It’s a grotesque wonderland world!
Being part of a lineage of renowned artists, artist Marcella Barceló has been in contact with art making since she was a child. This underlying creative link culminates in her work’s autobiographical characteristics, which she projects into her bizarre figures, metamorphosed landscapes, and monstrous-looking animals. Recollecting her earliest memories as being surrounded by books and drawings, she still holds onto them when working in her dreamy Paris-based studio. Her favorite book, Alice in Wonderland is evoked through her choice of psychedelic colours, surreal compositions and the abundance of wildlife, comprising a palm-sized centipede and an authoritarian-looking crow to name a few. Marcella shapes her own fantasies of mythological creatures and quirky figures through a solitary process, a particular working routine which unveils one of her major personality traits: her shyness, which is also emphasized by adopting ‘Jenny Haniver’ as her Instagram handle and alter ego, a name associated with a mummified fish specimen. This interview is an opportunity to get to know the well-kept secret of Marcella’s wonderland world hiding inside her studio-apartment.
When did you start getting interested in art making? How was the transition from creating more illustrative pieces to your current layered painterly practice?
I painted and drew as far as I can remember when I was a kid. I used to say that I wanted to illustrate books as I was very lonely and spent my time reading and drawing. I think that my paintings and drawings are still very influenced by these children’s book illustrations. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has always been one of my biggest influences!
Coming from a family of successful painters, you went on to study a Fine Art degree at the Beaux-Arts, Paris, and have recently completed a Correspondence Course at TURPS, London. Has your experience of learning differed between the two cities? Furthermore, you recently changed your Instagram handle to @jenny_haniver_ instead of @marcellabarcelo. Does this relate to your experience of carrying a renowned surname?
When I was at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, I wasn’t really participating in everything because I was very shy. I was painting at home and only going to one class of Art History that I really enjoyed. I have always been very shy, this being the main reason for me wanting to change my name, but I also didn’t want to appear shameful about it. The late switch to the Jenny Haniver (if you wish to google Jenny Haniver, you can see what it is) name on Instagram is a way to blur my lack of confidence regarding this, but more as a joke rather than something serious: I had the idea when at an Art History class I saw the Jenny Haniver name given to a strange creature, and I found it funny that such an American-teen-like name was used. Since coming to England, I have found institutions are asking for work that is more confronting in a personal and sensitive manner, whereas I feel it was more conceptual, in a certain way, in France.
I am aware that your father gave you an anatomical manikin at a young age and this has been with you ever since. From using a life-sized skeleton model in your recent MIX with us to having muscular diagrams and x-rays on your studio mood-board, you seem fascinated by the inner workings of our bodies. Can this interest be traced back to any other points of your childhood and upbringing?
I grew up between the sea and the mountains of Majorca, we had a farm, we used to produce our own meat there and I was confronted to the insides of fish, rabbits or pigs at a very young age; this made me think about death as something natural. I knew shells were not so different from bones and I learned that picked flowers can sometimes smell as bad as dead animals once rotten.
Previously, we have discussed the impact of the Japanese government-imposed ban of erotic images on your work. This censorship closely relates to the current restrictions on genitalia content on social media. Considering your portrayal of sexually suggestive female bodies, can you explore much of your material openly through these platforms? Do discussions around erotica and media regulation arise in your work?
I know that I don’t have any clear political message in my work, and I am not politized in real life either. I don’t claim that I am a feminist or fight for showing nipples on social media; I actually find it difficult to say something because I feel that in current times, we can only speak by putting banners and strong complicated words on concepts and ideas. I personally like having the possibility to change my mind, make mistakes, listen and maybe agree with two opposites (but I know that the world would be messier if everyone acted this way!)
Some elements of Japanese culture, such as the aesthetic codes of manga and kawaii, have been adopted in your work. Do you think these pieces could be read as cultural appropriation or are these more of a cross-cultural exploration?
