Melissa and Aaron had established links with France before their residency began. They were in fact in Paris in 2014, when Caroline Bourgeois informed them that they had been selected for the Pinault Collection’s new project, an artists’ residency in northern France: “We have been shaping and adjusting our lives and projects to accommodate this yearlong residency… all the while wondering, ‘will this really happen?’” Melissa and Aaron had a year and a half to prepare for the move from their Brooklyn studio to the French mining basin, over 5,000 kilometres away. They began researching the area and studied the city, the history of the region was somewhat familiar to both of them, as they both have distant family ties to mining. Aaron’s grandfather also volunteered as a fighter pilot in the RAF during WWII and told stories of his flights over this flat country: “The histories of mining and war in our pasts transcend a specific location.” The opportunities presented by this residency are exceptional for them: “A residency such as this one is able to sustain and encourage significant growth in our work.”
For Melissa and Aaron, Lens is both a refuge and a source of inspiration: “There are two slag heaps near our house, the Louvre is down the street: the influence of this area is palpable… Even as we do something as simple as gardening, we are reminded of it through what we find in the soil.” They confront these devastated lands and the tormented history of mining with more personal references, from Chris Marker’s La Jetée to the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin: “It is a place of self-devastation that has been affected by catastrophe after catastrophe. We’re trying to establish connections between this landscape and things that may initially seem unrelated”.
“There are two slag heaps near our house, the Louvre is down the street: the influence of this area is palpable… Even as we do something as simple as gardening, we are reminded of it through what we find in the soil.”
As they studied geological samples of the town, they visualized the prehistoric forest buried beneath them: “That image has been really active in our imagination throughout the time we’ve been here. I imagine it as very vertical, almost present,” explains Melissa. The proximity of the Louvre-Lens encouraged them to study this underground life and the possibility of an eventual cultural shift: “An inversion took place: the mining stopped, but had already unearthed a vast hidden terrain, the terrils which now define the landscape. It was replaced by cultural tourism, which now includes taking artworks and storing them underground to protect them. These artworks are returned to the source of raw materials that in part created the problem.”