INTERVIEWED BY Philippe Bourdeau



Philippe Bourdeau : Can you share with us your journey through the world of art and what it has brought to you on a more personal level.

Michelle Bui : I had a pretty classic Montreal girl schooling. I was born here; I followed the normal school curriculum. Went to Dawson in applied arts, and then Concordia in painting and drawing. I did my masters at UQÀM where I got the chance to travel to France for a semester abroad that really changed me. Since my early childhood, my passion for art was always present. I think it’s pretty usual for artists to feel that at a very young age. I went to specialized schools when I was younger. Mission Renaissance was one that I can say really moulded me into the artist that I am today. A couple operated the school. The two teachers would host us in very bougie settings with red velvet curtains. The woman greeting us at the door with a huge hat adorned with feathers. There was something very dramatic about it all. I can see now the effect that it all had on my art and me.


PB : Have your parents pushed you in some ways towards art?

MB : Mostly no. My parents came from Vietnam, so from a difficult political context. They came here as immigrants, so art might not be the first priority when you’re in survival mode. I’m not saying that they were starving but it’s simply not something that you let yourself do when you’re basically trying to keep your head above water. My parents never really knew what art was, but nonetheless they still encouraged me towards my passion. For many reasons, I think. Was it because I was the youngest? I don’t think my brothers would have had the same courtesy. Basically I think that there are many pieces that make a path and I was lucky enough to have the most important ones from the beginning.


PB : What are, and have been your main inspiration sources in your practice?

MB : In my practice, most of my inspiration comes from objects. They are from the dollar store, from arts and crafts stores. You’ll also find fabrics in my work, food, broccoli elastics, onions, etc. They seem hard to link together, but it’s mostly things that I find on my everyday route. They sort of choose me in a way. I think there is something about being an artist that pushes you into having a different look at life, and objects. For me the photogenic qualities in an object don’t reside in their value, it doesn’t have to be something precious. It has to talk to me I guess.


PB : To that last question I wanted to add the fact that femininity and desire are very present in your pieces. Can you share your muses? Do you have women in your life that have impacted you or that you seek inspiration from?

MB : Women who surround me, firstly. I started by observing the women around me, without them even realizing it, I think. It was a study of sensuality and femininity. Above that, there were lots of books and female writers that inspired me. Like Chris Cross, an American feminist author who writes with lots of humour and self- mockery. It’s something I like to convey in my practice too. The idea of self- examination, and self-mockery. Maybe even going too far, which leads to a certain kind of humour. I think that art and its practice can be very serious, but there is this notion of joy and pleasure that is very present, that I continue looking for in either my research or the final renderings of my photos.


PB : Why did you accept the invitation to expose your art in the Rad Hourani gallery? What inspired you in the realisation of this project? How do you think your work will communicate with the gallery?

MB : The first time I met Rad I immediately felt understood, I was comfortable. I think that’s the first reason I accepted the offer. It’s an encounter. I often start my exhibition projects that way. Meeting the people. Because, after all, before being a gallery, an art fair, a show, it’s about the people behind it. The art world is often billeted to art galleries, art centers, locations that tend to be more traditional. The idea of getting out of these known settings opens up the door to a whole new dialogue. Ideas that would never have grown inside of these known settings are born that way. It’s very nourishing for every artist to vary their public. I think exchanging in a different surrounding paves the way for a purer dialogue. There are fewer barriers erected between the public and the artist.


PB : We realize that there are a lot of steps that lead to the final rendering of your pieces. There is sculpture, photo and printing. Why did you decide to use printing as the final step?

MB : It all started with a sculptural research. I was immensely attracted to all of these very tactile objects. I was mostly interested in everything that had the potential to regain its original shape. For example, urethane foam was something that I was very drawn to early on in my practice. I really liked its sculptural qualities as much as the fact that at the end of the day you can let it sit there and it will go back to it’s shape and you can start fresh the next morning. This all came at a time when I was moving a lot, studio-hopping all the time, and I kept accumulating stuff. Sometimes weird stuff that you feel no attachment to, other than the fact that it’s been with you for a while. I was beginning to feel like a hoarder. Also there is this parallel that can be drawn to the human body, and its sensuality. You get up every morning, you stand still, and through the day, gravity does its job, you get tired, you go to sleep and you get to start all over the next day. So basically I’m always looking for human qualities in the objects that find me. Whether it’s colour, material, texture, it has to appeal to me in a sensual way.


PB : The aspects of everyday life seems to be a constant in the narrative that you put in images. You freeze the elements in a medium and you give them a longevity. What do you look for in the shapes you use and in the design of your pieces?

MB : The question of longevity is very present. I like to capture objects in a very precarious state. It’s precisely where the photographic act makes sense. It’s right when everything is about to fall off the table that I press the trigger. I find it very interesting to use it in that purpose. There is a mix of plastic objects that convey, yes the idea of infinite, but also the idea of disposable. I like to juxtapose infinite objects to finite objects. For example food or flowers with plastic sometimes even plastic fruits is an interesting clash and it sometimes makes you wonder if the flower is not fake and the plastic pear is real. I think the idea of perfection, and imperfection next to one another shows humour and also tragedy in my pieces.


