arts&culture

Protagonists: Camille Benoit and Mariana Gella

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Saori, Azra, Calista and Ika are paper “invisible cities”, which have come out from the imagination and the refined abilities of two London artists, who created an «intricate, challenging and magical» project

Her names are Camille Benoit and Mariana Gella. They took advantage of the first lockdown period in 2020 to launch the “The invisible city” project and establish a collaboration that, up until then, had never found a proper occasion to start.

After changing their living room in a real laboratory, they created four architectural models of fantastic cities only using paper and tools they had in their homes.

Their four paper models, i.e. Saori, Azra, Calista and Ika, were inspired by Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, which «explores imagination through the descriptions of Marco Polo’s travels».

Although the “Invisible Cities” are imaginary, their design was based on some real buildings, including Ricardo Bofill’s La Muralla Roja, which were source of inspiration for Calista, and the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Sakura House, which influenced  Saori. Ika was designed drawing inspiration from the Collage House by S+PS Architects, while Azra was inspired by Xavier Corberó’s house.

In this exclusive interview to Paper Industry World, the two artists are showing the whole world their amazing work.

You are two separate artists, but you did “Invisible Cities” together. How did the project originate?

«Life in London is very fast-paced. Although we had discussed to collaborate for a long time, we never really found the right time to start it. During lockdown, the whole world stopped, and this gave us the right space and time to properly invest in the project.

We wished to work on something that would allow us to combine our skills, and explore architectural and design visual languages, however we wanted to do it in the right way and enjoy the process at the same time. For us, what made this project so special is the fact that we could only use tools and materials that we already had at home. As these were limited, we really had to push our creativity a step further. We wanted to create something that would allow the viewer to travel without restrictions, in a time where we were all locked between four walls».

Tell me something about you as persons: who are you (both), what training have you had, what do you deal with individually?

Mariana: «As an architect and artist, I have worked in different fields including jewellery, sculpture, exhibition/set design and architecture. This has given me the chance to combine 2D and 3D digital design software with manual construction like model making or sculpture. But it wasn’t until I moved to London that I started working with paper and I tried to learn and absorb as much as possible during my time here. That’s where Camille and I met, and where the idea for this project originated».

Camille: «I am a paper artist and I started specialising in this material as a child. As I grew up, I continued learning and incorporating new tools and techniques which improved the results of my projects until I eventually turned this into my job. I have recently spent two years working in London with one of the best paper artists I know, i.e. Makerie Studio, whom I had admired for a long time.

For this project, the work routine depended on where we were at in the creative process. We spent the first days reading and researching about the “Invisible Cities”, and exploring design opportunities. Later on, we started brainstorming and sketching, until we started with the actual design phase with our computers. The most exciting part was bringing the 3D designs to life by transforming our living room into a workshop, where we could assemble the paper pieces. Most of the days we would wake up with tiny pieces from the project in our beds. We fully lived this paper experience!».

How did you meet and how did you start working together?

«We met working in a paper art window display. We started as colleagues, then we soon became flatmates and friends.

After that first project finished, each one was working in different studios specialising in the window and set design world. The collaboration occurred naturally!».

As regards “Invisible Cities”, how did the idea of cities and names come about?

«Thanks to the lockdown, we finally had the time to brainstorm about this project that we had thought about for a while. We wanted to work on something that would allow us to combine our skills and explore visual architectural and design languages. For us, what made this project so special is the fact that we could only use tools and materials that we already had at home. As these were limited, we really had to push our creativity a step further».

Mariana: «The most interesting part was incorporating each other’s tools and skills throughout the creative process. From Camille, I learnt the discipline required for this material, and the small tricks that would make the difference between a paper piece that is nice and one that is impactful».

Camille: «It was a great opportunity to work with Mariana and combine our understanding of space and volumes. She usually models and renders using Rhinoceros, whereas I work directly on the physical material. It is through trialling different papers and geometric bases that I manage to create desired volumes, as a sculptor might do».

«“Invisible Cities” is a poetic discussion between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, full of concise architectural descriptions and abstract references. This combination allows the reader to imagine unlikely, and yet well-defined visual landscapes. We began by combining our own interpretation of Marco’s words so the novel was the foundation of our work. We even chose particular quotes as the basis of our initial sketches. For example, “The shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda, is not a straight line but a zigzag that branches out in tortuous optional routes. There’s never two ways only opening up for each passer-by, but rather many”.

We were also really interested in exploring concepts including opulence, the negative space and fragility, and we explored how this could be expressed in architecture. Just like in the book, our cities are meditations in culture and cultural heritage. We wanted to create something that would allow the viewer to travel without any sort of restrictions, in a time where we were all locked between four walls».

