“A lot of my art decomposes on its own, returning to nature where it came from...”
The visual poetry of Melissa Meier’s art: an interview by Mirela Dialeti
Brazilian artist Melissa Meier is internationally recognized for her evocative three-dimensional installations, found-object sculptures, collages and photography. In her current series “SKINS”, Meier has created sculptural clothing hybrids, utilizing natural materials such as leaves, stones, fur, eggshells, wheat, rice, crystals, scales, sticks, feathers, pinecones and shells.
Hello Melissa, thank you so much for the talk. So where are you right now, are you in California?
Yes, I am in California, where I now live, but I was born in Brazil. My mother is Brazilian and my father is Swiss. I lived in Brazil until I was 15, then I moved to London, then to the US and I also have lived in Switzerland.
Ηow do you think these cultures have affected you as an artist?
I think Brazil really affected me a lot because it was where I was brought up as a kid and I loved all the parades, the carnivals, the costumes. My parents also really loved to travel, we traveled all over the world and the different sceneries had a big impact on me, getting to know so many different cultures. So, for example, for the SKINS series I'm influenced by many different cultures but mostly being brought up in Brazil and seeing the carnival and the skinwalkers.
What was the first art you ever think you made? For example, when you were 4 or 5 years old.
That is an interesting question. I remember very clearly that as a child I used to draw all the time, everywhere we went my mum brought pencils with her for me to sit down and draw. I also remember that I was really excited when I started to get in touch with found objects as a very young child. I remember getting my hands on toilet paper rolls and turning them into little sculptures. I do remember clearly being excited about creating something distinct and paper macheing it, gluing it, I also collected a lot of things out of nature, like feathers. I had a little collection of organic materials in general, I remember I had drawers and cabinets, still do, I organized them and everything. They have been really special to me since my childhood.
I was really enthralled by your ability to glue each and every piece of your materials together one by one. How much time and patience does that take?
Well I'm pretty fast and I'm also excited when I do it so I don't really get bored. I'm really excited to see what every piece is going turn out like and that really motivates me and keeps me going. Then every day I say “well I did this part now or the other part” and every day the whole image starts coming together with a spirit of its own. Also it is very meditative for me, the process. I feel relaxed, I start to understand and feel connected to the material. When I was doing the rice outfit I remember I could pick the rice without looking and tell what type of rice it was. I become really familiar with the objects. I love that.
How do you choose the materials?
Well, usually it just comes naturally, I'll see something or I'll be cooking and I'll be like, “this material here is so beautiful, what can we do with it?”. When I made the rice piece, I wanted to do something really beautiful and elaborate so I pinned every single rice grain with a toothpick and glued them all together. I felt like I needed something very meditative at that time. With the popcorn dress also, same story: I was just eating popcorn and thinking that the popcorn is so cool as a material, “let’s see if we can make something out of it so people can appreciate it more as shape and texture”, that’s what I thought. I use special and different glues to put them together of course, depending on the heaviness and uniqueness of every material.
You create this bridge between human and animal with organic materials and watch the work come to life on the human body. Do you have an image in your head and you work your way to it, or it just happens?
I just look at the material and the material will dictate what I want to do. For example the popcorn is so organic-looking and puffy, I wanted to turn the dress made of it very geometric, using the texture of the popcorn and creating this origami and angular shape to create a contrast between texture and shape. I want people to be really surprised in regards to what they think they are seeing. I want them to be like “Oh wait, that's a dress made of popcorn!”
You’ve mentioned that your Project “Skins” is inspired by legends of indigenous people and how they used the skins of animals to transform into them. Is there a particular legend you remember and want to share that inspired a particular project?
I really like the concept of people transforming themselves in a very spiritual way. I wanted to develop that so I thought “what if we became all kinds of nature?”. I felt like that was an interesting concept. The Brazilian Carnival and Native American skin-walkers, for example, put animal skins on their body and ultimately become the animal. I was interested in the same kind of transformation, only naturewise. I also do animals and I'm interested in furthering this animalesque concept but I also wanted to examine this more vegetative, natural part of us.
The female “beast”, the female animal has been used in art as a symbol of resistance by feminist surrealists. In that sense, I would identify your work as feminist and surrealist. How does the project SKINS entangle surrealistic narratives with feminism? Is this something you've thought about\seen?
I do see my work as surreal, I love surrealism and I'm a woman, so of course I'm gonna express myself from that point of view. I am a feminist of course, although when I work I don't really think about it but I do think about women and I do want women to wear my work and be photographed with it, even though my husband is usually like “can I put something on?” and men approach me and ask me to make something for them and I'm like “ok, maybe someday” but not now. I do prefer to photograph women in general. Usually my daughter is the main model in my photos, because she is here and she is really good at setting the mood, she knows what I want, she knows the dresses and the difficulty of putting them on. I could make something about men of course, and I have had men pose for me from time to time, but it's not my main purpose.
I too get the sense of the vegetative proliferation of the female body via your SKINS series, it's clear to me as a viewer that this is a woman-centric and surrealist point of view.
Yes, but you know, also when I'm creating and photographing, it's clear to me that those women are me. If I were to put one of my outfits on men, it would be clear to me that I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about me as a woman and all women in general. If I were a man, I’d make something else.
Once I had an interview with a photographer that was simultaneously the model and the artist and used herself as the model because she saw herself as the muse. I found it really original and artistically empowering.
Yeah I agree and because I started with my daughter, I felt like she is part of me. That she characterized myself as a child looking at nature. Other women came to put on the outfits and although they are not part of my family I still see myself in them.
Is there any type of artist in particular that feeds into your work, you admire or are inspired by?
Oh yeah, I have a whole bunch. I was just showing my daughter paintings of Bosch. I love Bosch, I love Ernst Fuchs, Frida Kahlo, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Carrington, Tanning, Dora Maar. I am inspired by surrealism, I can see why surrealism is relevant to my art. I wouldn't know what to call my art, I don't know how to categorize it, I see my pieces more like visual poetry. I think I myself am spiritual and mystical and that goes in there too, in the surreal. Because when I work I use my instinct, I feel like being guided in a way. I think I am also influenced by catholicism. Due to growing up in Brazil, many of my sculptures can be related to mysticism in that sort of way.
I’m really curious, where do you stock all these pieces when you've finished the photoshooting? What do you do with the costumes once you are finished using them?
Well they are everywhere and it's driving me crazy! I'm having this show so everything is gonna be away for three months, thankfully, after that though they are coming back. A lot of the stuff is organic though so they decompose on their own. It's interesting because ultimately they are made out of living things. A lot of pieces go back to nature. I see a lot of them starting to shed and returning to nature, some of them have bugs eating them and thus I think a part of my process is to be able to let go of my art. Let it go back to nature and not be holding on to pieces of it. It's ok to learn to let go.
What's your next project?
My next big project is the show in March, Becoming Nature, although I still do wanna try to explore some new things, ultimately I think I wanna explore painting and drawing a bit more. Right now all I will do is focus on the show, but after that, when the costumes and masks are gone, with a clean slate I think I wanna experiment with new forms. I just saw some dried oranges and I was like “oh my god yes”, or some peeled tangerines and I could picture them together, ideas come to mind all the time. Time will tell.