The work of American artist Margot Knight sticks in the mind: a strange parallel universe of double takes and playful, sometimes dark, surrealism. Beginning with a sequence of photographic images created while a researcher at Fabrica—Benetton’s communications and research centre founded in 1994 to foster young creative talent from all over the world—Margot went on to develop her conceptual photography in bundles of themed images.
She draws inspiration from a rich history of photographic artists who focus on the body and her parents’ medical textbooks. She says, “I begin with objects or bodies or plants and try to give them more life, or a different kind of life. Loneliness, exuberance, and wonder take on physical form.” Her work has been exhibited all over the world and appeared in over 40 international publications. She currently lives and works in Seattle, where she is working on a new series called Procreation.
Your uniquely individual photography appears, at least in your artist statement, to be inspired as much by your childhood as by artists like Duane Michals. Were you a very visual, aware child? Did you know you were storing all these experiences for later use?
I don’t really remember how it felt to be a child. I was super shy and quiet, the opposite of how I am now. One of my first strong memories has to do with the slippery feeling of a human kneecap inside a plastic bag that I found on the counter, which for some reason my Dad had brought home from the hospital. Of course I didn’t know I was storing the experiences – I was just a two legged sponge like all kids are. Luckily my parents carted me around and I was able to sop up varied things. My aunt and uncle write children’s books, so our family would travel with them. There was always a scientist or guide along to explain about migrating monarch butterflies or forest trees with antiseptic sap. After spending every day in the house, in the bus, at school – everything along the loop becomes known and unnoticed. On the trips we would see those familiar things like trees and bugs, but they had whole other magical lives.
What prompted you to choose photography as your degree choice and ultimately a career choice?
I started college as a biology major, but switched to art halfway through. To do well in biology was all about memorizing and regurgitating information on a test. In art we were asked to come up with our own, new ideas, and to me that was more exciting. After college I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I fell into a job doing product photography. It wasn’t until my experience at Fabrica, Benetton’s research center, that I realized I wanted to pursue photography.
Why “art photography” and not fashion, portraiture or any other route which would guarantee an income? Art photography seems to be a long shot for most people…
Good point. I know it’s a long shot for me too. Every well known photographer that I’ve met does something else to make money- commercial work, or teaching. Funding is a real issue that gets scarier as I get older. But it’s so fabulous to be able to do work that truly interests me. My goal is to do my art work full time and I’ve been able to do that for 4 of the last 5 ½ years, thanks to Fabrica and GAS Art Gallery. I haven’t pursued commercial photography work, although I would be happy to do that if I could have control of the concept. When it comes down to money and I have had to choose between taking photos on someone else’s order, or working an office job, I’ve chosen the office job. That way, at the end of the workday, I still have energy for my own photo projects.
How did you become involved with Benetton’s Fabrica project?
My sister was doing a study-abroad semester in Rome, and my family went to visit her. We went to a museum outside of Rome and they had a huge show of Oliviero Toscani’s advertisements (for Benetton) and images by researchers at Fabrica. I was so impressed; I felt they were doing the work that I wanted to do. So I applied, and was accepted after a 2 week trial visit. I ended up spending almost two years at Fabrica. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Some—if not all!—of your images require a double take from the viewer as they process the strange and often disturbing photographs. Do you enjoy playing with people’s perceptions like that?
When you get used to your own thoughts, they don’t seem disturbing. But yes, when I come up with ideas, I am aware that if I feel a jolt, then other people probably will too. Mostly I love the process of having an idea, and then making it real. I don’t set out to mess with people’s minds or to shock them. My images are usually based on some real emotion that I’ve experienced very strongly.
The mutation of the human form in the Taking Care series reminded me of the disturbing visual experiments by Chris Cunningham, particularly Rubber Johnny. Whose work do you admire and draw inspiration from?
I’m definitely a big admirer of Chris Cunningham. I haven’t seen Rubber Johnnyactually, but his works really stood out to me at the Venice Biennale a few years ago, especially his All Is Full of Love video for Björk. There are some video artists whose work I really admire—Jan Svankmajer, The Brothers Quay, Michel Gondry—they all seem to be in the same family, creating their own worlds. There are other photographers who also create a specific fantasy- Duane Michals, Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall. I also admire Chema Madoz and Maurizio Cattelan for concept work, Orlan, Nicole Tran Va Bang, Margi Geerlinks, Aziz & Cucher, Patricia Piccinini, and Robert Gligorov for their work with the body. There are so many people out there making interesting work.
The Taking Care series was actually inspired directly by the French surrealist Fernand Leger’s painting Homage to Louis David. I had been searching for a new direction for almost a year, and then I saw Leger’s paintings, Hans Bellmer’s photographs of doll body parts, and Jean Arp’s sculpture of a fruit/body form, all on the same floor of the Pompidou Centre. I was really struck by Leger’s paintings of women with floating arms because my own arms used to fall out of their sockets due to whitewater kayaking injuries.
Do you see each series creating a narrative or are they simply stills from a strange world? If they do, do all the series create an over-arching narrative and what might that be?
In the earlier work (Fabrica, The Garden, Veins), I would agree that each of those series were simply groups of stills from a strange world. Recently I have been moving towards more cohesive series, with more overt narratives in The Hunt and in my current project, Procreation. Regarding an over-arching narrative, you could say that all the work is based on a proposal of alternative possibilities and measured against Bruner’s (1962) definition of a creative product as anything that produces “effective surprise” and the “shock of recognition.” Though novel, the product must be entirely appropriate (from The Conditions of Creativity by Beth A. Hennessey and Teresa M. Amabile).
