In the last years, we have witnessed the surge of a powerful narrative challenging human exceptionalism. Systems like colonialism, patriarchy and even capitalism, legitimized by so-called scientific theories, are being put to the test in an effort to address climate change and abuses from current systems of oppression. One of the most fertile grounds in the quest for alternative models is contemporary art, with artists from different backgrounds and disciplines imagining wholesome configurations of cohabitation where all living beings are treated in an equal footing. Nicolas Floc’h, a French multifaceted artist working with sculpture, photography, installation, architecture and other media, embodies this paradigm shift where humans are no longer center-stage. Since the 1990’s, his artistic practice has delved on the complex relations between human beings and their environment. With a particular penchant for the ocean, Floc’h’s interest lies in the transformative power of art as he relies on it to expand its viewership perception of what nature is. With projects like Structures Productives (2015) – small reproductions of devices made to help corals grow – or Bee’s Bunker (2015) – beehives made of raw stone so humans can’t have access to it – Floc’h’s work aims at building fairer fields whereby exploitation and dispossession do not determine exchanges intra-species.
Adhering to the ideas of philosophers such as Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, Emanuele Coccia or Bruno Latour, Floc’h conceives nature not as a passive and objectified entity but rather as an intertwined set of relations where reciprocity is key. Hence, how is Nicolas Floc’h artistic practice decolonizing our conceptualization of nature?
Typologies of the Ocean
When we think about the ocean and its wonders, we tend to imagine heavenly beaches – mostly tropical – and thriving aquatic ecosystems in which all kinds of animal and vegetal species live. Our submarine imagery is colonised by colourful representations of corals in which dramatic scenes unfold between fierce species. Nicolas Floc’h work, such as his ongoing photographic project Intimim Maris, is an attempt to show another side of the ocean, one much less spectacular but equally important. The black and white photographs taken in different regions in France, offer a counter narrative showing desolate and eerie spaces where serene vegetation evoke otherworldly landscapes. By choosing to photograph these ecosystems he rejects an artificial iconography that has contributed to exoticizing nature to view it as yet another source to be exploited. Nonetheless, Floc’h’s objective is not to minimize coral reef’s importance but rather to question an ideal nature that has been “colonised in concept as well as in practice”.
Marine fields unfold not as mere functional spaces, they are habitats regulated by their own critters. Floc’h’s series The Color of Water are pictures taken under the sea at different heights and locations, the viewer sees blue and green colorfiels, photos bearing a great similarity to Yves Klein’s monochromes. Floc’h often shows the series as an installation so as to show the gradation in tones, colour changes depending on the height: whenever we face these pictures, we cannot help but feel that we are immersed in the ocean. Thus, the photographs are complete abstractions, a poetic cartography of the sea where it’s impossible to locate oneself. This cartography, illegible for humans but legible to other species, reveals the complexity of subaquatious spheres.
Furthermore, technological devices have contributed in the quest for a counter narrative. Vinciane Despret in her book Habiter en Oiseau (2019), speaks about their importance for they help us notice things that we couldn’t see without them. Floc’h uses cameras and devices enabling him to document life in the ocean, without the technology to do so, these remarkable landscapes will have remained unknown to his audience. As stated before, the pictures taken by the artist are not corals but algues located in the Atlantic Ocean, as oceans warm, ecosystem’s like kelp forests begin to disappear. This tragic event remains invisible for most of us, by recording it and giving it a form, Floc’h mobilizes against the catastrophe. In addition to this, Floc’h photographs phytoplanktons – microorganisms responsible for colouring the water – depending on their abundance or their scarcity, the water turns green or blue – so what we see in these pictures are invisible organisms.
Through this extensive archive, Nicolas Floc’h constructs a thorough typology of the ocean aimed at serving scientific research as well captivating us with its beauty.
Inhabiting the World
Photography is not the only medium where Floc’h excels, architecture represents a great portion of his artistic practice. His projects in this field are organic constructions bearing witness to the relations between humans and their environment. In 2012, Floc’h inaugurated The Hot Potato, a shelter made for market gardeners. Brittany is particularly known for its gray weather and abundant rains, gardeners from a non for profit association called EPI, needed a space where they could take shelter and rest. So Floc’h designed a structure responding to the gardeners needs. With the shape of a potato, the refuge was built to convey warmth and conviviality while remaining minimalist. By the very form of his architecture, Floc’h mimics nature and creates a synergy where function meets the idiosyncratics of the artist.
