WE IRISH probably feel we know our way round a potato. Boiled, baked, roasted, mashed or fried, we’ve gazed upon the trusty spud in pretty much all its forms.
However, French photographic artist Nadege Meriau, whose work is showing in the Fairgreen Gallery as part of TULCA, portrays the potato in ways seldom seen before. Against dark backgrounds and with dramatic lighting, Meriau’s images of sprouting potatoes are other-worldly, mysterious and visually arresting. Several look like stills from a science fiction movie with alien-looking potatoes posed against what appears to be a starry night sky.
A native of Nantes, Meriau now lives in England and is currently artist in residence at London’s Florence Trust. She was recently nominated for an Arts Foundation Fellowship for Still Life Photography.
In her series of images of potatoes - which she has been working on for the past two years - she was keen to avoid the usual conventions of still lifes. “I was interested in portraying the potato as a growing organism and the way it transforms into something else,” she tells me. “I wanted to avoid doing still lifes so I wanted to show the potato in movement.”
Nadege goes on to explain how she created her striking images.
“I put some potato seeds in a cauldron, a bit like a witch’s cauldron, and I left them to develop over time,” she says. “Some of the images are taken underwater, in a water tank and some are created in a black box, they are placed inside the box and I put holes in it and started to slide roots inside it. For me, it is very much about creating environments and this was about trying to photograph the way I imagined this underground world.
“I also put some of them in water because I wanted them to look as if they were moving freely, the shoots to move freely like they would underground. I didn’t want them to be weighed down by gravity. What then happened which was really interesting and what makes the image really work is that bubbles started to appear and I didn’t predict that happening.
“My work is often quite experimental and is about play and experiment and I am often surprised by what happens and that is what makes it exciting for me really. When the bubbles appeared it started to look like a night sky or echoes of science fiction and aliens.
“I like how the potato starts looking like a human organ because for me that’s a way of showing how everything is connected so maybe even the humble potato has connections with us and the way we are made.”
While working on her photographs of potatoes, Meriau also found time to delve into the folklore and social history of the vegetable.
“Originally when the potato came to Europe priests were very suspicious about it because it was not mentioned in the Bible,” she reveals. “Some people thought it was linked to magic and witchcraft – in Sicily for instance potatoes were used as voodoo dolls. There is a whole element to the potato and the history of it that really triggered my imagination. There is a lot to it.
“There is a political aspect also which is not too obvious in the work. There is a darkness to the images, maybe they are a little frightening which maybe echoes the way the potato has the power to both nurture or starve, to save lives or destroy them, as happened with the potato blight.”
This is Meriau’s first time to exhibit her work in Ireland and she speaks glowingly of her delight at being part of the TULCA festival. Certainly her work will carry strong resonances for Irish viewers given the long and fateful history of potato consumption here and her images let us look at something we thought we knew thoroughly in an entirely fresh way. Go see.