The exhibition Letters from Utopia brings together the work of Marie Passa, a photographer who claims the action of time in her creation, and David Kowalski, a painter in search of timelessness whose images are disturbing because of their photographic aspect. Both work in shades of grey and depict empty interiors not devoid of a form of presence. They create mysterious and disturbing images tinged with melancholy. While Marie Passa is interested in utopias that have been achieved and abandoned by man, David Kowalski's utopia suggests a near future where nature reclaims its rights.

Cross interview with Marie Passa and David Kowalski

© Marie Passa. Courtesy Marie Passa et Dilecta

How would you each present your work ?

Marie Passa. My work is a kind of ontology about the perception of the image. I'm not interested in the capture itself - that's where I'm at the opposite of straight photography. I rework the image to make people see and feel particular sensations. I photograph a little bit randomly, and it's as I go along that things come together, and the series takes shape. I take a lot of time to do things, like a painter.

David Kowalski. My paintings are gray, soft and quiet, in search of essence. The process consists of many meditative painting sessions layering on top of each other. Using as many reductive methods like wiping, blurring, sanding as actually putting paint on. I'm drawn to mystery, the unknown and transience. I’m philosophical interested in the mind, in consciousness, cosmology and science in general, I don’t know if any of that shows, but that’s what informs my painting practice.
Marie, could you tell us about the genesis of this project, "Letters from Utopia", which is the starting point of the exhibition?
M. P. I started this series in 2015 in Brazil, in this "land of utopias" to use Blaise Cendrars' expression - he speaks of "Utopialand, a country that belongs to nobody". I went there to photograph the great architectural utopias, including Brasília. Even though I am an architect, I do not photograph architecture as Lucien Hervé did with Le Corbusier's buildings. I photograph suggestions of presence, traces, as if people had just left the room. In "Letters from Utopia", there is a distancing of the image, which is seen through a black window. From these grey, flat, frontal images, a kind of nostalgia emerges that accentuates the impression of absence. The images of these empty spaces are ultimately quite dehumanized. Everything is deserted.

You too, David, have a similar sense of nostalgia. What do you think of it?
D. K. Nostalgia, in the sense of longing for a past, is something I really don’t like at all. Timelessness, yes, but I think that is different. I mostly envision the future, or maybe take the viewpoint of someone in a very far future, who is looking back at a time, which is still in our future. So maybe a nostalgia for the future, if that makes sense?

© David Kowalski. Courtesy Dilecta, photo : Nicolas Brasseur

M. P. I find that David's paintings resonate with my photographs because we evoke something of the same thing: the presence of absence. In his images there is often only a window or a door for example, yet you can't say that nothing is happening. It is a painting of loneliness and nostalgia that evokes many of the same emotions as the "Letters from Utopia" series. The echo is there, in the perception of these images and in the way the perception is induced. I feel more fragility in his paintings than in my photos, as if things don't exist in time. For me, they speak of the ephemerality and disappearance of things. My "Letters" series is more grounded than hers, which seems more nostalgic to me, because of the blurred and small formats.
Indeed David, you paint on small formats. Could you explain why?
D. K. As a child I used to write so small that my teacher needed a magnifying glass. It’s just how I work. Also, I can allow myself more easily to tackle big thoughts on this rather insignificant scale. And I think it can create a very intimate relationship between viewer and the work, ideally speaking. The paintings are there if you want, please engage with them, but I don’t want to force that engagement, there are too many things in our lives that already do that.
David, what connection do you make between your paintings and the atmosphere of Marie Passa's photographs?
D. K. The quiet contemplation of form, the minimalist compositions of often grand architectural spaces, are really beautiful. The emptiness and the depiction of subtle traces of life are sometimes really haunting and of deep intriguing narrative. The use of low contrast and narrow tonal range inspire me technically as well. There’s certainly a language we share. I feel honored to exhibit alongside her.

© Marie Passa. Courtesy Marie Passa et Dilecta

Which side of utopia do you deal with respectively?
D. K. Imagine a future where we leave great parts of the world to develop without human interference and lovely high tech green cities for us! We, as well as our technology, are of course nature too and deserve taking care of. The despair and grief many people feel these days, myself included, also comes from the ability to imagine a better world and the fact that developing one is actively being blocked. Dystopia and Utopia go hand in hand.

M. P. What interests me is utopia as a heterotopia, as a space, a place in which our imagination will project itself. Is one of the interpretations of my series that utopia does not work? Probably, because we are faced with empty spaces. Utopia only works on paper, as Thomas More described it. By nature, it cannot be realized and as soon as it is transformed it becomes either dictatorial as in North Korea for example, or a horror that crushes individuals as in Brasília - the only thing that makes this city "human" are the trees that have grown up and turned it into a jungle.

© David Kowalski. Courtesy Dilecta, photo : Nicolas Brasseur

If Marie proposes the concretization of utopia in spaces, do you, David, build imaginary?
D. K. The imagined image, the one my mind’s eye sees, is the starting and ending point. I want to depict its vagueness, its potentiality. I therefore try to avoid being too specific, it’s more the idea of a place than an actual place. And I think painting has the ability to show more than one moment, an accumulation of time. The spaces we live in start to feel less concrete when seen on a different timescale.

Is there an autobiographical dimension to your work?
M. P. What you find in my photographs and in my texts follow two different narratives because the texts do not illustrate the images. Both follow narrative threads that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but there is an autobiographical dimension that does not seek to be explicit. There is my story, my view, my perception of a space. In the end, everything revolves around a certain view of architecture and the history of architecture. It is all very subjective.

D. K. I spent a lot of time alone in the forests surrounding the place where I grew up. Many ideas and images still emerge from there. And I think I deal with loss in my paintings, with some darker sides to life, but not really with specific autobiographical events, no. I love painting especially, because it allows me to leave myself behind. I like to give myself a narrative framework, which helps to come up with work. Like in this series, a future scenario, where nature has taken over houses and the interiors are empty. Of course this could be interpreted as even having a political narrative, of warning against the climate disaster, but that’s just an entryway, a starting point. I certainly don’t tell a defined story and I’m not providing any answers, but I try to share a sense of wonder.

Interview by Stéphanie Pioda, Art historian

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Pratical information:
 « Letters from Utopia » 
duo show of David Kowalski and Marie Passa 
From February, 3 to March, 4, 2023