challenge commonly accepted truths, those that are not doubted and called into question, those who are not even noticed, imperceptible to the general public, taken as pure facts.
Schlosspost: Especially in your early works, one can also see quite a distinctly humorous way of looking at things. Just a couple of days ago referring to a show by Marisa Olson, Net artist and also first juror of the Hash award, at Gallery Weekend in Berlin, someone in the German art news asked the question: Where’s the humor in the art world? What do you think?
LP: I have always been drawn to many artists who employ humor in their practices, people like Maurizio Cattelan and Paul McCarthy, in service of a much crucial commentary. I believe that using humor in art is deeply connected to provocation, and thankfully I think that it is highly present in the art world, sometimes deeply refreshing. Excess, obviousness and literal approaches are devices I have employed to challenge certain aspects of the appropriated element, especially in works such as 101 Archaeology where I made a human-size Indiana Jones inspired collectible box, replacing some labels with humorous notes, with no human figurine left, only the stereotypical archaeologist clothing, overstating the codes of the commodity. Literality has had bad press; suggesting that the signifier is too transparent, too direct, but I see it as an interesting way of collapsing the symbolic order. It makes the viewer unsure of what he is facing, in an uncomfortable position.
As a critical tool, it can easily be misinterpreted and taken for an appraisal – its opposite meaning – so it is a dangerous device, but an exciting and provoking tool to play with, and a great satirical device.
Schlosspost: Going back to the subject of the sacred – with the work Piédestal from 2017, you investigate notions of institutionalized presentation of art works and objects in museums. What do you think about the practice and role of museums in the time of digital reproduction – also referring to the colonial past of these institutions, thinking about artists and web residents like Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, or now Juan Covelli, who works on the same topics as you?
LP: It is true that in Piédestal, and also Collecting, Collectibles, I have been interested in the museum’s framing of the art object, and how its authority produces immediate authenticity and project an aura onto the objects.
In the last few years, museums have been openly sharing more of their collections to the general public through digital reproduction, and several questions should be asked. What does that do to the original object? Does that sacralize it even more with the dissemination of its 3D double? Does that stop the sacred-profane dichotomy by allowing its ghostly figure to leave the museum?
In terms of colonial past, certain museums should be noted for recently making the choice to publicly denounce this part of their history, as can be seen in Théo Mercier’s recent exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where he exposes the museum as a product of continuing looting, inside of the very museum collection.
At the same time, with incessant conflicts on some of the most impressive archaeological sites, the debate of safety and accessibility of relics is ever more crucial. If we envision the artifacts as part of our collective consciousness, we could say that latest technologies rendered them back to their universal status, as their floating 3D-scanned form is for anyone to dispose of – anyone with access to Internet, that being said.
Schlosspost: What impact would you like to have on the viewer of your art pieces?
LP: Through my work, I would like the render perceptible some generally invisible devices of power, that hopefully viewers could start observing on their own. Maybe when facing an overload of information and mediation of events, keep in mind that there is no single truth but only accepted levels of truths. It is key to accept that our binary conception of the world is a human construction, that the real and the fake, the sacred and the profane, the good and the evil do not need to be permanently opposed to one another.