The Politics of Color, Circassian Beauties and Playful Experimentation with MarpLondon
Photographer and collage artist Marianne P didn’t share her last name, preferring to be known as MarpLondon. Her coy anonymity does little to hide her character, however, since her vibrant artwork serves as a testament to her playful voyeurism. Aside from the deep awareness behind her concepts, a light heart and an insatiable taste for colors and geometric patterns are at the core of Marianne’s collections.
In one moment, Marianne’s work is a meleé of satirical kitsch, its graphical layers overwhelmed with the self-conscious indulgence of pop art. One glance at her collection “A Taste of Dubai” will tease with a sampling of Marianne’s beloved pattern potpourri, while her series “Saints or Sinners” is a cheeky mockery of Europe, IKEA, nationalism, and, of course, tomato soup. In another instance, Marianne captures the surprising humor in the mundane. Exaggerated awkwardness and oddity are subtle within her images, but nonetheless speak strongly of bare human expression.
Unsurprisingly based in London, she reveals that when it came time to leave her home in Copenhagen, the British capital was her second choice. “Admittedly my first choice would have been NYC,” she says, “if it hadn’t been so stupidly expensive.” Having been featured on Mode Diplomatique, Marianne PLondon has also photographed Nigerian-born singer-songwriter Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor of The Venus Bushfires, and was recently a part of a live projection campaign in New York City.
“I’m an ideas person, so the medium has to fit the concept, and not the other way around. It may be seen as random choices from the outside, but to me it makes perfect sense. I believe that one single, strong idea can have many facets and be executed in a wide range of media without losing its message.”
WBM: What were some of your first significant artistic experiences, and how did those develop into your current situation?
MARIANNE: My dad was an amateur photographer and 16 mm filmmaker, but also an avid user of new technologies, so inadvertently these disciplines became a part of my upbringing. My mother is very good at knitting and sewing, and to save money she made most of our clothes when we were kids, including the outfits for our play dolls. This is probably why my work crosses over several disciplines as it comes natural to me. Also, I get great pleasure out of customizing my outfits, going vintage hunting, and then use it in my pictures.
It was always emphasized to me and my sister how important it is to get to know other cultures, to have an open mind and heart, and to be curious and never stop learning new things. When my parents came back from their travels, we saw films and slideshows from these exotic places like Sri Lanka, Gambia, Rio de Janeiro, Grand Canyon, Japan, and Lebanon. We were spellbound by all the beautiful gems they brought back with them: shiny and golden things, colorful fabrics, spices, and sculptures. All very mystical and fascinating to the eyes of a little Scandinavian kid.
I think I was around 10 years old when my dad was offered a job in Saudi Arabia, but my mother was less keen to live in a closed compound and to be covered up when leaving the house. To me though it was like rock and roll — the very thought of going to an American school in an Arabic country was beyond excitement.
So I guess that my parents’ mindset has given me a solid foundation of how to shape my own journey, and still has some influence in my methods. This approach has definitely has made me at ease with all sorts of cultures, probably even more so to me than my own.
WBM: Where might some of your past work be seen? What are some memorable projects with which you have been involved?MARIANNE:. I got three photographs in a digital group show in New York called “The Story of The Creative” at See Exhibition Space on Jackson Avenue on Long Island. It ran until September 10th 2013.
I’m also taking part in a projection campaign, where one of my pictures will be projected onto one of these following buildings: Guggenheim, MoMA, Gagosian, Prada, Carnegie Hall, Sony Tower and many more. So, all very exciting and grand, but also a bit unreal as I am not there to experience it myself.
As for memorable projects, what springs to mind is an interactive audio-visual sound reactive installation, which was on show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
WBM: You express a sense of experimentation in your work, in your characters and compositions. Do you have a continuous theme or message you try to integrate across all of your work?
MARIANNE: There are definitely elements of experimentation in my methods. I function best when I am allowed to move freely inside cross-discipline spaces — where art meets fashion, meets design, meets photography, and so on. Still or motion. 2D or 3D. It is like a big playground to me. I love to collect, combine and re-mix; to break free from my own restrains yet still be faithful to my own aesthetics and inner intuition.
WBM: What are you currently working on?
MARIANNE: I am working on several projects at the moment, but one that is close to its completion is a project called ‘BLACK’. Its original idea sprung from a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London about a year ago. As you walk through the gallery, you discover that there is a very long period of time where all the sitters in the paintings are only wearing black. I thought that was a bit odd and started to look into the history of the color black and its role in clothing.
To my amazement I discovered that in the middle ages black wasn’t even used as a garment color. It wasn’t until the 14th century that it became a symbol of high rank of status, power and importance.
During the 16th and 17th centuries in northern Europe, Protestants were forbidden to wear any colored clothing as it was considered that wearing colors was a sin and a sign of vanity. This was of course in direct opposition to the Catholics in the south of Europe, where the cardinals wore red as a symbol of wealth and luxury. So for two whole centuries people of all ranks in society had to wear dark and somber colors, a symbol of being sober and humble.