I read that you drew inspiration from the Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities”, which explores the imagination through the descriptions of Marco Polo’s travels. Can you tell me more about this?

«Feeling trapped in lockdown, we needed to find a new way to travel. We started reading “Invisible Cities” and began imagining Marco Polo’s awe as he travelled East.

We wanted to try and capture that feeling so that viewers could travel with us alongside our sculptures. We used identifiable shapes of cultural heritage from around the world that invite the audience to different specific locations but, at the same time, we used them in unnatural ways to keep “Invisible Cities” an open door to individual interpretation and abstract thought. It was fundamental for us to only “guide” the viewer through visual references, allowing every person to have a different interpretation, just like in the book».

What technique did you work with?

«For this project, we initially sketched the four cities on paper before developing the front elevations on Illustrator to get a general idea of how the architecture would look. Using a 3D software (Rhinoceros), we played around with the volumes, until we found the right proportions for each city. We also made a rendering of the models to understand and anticipate how light would affect the sculptures. Following this, we created the 2D pieces and prepared them for the cutting plotter. The last step was to cut and assemble them manually to go from the 2D paper pieces to 3D volumes. We only added metal wires to add some structural stability when needed. These steps were followed for each city, and yet each one of them presented unique challenges. For example, Azra is smaller than the others and required more patience during the construction phase – the smaller they are, the trickier they are to assemble. Saori required more time during design as we always imagined this city inside of an intricate outer shell so used digital rendering to better understand how light would travel through the outer patterns to reach the inner city.

Once our cities were ready, we created the right atmosphere for the photo shoot by using smoke from a (nicotine-free!) electronic cigarette. We only used the materials and tools we had at home during lockdown, which made this project so challenging and fun at the same time. The whole process, including the research period, design, construction and photo shoot, took two months. We had a good working routine but also took time to enjoy the process, as it was all about learning and experimenting».

What kind of paper do you use?

«We used different papers to play with the materials and reflections that can be found with perlescent papers. So we looked wide and picked from different brands such as Arjowiggins, Fedrigoni, Favini and GF Smith. The papers we have chosen are all of the highest quality and easy to cut».

What is your relationship with paper?

«Working with paper is always different thanks to the differing textures you can use. You can achieve architectural or organic results depending on how you treat the paper and the tools you choose. The magic is holding the final product and surprising the viewer as they discover that the material before them is paper».

Camille: «While studying art direction, I was particularly interested in book design and how a book feels to hold based on the papers and textures that were used. For me, the feeling of paper in your fingers is something very special and I later found this exact same pleasure in paper sculptures. I think it’s perfect to make paper cities based on a text that can be found printed on paper in a book. It’s like rebuilding the book with new papers and new textures into a new sculpture that maintains its text».

Mariana: «The architectural language was a fundamental tool, as it allowed me to express fictional worlds through the use of realistic graphic codes. Questioning and reinventing the nature and functionality of these visual details is the most interesting part. For example, redefining the purpose of a stair or playing with the negative space.

Through the use of an architectural visual language the viewers can relate to the sculptures, as they will recognise elements from cultural heritage, such as Islamic arches, local vegetation or patterns».

What message did you want to convey?

«With this project we wanted to create spaces that could inspire dreaming and intellectual travels. As adults, we often forget the importance of dreams and imagination. With these cities that have come out of our imagination, we hope to stimulate the imagination of the viewer. Imagining how they can be populated and inhabited is a good start to find our infant souls, which allows us to travel through imaginary worlds during difficult periods like this.

It’s an open door to dreams for the public as well as for us!

As Italo Calvino used to say, cities are trading places, not only for commodities, but also words, wishes and memories. Similarly, we wanted the viewers to find a space to trade dreams».

What difficulties did you have in carrying out this project and how did you solve them?

«The main difficulties encountered for this project were consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the project was realised during the lockdown, all the materials used were delivered to us and during the photo shoot we only had access to what we had at home. We found economical solutions, such as an electronic cigarette as a smoke machine, a curtain for the background, sunlight for lighting and two small LED lamps purchased online. It is all these little tricks that make the force of this project and allow us to be proud of what we have been able to accomplish with the minimum of resources».

Fantastic videos: how and why?

«We wanted to reproduce a dream atmosphere for the photo shoot. Hence the use of smoke to make us understand that our cities are flying and imaginary cities. It was while taking the photos that we decided to take videos in addition to the photos. Because we wanted to share with the spectators what we could see during the shooting».

Have you worked on other jobs together?

«We worked in the past, and we are working on something at the moment… stay tuned!».

Are you going to make plans together?

«We will probably keep working on projects together that allow us to combine and skills and keep learning from each other».