With her distinctive composition of food sculptures, vibrant colours, and fabric patterns, Svava Tergesen conflates the boundaries of photography and sculptural art. The Vancouver-based artist incorporates various parts of her personality into her photographs in order to support and transcend the intention behind her compositions. Here, she explains how food has become a focal point in her art, as well as the internal and external aspects, which have impacted the process of approaching her work.
You have a bachelor's degree in Mathematics. Stereotypically, people stick to either arts or science. Why did you choose to do a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography afterwards? Do you intend to choose between photography and maths in the future?
While studying math, I was fascinated with how math was its own language, using symbols to describe conceptual ideas. But I never really saw myself following any of the careers normally associated with math. When I realized that photography operates in a similar manner to math, but with its own set of symbolic references and visual idioms, I decided to attend art school in order to get a grasp on the art theory I felt I was missing.
I doubt I will ever work in math directly, but I like to think that my photo work is informed by the time I spent studying it. I try not to think of things in strict, disciplinary terms – I’m interested in what can arise when elements from disparate fields are thrown together.
Crudités and I want to paint a rose incorporate a lot of compositions with geometrical forms. Where do you get your inspiration from for these projects?
I’m very inspired by fibre arts – like knitting and weaving – that make use of geometric patterns for aesthetic purposes. I was trying to pick up on this relation to textiles by cutting fruit into diamond shapes and arranging them in patterns that you might see on a quilt or a sweater. I think a lot about the rift between 'high' and 'low' art, and I try to use techniques that haven’t typically been considered as fine art in Western traditions, such as cooking and crocheting. It feels powerful to use these very gendered gestures of cutting, slicing and weaving in ways that aren’t considered productive or immediately useful.
While working on these projects I discovered Roland Barthes’ essay Ornamental Cookery. In the essay, Barthes describes how food photography has perpetuated a set of myths about cooking, rather than the economic or gendered reality of what cooking is. With both Crudités and I want to paint a rose, I used very decorative patterns to move the foods away from nourishment and instead into purely visual surfaces, recalling wallpapering or design, as an attempt to place emphasis on idealisation that the camera can bring to objects.
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What feeling do you want to generate with your art within the viewer?
I try to create the conditions for the viewer to re-acquaint themselves with objects that are hyper familiar, and see them in a new way. For Crudités, I was thinking about how to create an experience that confuses the urges between desire and disgust. People have told me the bright colours and sculptures in my work have made them nauseous, while others say they find the objects really beautiful. I don’t think these feelings are mutually exclusive, they can actually operate in harmony.
With my newer work, I am interested in images that take a while to decipher – images where the viewer’s eye keeps circulating, searching for the point at which the object in the image ends, and my added ornamentation begins.
In comparison to your former projects, Aural fixation and Rider, your latest photographs abound with patterns, shapes, sculptures, fabrics, and colours. Why did you choose such a maximalist aesthetic for Crudités and I want to paint a rose?
During the time I made those two series, I was sick and food tasted awful to me. So, I set out to cook up hybrid foods that I could consume, or at the very least, I’d find visually exciting. A minimalist approach didn’t really make sense – I craved something bright and colourful. I wanted to tap into the realm of fantasy and create a sort of antidote to my reality.
I’ve read that minimalism is often only attainable to people who can afford that type of lifestyle. When you’re sick, it’s harder to organize your life to create that seamless, minimalist aesthetic. From a feminist point of view, it was important to me for my images to feel somewhat decadent or indulgent, instead of restrained.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with periods of art history with a maximalist style, like Rococo and Georgian era, art and fashion. Jewellery was frequently made to imitate the form of something else, like a column, star or flower. There was a high level of ornamentation, deception and secrecy in design. I find this kind of cross-pollination really exciting, where one thing is in a state of becoming another. I think this type of maximalism is conducive to a messy, imaginative and fertile space.
With photography, the person behind the camera always operates as a human filter. What part of your personality can be found in your photographs?
