Anthropologist and photographer Margot Errante talks to us about finding stillness in art, two wild decades in China, and her return to Italy.
Under the dramatic light, you make out bodily shapes, buildings, spaces and the blurring of lines between them.
A visual conjuring of emptiness and occupation – all in black and white. Lake Como-born photographer Margot Errante takes a well- trained anthropological eye to her work – this year it’s been the creation of meditative diptychs titled The Corporeal City, shot during a pandemic lockdown around her hometown.
“While it’s not a project about the pandemic,” Errante says, there’s a sense of emptiness that’s reflective of the times. But as someone who worked as an early-rising travel photographer and lived through SARS in China, “neither empty cities nor this kind of situation was completely new for me”.
It was a good time, though, “to observe the city and to reflect on the environment we’ve built for ourselves to live in… analogous of exterior and inner space”. There’s exploration between the body and space, each a container for our inner and outer worlds that are nevertheless “intimately interconnected”. Shadows and high contrast lend dramatic expression to each picture. The curve of spine and shoulders appears next to deserted streets, winding roads and sweeping archways.
If Errante’s own explanations recall Eastern philosophy, this is no accident. She first practised Taoist meditation at Baiyun Temple in Beijing more than a decade ago. Upon her return to Italy, after 20 years in China and Hong Kong, the broad Taoist ethos of losing yourself and banishing your ego has been an important personal journey for the artist.
“As a photographer, your work is your story. My photography is my biography,” says Errante from her home, overlooking the famous north Italian lake. The Como mountains are misty during the winter, just like when I last visited her and snow had started to fall.
There’s no mistaking the romance of the region, which today features heavily in her work. For example, the Transitions series documents the summer of 2017 in Como and charts her feelings of return – partly driven by motherhood – after 20 years in Asia.
Errante expresses an inner world in colours, movement and light. A red dress, full of Asian symbolism, is brought into frames of travel and fragmentation in Myselves (2017) and Metamorphosis (2017). Then there’s symmetry, symbolism and subject.
“When I did Transitions, I realised there’s a you that transcends even your own narrative; no matter the time, space, country or movement … and it’s what makes you alive,” says the artist.
“After 20 years, of course it was a very complicated moment, I had very contrasting feelings about everything. For me, China was my home. At the same time, I wanted to do this transition but I was leaving my life, my career. I was born in Italy but never even worked here… but through the series I realised that we become so attached to everything external, we attribute too much responsibility of these external things to our own happiness.”
Perhaps this finds new meaning for many more than just the artist today. As the established world system is upended, frequent flyers are grounded, material things seem to matter less, art seems to matter more and social fragility is all too apparent.
For Errante, whose family name actually means “the wanderer” in Italian, it’s also finding stillness after so many years on the move. After graduating from the local liceo scientifico (scientific high school), the teenage Errante lived in Germany and Paris before training as an interpreter in Trieste, Italy, where she took up Chinese studies. A year later, at 19, she left alone for China. The multilingual photographer (she also speaks English, French, Chinese and Portuguese) would go on to obtain a degree in anthropology and oriental linguistics, and is currently studying Buddhism at the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute in Italy. Biography, as you’ll see, is key to understanding her work.
Even the aestheticism of shadows and drama “was not an intentional choice but very spontaneous”, she explains. “I like dense colours and, unlike many people, I’m not afraid of darkness. I quite like darkness and I think it’s because I spent a lot of time in the Chinese countryside in the late ’90s, when there was no light in the evenings, but we still used to go out and it was OK.”
The technique helps add depth to her images of nature and forests, while architectural works (often of vintage or ancient buildings) seem eerie and Edward Hopper-esque. The way it forces the viewers’ concentration can feel intense.
“In the darkness, you need concentrate more if you want to see. In the dark, there’s no immediate visual response or immediate visual satisfaction,” Errante reasons. “I wanted to have people get close to the photo, to search for details and spend time with the image – it was a way for me to say, ‘Look a bit more, concentrate a bit more, hang in there, you may find out there’s something there.’”
Moving on to her portraiture, today’s work is far more curated and singular than earlier work of Beijing city streets or villagers in southwestern Yunnan province, near Myanmar. Witnessing two decades (1997-2017) of China’s rise to an industrial and economic superpower has had enormous impact on her outlook.
One of Errante’s strongest human portraits – Wa Dance (2004), featuring bodies jumping in unison, faces upturned to the sky – came from eight months of living, observing and conducting ethnographic research about an indigenous Wa ethnic minority village more than 15 years ago. A dance of welcome for a foreign face – who had arrived dramatically by motorbike through the jungle in the rain – turns into a work of rhythmic vibrancy.
“They were all sweaty and full of energy,” she says. “These bodies were really tense, strong, with a lot of muscle – they looked like panthers; I felt hypnotised.”
Her work as a freelance photojournalist took Errante through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China and North Korea. Themes of architecture and personal psychology (especially in post-Maoist developing China) emerged. She inhabited the underground art scene of the Chinese capital until, in 2009, her apartment was ransacked and her entire photographic archive of more than 10,000 negatives – the work of 15 years – was stolen. Heartbroken, Errante left the Chinese capital and never returned, choosing to settle in Hong Kong’s dense urban jungle.
This chapter would lead Errante to the transition to art portraiture and art photography, and exhibiting in several galleries, festivals and fairs such as Art Basel. Last year, her series Human Nature was awarded first prize at Paris Fotofever. The narrative is still biographical, Errante tells me, even though life no longer involves motorbike rides through the jungle or wild nights in the Beijing art scene. She’s rediscovering aspects of her own history and Italian heritage, too. Porta Torre (2019) is a vision of ancient architecture and nature in Como, Lombardy, for example.
And even if we are seeing the world through such personal, intimate experiences, there’s something to which we can all relate. Such is Human Heart (2017), a photograph of an old suitcase in her favourite woods in Como – it’s a reference to her grandfather Salvatore Errante, who emigrated from Sicily to Lake Como.
“The suitcase belonged to him. One day he told my grandmother that he was going out for cigarettes – but he jumped on the train and just left. Only when he found a job in Como did he call her to come to meet him,” Errante explains. Those wandering genes are seemingly well expressed throughout their lineage. Since then, that suitcase has become kind of a mystical object in her family. “It represents the struggle not just of my grandfather,” she says, “but of every human being who moves to look for a better future, of improvement, for something better.”
(All images: Margot Errante)