Myriam Ben Salah
Before going into the specific, I would love for you to tell me about your path as an artist and about your practice. How do you envision your work?
Since December 2012, I live and work between Paris and Los Angeles.
Diversity and artistic freedom offered by these two cities are in complete symbiosis with my work. These are two cities that, because of what they represent, work as emblems, mirrors reflecting the myth of “the madness beauty” in their own specific way. Paris the mystic, aristocratic and mysterious versus Los Angeles and its Hollywood decorum, the botox and dentist clinics. My work encompasses different kinds of practices that re- appropriate myths to question female identity. And since you mention my path, I would associate my artistic practice with the yellow brick path of the Wizard of Oz. Every experience I live is a pretext for a new project. My work is related to emotion and feeling, not to mention the autobiographical. It is probably for this reason that I like to live in the extreme and need perpetual entertainment to create. I see art as a path for creating my own myth. It sounds a bit narcissistic but to quote Nikki de Saint Phalle: "I decided very early to be a heroine. No matter what I should be! The important thing was that it was difficult, great and exciting.”
You have a very strong universe that's present in your paintings, sculptures, performances, videos but also in your life I would say. Spanning from historical and mythological references, you create a world where extreme glamour meets a profound darkness on a background of obsolescence. You are quite a singular character yourself and I always have the feeling that there is something otherworldly about you. Your dark romanticism, overflowing baroque aesthetic, What galaxy and what period do you come from, Lucile Littot?
That's actually a funny one. I attended a performance organised by Jeffrey Vallance at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles where he invited this famous clairvoyant and astrologer to channel the spirit of Andy Warhol. As I always attract strange people, this same psychic came to converse with me afterwards and after a long discussion he revealed to me that I had been haunted until the age of 9 years old by the spirit of a 16th century’s pimp. My obsession with garter belts, corsets, knots, recurrent symbols in my work, might come from that period of my life.
I recently found drawings from my childhood. There is a whole series on aristocrat families wrapped in Dior and Chanel costumes pictured in front of their houses "fleur de lys". I noticed that I already had a fetish for shoes.
Then there is the series of witches in which giant spiders and blue-faced women torture children whose bodies are tied and have been punctured by red felt. Weird... But I guess nothing changes!
In my own fantasy I am a fallen princess. I am very into the way of life of “La vie de chateau". It is not the idea of power or social rank that interests me, but the divine idea of a gift or a curse that one receives, so as to receive a magic power.
The baroque and the Rococo periods are fascinating to me because they evoke “the staged life” – what I try to recreate in my work.
In opulent and heady settings, the tragedy of feelings are figured in broad daylight. Then we mask the boredom and banality under the gilding, the eccentric appearances and the champagne bubbles. I love the glamorous idea of the luxury and abundance of a place because it leads to other corridors and other imaginary and carnal regions. It provokes in me an inexplicable feeling of ecstasy. My mother says that I am born with this disease which is called “la folie des grandeurs”. I believe it.
My great aunt, who was a very eccentric character used to take us with my cousin as a child to the Negresco in Nice. I remember the grandiose feelings inside me caused by the incredible decor of the restaurant Carousel. Horses, ostrich feathers, and roses flooded with the inimitable light of the Cote d'Azur. Yachts and the Mediterranean sea shining to infinity.
She was offering us her dresses to get disguised. One day at the bottom of a pocket my cousin took out a diamond that my great aunt had sewn, certainly to hide it then she had forgotten it. Ironically, she ended with Alzheimer, lost all her money and was surprised drinking her Chanel No.5 in the room of her retirement home. Tragic but pretty beautiful.
For the group that you organised in Occidental Contemporary last summer, the piece I made was a tribute to these memories. From my pink room with love.
The creatures in your paintings themselves and more recently in your sculptures balance the very glamorous with the monstrous and chaotic. They seem to come from another time but epitomise today's society. What or who do you think about when you make them?
I’VE SEEN IT ALL, KNOWN IT ALL AND FORGOTTEN IT ALL is taken from a sentence that Marie-Antoinette said during her trial just before being guillotined. During the ceramic residency in 2016 in Versailles at Louis Lefebvre, I began to read a lot about her. The books of Stefan Zweig inspired me particularly. I associate Marie-Antoinette to a kind of it-girl of the 16th century. She is a very moving character but completely lost in her environment. She does not want to see anything else and needs permanent entertainment to avoid boredom. The title of this series could have been the sentence that one of these "famous girls of Instagram" of our generation could have said after her 125th evening sprinkled in the Hollywood hills or at the exit of a trendy Parisian club. The kind of party where you can be sure that you will see half of the people with siliconed lips and breasts implants, yelling “Oh my goooshhhhh". What I find fascinating in this kind of stereotypical race to the perfect beauty is how much plastic surgery makes these people monstrous and reduces them to the status of clones.
