Esther Hoareau | Spatial Imaginaries

By Alexandra McIntosh


Esther Hoareau’s wide-ranging practice encompasses film, photography and installation as well as composition and performance. Natural environments, from the verdant and volcanic terrain of Réunion Island to the outer reaches of space, form the principal subject of investigation for the artist. Yet the resulting works are no ordinary landscapes. Juxtaposing real and artificial elements, Hoareau creates territories that are imbued with wonder and vitality as well as apprehension. These are otherworldly, incongruous places, at once subterranean and extraterrestrial. They draw the viewer in but retain a sense of distance or impose a barrier to their full apprehension. Her works merge the phantasmagorical and the mundane to recast our surroundings in a new light.

Of the artist’s many sources of reference and research, cinema and more specifically science fiction and fantasy films, from Méliès to Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Kusturica, provide a rich source of inspiration. In her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag describes science fiction film as being concerned with disaster rather than science. “The lure of such generalized disaster as a fantasy,” she writes, “is that it releases one from normal obligations.” 1 The destruction of a city by hostile aliens or the daring escape to another planet is followed by the fantasy of starting life anew on virgin territory.

There is a parallel here with popular imaginaries surrounding islands, seen as unexplored wilderness ready for occupation and exploitation that also permit some new form of freedom. Most actual residents of islands will grapple with the projected fantasies of outsiders. Réunion, with its striking geography, tropical weather and cultural diversity has surely been especially prone to exoticized visions of its landscapes and inhabitants, coupled with resource extraction and exploitation over the course of centuries.

For Esther Hoareau, science fiction and fantasy become potent tools of contradiction, a way to refute or divert an imposed view. The artist’s photographic and cinematic landscapes are often bereft of humans but are nonetheless replete with life forces. Her works invoke familiar yet preternatural settings, where the sole inhabitants are a pair of oversize balloons that bounce and float on the wind (Hidden Beings, 2018) or are drawn into each other’s orbit on the surface of the sea (Eclipse, 2017). Elsewhere, feathered pinecone-shaped emissaries descend to earth from another world (Ovni, 2013), their intent unclear.

Eclipse, 2017
Video, 1 min, endless loop.

A confusion of fact and fiction as well as scale abounds in Hoareau’s work. Among her photographic series, Inscapes (2020) depicts improbable, composite landscapes, where caves glowing with phosphorescence enclose volcanic landmasses or merge with constellations. As the title suggests, these are interior or imagined realms, possible only as a mental image or an extension of our accepted reality. Neige (2017) shows epic landscapes and mountains with snow-encrusted peaks, their lower flanks mineral-bright. The images are partially obscured by flecks of gold or by multihued crystals affixed to their surfaces, as if floating across our field of vision and implicating the viewer in the act of looking.

In 2022, the artist spent two weeks aboard the Marion Dufresne, an oceanographic research and supply vessel for the French Southern and Antarctic Territories (TAAF). Filmed on board, the video Organ opens with the sound of the ship’s horn. A layering of such tones creates an ascending scale accompanied by percussion and voice. Discernible in the fading light is a shoreline under heavy clouds. The image is overlaid with luminous pinpoints that sway up and down with the movement of the vessel, refusing to settle. Views of inhabited land give way to those of the night sky, the restless sea and the ship itself–its narrow hallways, instrument dials and mechanical systems.

The loss of landmarks on the open ocean is exacerbated by the artist’s tight framing. Nets for material collection and sampling trail the vessel, yet these actions appear as modest attempts to understand something far greater and mysterious than humans, and utterly indifferent to our presence. The whole is punctuated by a rhythmic soundtrack of hums, bass reverberations and breathing, as if the ocean itself inhales and exhales with the steady movement of the waves. A vague sense of unease permeates the work, wherein the ship and the ocean become like animate, sentient bodies. In this way, Organ recalls Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (1961), a noted reference for Hoareau, in which the author imagines an alien planet capable of conjuring physical presences drawn from the memories of its human visitors.

