the obscurity of the human form
in magazine (émirats arabes unis)
text by nahia samaha
The son of Italian immigrant parents, both of whom were photographers, it wasn’t surprising that Mehryl Levisse was bitten by the photography bug at a very young age. His portraits of human bodies whose purpose has been transmogrified makes him somewhat of a contortionist. IN Magazine chats with Levisse, and talks human form, art, and witchcraft !
Where did you grow up? How has your childhood and family influenced your photography journey?
I live in the North of France. I took a studio in the city of Charleville-Mézières after living in Lille and Paris. I have also in Casablanca for two years, 2011 and 2012. I am the son of Italian immigrant parents. My inspiration comes from my story, from family houses, and from the shooting lodges we would go camping in when I was growing up. My family and my real-life experience are the center of my work, my universes is fed by this personal mythology.
Did you study photography? Or are you self-taught?
I did not study photography. I completed an art license in the Faculty of Arts and then a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art. My parents were both photographers, so I became familiar with photography from a very young age. On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a photographer, but rather an artist. Photos are not the work but are the track of what happens in the intimacy of the studio.
Your work seems to have complex narrative? Is that the intention behind the scenes you create?
Effectively. My work tells a complex, private, intimate story, which before being universal tells my personal story. It is fed by literature, by mythological figures, of music, opera, general news, tales, real-life stories etc.... All these things are digested and re-transcribed in a new narrative that elicits thought. All the photos are connected to one another, and build a story where each picture is a new chapter.
You place the human body in obscure environments, and strip them of their “conventional” purpose... what statement are you trying to make about the human body?
The body for me is not an end but a beginning. It is the beginning of other things, the body is moldable and shapeable material to the ideas I want to give to it. The theory of evolution of Darwin goes to this direction and allows me to think of the body such as we know is again going to evolve.
How do you come up with what some critics have called “absurd” environments?
I possess a big collection of objects of all kinds, wallpapers, carpets, pillows, curtains, trinkets, taxidermies, skulls etc. By the way my first art book Le Cabinet des Rustiques, which has just been published, shows a part of this collection. I create my environments with these elements. Some of them come back through different photos, which creates a link in my work. I build each of these environments according to the body, or I imagine the body according to the space.
Tell us about Confidences sous tapisserie, what was the process that led to that installation?
Confidences sous tapisserie shows a private space in the heart of a public place in which the spectator is invited to get involved as if he was at home. The environment is constituted of old furniture, which reminds us of the inside of our grandparents’ home. Some of the furniture in the installation is in my pictures and creates a material reality.
What have been the most interesting audience reactions to that installation?
A woman fell asleep on the sofa during the exhibition.
In general, how do people react to your work? Are they perplexed ? Moved ? Uncomfortable ? What is the general feedback you receive from viewers of your work?
I receive many sorts of reactions. Some people are perplexed by what I show them. Others feel uncomfortable and prefer to leave the exhibition. There are also people who think that I am psychologically sick. But most of the time people are fascinated to know that everything presented is fabricated, while they have the impression that everything in photos is real. Somewhere in a timeless space the character is condemned to replay the same situation eternally.
What or who inspires you to create?
Absolutely everything, but the story of my family first and foremost. Also music, art, opera, mythology, politics, witchcraft, science, history, general news, literature, theater, cinema, human beings.... Life.
What has been the most life-changing project or work you have done?
My first project named Circus Sideshow is a series of fifteen photographs of portraits of “Freaks.” This series presents a dynasty from the circus. Members of my family represent the different generations of this dynasty. It is an important series because it was my first photographic work in which I decided to build my environments. I don’t show this series anymore because certain members of my family, like my grandmother, have passed away since I completed this project.
What artists, past or present, across all art forms, whose work you admire? And why?
Matthew Barney. His work is complete and complex and presents an extremely personal universe which speaks to me and for who I have a huge respect. I think that very few artists have ever arrived at this stage of refection and quality in their work.
Is there any profession or field that you would like to explore? In the arts or otherwise?
I am planning on studying something different, in another field. working on taking again studies in another domain. I would like to take a course in esotericism and the black arts, (the occult). I met Moroccan witches when I was in Casablanca and went to meet sellers of grigri, potions, and spells in Marrakesh. It’s been a great experience that motivated me to study this and to meet shamans, wizards and other boatmen of souls.