When you actually start to think about it, then it is a pretty radical, clever and insane thing to do by those in positions of power. Banning the use of colors in the name of religion. I find this extremely interesting, not only to look at the role of colors in fashion, from the past to the present, but as well as in relation to the Westernized debate about freedom of choice; whether it is a free choice to wear the Islamic veil or not, but also in relation to the same debate within Islam itself.
My project then is looking at the role of the color black in fashion. It will play on deception and how we all walk around with these preset ideas of color symbolism, and highlight how often we aren’t aware of how the use of color as a symbol varies — how color associations differ between cultures and even within the same culture in different time periods.
I hope this will become apparent to the viewer, especially when all the photographs are presented next to each other in the same confined space or volume.
WBM: Your photography reflects some of your travels. Where have you been? Where do you dream of going?
MARIANNE: I have visited the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Morocco, and been a large portion of the European countries. Besides Denmark and the United Kingdom, I have lived in France for a period of time. The other countries I have visited are: Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Cyprus, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Norway.
My last trip was to the United Arab Emirates, which was also my first visit to the Gulf region, and I would most definitely love to revisit. I hardly slept while I was there as I was so super-charged with excitement from the time I boarded the plane in Heathrow.
WBM: In general, to what extent does your location or particular geography influence you creatively?
MARIANNE: It has a major influence in my work and plays a huge role both as a source and as direction. I have always picked up on trends that are happening around me, wherever I am. This can be emotional, cultural, intellectual, political and even spiritual, as all of this is what is communicated through art, design, film, fashion, literature, current affairs, and architecture.
Trends and subcultures have a great impact upon culture, society and businesses, especially when they start to manifest themselves across the board. One good example is the whistleblower and how this trend of exposing malfunctions has grown over the years, and now is the number one enemy.
WBM: Just to build off of that question, you compiled a series of photographs of New York City for one of your periodical visual projects. Why Blue Matters is primarily NYC-based, so we’re naturally curious about how the city may have impressed upon you and your methods.
MARIANNE: New York City is a very iconic city and looks impressive on film. It even has its own nickname and logo – not many cities can brag about that. It has this enigmatic charisma that attracts all sort of personalities, me included. NYC gave me many of my ‘first time’ experiences and introductions to new worlds of taste and sensations.
It was in NYC that I heard techno for the first time, saw dancers suspended from a ceiling in caves, people snorting coke, metal detectors, real gangster styled cars, sushi, open mic nights, studio 54 on roller skates in Central Park, stand-up comedy, ethnic areas within the same city — such as China Town, Little Italy and Harlem — nail bars, diners, massive supermarkets with endless aisles of branded can tomatoes or breakfast cereals, electric seat belts, the view from skyscrapers, transvestite bars, stretched limos, riding a yellow cab, seeing the city from a helicopter.
Other experiences include venturing inside a criminal court to see real prostitutes in front of a judge, tasting salt beef sandwich, crawling out of a window to sit on the iconic iron fire escape staircase, accidentally walking into a Woody Allen film-set, visiting all the night clubs that were mentioned in the book The American Psycho, and so forth.
In my “New York Stories”, I imagined a dialogue between the city and its lover. I played out fictive scenarios in each photograph, imagined the exchange of thoughts, emotions and experiences that the city would have expressed inside this romance. I used lyrics from songs to emphasize an emotion. Just like in a film.
WBM: There is one project of yours, “The Venus Bushfires”, where an album cover you created seems so influenced by art deco — from the organic shapes to the use of gold color and Klimt-like patterns. How has this style of art influenced you?
MARIANNE: It is more the other way around. I got inspired by The Venus Bushfires’ signature hairstyle and started to create a mystical character around it. That ended up with being this majestic African Geisha creature who lives inside a fantasy world of beauty, ornaments, gold, colors and pure luxury.
I used some of the artwork made by Alphonse Mucha in the collage as it is very decorative and flowery, full of curved and organic lines. It is a style that you mainly see in Europe. Think: The old metro entrances of Paris, Gaudi in Barcelona, buildings and cafes in Budapest, Vienna and Prague. All very grand and decadent, yet still very organic.
WBM: And the accompanying photographs are so vibrant: what was actually the concept behind this whole project, with the EP and the woman in various costumes?
MARIANNE: It should not be seen as one project, more as a working relationship between The Venus Bushfires and myself. She is the canvas and I am the painter.
WBM: Usually artists will have many sources of inspiration, but it’s not always obvious, even for them, how to actually put these ideas into practice. How do you develop your original ideas from possible sources of inspiration?
MARIANNE: As I mentioned earlier, the concept behind one of my current projects, “BLACK”. In this body of work, each idea of every single photograph comes from very different of backgrounds. For example, one photograph is partly inspired by archived photographs that the police in Copenhagen took of every single prostitute working in town in the 1860s. The girls in the pictures wear these amazing dresses, but more importantly they carry them with a punk attitude. So they are really these very funky chicks of their time.