Similarly, I think of the Kardashian family and social media devaluing our society. It reminds me of the ironic science fiction novel by Boris Vian: “and we kill all the uglies.” We are almost there. The plastic surgeon is the new Victor Frankenstein turning this emptiness and thirsty women into stars of tabloids.The snake pit coldly waiting for crisp news and the tragic end of these monstrous creatures made in Los Angeles. Hollywood Babylon (1959) by Kenneth Anger was also one of my references for a long time and depicts this subject with irony.
I have no contempt for these creatures and as I love freaks, I must say that I still have some attraction-repulsion for plastic surgery and the faces and bodies that it generates and this has inspired my latest work.
Who is Dolores in I’VE SEEN IT ALL, I’VE KNOWN IT ALL, AND I’VE FORGOTTEN IT ALL. SONG N.3 HOTEL CALIFORNIA?
Dolores 2028 is an avatar. From who? I let you guess.
The show was part of a series of works that you started making in 2016. Can you expand on the plot that you developed with this new body of work?
For I’VE SEEN IT ALL, KNOWN IT ALL, AND FORGOTTEN IT ALL. SONG N.3 HOTEL CALIFORNIA organised at Les Bains-Douches in Alençon, I have been inspired by the representations of the Amazons in the painting of the Renaissance and the Middle Age. The representation of women, painted on gold background, is elevated here to an iconic level, of saints, of Saintes Marie-Madeleines perhaps! The accompanying text is the mental monologue of Dolores, Lolita-style glasses on her nose, she leads in the middle of a city devastated by chaos and revolt (I had written this before, the arrival of Donald Trump in power elsewhere). This vengeful heroine, a little call-girl on the edges and with exaggerated sensitivity could be the main character of a B movie. Areas of this mutant princess are patched up by golden surgical threads. The pieces that are in the exhibition symbolise moments and feelings of this girl. They are fixed in the sculptures like steles recalling objects of prayer or ex- voto. The bed becoming that orgiastic representation of a surreal feast, sprinkled, and suffocated by the glitter and streamers. The party, the glamour, the excess until blackout. Everyone smiles but everyone is already dead. Zombies hidden under girly colours; cream-pie and cupcakes until indigestion.
What was the idea behind the photo-shoot?
I love to costume, to make-up, and change skin, which is something I also do for my performances. For this shoot, I turned myself into a dancing-girl from the 70’s as in Model Shop from Jacques Demy or Lola, a German woman from Fassbinder. I had my mother implicated in the photo-shoot because I liked the idea of her disguised as a madam. I liked the idea of a duo in a "Belle de Jour” style. There is also the "ready for my close up" inspiration of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), but also Eyes Without a Face (1960) from Georges Franju, or Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977), or Carrie (1976) by Brian De Palma in the interpretation of the deranged starlet painted in gold.
Do you envision your paintings and installations as a background for an existing or imaginary story? The shoot would be one way to realise the potentialities of such a scenery then?
My work is all about mise-en-scène. I consider sometimes my painting andinstallation like the sketches of my future films. I used the costumes and decors of Erèbe, a film that I shot in Los Angeles in 2013, for the installations I exhibited in Madness Grandiosa, a show that took place in an abandoned house in Los Angeles The characters are more or less all dramatic. It is a women's story of course. A family story.
Pathetic B movie style. Black humour is one of the facets of my work that is very important to me. It is always better to laugh at the pain so it does not consume you.
You're in Los Angeles right now and you spent a lot of time working there. You even shot this movie Erèbe in the city and its surrounding. It makes complete sense as it might be the perfect geographical point of encounter of the dream and the nightmare. What is it in the city that fascinates you?
Totally. Erèbe was all about the Hollywood walk of fame’s myth, and how people come here to make it and almost always ends tragically. Cliché, but very true!
I always had this feeling when I was driving to Los Angeles, that if one day the decor cracked or collapsed, it would leave room for another decor worthy of the infernal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
I tried once to scratch with a fingernail one of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. To see if, as in the cartoons, an immense fissure would form and the prisoners of hell would try to escape with strident laughter, as with the evil character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
I love Los Angeles because everything is inordinate and funny. The city, people, everything. I feel much closer in ways of thinking with other artists here, I affiliate with their eccentricity. I have a good crew.
I love the human being when we are at our most grotesque, and Los Angeles brings this out. Also, what I find funny is that here, the kings and queens are the stars of the tabloids; as there is no history, everything is invented. That's why I love the balance between Los Angeles and Paris. Everything is contradictory in me and my work and, ultimately, that is what I find ambiguous and reliable.