Marco Vernaschi / Biophilia

Posted February 14, 2012

Note: NSFW. A slideshow runs automatically when you click on any thumbnail.

Marco Vernaschi
is an Italian photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His previous work, Placebo was exhibited in 2011 at 54th Venice Biennale, and will be published as a book in 2012.


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Lord George Gordon Byron


In this conversation Marco introduces his latest work in progress, advised and curated by Yasmina Reggad.

HJ: As you move closer toward resolving the final sequence for this current body of work, will your stated intentions be more obvious to your audience, or is this series meant to work on a subliminal level?

MV: This work is currently at the very early stage, so it’s still too soon to talk about approaching a final sequence. The project is based on the gradual discovery, surprise and wonder resulting from encounters with nature, as consequence of inner research.

I want to explore the increasing trend of reconnection with the natural world. As humankind, we’ve had the privilege to live in a very peculiar age of transition. We’re globally facing historical moments of radical changes, in which almost every social structure has failed or is failing.

Most of the socio-dynamics that have ruled the world through the past centuries are under fire. The disorientation resulting from this much needed chaos leads all of us to rethink and possibly to reshape our lives. In different ways, nature turns out to be—if not the answer—at least the asylum in which many people look for new models of living, or simple inspiration. I’m interested in the instinctive drive behind this phenomenon, which is deeply rooted in our DNA and goes beyond any cultural or social contexts.

I don’t want to tell the specific stories of those who opted for a downshift or those who chose confinement and isolation into wild places; I prefer to investigate the drive behind such choices, and the influence of direct experiences. I want to allow myself and the viewer to live the enchantment of this kind of walk into the natural, therefore the language must be far from the explicit. It would be both boring and ineffective.

HJ: Are the images meant to convey a personally resolved concept to the audience, or are you taking the audience on an exploratory journey and showing what you find along the way?

MV: I think this kind of research is genuine when you allow yourself to walk toward something undefined. Exploring means traveling into the unknown, with the intention of finding answers; so it’s all about the questions that lead the search, which also defines the creative process. It’s somehow the same as a lab-experimentation carried on by a scientist. You know what you’re investigating, but there’s no point in making an experiment if you already know where it leads. The real goal is not the resulting body of work; it’s rather the beauty of the experience within the process leading to the photographs. In this sense, photography becomes a tool, not the final goal. Otherwise, it would be a meaningless exercise.

The challenge here is to understand more about the relationship between human and nature, under the perspective of our times, and mine, of course. So there’s nothing pre-digested, nor the intention to get to some universal conclusion. For sure, each consistent project is somehow a personal statement, but in mine there’s no pretension to serve the truth on the tray.

In terms of “how to get there”, I fortunately have more questions than answers. For sure, I know that contemplation is one of the keys—and in terms of visuals, I encourage contemplation through a series of details, structures and textures that help connect to the wonder of nature. It’s a fractal-based approach translated into photographs that allows the viewer to penetrate into the essence of different natural environments.

I’m more and more convinced that most of the existentialistic questions can be answered through an open-minded, careful observation of the natural world, as has always been the case when we try to resolve practical issues related to the structural improvement of life. Think about bionics; nature is the main inspiration to conceive, organize and craft the development of technology—the latter being the tool to build up the progress. In other words, development and progress depend on the combination of pre-existing natural structures and a series of creative interpretations of them.

The same approach within bionics can be experienced when it’s about answering more complex questions, related to our own existence. In my view, we’re witnessing the transition between two ages, the Modern to the Post-Modern. The resulting sense of discomfort and confusion is leading to a massive reconnection with the essential.

Through the past three centuries, humankind has more and more focused on a frantic run toward a misinterpreted concept of progress. From the dawn of the first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, through the consolidation of the Modern Age, humans have been busy structuring the over-exploitation of the planet, which is now exhausted. The global rape of the natural resources has defined over time, a wrong approach to life; humans behave like a virus, which sucks life out of other living beings to keep on growing. Long term, this unsustainable mechanism leads to the death of the source of life—thus, the virus perishes with its victim.

HJ: With Placebo, you stated to the audience that you were sharing a cathartic personal discovery experience. Is this body of work approached from the same angle?