Do you have any favourite images? Conversely, have any of your images not worked as well as they did in your mind?
My favorite photo is whichever one I’m working on at the moment. In the end I’m more “attached” to my props than to the photographs themselves. The giant worm from A Girl’s Best Friend stayed with me for years to block the draft under the front door. The two baked chickens walking around in The Garden turned into dinner. I still have all my brother’s wisdom teeth, a box of plaster boobs left over from Taking Care, and all kinds of other things I can’t bear to throw away because they took so much effort to make. Most of my images don’t work out actually. Some of the photos on my website definitely need to come down (ie. the tree photos in the Veins series), and even more never made it onto the site. It often takes me weeks or months to complete an image, but half the time they don’t turn out. So I re-shoot, or go on to a new idea. Ideas are hard to second guess, even for staged photos.
How would you describe your photos for someone who’s never seen them?
I usually try to feel out the person asking about my work before I launch into a description of dismembered naked bodies or my drawer of fetus sculptures. I say that my work focuses on the human body and on finding the surreal in everyday life. I use fantasy (rather than reality) to get closer to what is “true.”
What is your process when you begin a new series? How does it develop and take final shape?
Beginning a series isn’t a set in stone process for me, but it does happen when I’m actively looking for a new theme. I’ll be bumping around for weeks or months, trying different small projects, doing technical experiments. Then I’ll see something or have an idea. As I start to follow it, make the props, do the research at the library, then it gets bigger. I find that I go in cycles of 2-3 years. The first year or 2 is the “search” period, and I make mediocre images, little projects. Then finally I latch onto something definitely exciting and it takes me the better part of a year to complete. Making props takes up more and more of my time, but I find that things look better the more “real” they are.
How do you make the props? I always assumed the worm was a photomontage, for example: it looks very realistic!
Each prop is different and I’ll do whatever I can to get the effect I want- whether that means photomontage, sewing, working with cement, silicone, casting resin, plaster of paris, wood, or latex, or buying pig intestines at the Chinese market. The worm was photomontage and a prop. For the prop worm, I made an outer skin of stretchy brown fabric. Inside, he has a “muscular” layer of quilting batting that is sewn around 4 long wires, so he can stand up and hold a pose. His inner core is stuffed with Styrofoam packing peanuts. I took a photos of the worm prop in various settings. He casts a shadow and gives the model something real to interact with. Then I bought live earthworms at a pet store and photographed them with a macro lens. I used Photoshop to put the real worm’s texture on top of the worm prop.
How much of your work is montaged in Photoshop?
It really depends on the photo. For example, within the Fabrica series, Meat Feet is a montage of 12 photographs, but Thorn Hug is basically a straight photo of a woman whose arms are decorated with rose thorns (using double sided tape). I always do some touch-up to remove pimples and dust. As time goes on, I am spending more time on prop-making and less time using Photoshop. For the Taking Care series, I spent months making the body fragments out of plaster. I did use Photoshop to cut off heads and to layer the model’s skin texture and color onto each plaster fragment. For my current project, it has taken me almost a year, working on and off, to finish all the props.
What photographic equipment do you use?
Camera: a used Mamiya 645 Pro. I have a 50 mm lens and a macro lens. Lights: Pro-photo Acute 2 light set and a Macrolux fiber optic lighting set that was generously donated to me by NIT (Nuove Idee Tecnologiche). I also rig up other things when I need to – I converted my old Light Bright toy into a small soft-box.
Do you think you’ll make the move to digital photography?
Not in the near future. Digital would be more convenient, but I can’t afford it. Right now I rent time on a scanner, so I get high quality files without having to upgrade the equipment myself. A digital camera that would give me equivalent files would cost tens of thousands of dollars and would probably be obsolete in five years. So for now I am happy with 120 film and Polaroids, and I often do test-shoots to try out different lighting options before I get to the actual photo-shoot.
What projects are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a project called Procreation. I started thinking about babies about a year ago since I’m getting to that age. It took me months to make the props that I envisioned, and over time the project developed a great deal from my original idea for a single photo. It has grown into a series of 5 triptychs that place the story of Christ’s birth within our modern debate on stem cell research. The child is a fetal egg-like being, plucked from an underwater egg-cluster by Gabriel and given to the scientist Mary. The triptychs are based on older paintings such as Hugo Van Der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, and the Mother of God Eleusa Icons.
Do you think your Procreation series will inflame the sensibilities of right wing Christians, or do you think it’s politically neutral, allowing people to impose their own views on it?
It would be a stretch to consider these images politically neutral. That said, it is not my intent to inflame or offend, but rather to encourage dialog and consideration of human rights regarding assisted reproduction, of our society’s use of this powerful new scientific knowledge, and of the impact religious tradition has in shaping our decisions on these matters. Strongly held religious views and scientific discovery are both increasingly part of our modern society, for better or for worse.
Tell me a secret about yourself that, until today, no-one knew.
Any secret told to a journalist is either a marketing ploy or an accident. I learned that the hard way actually. I’m amazed how humans, myself included, have such strong desires to check email every minute, know the intimate details of complete strangers, and pick at the skin on their feet.