Michelle Bui’s photographs reflect the processes of accumulation, presentation, and eventual decay that mark our relationships to seemingly mundane items. Sensual and sensorial, her images point to the negotiation between our understanding of ourselves and the objects that we amass. In the same breath, they cause us to question our appetite for these objects, this excess, in the first place.
Her materials are gathered primarily from the aisles of grocery, hardware, or craft stores; venues where a seemingly endless array of objects co-exist, ready to be purchased, consumed, and discarded en masse, ordered only by what the artist calls “the detached pragmatism of consumerism.” Once these objects find a place in Bui’s studio, she parses their formal or material kinships and assembles them into temporary, fragile assemblages that sometimes exist just long enough to be photographed before they collapse, disintegrate, or even decompose. Viewed through the lens of a camera, and subsequently printed at an enormous scale, Bui’s material subjects are divorced from their original purpose or context and distilled down to their intimate, sensory qualities.
In the East Gallery, a series of larger-than-life photographic images meet at the intersection between still life and commercial photography. Bui assembles objects and ephemera and photographs them against acidly colourful backdrops. In Baby’s Breath, delicate floral sprigs are placed among inflated latex gloves atop a blue shag carpet. The yellow daisies in Happy Like Doris Day co-mingle with intestines and bone-like ceramic against lurid red vinyl. These uncanny images are by turns seductive, repulsive, surreal, and humorous. Bui’s heightened use of colour, texture, and scale and the familiar visual language of commercial photography provoke desire before we fully comprehend the image, or even despite that comprehension.
Bui’s process of gathering and manipulating is heightened and abstracted in her “wet-cooked” photographs, or images that capture an arrested moment within a longer process of material transformation. She intuits the membranous, porous, formless affinities between flower petals, pig’s bowels, stone fruits, latex gloves, and other banal objects that elude recognition. These materials are combined and subsequently physically or chemically altered. They may be gently folded and intertwined, layered between panes of glass or sheets of plastic wrap, submerged in gelatine, or crushed beneath the weight of a rolling pin. Pearls, candies, or salmon roe are sometimes collaged above, serving as painterly punctuation. These assemblages are inevitably transient and precarious; the act of cooking hastens the decomposition of already fragile materials, and adds an element of unpredictability to Bui’s process. Bui catches this transformation at an ideal moment of suspension, her materials teetering on the precipice of dissolution.
In Naked Excess, the exhibition’s newest work, a series of composite images plaster the walls of the West Gallery like a billboard. The images offer a tangle of material fragments that walk an imperceptible line between organic and synthetic, real and artificial, familiar and alien. Printed on textured vinyl at a scale that matches the gallery’s architecture, Naked Excess foregrounds the touch, smell, and sound of Bui’s alchemical processes. Central to Bui’s practice is the concept of haptic visuality, a theory developed by Laura U. Marks which describes the potential for a visual medium to appeal to the senses so strongly that “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch.”¹ In a moment where the lion’s share of our visual interactions are consumed rapidly on hand-scale screens, the scale and sensory overwhelm of Bui’s images is simultaneously seductive and unsettling.
The fallible, malleable, sensorial body emerges as a throughline across Bui’s work. Referenced, but never directly represented, our bodies are evoked within the ragged, translucent flower petals, fragments of white ceramic, and latex gloves that appear, transform, and degrade across each image. If what we consume serves as a reflection of who we are, then Bui’s enmeshed compositions gesture simultaneously towards the precarity both of our vulnerable bodies and of the excesses of our habits of consumption.
[¹] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 162.
Naked Excess was produced with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Esker Foundation Commission Fund.
This exhibition was part of Exposure Photography Festival 2022.