MV: Yes, the method is somehow the same when it’s about the equation experience leading to conclusions, but there are a few relevant differences between Placebo and this new project. Placebo is a personal journey in a specific moment of my life in which I wanted to explore the core of human energy, being in my view, sexual energy. So I decided to face and experience a series of complex situations in which fear, lust and loss of senses played a key role. Through Placebo I investigate how sexual energy defines our life; most people live with a deep sense of frustration—the constant struggle between censoring or living the instinctive quest for pleasure, where the latter is related to desire. It was a spontaneous, orgiastic walk into darkness—a joyful experience that helped me understand why death and sex are two sides of the same medal. It’s very challenging and deeply rewarding to investigate these mechanisms, and even more interesting is to understand—within this context—how we set our limits. It was a walk toward the light.

I chose Placebo as the title because this project was both therapeutic and illusory at the same time. Even though the experience is genuine, photographs always remain an illusion—a personal interpretation, no matter if you’re behind the camera or in front of a print. Different eyes see different pictures—and definitely what we see in this or that image is always a reflection of what we are. In general, I’d say most people are blind, and want to remain blind, which is why death and sex are the top-censored topics, at least in the Western culture.

It’s amazing if you think how in other cultures, sex has often been associated with a spiritual elevation, while in the Western culture, it is seen as something on the edge of “sin”. In the Indian culture, for example, sex is the path to reach a divine dimension. The so often vulgarized Kama Sutra is a study of different techniques to increase pleasure with the goal to reach a non-physical, holy dimension.

In our culture, the only social fragment in which sex is openly depicted for the masses is pornography. It’s not hard to see how this is a direct consequence of centuries of Christianity, a religion that more than any other was carefully conceived, crafted and perfected through time to control the masses through fear and a sense of guilt.

It’s probably ironic, but what keeps feeding pornography is not the desire at the core; it’s rather the censorship on such desire, which creates a series of distorted images and practices reflecting our frustrations. This cannot be anything but sick, beyond any moralistic judgment.

But let’s go back to the new project; the approach here is still based on the personal experience, while the aim is to investigate and understand, on a global scale, why humans go back to nature in times of deep crisis. In this case, the individual experience is both a narrative pretext and the element that allows me to say something about the phenomenon. If I wasn’t experiencing this in first person, it would merely be a distant observation, and as such every possible answer would be just a pretentious theory.

I’m more and more attracted by the essential; the more I walk toward this direction, the more I realize how strong the role of nature is in our lives. I think that experiencing nature with a deeper perspective helps to understand more about the cosmos in which we belong. In my view, this is the only meaningful activity in life—the real reason why we’re on this planet and what keeps us alive. The rest is just an illusion.

HJ: When creating a piece for this series, how much of the work is discovery, chance, and opportunity, versus planning, strategic manipulation, and scene development?

MV: As I said, the surprise and wonder resulting from the encounter with nature is a fundamental element within this project. This means that I put myself in the condition to experience nature, and most of the photographs are interpreted frames of situations or elements I discover through my research. Still, I explore specific environments, which I chose. There is always a combination of fortuity and determined choices.

I’m researching in different directions; for example I’m very intrigued by Land Art, Bio-architecture, bionics and by music. A few months ago, Björk released Biophilia, a very meaningful work exploring the re-connection with nature through the use of new technologies and her music.

With this project, I want to blend photography with other mediums. I want to experiment with a series of direct interventions on landscape and the elements within, and I’m very willing to use music to stimulate the fruition of the visuals.

HJ: It’s clear that contrast is important to this sequence, being employed literally in image tone, and figuratively among elements, such as addressing death and decay versus youth and sensuality. How does contrast contribute to the theme of this project? Is this a conscious or instinctive way of working?

MV: Decay and death are part of life. This is a biological rule, which fortunately humans haven’t managed to change, no matter how many attempts have been done to reach immortality. There’s a significant difference of perspectives between thinking that our body has a soul, where the latter is meant as a pure form of energy, and thinking that such energy is temporarily hosted in a body.

Images of death are always at the center of debates and controversies; this happens because we’re unconsciously destabilized and disoriented when we are forced to face death, no matter if it’s through a picture or through direct experiences. It would be interesting to understand why death is still such a taboo, and I think one of the answers is that we don’t spend enough time, on an individual level, trying to understand what death is actually about. The lack of answers feeds the mechanism leading to censor the topic, or in the best case leads to allegorical conclusions such as the ones given by religions.

