SOMETIMES… YOU GET REALLY EXCITED

Hélène L. Vaneukem’s works, bordering on sci-fi and fantasy, blend botanical observation and post-internet approaches in creating a canvas for your projections. Her captivating animations and illustrations are a journey of exploring the intimate topics of selfhood, developmental psychology and spirituality, and today’s interview dazzles with the French artist’s insight.

The themes of folk horror and fantasy play a significant role in your work. How do you approach these genres in an abstract and colorful manner, and what do you believe makes them conducive to poetic introspection?

Folk stories feel like home, because they are the first we are told as children. It’s funny to think that cautionary fairy tales are introductions to horror stories. We remember them by heart without having to learn them. it becomes a second language, we know what a big bad wolf, for instance, is supposed to represent. A slight evocation or reference is enough to bring them back with all their symbolism, and nature is a very evocative setting, whether it’s a strange cave or a whimsical forest. As I draw them, I write a little tale along with it in my head, and it echoes what I Feel. Fantasy makes me want to look for the Surreal and vibrant Colors. It’s a playful process that comes naturally, I want to surprise myself. I’m not sure what the final palette will be, I redo things a lot. Then comes a moment when I feel it’s just right and eventually I stop and set my mind to it.

I work in an intuitive and playful process, I usually don’t know what the illustration will end up looking like, but I am very clear in my head about their mood/ambiance. I make them with intent, there is always a story behind those images. My goal is to create an immersive dreamscape that would stop a viewer scrolling on their phone, make them pause a little while, take the image in and try to guess and project their own meaning onto the little story in front of them. That’s why most of my loops, animations and illustrations have a soundtrack, to convey a more cinematic feeling, and I also enjoy making soundtracks very much. I don’t really draw a frontier between filmmaking, illustration and music producing. Being able to create pieces meant to be seen on a phone or a computer allows me to blend everything in.

You mentioned that your work doesn’t focus on subtle characters but rather on archetypes and allegories. Could you provide some examples of these which you explore in your art, and how viewers might relate to or interpret them?

Subtlety and subtext come with what the viewer brings to the table when they project, consciously or not, their own meaning on what is in front of them. In my painting Portrait of a Dad, there is a face nesting in a bulb. It looks more like a fetus than a full-grown adult, but still it has its roots everywhere. The viewer might hold on to the title and make their own mind about the story going on. In my animated illustration, my characters and the landscape are inhabiting acts as Jungian archetypes. A magician, a hermite or an adviser invite the viewer to stay for a while in the scenery, to guess what’s going on and what could happen next, from the staging itself with a sometimes present dialogue box, inspired by JRPGs. I love to create an illusion of choices between two answers the viewer could choose, and give just enough odd and specific details in them that it would trigger even more questions about the scenery. It’s all about escapism and make-believe. 

The forest is described as a place that’s alive and filled with unpredictable organic shapes. How do these aspects of nature inspire your creativity, and how do you translate them into your artwork, which often blurs the lines between botanical observation and sci-fi design?

When you build phantasmagorias on what you’re familiar with, you take a leap into sci-fi and fantastical imagery, and I feel that both those genres are, at their core, linked to naturalistic observations. If you take a good look at medieval monsters drawn in illuminated letters, you see that they are a weird hybrid of animals that monks knew at the time. And if you consider real-life trees, mushrooms or a weird abyssal fish, you see that they adapt to pretty much everything in their way by taking surreal forms. The farther the lifeform is from us, the weirder those shapes get. It’s amusing to see how clueless, sometimes uneasy, we feel looking at those real life monsters to the point they become sci-fi to us. 

When you are drawing them from an observational point of view, what’s unpredictable is very freeing and intuitive to draw. You can make your own rules of how biology is supposed to work while mimicking it enough to make it plausible. I became aware of how studying something academically could actually feel freeing and meditative: I had a teacher in anatomy class who would ask us to draw 150 insects during 2 weeks. The more I draw them the more I would grow curious about biology, their shape, ect, and at one point my hand would know pretty much everything about their skeleton, their texture… I discovered new patterns and shapes I would implement everywhere else. It kept happening when I had a fixation on drawing barkskin after drawing all the background of my thesis film, which took place in a forest. Now, those shapes and patterns are just printed in my head and hands and keep coming up unprompted.

My work is closely tied to folk horror and fantasy in an abstract and colorful way. I feel that those genres are all about poetic introspection. These are very conceptual stories that don’t focus on subtle characters, but archetypes and allegories you can play with. Everyone has their own fears and fascinations with fairytale-coded elements and will project their own fantasies if they recognise one. It’s been all over classic literature and the arts, sometimes it’s religious even, it’s already printed in our heads at an early age.

You mentioned being inspired by old alchemical illustrations and Ernst Haeckel’s biological inventory. How do these influences manifest in your work, and how do they contribute to the otherworldly quality of your illustrations?

What I absolutely love about them is that they both aim to make sense of the world around them while looking crazy and random. Ernst Haeckel has created a catalog of every botanical shape he could observe, and as someone who knows nothing about those shapes, I can project my own meaning on his drawing. Some anemone looks like a castle, you never know if you are looking at a cell or a jellyfish, and there is a sense of vertigo in terms of what it could be. Alchemical illustrations on the other hand look like lost eldritch furniture instruction manuals. They are made up rules to explain physics, matter, or even concepts. To do so, they will show you things you understand, a sun, a moon, a lobster… then fuse everything together and expect you to go “ho, I totally get it, it’s the visual allegory of greed”. It’s poetic and it’s engaging visual storytelling because you try to understand its riddle and what’s going on. I try to do exactly the same with my illustrations. Remedios Varo is also an immense inspiration as a poetic and enigmatic painter.

Looking ahead, you mentioned a desire to collaborate with other artists on various projects. Could you share any specific ideas or themes you’d like to explore in these collaborations, whether they be video projects, installations, or music videos?

Coming of age themes, self perception, and queer identities are central themes of my work that I definitely aim to develop in my personal projects and collaborations: My last short film “Heart worms swarm” made for Hellavision’s earth episode was a visual representation of the feeling of falling in love. My short “Pascal sentimental” told the story of a hermit’s existential crisis after breaking up with god, as he’s trying to make his first friend. I am currently working on visualisers for an experimental pop music album that explores loneliness and endless scrolling. As for writing and directing, I don’t always write alone, in fact I’m writing a series with my co-author Delphine Chariaud called “Ugly people sex life”. It’s visually very far from the fantasy world I’m used to show online, but to its core, it’s about the same thing, coming of age stories and the need for human connection. 

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Bio

Hélène L. Vaneukem is 23 years old, born and raised in France. She graduated fom L’ASA, an animation film school in Paris in 2021. Since then, she has been working as an animation director and storyboard artist, but also as an occasional drag performer and scenographer for theare plays.

Credits

Designer / Hélène L Vaneukem

https://www.instagram.com/helene.vaneukem/?hl=cs

Tree GIF / Co-Created with Camille Lerhminier

Interview / Markéta Kosinová

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