On Existence, or How Art Embodies Life Itself

Written by Chloe Bugat, Edited by Zaynab Mortada

Geneviève Dagenais is a Montreal-based artist with a Bachelor’s degree in visual and media arts from UQAM. She works in both analog photography and sculpture –using stoneware, wax, porcelain, textile and paper clay. For Geneviève, these two mediums intertwine as exemplified by the careful photographic curation of her sculptures on her website. When asked about the similarities and differences between photography and sculpture, she says that both conserve space, though in different ways: the former captures space itself, while the latter situates itself within a space.

The themes Geneviève is drawn to are existence, corporeality and evanescence. With her work, she attempts to capture the essence of that which is immaterial and hard to define, namely the fragmentary nature of life. In our interview, she beautifully articulates these themes with a vocabulary that transfers exactly what she says is so difficult to describe and brings a special sense of calm to our conversation. Like her speech, each series on her website is accompanied by thoughtful descriptions that match her contemplative personality.

Similar to Geneviève’s theme of the fragmentary nature of life, her mediums are fragmentary themselves. Sculpture and photography freeze singular moments in time. Through their use, she seeks to capture grief, death and how these complex emotions and experiences manifest themselves in life. For her, there is a direct correlation between these subjects, the materials she works with and the process of creating, which all combined result in the feeling left by the final product. Though her fragments can only ever be interpretations of those feelings. 

48 hours before Geneviève started university, her mother passed away. She entered that environment experiencing a mixture of sadness and anger, in a setting where her grief left her with no choice but to function and no space for anything except her studies. This event set the trajectory for Geneviève’s art to come. Describing her mother’s passing as the triggering element to her work, she says

“Je pense que j’ai trouvée quelque chose qui devient finalement plus large que juste ma mère parce que le deuil n’est pas seulement par rapport à la mort, c'est par rapport aux autres choses qui passent aussi et qui changent, donc par rapport à l'impermanence des choses.”

In her series La Fatigue des Objets (2021), Geneviève works with resin, a medium which decides its own shape as it cools. Like people, resin transforms through each stage of its life and is completed only after changing states. Yet even the final product is preserved in a state of motion and free will as the resin drips between the fingers. Speaking of La Fatigue des Objects, Geneviève compares the hand that supports the object to the heart that supports life, all while the object’s life slips through the fingers as though it will continue to move forever. In that series, Geneviève captures one of the most difficult understandings we come to while growing up: that no matter how much we may grasp at life’s fleeting moments, it slips through our fingers.

La Fatigue des Objets (2021)

Restreindre l'étendue I et II (2018-2020) are the first photos she took after her mother died, and her first project to fuse photography and sculpture. The flowers in the photos are condolence gifts she received and the stockings are her mother’s. Playing with present and tangible objects that represent a person who is no longer here, Geneviève uses photographs to render both object and person permanent, if momentarily. She refers to this as “the impermanence of living in time.” The ephemeral nature of flowers is connected to the subject Geneviève is capturing, particularly when their gifting is symbolic of her mother’s former presence in life. On her website, she writes: “En imprimant ces photographies en chambre noire plus de deux ans plus tard, je fais du passage de ma mère des traces matérielles me permettant de revivre quelques-uns de ses échos.” She describes this theme as a ‘false presence’, or, a presence felt through an explicit absence. To me, this feeling is strong in the photo, as though something that cannot quite be named is missing.

Restreindre l'étendue I (2018-2020)

Restreindre l'étendue II (2018-2020)

Geneviève explores a similar theme in her series Entre Deux Temps (2019). This series is softer than some of her other works. The wrap which coats the objects –all found in her mother’s apartment– adds a fuzziness to them and pastel quality to the colours. Although they hold no real economic value or utility, they are transferred, generational objects that hold symbolic and emotional value to her, making her unable to part with them. These objects capture the false presence felt only by Geneviève, that is, traces of her mother perceived only by her. What this work shows us is that ultimately the precious quality we ascribe to objects is a personal decision. The meaning imbued in an object is in some way a projection of ourselves.