Organ, 2023
Extract. Video, 8 min 44 s.

The large-scale photograph Feux (1751) (2023) also emerged from the same trip, when the Marion Dufresne embarked at the Glorieuses Islands in the Indian Ocean. For the artist, setting foot on this remote archipelago claimed as French territory in 1751 resonated with her own history and that of Réunion Island. The vessel after which the territory is named, Le Glorieux, along with other boats arriving from Senegal and elsewhere had stopped at Réunion that same year to exchange slaves. Undocumented, their names and fates largely untraceable, such people nonetheless form an integral part of Réunion’s history and culture. The artist has described similar gaps in her family’s history and a desire to fill these voids, in part by imagining the experience of her first ancestor to arrive at Réunion Island, obliged to “go toward the unknown before them.”2

Like the earlier photographic series Neige, Feux (1751) is flecked with gold leaf, yet here the gilded snow gives us pause, limiting our capacity to delve into the dense forest canopy and thus halting our exploratory and proprietary gaze.

For all the disconcerting or potentially threatening aspects of natural elements, however, there is also humour and a joyful sense of wonder in Hoareau’s engagement with landscape. Many of her video and photographic works exude vibrant, saturated colours, lush foliage and dazzling light, accompanied by ethereal scores and vocal harmonies. Expansive lands and starry skies that envelope the viewer contrast with enclosed rock-bound spaces that suggest the slow immensity of geologic forces. Throughout, the macro is contained within the micro, and the artist passes seamlessly from minerals and the élan vital of plants to the distant limits of the universe, both mapped and imagined.

Feux (1751), 2023
Digital print on aluminium, 120 x 80 cm.

From 2011, Symphonie’s pristine laboratory of plant specimens in test tubes aligned in orderly racks is followed by an orchestra of potted plants that quiver in time to Antonin Dvořák’s 9th Symphony “From the New World.” The artist has described the video as a “musical ode to the appearance of the plant kingdom,” and it is joined by You Blossom (2020)– a song written and performed for plants and birds– in joyous tribute to the more-than-human world.

Symphonie is part of a body of work entitled Belova, which means ‘rich, important heritage’ in Malagasy, and includes photographs and videos. The video Ciel Étoilé (Belova) offers a slow pan of the night sky, replete with multiple galaxies and nebula, innumerable stars, and a single planet. As the movement continues, the planet appears again and again. We are propelled in circles as the image speeds up like a fairground ride to dizzying, disorienting effect.

References to exploration, whether spatial, terrestrial or oceanic, thus abound in the artist’s work. In addition to Belova are the sculptures La Fusée en béton (2013) and La Fusée en cristal (2021), models of rocket ships rendered in cement or encrusted with gemstones. Similarly, the soundtrack of Organ includes an excerpt from NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The choice of Dvořák’s New World Symphony as performed by Symphonie’s quavering plants is especially apt given the composer’s evocation of American folk melodies and African American Spirituals that were wholly new to European ears. (Incidentally, the astronaut Neil Armstrong brought a recording of the work on that first lunar landing mission.)

These exploratory adventures could be read both as a form of escapism as well as a mirroring of Réunion Island’s discovery and colonization. They also offer a way to establish a distance from the surrounding environment in order to better comprehend it. Esther Hoareau’s work fuses the real and the imagined, offering a confluence of past, present and possible futures. She maps a terra incognita of her own devising, rendering the familiar strange to question our perceptions and our preconceptions. Like the push and pull of an island, her work induces us to explore other territories while compelling us always back to its shores.

Ciel étoilé (Belova), 2020
Extract. Video, 3 min, endless loop.
  1. Sontag, Susan, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 213-215.
  2. In the original French, “… d’aller vers l’inconnu qui était en eux…” Esther Hoareau in conversation with the author, October 2, 2023.