Iris Cushing speaks with the artist/poet couple, Marina Temkina and Michel Gérard, about their new book Who is I?
In Who is I?, the second installment in the Content Series, Marina Temkina and Michel Gérard offer a rare and welcome reading experience: a compelling narrative without words. This collection of instant photos, taken over twenty years of the artist/poet couple’s shared life, seems a fitting collaboration for two makers who don’t share a native language. The images are made in the now-antiquated mediums of the Photomat booth and Polaroid camera, snapped in spare moments during Gérard and Temkina’s extensive travels. They document a relationship continually in motion, evolving through multiple places and personas, with togetherness as the only constant. They document two lives seamlessly interwoven with art, and with each other.
Who is I? comes as a satisfying realization of the idea behind the Content Series. Conceived of and published by poet James Copeland, the series offers eighty pages in which the author (or in this case, authors) have free reign. Temkina, a poet and artist from St. Petersberg, is the author of What Do You Want? (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), among other books. Gérard, an artist from Paris, has worked on site-specific public sculpture throughout Europe, Korea and the United States. This is the couple’s third collaborative book. The three of us got together one night over tea to discuss how both the pictures and the book came into being. I was delighted to discover the variety of characters who influenced Gérard and Temkina’s collaboration—from Amerigo Vespucci to Buster Keaton—and, most importantly, Gérard and Temkina.
Iris Cushing These images make me think of multiple places—maybe it’s because photo booths are found in transient spaces, like train stations, all over the world. It gives the sense of travel, not just in physical space, but through time as well. How did you begin making them?
Marina Temkina The whole idea of a photo collection was Michel’s idea, from the very beginning. After we made the first one, he got an idea that we should start making them. On one of our first trips together in summer in France—we were going to the south for some reason, to Aix-en-Provence—I remember Michel saying, as we zigzagged through Europe, “our biographers will not have a way to follow us.” I was absolutely fascinated that he had that type of thing in his mind—that he was thinking about biographers.
Michel Gérard What was very important was a kind of immediacy. Something very, very spontaneous. Nothing was scheduled. Traveling, we’d come to a railroad station: “Oh, here’s a Photomat! Let’s do something!” In some of the photographs, we’re younger, but there is no real chronology. Some of them are taken in Germany, some in Italy, in France, in Russia. They show the pleasure of a specific instant somewhere in the world, but it doesn’t matter where or when.
IC We live in an age in which photographs are constantly being produced and shared digitally. Screens offer a fleeting kind of gratification. The quality of the images in this book, coupled with how they are made, says so much about the nature of these moments that you’re sharing. The images represent singular moments in time, and they’re also physical records of those moments.
MG When people use the Photomat, in general, it’s for I.D. pictures or passports. They come, they try to be really beautiful, to smile. These ones we’ve made are not like that at all—they’re totally unassuming.
MT The book is very personal and intimate; at the same time, some of the images have this quality of, Oh, I’m an actress! And you know, for an instant, I was. Like we were performing unconsciously. I like those photographs because they’re completely embarrassing.
IC This book fits really well with the concept of the Content series. It’s like a photo album. It feels so personal, which perfectly suits the grassroots, local publishing venue.
MT That’s what’s wonderful about it. It’s allowed us to stay in the very beneficial category of the misfit or the marginal. To not be a part of institutionalized literature. Living in a new linguistic environment has allowed me to hold on to this feeling . . . a kind of foreignness, without nostalgia. This book allowed that.
IC And the images are indeed very sweet, without being sentimental or nostalgic. Because they are your personal images, how was it to gather them up and present them in this way? How do you begin to organize something like that?
MT As a poet, I’m always organizing material. The way I was taught, it was always, like, “you need to elaborate, to think to the end of what’s possible.” I really departed from that idea here, in terms of form. The material itself without connective tissue is very fascinating. I’m in a moment of my life when I’m really obsessively thinking about prose. Prose needs so many bridges, connections. I resent that because it’s so easy to jump in poetry, and the jumps are justified, somehow. With prose, you’re always thinking about the logic of ties. This book gave me an opportunity to make a different type of narrative, a visual one.
IC There are these pictures of you, Marina, with your head cut out in different positions, arranged in a circle. Is there a story behind those?
MT Yes. Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France, is a tiny town which is responsible for naming America. There was a big monastery there. In the 1500s, Amerigo Vespucci wrote a commentary to Ptolemy’s texts and on the texts of some Arabian and Venetian navigators from medieval times. This work was printed in Florence, but they needed maps.
MG So, the first maps of America were made in Saint-Dié in 1507. In 2007, they celebrated 500 years since the naming of this continent.
MT We were invited to make a project for the anniversary, and we made The Power Of Naming with text and drawing. Michel wanted to use these drawings of his—a kind of baroque angel who is blowing the wind—so he made these photographs of me.
IC It’s not just places you’re traveling through—you’re trying on different personas, different identities.
MG Yes. The title Who is I? is a response to Rimbaud’s famous je est un autre.
IC Michel, there are these images of you by yourself, wearing a bow tie and a bowler hat.
MT You know, Michel loves the silent film actor, Buster Keaton. He always thought that his father looked like him.
MG After the war, after the occupation of Paris was over, my father and I often went together to see movies with Buster Keaton. We wanted to see something funny—Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin. Keaton was not funny—he was always escaping, which was interesting for me, because it was postwar time, and my father escaped many times from many dangers during the war.
IC So much emotion comes through in silent films.
MT This is wonderful that you are saying that because this is a very silent book.
Iris Cushing is an editor for Argos Books. Her poems have appeared in No, Dear, La Fovea, and the Boston Review, among other places.