Entre Deux Temps (2019)

In her analog photography series Quelque part (2018), Geneviève is inspired by the countryside, where she grew up, and its connection to human presence. One of her photographs depicts ducks. It was taken in the family orchard she returned to every year and represents what Geneviève describes as a “cliche and traditional family routine.” This particular photograph captures a transitional point in the year when apple season is over and reminders of the previous season are left in the deserted bits of dead life on the ground. But as her work consistently shows, life continues to speak itself into existence. Even though the season is over, another one will follow with more to come.

Quelque part I (2018)

In another photograph from this series a sheet billows in the wind, floating above a barren countryside landscape of dead and broken matter. To create this picture someone tossed the sheet two or three times as Geneviève took a photo each time it was tossed. These pictures bring her art closer to a material form as it takes a certain rigour and technical application to capture on film –without the possibility for multiple takes that digital photography allows. There is only a split second to act; a gracious aspect that only this medium captures. To her, analog is sufficient rather than insufficient. It requires more confidence through being in the moment and present. In this way, the medium itself is part and parcel of the moment she is capturing and effect she is creating, and this makes her work stronger and more emotive. Most importantly, it makes her happy to work with.

Quelque part II (2018)

Rapiécer ce qui ne saurait te survivre (2021-2022) is a sculptural work made with silkscreen and porcelain, inspired by some of her mother’s old sewing patterns, all of which were marked and noted from her use, thus conserving her physical trace on them. Geneviève calls this “the traces we leave which the material keeps.” She describes on her website that “[a]vec ce travail, je tente de reconstituer le souvenir inexistant d’un veston que ma mère se serait confectionné.” She puts the pieces back together like a puzzle, such that some of the shapes recall a silhouette. 

Rapiécer ce qui ne saurait te survivre (2021-2022), exhibition view 1

This series is particularly unique because the sewing patterns are remnants of her mother’s craft whose history Geneviève is contributing to by using them for her own. Here, she is making art by repurposing her mother’s tools. This work is representative of how generic textiles and materials often become very personal when we maintain close relationships with them, even down to their smell which eventually evaporates. In the case of Geneviève, the personal connection is even more palpable by the nature of her mother’s original craftsmanship.

Rapiécer ce qui ne saurait te survivre (2021-2022), exhibition view 2

In this series, the process of creation is paradoxical. While the substance of ceramic is more hardy than textile and can be more easily preserved over time, the printing and heating processes of transforming the former patterns means losing some of their traces. At the same time, the process creates new traces, and so the history continues. Perhaps this is more powerful than preservation because rather than putting an end to the objects’ story, Geneviève chooses to continue their life, of which she had always been a part of.

In Pitfire (2022), the artist moves toward art grounded in nature, the Earth, and ancestry. She makes ceramics using natural materials on the agricultural lands of her father in a ritualistic process that takes three days, in order to make the pit and the pieces. She uses a literal “pit fire”, a large pit she digs herself in which to light a fire as a kiln for her ceramic works. The process is called ‘enfumage’ and uses the output of smoke during the firing of ceramic to cause blackening and reactions on the surface. She explains that the charred parts of the ceramics are not her choice but the sculpture’s, chosen during its own life as a result of the transformational journey the piece goes through. She also plays with salt in these works which creates contrasts in the colours of red and orange as it eats away at the earthy materials.

Sculpture tout droit sortie du Pitfire (2022)

Evident in Geneviève’s previous artworks and her descriptions of them is her attempt to achieve art through a creative process in which the materials and their metamorphosis embody the themes she hopes to convey. Likewise, this project is enriched through the significance of the making. The ceramic objects become more than their finality as the artist doesn’t decide their final forms. This part is left to fire. From a conceptual point of view, the process becomes a space of contemplation which recalls the ceremony and ritual surrounding death without the piece expressly naming it as such. 

Ultimately, Geneviève’s goal is to have an exposition which centres this ritualistic approach of looking at grief. For now, she creates objects entirely her own. In these organic shapes, she reflects on the abstract nature of the heart and the complexities of humanity which it contains, figuratively and literally.

For Geneviève, the process of making her artworks is the art. The process is just as important as the final product, if not more. The manipulation of the materials and their transformation is where the most meaning is imbued because as her materials transform they physically mimic her themes of existence, evanescence, and corporeality. Her style has also undergone a parallel transformation such that her current project, Pitfire (2022), transcends the line between process and product in the ultimate manifestation of her ongoing themes.

To stay in loop for Geneviève's future exhibitions or check out her other works, visit her website and instagram

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