September 9: Art and science circle each other like binary stars, the one illuminating the other.
I’m not sure how its algorithm works, but that employed by the Artsy site cannily alerts me to work I often find interesting, and on this occasion to an artist I’d not encountered before; Margot Kalach (*1992), whose photograms intrigued me, and yet who is still early in her career.
Their sputtering swirls and rocketing spirals cannot be simply the product of a swinging light source such as that employed by Adam Fuss in his cibachrome photogram mandalas —something more complex is going on.
Kalach’s Ca(o)smos images appear in grids, as each spans several sheets. That lends credibility to their shared title and the idea that these might be astronomical maps.
Alternatively, their scale might be quite the opposite, as they also share appearance with scientific documentation of the tracks of ionising particles in a cloud or bubble chamber; muons and anti-muons, electrons, positrons and photo-electron.
Such an interpretation accounts for the bursting nuclei and energetic trajectories of line in this series and the title’s implication of chaos.
Cosmic or microcosmic? These images beg explanation, and we are given it in a mysterious and elaborately imagined 3D animation…
…and by Margot in her own words when I asked her about it…
James: May I ask you first about the ca(O)smos series? You use 3D imaging to create a narrative around the production of these images. You don’t show photographs of the machine so it may be imaginary, but it seems feasible. That affects our response to the images. Photograms can elicit a level of abstraction that is difficult to achieve in such a literal medium as photography.
Margot: Here I would focus on your use of the words “abstraction” vs. “literal”. One of the most important things of the series of Ca(O)smos, for me, is to employ and represent the physicality of light itself, as real, plastic, matter. I pause to think about the idea that photography usually tends to deal with the literality of the world, but I would push this towards something else, maybe the figurative, or the surfaces of reality. I believe that this project could not be more literal, it is truly literal in the sense of physics, more than other ways of photographing: there is nothing standing between the light and the paper, there is no distortion through a camera, or a computer, the aspect of light to image is always 1:1…It is a redundant type of literality – photography about light. It is photography in its most literal way, in its definition, ‘drawing with light’. This is a first way in which abstraction can be thought of as realism.
James: When you provide this story in a 3D animation — and it is like a ‘creation myth’ — we are given a new understanding of abstraction…what is that, in your opinion?
Margot: I think the 3D imaging pulls the photographs away from this strict physical reality, into a world of ideas. It is like working backwards from a more historical approach of abstraction; abstract images are known to express concepts, free from the weight of particular objects, yet, I am working with abstraction in order to objectify light – I am using photography to make a material object out of an invisible source of energy. I can then project this light object back to the world of ideas in multiple ways, and the narrative imaging is one.
Also, the 3D imaging “creation myth” permits the work to exist on various registers at the same time, a scientific one, a narrative or fictitious one, and possibly a mystical one. Creation myths are usually about bringing order and light into a world of chaos, ca(O)smos (as the title suggests) is a play on this idea with a sour twist, with the acknowledgement that error and uncertainty are the rulers in a realm where we are constantly trying to tame the world around us. Sad laugh. But beauty is better served raw.
Finally, the 3D imaging is a way of introducing the photographs into a specific context that reveals that the movement towards abstraction, or the abstract outcome, is a phase in a larger, ongoing investigation.
James: I’m impressed by your energy the pace of the development of your work. I’d like to understand; how does this later imagery — ca(O)smos, or PLASMA — relate to, or evolve from, the earlier work on your site which is quite literal, ‘realistic’, but relations of objects and light effects within the images (sometimes quite complex) draw out mysterious cosmic connections. You are like a photographic poltergeist, tampering with the scientific and mathematical foundations of photography itself, and of the nuclear physicists’, or cosmologists, ideas of reality.
Margot: All of the work is made under a large umbrella that deals with our human need and unescapable drive to make sense of things though contained systems and patterns. Here is where fields like science and mathematics border with fictions, through narratives that have very accurately managed to represent our reality. Human evolution has thrived on the shoulders of these highly functioning stories that have been writing themselves for thousands of years. My projects seek to explore how we exist within specific structures of information/objects. The method or context that surrounds each work is what constantly shifts, celebrating how we can harmonize different perspectives depending on what limitations we decide to put in place as the delimiting rules within a specific system; limits that are not the end, but where a system begins.
In my more recent work, PLASMA [NOTE: made in a ‘cloud chamber’ of Kalach’s own making, above] and ca(O)smos, I turn to the concept and the material of light itself, while in previous projects light was the protagonist, and I kept it a tool of expression. More recently, light has evolved to be the full-blown object and subject of the work in a more exaggerated manner. For me light, in a physical and a metaphysical way, embodies what it feels to be alive, in its simultaneous double status of particle and wave – which speaks of the underlying uncertainty or contradictory nature of being. It is that thing which is invisible in itself but reveals everything around us, a symbolic placeholder as source of wisdom and creation. The use of light in any work thus references creation itself and is always self-referential in making art. It travels far distances, over millions of years sometimes, to inform us of distant places.
