By Fanny Revault
Like the goddess Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, who had to go through darkness to be reborn in the Spring light, Evi Keller reconnects with the buried memory of materials to lead her work towards light. Matière-Lumière is the only title she gives to her work, that unfolds in various media: sculpture, painting, photography, video, sound, and performance. Like an alchemist, the artist transmutes and sublimates a vibrant material and engraves a spiritual dimension into it, thereby creating an embodied, immediate relationship with and to her work that surrounds us like a living skin. From then on, her work, the very place of epiphanic apparitions, opens us up to an “other” dimension and connects us to a “living cosmos,” to use the phrase of anthropologist Edgar Morin. Her process subtly puts into play body and spirit in an echo of the perpetually moving world…
You started your artistic career with photography. How did it influence your creative work?
Learning about photography was very important for my development. From the age of thirteen on I started to look at the world through the glass of this little box. I learned to capture and embody light on a very thin layer. This practice not only taught me a certain technical mastery, inasmuch as the verb “to photograph” means “to draw with light,” but it also and above all nourished me, and catalyzed in me an acute sensitivity to the manifestation of light on all scales… in its physical and spiritual dimensions. To truly encounter light, it had to develop within me in its entirety. I think Matière-Lumière would not exist in its current form if I had not been taught photography.
Was there any particular photographic experience that was formative for you?
My contact, over many years, with transforming, frozen lakes that I photographed was a key experience for me. It is a magical transition of matter, when water goes from liquid to solid, from solid to liquid, from liquid to ether, and makes a majestic world appear in the reflecting light. Feeling deeply peaceful, I sensed that the universe had placed within us, in a subtle form, the equivalent of everything we can find outside us, and that it was crucial to connect with these changes of the universal cycle on every level.
The awareness of this transformation process that resonates deeply within us took root in me and guided me naturally towards creating “Matière-Lumière.” The photographic series and the video Towards the Light – Silent Transformations both testify to this quasi-mystical revelation. They form the matrix and the true cradle of my work.
What are the other links between photography and Matière-Lumière?
I’d like to start by saying that the Matière-Lumière works do not always have a direct link with photography or video. However, no matter what the work is, I can always compare the Matière-Lumière phenomenon to the lamination of photographic film, which is similar to the superimposition of translucent layers of veils, and to that of photographic shots of my audiovisual works, as in the video Towards the Light – Silent Transformations.
The experience of the image appearing on the silver print after its “encounter” with light manifests itself in the creative process, or in the ritual of developing negative films. In order for the encounter between matter and light to materialize and breathe on this thin, almost immaterial and transparent layer, it was necessary to be very careful, and ensure that the alchemical liquid be cradled in a gentle and regular movement, in a well-defined space-time and temperature.
In fact, this way of dealing with light can be found in all my works. It is indeed what happened in the 2019 Nuit Blanche performance, where light co-created apparitions interacting with the work and with audience members, as well as in my recent work, a new cycle entitled Stèles (Stelae), the writing of fossilized light, of fossilized memory.
Your canvases are made of transparent films made out of carbon. Why do you use this material at the heart of the current ecological disaster?
I never decided to work with “carbon.” My artistic approach has always been driven by an intuitive force. In all my experiments I’ve worked relentlessly with numerous materials (crystal, glass, mirrors, plexiglass, stone, wood, metal, and others) so as to discover how they interact with light.
I was led to plastic films, and I discovered that they have the magical property of being able to merge with the material they cover, which makes them change aspect, just like water does in its transitions between phases (from solid to liquid to gaseous), as I observed on the edges of frozen lakes. Through their interaction with light, they somehow seem to transform matter into everything that I have been calling Matière-Lumière.
As you’re pointing out very accurately, plastic film is charged with a contemporary environmental connotation, and plastic that’s not recycled and discarded in nature is a major issue. But in the history of humanity, it is often the way human beings use the material, rather than the material itself, that’s problematic. In my artistic practice, I transform this material into a work of art, I sanctuarize it.
If we forget for a moment what “plastic” evokes in today’s world, the substance of these films, that originated from organic carbon and were purified, refined, and transformed by human beings, becomes almost alchemical, immaterial, subtle, and so “pure” that their characteristics make one think of the lotus flower, a living fossil that represents the process of rebirth, of self-regeneration, of transformation through light. The lotus flower is rooted in mud, and plunges every night into muddled water; as soon as the sun rises, it reopens its petals and blossoms again without a single residue on its petals.
This material, taken from the deepest layers of the earth, is transfigured by your work… What are you trying to render visible through it?
