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On Aesop’s Othertopias: Contemplating Nature, Man and Machines with Davide Quayola and Ng Hui Hsien

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Italian digital artist Davide Quayola has created a series of three video works – Miraceti, Karst and Erémia – for skincare brand Aesop’s new fragrance line, Othertopias.

In these works, photographic scenes of landscapes dominate. They are hyperrealistic and majestic, with a touch of the sublime. But as time passes, these representational images morph into abstract ones, defamiliarising the landscapes and rendering them strange. As I watch the scenes unfold, it almost feels as if invisible hands were painting in front of my very eyes, transforming the natural world into alluring smears of colour and energetic brushstrokes.

Othertopias, Miraceti
Still from Davide Quayola’s video work for Othertopias, Miraceti. Image courtesy of Aesop.

Made with advanced technology however, such aesthetics are really, algorithms at work. They point to Quayola’s interest in using custom software to explore connections – or as he puts it, tensions and equilibriums – between what might seem to be opposing forces, such as the figurative and abstract. Quayola’s works include videos, sculptures, performances and more. Often regarded as a pioneer of digital art, he has exhibited his works worldwide.

More than a little intrigued, I find out more about Davide’s process and how his works blur the boundaries between the real and imagined as Aesop’s new line of fragrances do.  

Othertopias, Erémia
Still from Davide Quayola’s video work for Othertopias, Erémia. This series of works features scenes from Cornwall, England and Sardinia, Italy. Image courtesy of Aesop.

Hui Hsien: Your video works for Aesop’s new fragrances Othertopias remind me of traditional landscape paintings, such as those by J. M. W. Turner. Can you tell me more about your use of technology and reference to the past?

Davide: My artistic practice generally examines our relationship with machines and how this relationship changes us or changes the way in which we look at the world. It’s almost as if machines can enhance our senses, and provide additional ways of seeing with this new type of logic of observations. Then you also inherit new aesthetics and new visual languages.

I explore this by looking at the past. I’m ultimately very interested in going back to these historical traditions, and jumping into the shoes of a traditional painter – almost as if Turner would go to those landscapes and confront himself with them.

JMW Turner’s Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842)
Looking at JMW Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one can certainly see his influence on Quayola’s own work. Image credit: Artsy.

I try to recreate some of these very traditional processes and modus operandi, but with a very different strategy. So, there is a link, I think, with heritage. It is quite crucial. For me, looking at the past is actually a way of talking about the present and the future.

Hui Hsien: What you said about how machines can change the way we look at the world is fascinating – as an artist who uses the camera, I am constantly amazed at how it can act as an extension of our natural vision, recording sights unperceivable by the human eye.

At times, I also find myself instinctively becoming more aware of what’s happening around me when I pick up the device. It is almost as if the camera encourages me to slip into a certain state of being, in which I am more attuned to how I experience my surroundings. This heightening of senses is a small perceptual shift.

The Weight of Air
The Weight of Air by Ng Hui Hsien.

When I was using my cameras in Iceland to create The Weight of Air for instance, I felt more alert to emotions that the landscapes evoked, and how I simultaneously brought a certain way of seeing to the spaces that I was in.

Mirroring that process of making, I generally strive for my images to act more like sites of resonance between the self and the environment, and not direct representations of visual reality. Our perception is not purely passive after all. We not only take in the world; we make it.

How about you? How is your process like when making these video works?

Davide: For me, my process is less of a routine, and more an act of discovery. I don’t really produce storyboards, or sketch out what these artworks would look like. Because of this, Aesop has taken a great amount of trust and risk in working with me, and that is something I really appreciate because ultimately, to do these kinds of collaborations with artists, you need a bit of risk.

You need to be able to jump into the unknown.

Sometimes I make this analogy – that what I do is much more similar to making a documentary than a movie. When you make a movie, you have a script. Everything is planned ahead bit by bit, and you know exactly what you’re doing. However, when you shoot a documentary, the process is also one of studying and discovering, and you only assess things afterwards. This is much closer to how I work.

We went to these locations. We captured things, processed things, and slowly kept assessing. We only discovered what these campaign images were right at the end. It may be an unusual process for Aesop, but I’m glad that it worked out.

Othertopias, Erémia
Still from Davide Quayola’s video work for Othertopias, Erémia, as the photographic begins to transmute. Image courtesy of Aesop. 

Hui Hsien: Yes, there is definitely an element of uncertainty, especially for approaches based more on discovery. The form of my work is often shaped through the process of making rather than conceptualised at the very beginning as well.

Take wanderings, a film I recently made with Singaporean filmmaker Gladys Ng. Commissioned by National Gallery Singapore, wanderings was our response to the practice of local artist Eng Tow, whose beautiful works are currently on show as part of the exhibition Something New Must Turn Up. Gladys and I also wanted wanderings to invite audiences to feel, reflect, and perhaps, heal.

In making the film, Gladys and I didn’t start out with a script or a clear idea of how we wanted it to turn out. Instead, we established a rough direction for our collaboration, and simply began to explore certain places with our cameras. It was through rounds of filming, editing and sharing perspectives, that we uncovered a narrative for our film.

During our collaboration, we found ourselves more drawn towards making a work that may appear to have one foot in this world, and one foot out.

Speaking of which, I am also struck by how your video works seem to straddle the space between different realms. They appear to tread between the real and the imaginary, for instance. Could you share more about that?

Davide: I think what inspired me was Aesop’s overall vision. There was a natural kind of synergy between my research and the vision of the different Othertopias – the idea of these strange lands between nature, and how we perceive things naturally and physically, but also ways of perceiving that transcend the traditional idea of what our senses are.

So yes, what interested me was this fine line between the real and unreal, man and machine, the old and the new. It was very clear to me from the beginning that the idea of these tensions was at the core of Aesop’s vision. This is why I thought it would be an interesting match.

Hui Hsien: I feel that it is in the exploration of these tensions that different ways of understanding can emerge as well. I often find myself drawn to finding links between what may seem to be disparate, such as the micro and macro, tangible and intangible. I hope that through my work, people are stirred to connect with themselves and with their surroundings. I like my work to serve like a gateway of sorts.

Hui Hsien's The Weight of Air series.
An image from Hui Hsien’s The Weight of Air series.
Hui Hsien's The Weight of Air series.
An image from Hui Hsien’s The Weight of Air series.
Davide Quayola’s work, Karst
Film still from Davide Quayola’s work, Karst. Image courtesy of Aesop.

What are some questions that you hope viewers would ponder after experiencing your works?

Davide: I’d like them to ask questions about our times, such as our relationship with technology. Does it necessarily have to be bad? Can we explore this strange, sublime space of appreciation when we are interacting with machines?

Machines are not just tools to create my ideas; machines, for me, are collaborators. There is a certain agency that machines and algorithms have in my work. I think it’s interesting to start asking questions like, “What is my real relationship with technology?”

What happened during the pandemic is interesting. It accelerated this relationship tenfold because we started developing a very intimate relationship with technology. Technology is mediating everything that we have been doing in the last year or so. I think this is a very relevant topic generally in our contemporary times. It may be a very dystopian view compared to what is usually portrayed in the fragrance world, but it doesn’t have to be dystopian. It could be quite sublime, in a way.

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Find out more about Aesop’s new Othertopias fragrance on their website, and about Davide Quayola and Ng Hui Hsien via their respective personal websites.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow. All images of Davide Quayola’s works are courtesy of Aesop.

Davide Quayola’s video work, Erémia
Still from Davide Quayola’s video work, Erémia. Image courtesy of Aesop.
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