In Hicham Berrada’s latest solo exhibition ‘Caverne’, the Moroccan artist challenges viewers’ senses by transforming a typical ‘white cube’ gallery into a darkly mysterious garden of art.

Installation view: 'Caverne’ exhibition at WENTRUP, Berlin

For the Paris-based artist, energy is both a primordial force and a basic material for his highly poetic artworks.

Combining biology and creativity, Berrada experiments with the parameters of temperature and light, generating micro-environments of sublime beauty that can only fully be grasped on a large scale. For the Paris-based artist, energy is both a primordial force and a basic material for his highly poetic artworks that reveal themselves little by little, evolving imperceptibly by the second.

Sorana Serban: How do the cave and the garden - symbolic places with a long history in both philosophy and art - co-exist and inform each other in your latest exhibition?

Hicham Berrada: I like it when installations make you feel cut off from the outside world, like you’re in another small enclosed world - just like in a cave or a garden. A garden is also a kind of nature tamed by humans – it lies between a castle and a forest.

SS: Darkness is an essential condition for many of your installations. What role does the duality of light and darkness play in your work?

HB: Lighting is always an integral part of my work. I like to see the exhibition space as really empty, and darkness is the absence of everything, even of light. My role as an artist is simply to regulate energy in order to build small worlds with their own conditions of temperature, lighting, acidity, humidity and so on. I set up most of the conditions myself, starting from scratch. If these installations were lit by typical museum light - daylight or artificial - that would be an uncontrolled factor, which could affect these installations.

"Sorted soil, Nickel", 2014

"Sorted soil, Iron", 2015

I use all the chemicals I can get, but also temperature, humidity, lighting. I try, like a painter, to expand my palette. At the moment I use 60 different products.

SS: What materials do you use to create life in these micro-environments?

HB: I use all the chemicals I can get, but also temperature, humidity, lighting. I try, like a painter, to expand my palette. At the moment I use 60 different products. I’m working on finding even more, as well as mastering the ones I already know and exploring their full potential.

SS: When and why did you start applying scientific knowledge from biology to the field of art?

HB: I started to perform when studying at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. Thanks to the OpenLab Project, I had the opportunity to be an artist in residence in an important French scientific institution, the College de France in 2010. For my work I had to meet various professionals such as scientists and gardeners.

Installation view: 'Caverne’ exhibition at WENTRUP, Berlin

I’m only the one who chooses a frame and creates conditions that will be applied. Then nature can play by itself, independent and autonomous. Without seeking beauty, nature is inevitably elegant most of the time.

SS: Your works are not a representation of nature, but nature itself. When you plan this constructed reality, do you seek beauty whatsoever?

HB: I like the idea of just revealing things that exist in nature, virtually, potentially. I’m only the one who chooses a frame and creates conditions that will be applied. Then nature can play by itself, independent and autonomous. Without seeking beauty, nature is inevitably elegant most of the time.

"Sorted soil, Iron", 2015

Installation view: 'Caverne’ exhibition at WENTRUP, Berlin

if one compares the actual view of the garden to the painting the fellows did 300 years ago, the daisies are exactly the same; their definition and detailed outlines are not altered by time.

SS: Once you activate a piece according to set parameters, such as light or heat, you let time take partial control. As soon as a work exists, it starts to die. How do you relate to the ephemerality of such works?

HB: I don’t see it as death, but as the very life of the artwork that can be reactivated using protocols. One of the things that struck me most when I was a fellow at Villa Medici, was that if one compares the actual view of the garden to the painting the fellows did 300 years ago, the sculptures have been altered a lot by the climatic conditions, but the daisies are exactly the same; their definition and detailed outlines are not altered by time.

SS: Partial control is also connected to the notion of chance. What was the most surprising effect that chance ever brought to your works?

HB: With ‘Mesk Ellil’ (2015), by enclosing the plants in the ecosystem, and choosing a perfect temperature, hydrometry and air renewal, I experienced an invasion of cochineal (a red parasite that feeds on plant moisture). I tried to add lady-bugs as a predator for the cochineal, but they didn’t survive in these climatic conditions. We only succeeded by using an organic treatment, which made me think how difficult it is to palliate an ecosystem in terms of care and pure energy; that is 600w for each plant 12 hours a day.

Installation view: 'Caverne’ exhibition at WENTRUP, Berlin

“Sorted soil, Copper”, 2014

SS: Installations such as ‘Mesk Ellil’ need to be taken care of in order to exist. This is extremely interesting in the context of collections - how do you mediate the relation between artwork and collector?

HB: I think that ‘Mesk Ellil’ is less problematic than artworks that can undergo technological obsolescence. It is only a climatic condition in a circadian circle. The amount of light for each plant and the climatic conditions can be accomplished by using different technologies.

SS: It is the first time you have exhibited large scale photographs, capturing a frozen moment in the life of the micro-environments you create. What does this medium add to your practice?

HB: I started this series of photographs to understand things I could not fully grasp, like the evolution of different materials or their textures. My video camera can go up to a resolution of 4k, but these photographs are 280 megapixels resolution. It helps me see things that one cannot see with the naked eye or in a video – between what the eye and the microscope can see.

Installation view: 'Caverne’ exhibition at WENTRUP, Berlin

It’s not about destruction, but the opposite; it is a fertile, founding explosion setting other processes in motion.

SS: What are you working on at the moment?

HB: I am working on several different projects, one of which is about bacteria that eats iron; and another, in March, is the third in a series whose principle is the activation of natural processes. In the Moroccan desert I will have dynamite detonated that will lead to the formation of a well, and once triggered, I will join the viewer in observing the consequences of this gesture and the slow formation of an oasis over an indefinite period of time. It’s not about destruction, but the opposite; it is a fertile, founding explosion setting other processes in motion.

SS: What do you dream about experimenting with?

HB: Huge amounts of energy!

Caverne’ is on view until 16 January 2016 at WENTRUP, Berlin.

Words: Sorana Serban