And even more mind-blowing was the discovery of Circassian beauties — the Ottoman Empire’s answer to the Japanese concubines. Basically they were slaves of the Sultan and lived in his harems. But they became known for their extreme beauty and today the Circassian Beauties function as the symbols of Western Orientalism. It is also there in Turkey, in the Caucasus region, which fueled one of the many theories of racial hierarchy, hence the expression “Caucasians”, as they claimed the beauty of white females was the purest form and closest to God’s original model of humanity.
Some of these Circassian beauties were also called the “moss haired girls” due to their distinctive afro-like hairstyles. Unfortunately these girls were also slaves and therefore sold very cheaply. As London Post in 1856 described the situation, “white human flesh has never been so cheap at this moment in time”. The ones who had a lucky escape from their Turkish masters often fled to America, to the land of the free. But there they became popular attractions at dime museums and traveling medicine shows.
All this information adds another dimension to the many current religious, racial, slave, sex trafficking debates, and perhaps how we ought to rethink by revisiting history before we continue to make use of the lazy us-versus-them rhetoric. It is also just another example of how power balances always shift in time. It is ironic that the notion of white beauty supremacy originated within Islam in Turkey by keeping women as sex slaves.
The way I make use of this in my project may not be obviously embedded, even if it plays a huge role in the concept development. It may end up being communicated partly through the styling, the poses and outfits used; translated into modern language to ease the understanding. In this fashion the result may — or may not be — seen as thought-provocative. It really depends on the viewer’s own depth of knowledge and their ways at seeing the world. It is a very ambitious and layered project.
WBM: What are some specific influences for you?
MARIANNE: Colour, patterns, shape, movement, composition, music, humour and cleverness. I’m drawn to people who naturally push boundaries and dare to step outside of their familiarities. People who dare to challenge, not only themselves, but also the whole stereotyped notions of conventional expressions. And their ways really speaks to me and I find it very liberating.
I am huge admirer of independent thought. The way people think, how they choose to manifest their thoughts. How they choose to execute their ideas. And if they succeed to cut through all the noise and make me react — either because I relate or really struggle with their ways — then they have gained my attention at least.
Whether I end up with an acceptance or rejection of their sensibilities is less significant to me. What matters the most is that they made me react, made me think, made me take a double look, made me feel etc. I really respect them for that and in this way they are a great influence to me.
WBM: Since photography holds such an important place in your work, what qualities do you believe make photography memorable or impactful?
MARIANNE: To me photography is like a borderland between the real and the imagined. In the end, it is up to the viewer to decide, where to place the checkpoint crossings between the two. As photography has this conflicting quality to its powers, we tend to believe what we see in a photograph as being the truth, but so very often we are being deceived.
WBM: Some of your photography seems to capture moments that have an almost accidental emotional weight, at least in the sense that you balance very elaborate, staged artwork with spontaneous reflections of the everyday. With regard to particular environments or situations that you may encounter, what is it that overwhelms you, whether with inspiration or simply being present with particular emotion?
MARIANNE: I have two very different approaches to my photography. One is to seize the moment. To know when to capture that split moment of a second that tells a whole story in a single image. You really have to trust your intuition, when it tells you that this is the right moment to click.
For me it is very powerful moment when you have managed to capture the magic of everyday life, something that many people are blinded to see. To me though, it is the ultimate canvas, perhaps even a gateway out of this obsession with celebrity culture where everyone wants to be or create everyone into a star. Ironically it is also often the role of a camera in popular culture. I tend to seek refuge in everyday scenarios, fleeting moments of funny characteristics, or empathy, or beauty. That is my escapism and at the same time it keeps my perspectives real.
The other way I tend to use photography is to create small conceptual editorials. It involves a good amount of time spent on research, idea development, planning, money, and time as I do all the work myself. From getting the idea, to materializing it through styling, location and props finding or making, finding the right people to model, doing the shooting, working with the weather (as I don’t have a studio), the editing, and then the whole promotional thing.
WBM: Do you view your work as political? Are there ways you creatively express your ideologies?
MARIANNE: I see it less as being political, more as social commentary and hopefully I succeed in delivering my points with a wit and beauty. I do aim to spark conversations and reflections in those who are open to it, and if I can encourage people through my work to keep moving or make them feel something or see things in a different light, then my mission is accomplished.
WBM: Picturing this year so far, what have you accomplished and where are you taking your projects next?
MARIANNE: To be asked to take part in a group show in New York as my first international exhibition is a pretty good start. It feels good to be ‘discovered’ and that has definitely given me a confidence and courage to continue my course. So I am positive of what might come next.
WBM: From your experience, what do you think are the biggest mistakes an artist can make? What advice would you share with other creative who want to explore and experiment?
MARIANNE: I guess the biggest mistake to make in life by anyone in any given situation is to allow the fear of success and the fear of failure to overtake your thoughts – it will paralyze you.