Additionally, architecture for the artist is not fixed, for an ordinary object can transform into a sculpture or vise-versa: his project SP Architectures is a telling example of this ambivalence. Taking fishing nets as his primary source, Floc’h hangs them from the ceiling and metamorphoses them into sculptures. Architecture appears as a set of relations that can take a variety of forms, it is a circulation system wherein nothing is fixed. This definition of architecture and space recalls Vinciane Despret view on territory. According to the philosopher, territory – for certain animals – is more linked to time rather than to space. Property thus has another meaning, if it exists, the former is shared; instead of space, architecture is viewed as time-based. For example, a garden can be home to different species, they share the same ground and depending on the time of the day, a space is a shelter for birds or for cats.
Moreover, Productive Structures, Artificial Reefs are a series of sculptures, small replicas of artificial reefs implanted in the coastlines of Japan and Portugal for coral reefs to thrive. Presented as sculptures in the exhibition space, and specially made by the artist – the structures mutate from one category to another. Yet, the real productictive structures immersed in the ocean, were also photographed by the artist. Constructed by the Japanese as early as the 1950’s, artificial reefs are man made structures whose objective is to repair some of the damage made by humans in coral reefs. The structures were photographed by Floc’h and present a clear example of co-production intra-species, as we grow aware of our responsibility in the climate crisis, new projects of cohabitation and thinking flourish among fields. Through these series, he highlights the ecosystem’s importance and raises the question of their role in our economic system.
Under the new climatic regime, our reigning economic systems are in conflict with the Earth. The planet’s resources are not enough to meet the needs of a growing population that demands ever more from it. Bruno Latour qualifies this moment as the end of globalisation, the rise of a new human condition determined by nature surrendering to persistent exploitation. With his work El Gran Trueque (The Big Exchange), Floc’h offers an alternative economic model based on reciprocity and exchange. The project had a first edition in Chile, it travelled then to Porto-Alegre in Brazil and then to France in Vitry-sur-Seine. Its premise was simple, people from disadvantaged localities, either schools or neighborhoods, had to create an object with recycled wood, and later exchange it for the real object. The mechanism calls to mind the notion of gift in Marcel Mauss’ essay The Gift (1925). Mauss describes the potlatch as gifts given between chiefs from “archaic societies”, they are objects carrying meanings of reciprocity and esteem, so more than the object itself what matters is the gift, the symbolic gesture of giving and receiving. Even if in Floc’h’s work the intent is not quite the same, there certainly is a process of cohesiveness built through the exchange of handmade objects, a process based on reciprocity instead of currency.
Once again, relations are at the core of the work. For example in Surfing Tree (2016/2017), a tree trunk serves as the foundation to construct a surfboard. This very trunk works as a catalyst for a group of people to exchange and meet over how to build the surfboard. At the end of the project, the group – comprising artists, designers, surfers, graphic designers and choreographers – went to the beach to surf in the ocean and try their creations. Organic matters return somehow to their place of origin, seemingly Floc’h’s body of work is in a cyclical loop in which organic matter is used and then returned back. Property again is not much of the word to use, borrowing corresponds to the artist’s methodology, for we rely on this to survive. Projects like Surfing Tree or El Gran Trueque, build community around them, reshaping connections between one another and questioning thus the notion of authorship. The boundaries between life and art are blurred, so the artwork is no longer a good that can be marketed per se, recalling to mind the work of artists whose creations can be associated with relational aesthetics.
Nicolas Floc’h body of work challenges ethnocentrism and puts center-stage fragile habitats. Unlike the work of artists dramatizing the environment’s demise – and by extension our own – he opts for a minimal imagery filled with a poetic narrative wherein hope is not excluded. If concrete solutions are not suggested, Floc’h urges us to expand our perception of the world. Through this prism, nature acquires a new identity that is much more intricate and subjective. A myriad of perceptions and worlds uncoils in his work, and as we learn to cohabit with other species – either flora or fauna – disciplines join forces to tackle the climate crisis. Floc’h sets forth a conception of nature that is not self-regulatory but one that needs our empathy and caring to remain alive.
- Coccia, Emanuele. 2020. Métamorphoses. Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages.
- Demos, T.J. 2016. Decolonizing Nature. Contemporary Art And The Politics Of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
- Demos, T.J. 2017. Against the Anthropocene Visual Culture and Environment Today. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
- Despret, Vinciane. 2019. Habiter en Oiseau. Arles: Actes Sud.
- Floc’h, Nicolas. 2019. Glaz. Amsterdam: Roma.
- Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying With The Trouble. Making Kin In The Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
- Latour, Bruno. 2017. Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique. Paris: La Découverte.
- Paulhan, Camille. 2017. « Nicolas Floc’h | Zérodeux / 02 ». Zerodeux.fr. http://www.zerodeux.fr/en/interviews-en/nicolas-floch-2/.
- Uexküll, Jakob von; Martin-Fréville, Charles & Lestel, Dominique. 2010. Milieu animal et milieu humain. Paris: Éd. Payot et Rivages.
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