I realize that today, the material’s environmental dimension paradoxically adds an other dimension to the way the contemporary world sees the work… But beyond this issue, plastic films are also and mostly bearers of the memory of life. They originate from organic and fossilized carbon that has being used and reused for hundreds of millions of years in the cycle of life; they constitute a crucial link between the realm of the living on earth and the atoms created at the heart of stars. This memory and this link are central to my works, they make them atemporal and alive… Creating a Matière-Lumière is a restorative act. It raises the question of the rebirth of human beings, as well as of the reappropriation of its humanity by mankind. A sort of placenta of living creatures, it questions what, in human beings and in the world, is a creative force.
Throughout art history some works have been designed to harbor spirits to protect human beings from evil. It’s the case, for example, of Fang, Punu, and Baule African masks, used in ritual cults; they became alive. Is there a similar mystical dimension in your work?
Since its origins art has had an eminently spiritual dimension. I strongly believe that art represents true food for the soul. But this approach, very personal and intimate, depends on each being’s level of awareness…
My Matière-Lumière creations embody a long, personal path that blends an individual quest and a universal dimension. A mystical experience progressively manifested itself in various creative forms without my understanding their deep significance in the moment. I was “compelled” to act, to create what was coming through me, and to welcome very humbly the form and the spirits inhabiting it.
A work of art has its own conscience, it comes from far away. It vibrates beyond words, it will alway go further than what I could ever say. It is part of the great mystery that moves my works.
An “other” dimension appears through the work you do on shapes, lights, textures, and more intimately in the “effects” it produces. Matière-Lumière reveals enigmatic works whose appearance is constantly shifting. What are you looking for in movement?
Matière-Lumière embodies the cosmic principle of the transformation of matter by light. It allows for an infinity of viewpoints and artworks through the reflection/refraction of light and, because of its unique geometry, is like a unique sculpture in the moment. It allows the viewer to participate in an experience of quasi-transformation of matter through light.
And so, as was the case in the Matière-Lumière performance, a viewer, situated at a specific spot, could find him or herself at the threshold of a grotto, and after taking a few steps, face a landscape from a distant world, where the mineral had transformed into gold.
The viewer’s perception transforms matter, from lead to gold… and more generally into changing shapes, be they mineral, vegetal, animal, human, or cosmic.
Once the raw substance has been reduced to its essence, it becomes the material of our own creation. This odd sentence has been accompanying you for a long time. How does it encapsulate your creative process?
Like rays or projected particles, we are part of a process of great transformations, “a raw substance” that evolves, transforms and elevates itself in time. Our memories, conversations, readings, visions and dreams imprint themselves in us. Thanks to them, our sensitivity gradually becomes richer, our understanding gets better, our awareness is elevated.
My Matière-Lumière work is driven and propelled by the principle of materializing light and spiritualizing matter. I often have the vision that there is in us, on a subtle level, the equivalent of all that can be found in the universe, and that working with light allows us to merge with it, to become ONE with it, by freeing ourselves of our “layers” so as to become what we are… and reveal our true essence.
On another level, this principle manifests itself in Matière-Lumière. Carbon, a “raw substance,” transformed into transparent films, has become the material of my work. I’m thinking in particular of my new series, Stelae, translucent works that endlessly transmit us their memory through light. They embody the “essence” of fossilized light, like threshold guardians that link earth and heaven. Inhabited by the secret writing of the universe, they are close to transparency, invisibility… pure presence.
To this day it is impossible for me to express the magic and the mysterious presence I feel when I’m working on this material… earth becoming world, back to earth, only to become world again, the content becoming container, emptiness, transparency… true gold, light.
The observation of frozen lakes, which you experienced as a revelation, initiated you into the process of transformation. Matière-Lumière embodies the transformation of matter by light. Why did you chose metamorphosis as the thread of your work?
The process of transformation is crucial to life… All earthly forms have a tendency to solidify. But universal intelligence often plans things differently, and throughout centuries, disruptions have happened at times when human beings refused to let things evolve. Events then happened that eradicated established systems, doctrines, and beliefs…
Accepting transformation requires to let go, to truly come back to the source so as better to ground oneself and to evolve towards a peaceful state of higher awareness. The path is very long, but it’s the only one that I’m truly interested in.
As Olivier Schefer reminds us in his presentation of Stelae, Henri Focillon wrote in La vie des formes: “Art starts with transmutation and continues with metamorphosis, a constant renewal of creation.” This is aligned with how I see things, and also evokes the transformation of atoms in stars and the transformation of organic molecules born of life, the material of my work. I see the path of Matière-Lumière as the testimony to a perpetual new beginning. The cycle manifests itself in our innermost being and as far away from us as possible, on the infinitely small and infinitely large levels. It is the cycle of life as a whole, of the universe as a whole.