I don’t have any answers on hand, but to me it’s more about the questions. I think that there’s a specific reason why every living thing in the universe is subject to decay, no matter if we’re talking about the sun, a person, a dog or a plant. Decay is the way nature reminds us about time, where time is the element defining different stages in which we’re gradually supposed to understand why we’re alive, what life is for and where we’re going next. The fact that nobody has ever managed to give firm answers to these questions is not a limit: it’s the answer. Humankind is so obsessed with achievement and answers that we tend to ignore what really matters: the process of questioning.

This is the reason why I portray dead animals in their natural environment; somehow it’s a memento mori. In my view, these dead animals are not dead. They’re simply undergoing a process of transformation, as we all will. A dead body goes through a process of decomposition, resulting in new forms of life. This is what nature shows us all of the time—the real immortality. And this is why every person instinctively feels that life continues beyond life. So, this is what I mean when I say that a careful observation of the natural rules can suggest answers.

So, It’s not about decay versus youth or sensuality. I’m working on the human body as a natural element of the universe. I am aware that my approach is of anthropocentric nature, and in this case I’m completely fine with that. What you call sensuality is rather harmony, in my view. Through time the human body has been humiliated, vulgarized and finally censored. I’m simply trying to bring back some light on the beauty of the human body, and see how it interacts with nature.

In terms of technique and visuals, there’s not much I’m willing to explain, because it would be misleading and would bring the attention on matters that I think are not so important. I can say that I chose B&W because I want my photographs to be somehow abstract, decontextualized and dreamlike; color would add a series of misleading information, and this would interfere with the process of fruition that I’m trying to build up. B&W helps to focus on the essence of the work, and produce the same effect on the viewer. The way high contrasts work on the human brain defines how you read and feel the photographs. I like it this way and the approach is pretty much instinctive.

I think aesthetics must be functional and consequential to the desired result, to the message you’re sending, so I’m not afraid of changing and trying different paths from project to project. I think that perpetuating a visual language is possibly one of the biggest and more common mistakes, leading to artistic death. Think about how many times Picasso changed his language. If there’s no research, no experimentation and if you’re not interested in questioning your own work and moving on from the ephemeral light of recognition, then you are dead.

HJ: The methodology looks very consistent from one image to the next. What significance does your photographic format have to this project, and are you employing digital technology or working in film? Would either method contribute differently to your stated intentions for this sequence?

MV: Most photographs are digital, only a few are film. Anyway, I really think it’s time to move on from the digital versus film versus iPhone debate. It’s a camera club approach to photography, which does not interest me. What really matters is not the camera, the lens or support one uses, but rather what’s behind the photographs, the idea, the very meaning of the project. I’m really far from thinking that film adds value to a work just because it’s film.

This whole debate reminds me of the times in which the art community in Paris was trying to define the “rules” of painting. They elaborated a document in which the Academy declared that brush strokes on the canvas were meant to be invisible, in order to call a painting “art work”. It was around 1875 when a group of artists decided, in spite of a harsh opposition, to gather into an independent exhibition and give life to a new artistic movement: the Impressionists. The group changed forever the history of art, while the academics were sinking into a bunch of meaningless rules.

It’s pathetic to see how some photographers in 2012 are still stuck on debating this subject. Photography is a language, and as such it must evolve, change. Some photographers are stuck into what they used to be, and cannot think beyond. This is why dinosaurs died; they were unable to evolve and failed to find a place into a new environment. It’s a natural law, which Charles Darwin called the Theory of Evolution.

HJ: You have already stated publicly that this is a work in progress. Should the audience look at this body of work as a second chapter in the overall series and expect more conclusions to be drawn after the third installment yet to come?

MV: I don’t know. All I can say now is that I’m working on this project, which is still very much open and has no deadline. I’m far from thinking about a third work. Besides photography, I’m seriously considering video and other mediums, as the intention is to create a “living” environment for a series of exhibitions, including installations. I want to avoid the “prints on the wall” thing. But we will see… I don’t like opening presents before Christmas.