I think that our world is made of what we call cultural appropriation; everything we see, eat, wear, understand, is a cocktail of different cultures traversing time. We are all on the same earth, the same ground, under the same sky, but it’s raining somewhere and it’s a night with a full moon someplace else. The arts are made of cultural appropriations, and I think of artists as thieves. Since childhood, my imagination has also been based on cultural appropriation: Miyazaki movies or African tales. I am European, my mother is Dutch, my father is Spanish, I live in France: all the countries are quite close but very different. I arranged my bookshelf yesterday and I realized that I read many more Japanese novels than French ones. I know that I have always been attracted to Japan, by their traditional arts and crafts, pop kawaii culture, and their Shinto beliefs. I am very influenced by authors including Ogawa, artists from Ero Guro Nansensu, Ukiyo-e or the beautiful movie Taste of Tea. It is strange to be so attracted by the entirety of a different culture and feel happy and completely myself there. I have been there 4 times and I am starting two residencies there next year. I am trying to learn Japanese and I love the fact that this language is showing me another way of thinking.
Suicide, depression, and traces of self-harm are expressed almost backwards: through a pastel-pop mood, supernatural tonalities and kitsch elements. Do you intend for your works to hold two opposite qualities at the same time?
In Japan, they call that Yami Kawaii, a movement that could be resumed as “cute pastel creepy.” I like to put together opposites, as I tend to show that everything is binary, that there is no separated good or bad but a mix of the two.
Many of the settings that you depict are not rooted in a particular place. Are you interested in replicating outdoor elements such as plants or animals in indoor environments and vice-versa?
I think that this unspecified location may be similar to the ones we experience in dreams, when you dream being in your house that suddenly turns to be a jungle and then a hospital or a weird subway station in China. I have been writing my dreams since I was a teenager and my paintings and drawings are tinted by those dream landscapes or Lewis Carroll’s nonsense. I like the metamorphosis of a thought or image that brings another. There is an engraving ‘Second rêve: Une promenade dans le ciel’ by Grandville that comes to mind in this sense; it features the scene of a starlit sky where a floating mushroom becomes an umbrella, the umbrella transforms to an owl, the owl transitions to a pair of fireplace bellows, which morph into a spool of thread, and the image eventually evolves into a horse drawn carriage. I find the surrealist transfiguration of these items epitomises this illusionary state.
Nourished by a vast repertoire of sources ranging from mythological to children’s stories, literature, science fiction or horror films, can you highlight the three most prominent references that have influenced your thinking?
It is difficult to choose just three! I would say the writers Mishima, Bachelard, and of course Lewis Carroll; the painters Balthus, Vallotton and James Ensor; and the movies Kore-Eda, Peter Greenaway and Miyazaki. Amongst many others!
Often, you spend weeks isolated in the studio – are you comfortable working in solitude? Having engaged with self-portraiture, you continue to expose the public and private in recent works, immortalising daily moments of washing the dishes, dressing up or having breakfast. To what extent are these depictions fiction compared to autobiographical reality?
I really love solitude and it feels a condition necessary for me to draw and paint. Since the isolating obligations began in France due to COVID-19, my daily life hasn’t changed at all and I am quite happy not to have to tell friends I can’t go out! I usually spend the day reading and drawing and the evening and night painting. I like the daylight for drawing and the darkness for painting, because I sometimes use a video projector on some of the big scale paintings, that also explains the dark curtains! Also, my curtains are now open because all my neighbours left with the quarantine. One self-portrait where I am holding a hot-water bottle is for me very significant in depicting this researched loneliness. I wanted to show those opposing factors; the coldness outside and the warmth inside, the dirty dishes and the childish pink dress. I think that all my works are autobiographical in a way, with images from real life or symbols (like the unicorns or dragons) to represent a feeling. For instance, the collage-like painting of a peeled mandarin with a band aid is to illustrate a feeling where I can’t find words to describe it, the impression of something acid and sweet mixed with tactile plastic that imitates skin, it is not disgust or sadness, but a sense with no words. I use those collages to try to express these mute feelings.
I believe that most of your friends are musicians. Have you ever considered collaborating in this industry?
Yes, my boyfriend is a musician and plays in the French band Catastrophe, and I am very impressed when I come to their rehearsals to see a group of people creating together, but I would be unable to do so for my own work, because of how I am seeking loneliness.
Born in Mallorca and currently living and working in Paris, have you ever thought about moving back to Spain? If you could work from any other place, where would that be?
Words by Martin Mayorga