I’d say my obsessiveness comes through. I am a very detail-oriented person, and I’ve always felt like I was 'too much.' So, my work is sort of an outlet of that – a space where I can go overboard, spend days and weeks researching some new interest and experimenting with materials. I’d like to think my sense of humour and playfulness come through as well. I often find myself laughing as I work, looking at these mischievous assemblages.
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There is no exact translation of ‘crudités’ in the English language, but in a broader interpretation, it means ‘raw vegetable’ such as carrot, cucumber, or celery. What was the reason you named your project after that? What inspires you about fruit and vegetables?
There’s a tradition of culinary language using euphemisms to disguise the brutal reality of what you’re about to consume, like how organs are referred to as 'sweetbreads,' or sheep becomes 'mutton,' etc. I was fascinated by this practice of trying to dress something up, improve it through naming, and elevate it above the conditions of its reality.
With 'crudités' – a French word that has been cherry-picked into the English language, and hovers uneasily in the mouth of a non-French speaker – I liked the juxtaposition of the crude and/or raw with its fanciful pronunciation. I was trying to put a finger on this practice of shapeshifting and purposeful subterfuge.
As a vegetarian, the foods in my images are what you might find in my fridge. I consciously avoided depicting meat, which can trigger associations with death or violence. For me, foods are analogies for the body, and in particular, fruits and vegetables really relate to the feminine body. I’m inspired by the beauty, variety and colours of fruits and vegetables.
Both of your latest projects include imperfections in the compositions and shapes but, at the same time, are very detailed. Do you decide intuitively how your compositions will turn out in the end?
My working methods are definitely intuitive. I’ll come up with ideas for images in the moments right before I fall asleep, but that is only ever a starting point. Other times I have to make and re-make a composition without first knowing where it’s going to end up. My process often involves setting up limitations: I think about what skills I have and how I could use them. For example, from a young age, I learned knife skills and how to cook. So, I set that out as my guideline: where can this skill take me? How far can I push it?
Because of the nature of my materials, it can be very hard to control. I try to let them exist as they are, even with the imperfections. I don’t try to hide or mask the labour that went into the images, because I’m interested in having it come through in the final product.
You put a lot of effort into your arrangements considering the preparation of, for instance, your sculptures made out of fruit. How long is the process of finding the right motif for the finalised photograph?
It can take 2 to 3 days to create these food sculptures. I’ll work on them and then throw them in the fridge. I’m fighting against time because the food can change from one hour to the next. Sometimes I’ll have to re-make sculptures if I realize that I wanted a different background or surface patterning.
The whole process involves a lot of research, trial and error, as well as trips back and forth to local grocers and fabric stores. Because of how labour intensive this is, I try to make it as easy as possible to work my practice into my daily routines. I’ll buy my art materials while doing my grocery shopping, and use the peeled fruits later in meals.
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You have worked at Atelier Circulaire, which is a digital printing office offering services to creatives in order to optimise their work for printing on various types of media. What have you learned from working there?
I was so lucky to work with Anil Ragubance there, an incredibly gifted digital printmaker. I learned a huge amount about mixed-media and Photoshop from Ragubance. Because the digital print studio was located inside of a larger printmaking atelier, I was exposed to a huge variety of techniques and intergenerational art practices. I became familiar with riso printing, intaglio, screen printing and photography. I think this distilled into the way I approach photography as an interdisciplinary practice.
Working at Atelier Circulaire also taught me about the physicality of the photographic medium, which can sometimes be glazed over in a university setting.
You have already won numerous prizes for your art. In the future, what do you want to achieve with your art? Are there any upcoming projects?
I have a lot of impostor syndrome, so I don’t take anything for granted. I feel like I have a lot of room to grow. I’m deeply inspired by artists who take risks and make technically innovative photographs. A long-term goal of mine would be to make some type of meaningful technical contributions to the field of photography by developing an unconventional material practice.
Right now, I’m working with a mentor thanks to a grant I received from British Columbia’s Arts Council. Together we are in the process of exploring new ways of working, and I’m pushing myself to step into a more mature, experimental voice.
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