Floria Sigismondi: A Profile in Black and White and Colour

18 mins read

A group of children reach for their coats and mittens in a school cloakroom. The images are almost polished home movie: pale-warm light, soft faces, a close-up of a girl standing alone with her back against the wall. There is no dialogue, only the ethereal instrumental music. A teacher inspects their faces and mouths before they run, bundled up, towards the door. And then Floria Sigismondi’s imagination reaches full stride. A burst of red and a child’s white moon boots are running, slow motion, through ashen black snow. The sky is deep red, the trees are leafless and a black snowman watches over the post-apocalypse playground. The children all wear gas masks.

When asked if the opening of Sigur Ros’ music video Untitled is a possible future she sees for us, Floria Sigismondi’s quick response is “yes,” before laughing and adding “I’m not bleak! I’m quite optimistic.” She explains that the imagery was inspired post-9/11, while she was living in Manhattan. She had to wear a gas mask because of all the pollutants in the air. “Not to think that’s a possibility for us actually belittles all the suffering in the world. It’s just sort of how people are completely engulfed in consumerism and the whole ‘I have to have my Starbucks,’ and just not being aware of what’s going on in the world. But in the meantime what’s happening in that country…”

It’s a time of change in Sigismondi’s art. Last November, she launched her second book of photography, Immune, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto. While 45 minutes of her sensational music videos were projected on two walls, the new photographs explore how to survive in a world we’ve heavily manipulated, whether through our bodies, media, religion or “good old fashioned bombing.” Sigismondi says, “I think Immune is about looking out where Redemption [her first photography book] is about looking in.”

With a degree in photography from the Ontario College of Art and Design, Floria Sigismondi is a multi-talented image-maker. Her work includes photography, painting, installation sculpture and, famously, music videos. She moved from fashion photography, including MAC Cosmetics catalogues, to music videos when director Don Allan, one of the founders of Revolver Films, thought she’d make a good director. Sigismondi credits him with helping her express herself through video. While photography was just her and the camera, the world of film required that she communicate her ideas in order for them to be executed. “He [Allan] doesn’t remember this but he would walk into record companies with me. I would sit with him and tell him what I saw in my head, and they were just images. Disjointed images [laughs]. But that’s how ideas came to me. And he would sit there and communicate them to the record company because I was incredibly shy. I couldn’t say a word. I was like a mute in the corner. But I wanted to do it.”

It’s clear that Sigismondi is not one to over-analyze her own work. In fact, she doesn’t like looking at her videos and arrived at the MOCCA opening only towards the end of the 45-minute screening. Slim and dressed in emerald green tights with her long black hair held back by a flapper’s headband, she looked fabulous while exuding a sense of humility. Now in her thirties, Floria’s imagery seems to be sourced more from the realm of feeling than theory. Part of the reason she found the initial transition from photography to music videos difficult was that she had to communicate to a group of people without allowing the buzz of being on set to hinder her own ability to remain sensitive. “The set is a very emotional place for me because I’m creating…I have to be able to hear myself. How do you know that it’s your last brush stroke? It’s such an intimate, intimate process, and for me that’s the most important thing, to keep that intimate process.”

Her relationship to the music is equally intimate. She listens to a song up to 100 times before planning a video. “I listen to it so much that I don’t hear the music anymore, and that’s when the images start coming. It has to take me somewhere.” Although it’s not necessarily the lyrics which inform her images. Sigismondi credits a childhood of opera and classical music with showing her that one can be moved regardless of the lyrics. Her father is an opera singer who, at eighty, still practices and sings almost five hours a day. “With Sigur Ros there are no lyrics, but the music made me weep every time I listened to it.

Sigismondi’s unique visual sense has attracted the attention of a diverse group of artists, including Marilyn Manson, Tricky, Bjork, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Christina Aguilera, the White Stripes and, most recently, Fiona Apple. In past interviews Sigismondi credited her dreams as the source of her images. She would even admit to depriving herself of sleep as part of her process. More recently she feels that her imagery could be called daydreams, and waking life is playing a larger role in her work. “I think I get very affected by what I see and what bothers me in this plain. And then it somehow gets translated into something more symbolic and surreal through the process of moving through me.”

Symbolism permeates the videos. In the White Stripes video for Blue Orchid, a woman bites on a white apple which oozes black poison. Jack White’s cane transforms into a snake, before slithering through the burnt out shell of a house. When asked, Sigismondi reflects on the degree Catholicism plays into her images. She’s the daughter of two Italian immigrants and went to Catholic high school. Her father is an atheist and her mother wanted to be a nun. “It was a very confusing upbringing [laughs] but it allowed me to question, to look at the other side of things.” But Catholic religious images, many she describes as heavy and even violent for a child, have stayed with her. Redemption, her first photography book (1999), was more about coming to terms with religious angst.

Sigismondi, who has often been referred to as The Gothic Goddess, finds that working on set allows her to explore what is often described as the darker side of human experience. But she has a slightly different spin on this. “For me it’s not that, it’s more about looking at places about myself that I wouldn’t necessarily readily talk about…maybe that’s why I like creating on sets, because it’s very safe for me. I’m able to work out my phobias and fears because there are lots of people around. Then I’m not afraid of looking at the little dust piles in the back corner. It’s OK for me to go and look at that with a flashlight.”