PB : Tell us about the themes that stimulate you when you start a project

MB : My work is a continuity I would say. I always source my inspiration within previous works that I want to deepen. I’ve just finished a two-year study on still life. Objects detaching from very coloured backdrops. Also, there’s always a human parallel drawn within my work. But now I think that parallel might have shifted to sister objects to the ones already present in my work. Even though I try to reduce the accumulation of objects, I’ve ended up with a bunch of them. And now, instead of denying it, I’m trying to question myself about our desire to always accumulate, and buy more. We have a very primal desire to possess things. I think that there is always a question of economy and capitalism within my pieces. We’re at the end of our resources, yet we always seek for more. The idea is to reconcile these two very opposite realities; the fact that we always want more and the possible end of our world. How do we navigate this dichotomy on a day-to-day basis? I think as an artist you make a point in having a critical eye in order to look at the world from the outside, but as a part of said world, you have to question yourself about your own implications within this system.


PB : There is a correlation between the use of the objects you choose and the advertising dimension of your work. What are you trying to express by using these display codes?

MB : What I like about advertising is that we don't necessarily try to camouflage the message. It’s often something very clear. I refer a lot to the pack shot of the advertising industry. For example, Clinique’s illuminated backdrop red lipstick ad becomes a real object of desire. For me, it’s about playing with the codes, even if my objects are very mundane, they can have this old school glamour. It’s about looking at something very visceral even violent but seeing it through the classical advertising guidelines. I like hijacking these known codes and creating a friction between genres. I really like all of it.

PB : Tell us about one of the objects you brought in today and how it will integrate your project.

MB : I usually work in my studio so it’s very exceptional for me to have my stuff with me when I’m not there. So this morning as I was choosing the objects I was going to bring here, I went for reassuring things that I knew I could ultimately fashion into something interesting. I brought a lot of textiles. There is one in particular that I absolutely adore; it’s this kind of red latex, very shiny, very wet. It reminds me of Asian lacquers, and it’s also very kitsch. In a picture, when printed, it’s obviously dry, but the contradiction between something that looks wet and its dry rendering excites me very much. It’s also very reflective, which advertisers usually shy away from, but I find it very interesting. I also think is brings us back to my self-mockery; my very uneasy try at advertising. So how it usually unfolds: I put it on the table, and as much as possible, I try to merge the backdrop with the tabletop so that the objects, once they are put in their place, look as if they are floating between the table and the air. The goal is to create a ‘’defying gravity’’ look.


PB : Tell us about a typical day when you are creating

MB : So a typical day in my studio, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it’s mostly filled with doubts. It’s a very long start. I usually get there around 10 or 11 in the morning, and by the time I get to the actual work part of my work it’s usually past 5 PM. And after that I’ll stay until my work is done and I’ll rush until about midnight. I think I make it a point to put myself in an emergency state of mind all the time. And I don’t think I’m the only one who works best under pressure. I’ve always wanted to change that but I think it comes with the territory. I basically work with real live things like meat and flowers and fruit so in some way, I will have to rush because at the end of the day, it starts to stink up the whole space. I think my whole day leads up to that climax, when there is no other way than to rush otherwise it’s a wasted day of work. I’m always looking for that adrenaline rush at the end of the day, which I think I want my photos to show as well; that very-primal drive.


PB : What does color represent for you ?

MB : To me, colour represents life, represents desire. It took a while before I started integrating colors in my work. I started with whites, and beiges, and greys as backdrops. It ended up being an identity realization for me in the sense that it was looking like any photo studio that you could see around the world, and inserting color was a personal relation to my aesthetic and how my personality could shine through my work. There is this blue at my studio that I find very interesting. Only by looking at it you can almost smell the petrol, it’s very unique and brings another dimension into my work, that of the smell.


PB : Tell us about the impact of your artwork on the viewer.

MB : The effect that my work has always come through me first. I can never put myself in the shoes of the public. In the bigger scheme of things, I think it would become too stressful because we can’t project ourselves in the place of others. I often work with large formats and what I find interesting about it is that in the accumulation of images that we have today, it is difficult to grab the attention. For me, the format demands to be looked at and it’s a form of strategy in order to draw the eye to my work. I think there is also the transformation of the classic still life, which is often in smaller format. By enlarging it to a scale which is not the natural scale, I think that it adds a level of abstraction to objects. The pear is not really the size of your head. The pear is actually 3 inches high. Even if we get past the exageration of it all, it becomes more abstract because we can dive into the tactile side, into the colors, into the vibrations. It can be almost olfactory. I ultimately consider my works of art as another convenience, not a precious object like the still lives you would see in museums. The big prints become some kind of advertising, they will be displayed for a time, and then something else will take its place. It’s the way I see it.


PB : Closing words for everyone who will come see you exhibit/your definition of art.

MB : It’s a very complex question but if I synthesized, I would say: art is life, art is joy. Voilà!