What’s this curious apple tree?
A fantastical representation of a strange devotional object that I read about somewhere.
This object is often called the “tree of souls”, and is part of a funerary tradition. On a specific day, in Normandy or Brittany, a large branch is chosen and apples are artificially pinned to it. The tree is then placed in a chapel for a year, and the apples slowly rot there. The tree can also be placed on graves on the Day of the Dead. And that man in the field, with bells on his belt?
This is a character who escaped from a “procession” of others just like him which roams the mountains of a Swiss village in Appenzell, twice a year, as part of winter ritual traditions that take place all over Europe for the winter solstice. His costume is made of shaggy straw, heavy, noisy bells and a supposedly frightening papier-mâché mask. The group this man belongs to is actually known as the “uglies”, as opposed to the group of “beautifuls” who also roam the mountains in a less brutal and more refined manner. Tradition has it that these groups go from farm to farm and sing (they are great singers), ask for a drink, and ward off evil spirits potentially lurking in every homestead. The origin of these winter festivals dates back to the fear induced in peasant societies by the onset of winter, associated with such evil spirits. Men would dress up to try to defeat or communicate with evil spirits, and appease them to ensure the spring would return and yield a plentiful harvest. This particular fellow certainly looks slightly inebriated to say the least, but posed proudly, at least for a few seconds. Your images often evoke traditions (Jewish communities in London, Japanese puppet theatres) and manifestations of popular culture: what is the connection between these different subjects?
I find traditions as such interesting for their theatricality and richness of details I perceive as unusual, as someone who has never been part of any ritual group (with a Communist mother, you’re not encouraged to attend church or join the Boy Scouts or any type of brotherhood). Beyond the traditional, ritual aspect of the events I photograph, what inspires me in all these “communities” is their fascination for the “group”. How people can come together and form powerful bonds, bonds that dictate certain principles in their lives. Sometimes occasionally, as in winter traditions, sometimes each and every day, as in London’s Orthodox Jewish community for instance. The theatre also functions as a “troupe” – I’m thinking here of the work I have been conducting on puppeteer and choreographer Gisèle Vienne for several years now – where I’m attracted to this group of people (dancers, actors, musicians and puppets) unconditionally bound to each other. Not to mention the motifs that such groups form, visually: order and chaos perpetually renewed. Whether through puppetry, masks, costume, or even tattoos, the body you depict is often transformed: what is it that attracts you to these forms of travesty and mutation?
It’s true that the human body in all its forms is a recurring theme in my work: disguised, naked, painted, duplicated, imitated, inanimate… it’s an endless source of inspiration. What attracts me is simply the universality of the body as a form, and working with this “material” feels very natural. I have a twin sister, and the older I get, the more I realize that my work around the body may be connected to my twinship. Two relatively similar individuals growing together, observing each other, two identities struggling to be different, mutating over time, with different life experiences, but, strangely enough, looking more like each other as time passes. Perhaps this recursion of the body in my work is a kind of determined quest for identity, for the unique and particular.
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