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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.

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Fat of the Land

Moishes, Rue du Square-Victoria, 29 June 2023

An entirely new sensation recently came over me.

I won’t say who or how I learned the news, but I discovered last month that someone who had very badly trolled me online — one of the few people who actually made threats, and about whom I filed a number of unanswered reports to Twitter, leading me in no small part to leave that platform entirely — has died. A person who wrote that they would harm me has departed. Dead dead deadski. Gone. Split. Outta here. Afterlife, kids. I wished them dead, and they died.

Only Scorpios and the Germans have a word for this.

Carmina Burana, Orchestre Classique de Montréal, Maison Symphonique 20 June 2023

The OCM closed out its season with a rousing rendition of Carl Orff’s cantata, Carmina Burana, otherwise known as the soundtrack to every action movie between about 1984 and 2010, when it achieved peak cliché status.

A new orchestral work by Maxime Goulet, entitled Fire & Ice, inspired by the devastating Montreal ice storm of 1998 and commissioned by director Taras Kulish, preceded the Orff performance. No shade to ’98, but we’ve already endured an equally wicked ice storm, several heat waves, and ongoing apocalyptic forest fires as if 2023 has been one giant hold-my-beer meme.

War soundtracks are either from a soldier’s perspective or from the sidelines. The front-line fighter wants to hear something that charges him up — like Russia’s favourite, The Prodigy.

Whereas the armchair spectator craves something more emotional and dramatic, like William Ryan Fritch’s heartrending, ambient soundtrack to this slickly produced New York Times documentary.

Russia provides the war, The Times provides the score.

Jim Holyoak, Gargantuans, McBride Contemporain, 25 May – 30 June 2023

On 6 December 1969, a free concert was mounted at the Altamont Speedway outside of Tracy, California. The lineup featured a who’s who of 60s psychedelia including Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones. The event’s organizers billed it as the Woodstock of the West, promising peace, love, and all the dope that anyone could desire.

The security detail, however — the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang — was not on the same trip. As night fell, the Altamont concert descended into chaos, resulting in numerous injuries and deaths.

A Hell’s Angels member repeatedly stabbed Stephen Stills in the leg with a bicycle spoke, and the lead singer of the San Francisco band the Ace of Cups, Denise Jewkes, suffered a fractured skull when a bottle was tossed in from the crowd.

Meredith Hunter, a black teenager, took a knife in the back after he charged the stage with a pistol. He succumbed to his injuries.

Hunter’s target was unclear. Was it simply revenge for an earlier skirmish, or did the devil’s sympathizers somehow possess this man in a lime green suit?

Inevitable, 540 St. Laurent Blvd, 26 June 2023

Everything I know about Italian food I learned from either Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. I recall an appearance by Scorsese and his mother, Catherine, on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman to promote the film Goodfellas. Mrs. Scorsese had baked a pizza for Letterman’s audience and was cutting it with scissors. Dave remarked that she wasn’t using a knife or a pizza cutter, and she informed him that to scissor was the preferable method.

I immediately noticed that Mr. Arciero used scissors to slice his pizzas, too. This affirmed its legitimacy to me. I’m not Italian; I’m Ukrainian. But Italians and Ukrainians have the same word for tomatoes, which makes us practically comrade paisans. And dare I submit that Italians know better what to do with tomatoes. We use them as sauce for cabbage rolls. Italians mix them with basil and spread them on fermented dough. And damn, it’s delicious.

There isn’t any pretence about Inevitable. No ultrahip font or incandescent bulbs with glowing filaments exposed. Just Italian goodness made by some fellas.

Maison Margan, 370 Place Royale, 27 June 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the hot dog king of Moscow, has increasingly been employing divisive, populist rhetoric in public, saying things like, “The children of the elite smear themselves with creams, showing it on the internet; ordinary people’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces.” 

Though Prigozhin is no ordinary person. He’s a billionaire with a private army that would make David Koresh’s compound look like a carnival in a parking lot. Prigozhin is decidedly a member of the elite.

But he is so ugly. His skin is rough and ruddy. You know what’s decadent? Those teeth. Someone could use a makeover.

Screenshot from a New York Times Opinion Video entitled “A Salute to the Honest(ish) Russian Warlord.”

Prigozhin and madmen like him would rather the elite’s children come in zinc, torn to pieces, too, than, God forbid, ordinary children smear themselves with creams on the internet, even though there’s nothing decadent in the strictest sense of the word about a good cream smearing from time to time.

Rather, self-care resists decay. This is why lipstick was such a coveted commodity after World War II. Cosmetics might have even stimulated the Baby Boom and the period of peaceful Western prosperity that followed.

At the beginning of the Ukrainian invasion, I volunteered at St. Sophie’s Cathedral, helping to organize the immense and generous volume of community contributions to incoming Ukrainians displaced by war. Coats, clothes, boots, books, games, furniture, cups, saucers, dishes, cutlery, soap, shampoo, body cream.

My eyes fell upon a wooden bowlful of toiletries donated by a local luxury hotel. A woman who had come to the church with her two children picked out a tube of body cream from the bowl as if it were a precious gem or an orchid.

This woman was by no means elite. But nor was she ordinary. She was in a church basement in Montreal selecting a donated tube of hotel body cream under extremely extraordinary circumstances.

We are fortunate in this city, despite having to navigate between orange cones and languages, to have nice things. We deserve nice things. Everyone does. Even Yevgeny Prigozhin. Let’s oppose zinc and ordinary children torn to pieces, not body cream.

Grace means beauty amidst brutality. It is not an end, but a means to one.◼︎