What she creates on set is always fantastic, and theatrical. In the Christina Aguilera video for Fighter, the singer breaks out of a glass cabinet before moving through a narrow canyon with steep black walls, climbing them and being descended upon by moths. In an earlier video for Tricky, one of the singers is suspended in the water of a bathtub. In her video for The Cure, a house deconstructs itself before reconstructing. With budgets ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $600,000, and shooting schedules of one to three days, Sigismondi tries not to let the money hinder her while being realistic about what she can achieve. She doesn’t storyboard her videos, but does create an extremely detailed shot list. It’s through this preparation that she’s able to go on set and be flexible. “If something is happening in another corner where we wouldn’t expect to shoot, let’s move and capture that magic. It’s about having all the elements there, prepared, but being able to be agile and move like water.”

Maybe it’s that desire for in-the- moment flexibility and her training as a photographer, that leads Sigismondi to gravitate toward tangible solutions in her videos. Her recent rendering of The Living Things’ Bom Bom Bom is a psychedelic collage zoo: footage of live animals, the band in black and white, animation of tanks and helicopters and ink spots dissolving in a wash behind the band. It was, she admits, shot entirely in front of a green screen. Although Sigismondi is very happy with it, it took a lot of work for her to apply all the layers and imagine an end result which was only visible when everything was pulled together through the editing process. Playing with the lens is more her thing: blown glass to distort an image, machetes in front of the lens, camera wipes. It is, she says, “the fun part of going back to old film techniques and using old fashioned stuff.” She doesn’t own a digital camera, and feels technology makes things too easy to fix. “I quite love the texture of film. [It’s] more emotional.”

In the Incubus video for Talk Show on Mute the band is placed in what resembles a 1960s game show, complete with moveable beige sets. The only difference is that the Vana Whites have the heads of cats. The Floria touch.

Sigismondi similarly captures the visual flavour of an earlier era in her 2003 commercial for Eatons, Aubergine. Somewhere between a 1950s musical and film noir, the commercial makes the viewer wonder if she spent weeks studying the work of Vincente Minelli and Douglas Sirk. Although Sigismondi does do research, she wouldn’t necessarily consider herself a student of cinema. Photographs are more of a starting point, but not a blueprint.

“[ I ] give myself enough information to do something of that time but then let it naturally happen.”

When Leonard Cohen released In My Secret Life, Sigismondi shot the accompanying video in Montreal’s Habitat, a cubist block of apartments designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie in 1967. She uses architecture as a character: “It doesn’t have to be a certain architect. It depends on how I’m feeling in the moment. Is it something more restrained and more cubicle, structured, or is it something more organic and feels like it’s falling apart?” As architecture sets a mood for Sigismondi, so does light. Although she doesn’t light her videos (she often works with D.O.P. Chris Soos), her photographer’s eye has led Sigismondi to be very involved with the lighting design. Working in motion has made her more aware that what one takes away is as important as what one puts in: “Negative space, negative lighting,” she says.

In Blue Orchid and Fighter, there’s a recurring image. Orchid opens with a woman dressed in white struggling to get out of a bathtub. When she does succeed, she painfully props herself against the wall. On her feet are impossibly high- heeled, hindering, ballet slippers. She moves with the greatest of difficulty. In Fighter the slippers appear again, and the women wearing them use poles, which resemble sewing pins, to prop themselves up. Simultaneously, Christina Aguilera pulls the same type of pins out of her back and hurls them at the camera. The contrast between kick-ass women—Bjork, Christina Aguilera, Fiona Apple—and images of powerlessness fascinates me. When asked, Sigismondi’s response has less to do with being a woman director in a male dominated industry and more to do with every person’s internal dichotomy. “I think for me, it’s about the polar opposites. I think everybody has those sides. Even if somebody is perceived as very strong, what’s made them strong is because they’ve been incredibly fragile. And I think you can’t be the one way without experiencing both. So for me, it’s about coming to terms with your fragility and that’s what makes you confident and able to express yourself…”

Motherhood has only intensified her awareness of life’s fragility. Sigismondi’s daughter Tosca was born a little more than a year ago. Her birth has made the director more aware of mortality, and brought her a touch down from otherworldliness. It’s a clear time of change, and a good time, according to the director. She’s writing a feature film script Behind the Ballyhoo Blues, an important step after establishing herself as a powerhouse in music videos. “I’ve used the medium. I feel a little bit constrained. Anywhere from three to five minutes, I’ve done it now. I’d love to be able to be a little more subtle and to get deeper.”

The subject of Immune, the post 9/11 gas masks filtering into Sigur Ros’ Untitled, and even the lyrics of The Living Things’ Bom Bom Bom, “We’re going to wake this city tonight, watch it burn into the twilight. We’re ready to fight. We’re going to bom bom bom,” seems to reflect a continued expansion in her work. Where Sigismondi has not been afraid of looking at the “little dust piles in the back corner,” she’s definitely up to using her powerful visual sense to tackle the wider world. Sigismondi admits: “Maybe I’m shining the light somewhere else now. Maybe it’s a bit more (about) the collective consciousness.”

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