Noémie Goudal’s images combine both the actuality and conscious reproduction of natural landscapes and man-made sculptures of past and present, bundled in an anachronistic depiction of architecture and the organic. Light-bulbing our minds into recognition of what we’ve already seen, the photographs also offer a gateway for our imagination to think up of what could be, giving her artworks vitality from the perspectives of our own life. We talk to Noémie about her works amidst construction noise in the background, as she embarks to outfit her new studio in Paris.


All of your works when initially viewed are quite different, but there is an underlying thread that links them together. Can you tell me what that underlying thread is for you?

There are a few things, the first one is that I always build installations and sculptures and then I photograph them. What I like, is that it is almost like being in between sculpture and photography, and then my main problematic issue is the relationship between the manmade and nature or organic. That is really everywhere in my work. It has been in the past - in my first series Haven Her Body Was, it was really research on the caves and islands and desolate, isolated places. Then I became more and more interested in architecture, especially geomorphic architecture, which is architecture that is in relation to nature. That’s how I built the Observatoires, which is really about humans observing the sky. All my work is really about this nature/culture dichotomy, and the fact that they are all constructed.

With Observatoires, you have said that the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur has been a major influence on you. Can you tell us about your inspiration and fascination with this?

After I finished Haven Her Body Was, I became more and more interested in architecture because what really interests me is the manmade versus the organic. What is really the basis of the manmade is the construct, the architecture, the haven, the first shelter. That’s when I started to really research all types of architecture that are in relation to nature. I came across a book on Indian cosmic architecture which is about those observatories, which have such a strong link with nature; they were built to establish a direct trajectory to the sky. The book also talks about other edifices such as the Mayan and Egyptian pyramids. Even the Sphinx for example, had his eyes orientated towards the constellation of Orion. So basically all those buildings were also built in relation to the sky.

It’s amazing how with those ancient cultures, building in relation to the cosmos was such a big thing for them and they incorporated it into their lives so naturally, which I feel we’ve lost.

It’s true. What is fascinating is that those buildings had a particular function. Now for us, we don’t really build buildings that have a function. We have tools for that, we don’t have buildings. It is interesting for me too see in the relics or remains of those observatories, that they are like sculptures as obviously they don’t serve a function anymore, so they become a place for your imagination to totally flow because you have no idea what they really were for.

For the Observatoires you collected a lot of images. Was there a particular type of image you were looking for when you were doing this?

In order to build this series I was very much researching geomorphic buildings, for example bunkers are a very specific type of geomorphic building. Or a lot of architects in Germany worked on Brutalist architecture, which is an architecture that really shows the raw and the concrete without painting it or to trying to make it aesthetic, they really kept the rawness of the concrete. The architects were very much inspired by nature in order to build them. There is a church in Neviges in Germany, which to me was very important because I went there and for a few hours I photographed it from every single angle and two of the Observatoires I built, are fragments of this church. The architect was really trying to imitate a mountain or a big rock, so him, himself first, was taking nature as an inspiration in order to build this edifice. And then I come and take a picture of it and I put it back in nature, for me it was almost like a circle.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research and construction process? Listening to you talk about it, so much goes into it.

We did a newspaper where we had a lot of the making of images. So they show a lot of the construction that we were doing before we take pictures, they really show the scale of the construction and how we work in a team. It’s a small team, almost like a very small film crew for some of the shoots. For some of it it is very small, our studio manager and me taking the picture, but some of them they need scaffolding and things so it’s a lot bigger. The research is a very important part of the work, the research I do in libraries, I find libraries very inspiring because for me it used to be very austere as a teenager when I was doing work on my baccalaureate or on my exam.

But now I find it amazing because I can flow from one book to another and I have a specific subject at first, but then I research and I find a book on something and it opens all the different possibilities. I look at images more than text in the library, but then I buy a few books that I read at home or when I travel. That’s usually the way I work. In the library, I photocopy a lot of images that I bring back to the studio and I put them up on the wall so that it really helps me to think. I also find a lot of inspiration when I travel, I tend to travel as much as possible, although now since I’m back in France, I want to seek the diversity of landscape here, so I set myself the goal of being on as many shoots as possible in France. Also from an ecological point of view, taking the plane everywhere is not something that is so good, so I only take it when I really need it, when I can’t do anything else. But in a way it’s really nice to rediscover my own country.

