Fake TV ads for companies that help you plan your afterlife? Welcome to the mind of Katerina Jebb, the contemporary artist constantly challenging you to think again, says FRANCESCA GAVIN.
Katerina Jebb is a cultural seditionary. Her work walks an incredible line between beauty and brutality, the mechanical and the physical, humour and seriousness. Ever creative at 49, she is at the top of her game. Her photographic and film work has been shown at the Whitney, Hayward, Les Arts Décoratifs and Andy Warhol Museum and published everywhere, from Life magazine to The Times.
One of Katerina’s central fascinations is with the industrial, mechanical and medical. In 1991, while working for the French newspaper Libération, she was involved in a car accident that paralysed her right arm. Unable to hold a camera, Katerina experimented with life-size photocopiers and scanners, creating an exceptionally unique aesthetic for documenting her relationship with the world. There is an otherworldly texture to these life-size photocopies and scans of her body. Under Katerina’s mechanical lens, beings and objects appear unnaturally fluid and floating, at times ghostly and unreal. Unsurprisingly, Duchamp, Picabia and the surrealist poet Lautréamont’s fascination with juxtaposition are at the heart of her approach. “My images are electronically and digitally derived – but have a kind of Renaissance beauty. The result is completely at odds with the medium.” Her emotional and very beautiful images emerge from industrial and emotionless machines.
Katerina was entirely self-taught – undoubtedly part of the reason she has such an experimental approach to technique. She was born and raised in the UK but moved to California when she was 21 with the desire to do something creative. “I had just been messing around, I hadn’t done anything. It was like opening up. That place at that time was an amazingly fertile ground for the underground. No one told me what I could and couldn’t do. I just did whatever I wanted, with no money.” Originally working in photomontage, this later developed into a practice ranging from photography to installation to film. She has been living and working in Paris since 1989 and hasn’t looked back.
Her current series of short-film works, Simulacrum and Hyperbole, are refreshingly satirical takes on consumerism, the representation of femininity and the manipulation of image and advertising. Her perfect parodies for a fake channel,Lucid TV, advertise fictional products such as Oral Fix and Life Eraser. The results are as beautiful as they are funny. “Humour is just my way of saving myself. I can be really pretentious. I build something up that’s really serious and esoteric and then completely tear it apart myself.”
Her pieces often redefine the accepted concept of beauty. She regularly works with women who are exceptionally beautiful but do not conform to prescriptive social examples of youthful perfection. Kristin Scott Thomas and Marisa Berenson have both appeared in her pieces. Tilda Swinton is a regular collaborator. She is drawn to a more mature, self-possessed vision of beauty. “This regulated, standardised ideal [of beauty] is the death of originality.”
Her latest film, also created for Comme des Garçons and being screened at London’s Selfridges throughout April, is a portrait of Madeleine Malraux, a 97-year-old concert pianist, the former wife of the writer André Malraux. She met her fascinating subject through Setsuko, the widow of the artist Balthus. “The film is about a woman who has lived through two world wars and continues to play concerts and work. Titled Silence, Genius at Work, the poetic piece captures Malraux playing piano as sunlight falls on her hands and talking, at times, of her experiences. A larger documentary is in progress.
There is a timelessness to Katerina’s work that, in a way, defines her as an individual. She doesn’t watch television or keep up with art. “I don’t have extra time to look so much at contemporary life, it’s not as fascinating to me as getting into bed with The Ascent of Man. I live in my own universe where it’s not so contemporary. My great passion is reading.” She is a cultural rebel – something that perhaps makes her hypersensitive to the idiosyncrasies of modern experience. Life is a more interesting place through her gaze.
Francesca Gavin is Visual Arts Editor of Dazed & Confused and curator for the Soho House Group.