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Matter Out Of Place: in conversation with Michelle Bui

The sumptuous images of the Montreal photographic artist Michelle Bui expose complex systems at work: Natural and artificial systems; human and nonhuman systems; ordered and chaotic systems; digital and analogue systems.

Then, there are the objects and materials that Bui chooses, which often defy identification. But they speak nonetheless through their selection. And as yearbooks or family photos would, they reassemble stories of resemblance and social agency.

“The selection process is really important to me,” Bui says, as we examine her newest works collected in a stunning exhibition, entitled Affinités poreuses, on view at McBride Contemporain in Montreal’s iconic Édifice Belgo. “It starts with two images that trigger another image. Then, I know that meaning will come — the poetry of it will come through.”

Bui’s lyrical works can be categorized as still-life photographs, but there are sculptural, textual, and ideological features to them, too. Her images have been reproduced at enormous scale and recontextualized into metropolitan environments — as in her 2022 Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery show, Mutable Materialism — which redrew the borders between commercial and public space.

“There’s the idea of advertising sometimes in my work,” Bui explains, “and it’s nice to see it competing with other advertising that is there. We’re taking up the space of advertisements.”

Left: String of pearl beads’ coating, bean thread noodles, 60×48. Right: Cadmium green chiffon, blue recycling bag, 60×48. McBride Contemporain.

In addition to the abstraction of consumerist desire, there is an ASMR-like quality to Bui’s most recent photographed assemblages. They elicit an autonomic, almost affective response, on one hand because of their abstractness, and on the other due to their familiarity. “There’s something democratic about the objects that I use,” Bui reveals. “There’s a keen interest in finding objects that we can all relate to, and how they’re all presented together.”

Bui habitually integrates items from her garden, the back alley, and particularly rubbish. “I can go through the trash, basically, and look for those objects that are usually thrown away,” she confesses, laughing. “It’s another way of looking at art. There’s always a discovery to be made, a flower to be discovered, or a colour that can strike you when you stop on your way. That’s how I see the images I build — those elements that have stopped me on my walks before. It speaks of my direct environment.”

Describing herself as a “true Montrealer,” Bui is a graduate of the customary Dawson, Concordia, UQAM route to Fine Arts. During her Master’s degree, though, she attended the Beaux-Arts de Paris, and returned home with a more streamlined artistic vision. “It’s a different way of working over there,” Bui says of her European instruction. “It’s like an atelier, and it’s about the reduction of your art, simplifying what you want to project.”

Though a sharp sense of focus characterizes her body of work, Bui arrived circuitously at artistic practice. “It was a long path of understanding,” she recalls. “It wasn’t something that was presented in my family — they are immigrants from Vietnam. So, as you know, art is never the most practical thing to show your kids. But for so many reasons, and for my own interest, and also the way our family works, I think I was kind of pushed towards art. It was a steady path. I’m like a marathoner.”

Left: Bellflower petals, scented plastic bag, 60×48. Right: Abalone shell, mica powder, salmon scales, 60×48. McBride Contemporain.

Bui came of age steeped in images from across art history, her father frequently taking the family to the library to read up on Greek and Roman antiquity. But it wasn’t until her teenage years that she experienced more transcendent encounters with contemporary art.

“I remember seeing Nan Goldin in 2003,” Bui says, “and Jean Cocteau at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. I was about 16 at the time. I just remember the velvet red curtains and that whole experience of intimacy. It was the same thing with Nan Goldin. Such a powerful but intimate exhibition. I was like, ‘okay, I want to do that. I don’t know how, it doesn’t make sense right now, but I’ll follow that.’”

Bui places herself within a tradition of artists who collect and assemble such sundry items that reflect upon our systemic and interconnected worldview, specifically citing the German artist Annette Kelm. “She has a really rational approach to photography,” explains Bui. “They go beyond the signification of what they are. She talks all about the history of those objects, the patterns that she uses, and thinks a lot about capitalism. I think I touch on that in my work.”

The local ceramics artist Celia Perrin Sidarous rates highly for Bui, too. “I think she is an influence on many artists in Montreal, actually. The way I work is like being in the kitchen, so there’s lots of gestures and materials that are borrowed from everywhere. Sometimes it’s more painterly. Other times, it’s more about the archive of the objects. It all goes in, meshes in.”

Left: Bone, silk sea sponge, 68×48. Right: Dried orchid, peach flesh, 68×48. McBride Contemporain.

I can’t help but discern a wealth of dichotomies emerging from Bui’s keen camera eye. There’s the ever-present tension between hygiene and disease, purity and pollution, the selected and the discarded, and what is valuable versus what constitutes waste.

The multiplicity of everyday and exotic objects that Bui curates into her still-lifes communicate meaning through the contagion of pleasure prior to identification, the virality of sheer sensation, and the infection of juxtaposition. An apt description for Bui’s oeuvre might be the British Sociologist Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt — as an “omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems.”

Still, for Bui, it’s about patiently awaiting a feeling from her images, some singular awareness in the viewer that’s arrived at through the careful and intentional collection and presentation of seemingly miscellaneous aesthetic artifacts.

“I am always seeing an emotion. And if I don’t get it, I get very frustrated in front of the camera. There’s something that I’m always reaching for. But I recently left that behind. Now, I just go with the process and let the images unfold over time. I don’t know,” Bui shrugs. “Maybe I’m more confident in the imagery of my work.”◼︎

Affinités poreuses continues through 28 October 2023 at McBride Contemporain, 372 Saint Catherine Street West Suite 414.

Cover image: Jill Schweber.