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Marianna Rothen

"Photography allows you to blur fiction and reality perfectly".

New York-based artist and director Marianna Rothen was born in Canada. Using high-grain paper to create a nostalgic dystopia, her photographic work has played with the trope of the femme fatale and the idea of the female gaze – often rendering men as mannequins that pose and perform.

Photography MARIANNA ROTHEN       Interview HOUSE OF SHILA

HOS: What was childhood like? Did you play dress up a lot?

MR: I watched a lot of Sesame Street, and in the show there was a “tickle trunk” that was always filled to the brim with costumes, hats, wigs and everything magical. It’s hard for me to describe the pure joy of seeing all these items come out. I wished so hard that one day that I could have my own.

As a kid I liked to pretend a lot and use my imagination. Sometimes I would get hand-me-downs from my glam Polish aunts to play dress up in. One of my favourite things was to lock myself in my bedroom and move furniture around, trying to make a new room as many times as possible with about four things. Like making a new universe. If I wasn’t inside, I was outside playing in the ravine close to my house. I would imagine I was in a Western or stranded on a desert island. My parents were really into flowers and on summer weekends we’d often make a family trip into Toronto to visit beautiful gardens. I have a lot of childhood memories that include flowers.

HOS: When did you first discover photography?

MR: My Dad always had a camera and camcorder around and I thought it was the most incredible thing. The idea that you could save real life forever. I was nostalgic and wanted to ‘make’ the best moments that could then be captured, so there was already a feeling of line blurring between real and imaginary and then playing that out in a family portrait that I got to be in. I wasn’t allowed to play with the camera as a child, but when I was in high school and started taking a photography course, my Dad finally let me use it. It felt like I had been allowed something holy.

HOS: Since Mail Order, you have played with the idea of the ‘female gaze’ and included men by rendering them as mannequins. Was there a particular catalyst to do so? How do you approach gender politics?

MR: Maybe I have tried to steal what we think of as the male gaze and try to claim it as a version of the female gaze, or see if that was even possible. In order to do this I had to portray women in the context of men and include these different masculine and feminine tropes that she could play by, like a set of rules. I really wanted to do this series with real men, but the idea was to always humorously crop out their faces. To make the men look like the accessories.

“My Dad always had a camera and camcorder around and I thought it was the most incredible thing. The idea that you could save real life forever”.

HOS: Where else do you draw inspiration from? 

MR: First it was films: female characters in old films. I was transfixed and bewildered by their being and it felt like a puzzle I needed to solve. Then after that, I would get ideas from my life. I don’t know why it took so long to realize that my life and identity had been moulded by these women. I had modelled since I was very young for many years. Of course I was constantly confronted with these ideas!

HOS: Tell us about building your house in the woods.

MR: I think it goes back to the utopic idea of having somewhere to go to build your own world. I wanted to create everything and then be the character in that. I had a weekend house for several years where I got to try this out. Later on I found another place, a large construction that used to be some sort of yesteryear club for gentlemen. It was big enough where I could use it as my studio: I have a printing room, a room for photoshoots, a wig and costume room, an art storage room, a mannequin storage and space for living as well.

It’s on top of a hill but there are still trees on all sides, you have a vantage to see out while feeling protected by the forest. It’s a very plain house. Nothing special on the outside. When you walk through the door it’s a surprise, like going into another dimension. I kept the original look of the place, the midcentury club vibe and then tiled everything else that needed help in black and white.

HOS: You transitioned from modelling to being an artist, with many references in your work evolving around the idea of beauty. How do you approach the obsession with beauty/objectification of women?

MR: Because I grew up in a business revolving around beauty it took me a long time to be able to see outside of it. All of my friends were models and the industry felt like a big family. As long as you worked on being their version of beauty you were accepted. This started to crumble as I got older; by older I mean being in your twenties. At 30 it was the end. And the moment I stopped I felt better than I had ever felt, but you don’t know that. All along the way you are oblivious. I like to use what I’ve known and present it as a parody. I still want to fit the parameters, use part of the language with this beauty, but then tell a different story. I’m not dictating too much of this and that, I want the viewer to have a realisation for themselves.

HOS: There is a play in your work in blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, and often you are your protagonist filming it all solo. How do you navigate between those worlds?

MR: Like I hinted earlier, photography allows you to merge these two worlds perfectly. You only see what’s in frame while trying to imagine what’s out of frame. A photograph used to be a blueprint of what is real: you knew what you saw could not be altered. And even though you can alter anything now, it’s still understood that a photo is meant to be real. But maybe now it’s like painting with real life. The mannequins are perfect to navigate this in between space. They are a representation and are made of plastic, and I am a human that is so made up I look like a doll. So together we come closer to meeting at the line. And in this the mannequin becomes humanised and I become otherworldly.

HOS: Much of your work allows your models to take on roles, from damsels in distress to femme fatales. How do you create spaces that facilitate this?   

MR: I like to give my subjects a story, something they can be. I need to set up a scenario for them because I know that’s the only way I can get something authentic. They can’t pose it, they have to be it. I feel with the right instruction anyone can be a good actor.

“I grew up in a business revolving around beauty it took me a long time to be able to see outside of it. As long as you worked on being their version of beauty you were accepted”.

HOS: You recently said in an interview “I like for my whole life to be in my work.” Where does it start and where does it end? Are you enjoying having no separation between the two?

MR: Yes of course! There is never really any separation. I can use my life to build my work and my work to build my life. If I want to tune into the thing that is me, that belongs to me I have to take it from this place where I feel sincere.         

HOS: What are you looking to evoke in a photograph and with your films?

MR: Part of a larger story that the viewer can then embellish with their imagination.

HOS: Your living space is also your studio/ set. Walk us through a day in your life.

MR: I wake up early, walk my dogs and meditate. I eat. I’ll start desk work and that’s usually the most valuable part of the day, the morning. I’ll have a late lunch, walk my dogs and meditate again. Sometimes I jog in the forest. Later I’ll read and watch a film after dinner. If I’m shooting, I’ll set up the shot all morning and shoot it after lunch. Because I work alone, one set-up a day is enough. And if it’s good, I feel like I accomplished a lot. I’m taking a little break because I just finished working on a film for a couple of years about my modelling days.

HOS: If you could be a character in any film or book, who would it be?   

MR: Could I play Gia who moves to Grey Gardens and has an experience like one of the women from Persona?              

HOS: Tell us a secret.

MR: What feels like a secret and something that always makes me smile is when someone asks what kind of camera I use. And I have to disappoint them and tell them I’ve been using the exact same basic Canon all this time. Maybe one day I will grow up and get something fancy.