When you think of the forms that you come up with, does it come from your imagination or does it come from the images that you research, or a little bit of both?

Yeah, exactly I think a little bit of both, because sometimes I come across a form that I really didn’t expect and I think ‘Wow this is really so strange and peculiar’ and it really surprises me. I like when things surprise me and I didn’t invent them and they are even better than what I could've dreamed of. I love that. And then sometimes I think I really want to have something that looks like a Mayan pyramid, something that looks like stairs going towards the sky, a bit like the Indian observatories. But then I photographed a thousand stairs when I was travelling, and I couldn’t find one staircase that I really liked. But then I found one in the Metro station just near my house, and it’s not necessarily the best of theObservatoires [Observatoire VI] but for me I really like it because it’s so trivial, it’s so familiar, it looks like a Mayan pyramid.

Could you talk to me a bit more about the relationship between the manmade and the organic in your work and the land in particular?

It’s really the main problematic issue so it’s all in what I research. What I really like is the nature and landscapes are quite a democratic place. For example if we look at the sky it is something that everybody can look at, there is equal access to it and I like that everyone can see the sky but with so many different perspectives. That’s really what I like about nature, it’s there for people to look at and to be in but it can be seen from so many different angles so everyone has their own way of interpreting it, and observing it, and enjoying it, and being in it. For me, I use it as a strong foundation to build my images, because my images always need the viewer to add his  own interpretation and his own imagination to it. I don’t think my image can live on its own. For example the Observatoires are a good example, because everybody who is talking to me about the Observatoires, is saying something like ‘Oh that looks like and Indian edifice’, some of them will be ‘Oh that reminds me of the German Brutalists’, others will ask me ‘Were you inspired by the Mayan pyramids?’. Everybody is really projecting what they know and what they have seen and everyone comes with their little baggage of knowledge of sculpture.

You also explore the relationship between photographic representation and reality in your work, what is you starting point? Is it your reality, or this construction side - how do you go about it?

It is a mix of both and I think I like photography for that reason. It really stands in reality in the way that I am always using a real landscape or a real object, and it is a picture of something that exists. But at the same time through my construction, it’s almost like I’m a painter because I’m composing the image as much as I like, so it’s really a mix between the fiction and the reality in a way, the reality of the space. I don’t think I could do my work with painting, because it would only be about composing and using other materials that would be coming just from me, as the hand of the painter. What I like is being in the world and photographing what is already there. I like to travel and see what is out there and talk about what other people can see as well. I like to play with that a lot, I like to play with what people think they see and what they are really looking at.

In most of your work, there is an impression left of architectural remains in a failed utopia. Can you tell me what you think about that?

It’s true that that is one way to look at it because they are quite austere places, but at the same time, I think what I am trying to do for example with the Observatoires, it is more about the sculptural way to look at the building rather than the social or cultural way. So it’s not about building a utopia or showing the remains of what could’ve been, but it’s more about the study of architecture than a social and cultural remark.

There is one word that comes back to me a lot, it’s called heterotopia. It was invented in the 1970’s by Michel Foucault. It talks about those places that are in between the human imagination and the reality, for example, a petrol station or a prison, all those places that almost live in parallel from society. To me, I integrate this work very differently. I’ve been using the first definition, because I feel like all my images exist in a real space because they are photographed somewhere precisely, but at the same time they also need a human imagination and interpretation to truly exist. So to me my images are very much heterotopias, more than utopias.

Would you say your work is re-exploring the past or an imagining of the future, or again is it both, or not that at all?

Again I think it’s both. It’s really anachronistic because the pictures don’t have any sense of time or real geographical location. You could be anywhere at anytime. I think that’s really important to me because the Observatoires could be an archive of something that doesn’t exist anymore, or it could also be a model of something that will be built. It’s really in between all of those possibilities of moments.

Special thanks to Cécile Nédeléc

Interview by Shana Chandra & Pouria Khojastehpay | S/TUDIO
Text by Shana Chandra S/TUDIO