We are made of stardust, we are made of things that have existed for an eternity, and that will still exist in an eternity in forms that will be different. And that is what I would like to transmit, to share in my work. That is why when you look at my works it is hard to say which period they belong to. In the end, did the artist make it now? Or millions of years ago?
You see in your work the testimony of a perpetual cycle, of a renewal. Does Matière-Lumière embody symbolic death and rebirth?
You mention “symbolic death and rebirth…” On a personal level, I had to go through the experience of the imminence of my own death. In these difficult, but deeply inspiring moments, the act of creating sheds a light, enlightens us about the rest of the journey. And that is how, in these very intimate moments, I was filled by my work Matière-Lumière which allows to enter in communion with the universe and its mysteries… to end up with an artwork that leads you to integrate and go beyond death, and get (re)born.
Matière-Lumière indeed embodies an initiatory passage, and evokes the mystery of death and (re)birth… The experience of true light is always linked to a previous experience of darkness. It is only by enduring, by accepting darkness that human beings can find light. As all great masters report, darkness is part of true light, which is beyond light and darkness.
In your work one feels the need to reconcile opposites, to embody a unity within a constant duality: heaven (light) and earth (matter), interior and exterior, invisible and visible, death and life.
One puts in opposition light and matter, heaven and earth. However, these are not opposite worlds, they are not even separated. Not only are they constantly relating to each other, but it is their interaction that sustains life in the universe. As Novalis wrote: “The seat of the soul is located at the point of contact between the interior and the exterior worlds.”
Matière-Lumière reveals the principle of integrated dualities: the apparent duality, the multiplicity of the world’s shapes. It designates the fundamental unity: earth-heaven / body-spirit / day-night / darkness-light / exterior-interior / material-immaterial / real-imaginary / simple-complex / simple-multiple / raw-precious / raw-noble / opaque-transparent / heavy-light.
Nous retrouvons dans votre travail l’affirmation d’une sensibilité spirituelle…
Souvent je prononce la phrase « mon cheminement est de spiritualiser la matière et de matérialiser la lumière ». Par là j’entends réconcilier l’esprit avec la matière. Être artiste est une grâce mais aussi un devoir. Accueillir le don du ciel exige d’aller vers l’unité dans son existence, de percevoir le monde comme un continuum dans lequel tout est lié à Tout. Dans cette quête, il y a une volonté de se reconnecter à une conscience que je pourrais qualifier de spirituelle et religieuse, au sens étymologique « relier », relier à ce que nous sommes et à ce qui nous dépasse.
Are you trying to reconnect with the origins of creation and to go back to a sort of archaism in you creative process?
There is a Dubuffet quotation that I find strikingly beautiful: “I meet the stone when I paint it.” I finally meet matter, light, and everything that links them when I’m in the process of creating. It is a return to the ground, to the earth. This return to the origins of material is unavoidable. Doing it… creating is thinking and not thinking at the same time. The awareness of my creation guides me, it becomes the principle of my world, and that world becomes my art. This return to archaic, ancestral forms invites us to become aware of the intersecting lines of the past and the future, and allows us to be linked to the present, here and now.
According to India’s philosophical texts, the body is a divine sacred link, akin to a temple that allows us to be linked to what is “essential.” What is the place of the body in your work? What do you feel when you’re in the process of creating?
The issue of the body is essential. I think no one can truly produce work while ignoring the body, the “vehicle” of our soul, inhabited and animated by the spirit. The body is the instrument, the canal through which my intuition and sensations pass. When I create a Matière-Lumière, my body literally merges with the work… the two co-build each other, which leads to a co-knowledge.
It all gets amplified in the creative process, an almost carnal relation to the various materials I compose and I sculpt in light. This very physical creative process is, somehow, a perpetual sloughing that embodies my experiences, sublimated on a universal scale. It goes through denser or subtler states. Like the unique material of the “body-soul-spirit.” There’s no real discontinuity between them.
There are magical moments when I feel carried away, out of space and time, when the action of superior worlds makes itself felt in a state of grace, a perfect serenity of the soul, a silence which links me to the original light that penetrates all creation…
That moment does not manifest itself through a dazzling change in my behavior, but through a very subtle and silent transformation of my feelings, my thoughts, and my actions… I find myself full of the awareness of my creation linking me to the Cosmos, and become the co-creator of a universal process…