Photography has permitted me to enter these kinds of spheres where the strict limits of physical matter can be lent a subjectivity that bends, repositions, and rethinks the perimeters of our so-called world of information and knowledge. It is a question about how thought moves systematically through reality and sensing, or observing; of how there are always leaks from any given measurement. Sometimes the work is more about the lines of thought and sometimes I focus more on that which escapes or resists methodical containment.
Light is both material and immaterial. To me it is a symbol of all that is. Photography is my relationship with light/all that is and my (by default impossible) attempts to capture it. Light is my proteus, the god of elusive change.
James: Do you have a scientific training? How did you come to photography?
Margot: I do not have any serious scientific training; I tend to play off this ignorance in some of the work. Yet I am very drawn to scientific models of reality and the aesthetic of science and information. Photography was a hobby of mine since high school, I was naturally drawn to it, yet I never predicted my life to revolve around it in the way it does today. Becoming a photographer was one of many possible career moves; I see fields of knowledge in a very horizontal manner, I think I could have, in another world, easily fallen into science, literature, or any other, yet, here I am. I find the arts a fertile place to combine, shuffle, and intersect fields, and I believe this is the main reason I chose to be a visual artist.
James: Do you see yourself moving more toward 3D animation and VR, or is there something particular about photography that you value as an instrument in your discoveries?
Margot: I would like to move more towards 3D animation because I feel that it is an extremely expansive field, uncontained by the frame in a strictly photographic sense (even if it is still visualized on a rectangle in most cases). I believe it will grant me a very particular type of freedom when it comes to exploring ideas in a visual way, ex nihilo, out of nothing, unbound from, as you said, the literality of the physical world. Yet, I do value photography as a very particular instrument, irreplaceable, in its way of approaching, representing, and reproducing reality – it forces you to deal with the matter in hand (pun intended) and test it, or transport it, to different domains.
James: Many of your images make me chuckle…why?
Margot: In this investigation and observation of our constant human desire to name, categorise, and understand, I find myself stuck in between two strong sensations. One leans towards a sense of awe and transcendence, the wonderment of witnessing consciousness and our edifices of reality. Simultaneously, when looking in from the outside at these human desires and ambitions, there is something hilarious in our humanity; how seriously we take ourselves and our unending supplies of very advanced toys. So sometimes, I like to reveal the flamingo underwear under the elegant man’s suit.
The work is joco-serious, a mixture of: a deep philosophical outlook, a child at play, an illogical (yet meaningful) network of connections between fields of information, an evil laugh at ourselves striving for the impossibility to contain all that is, a caring laugh that pushes forward…possibly an unfinished/lifelong travesty of the brain brewing in a bizarre visual lab experiment that I peruse solemnly and holistically.
I was born and grew up in Mexico City in 1992. I studied photography at Bard College, where I had the chance to take other subjects that influenced my work, mostly literature, philosophy, and a little bit of science.
I also took a special liking for the works of writer James Joyce, and explored his most extravagant novel of Finnegnas Wake under the wing of professor Gregory Moynahan, also very influential. Bard was fertile ground; the backbone of my work was born there; I used to infiltrate the science building at night and create scenes for the camera.
A lot of the work in my website was done there, and I have not been able to find a place that simulates anything similar to the world that revealed itself inside those empty, dark, classrooms.
After university I came back to Mexico City in the classic post-uni ´what-to-do-with-my-life´ mode. I was confused about pursuing an arts career. Yet, in 2017 I ended up at the SOMA educational program – a small program for contemporary art in Mexico that continued to carve the path. I finished SOMA in 2019, and immediately got a grant by FONCA for the project that turned into ca(O)smos. Things have fallen in this order, so today I find myself in some creative current that allows me to keep digging into the world of images. Today, I share a studio with friends and artists Angela Leyva and Santiago Gomez. I have submerged myself into the darkroom, which lets me access light in subtle ways, and left my digital camera on the sidelines, for now.
When asked about artists who she sees as influential on her, Kalach provides an eclectic list, all of whom are worth pursuing for an understanding of an artist whose career we might watch expectantly: Joan Miró, Michel Basquiat, Agnes Denes, Mauricio Alejo, Lucas Samaras, Maria Ignacia Edwards, Robert Cumming, Zeke Berman, Remedios Varo, Ale de la Puente, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Michelle Stuart, Roger Ballen, Pete Mauney, Frank Gilberth, Mandel and Sultan, Trevor Paglen, Hilma Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Doug Aitken, Rioji Ikeda, Jordine Voigt, Nam June Paik…
You can keep up with Margot Kalach’s work on her website: http://margotkalach.com