Claire is an artist, editor and researcher interested in the relationship between technology, spirituality and sensory experience. She has collaborated on projects for DesignLab at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Apple, Inc. and The New York Times, among others. She has lectured and led workshops on subjects related to visual communication, ideation and cinema. From 2012 to 2017 she ran Book Stand, a curatorial project that championed independent publishing with events in Los Angeles, Berlin and Austin, Texas. In 2020, she co-led Lonely After Dark, a virtual project with musician Robert Griffin Lowe, that brought a program of poetry and sound to people around the world. She is the founder of Research Agency and, an off-media digital archive inspired by the Europaconcorsi, an internet project developed in Rome in the late nineties. She is a contributing editor to MATTO in Paris and an associate editor of Many of Them in San Sebastián, Spain. She holds a B.A. of Architecture and Environmental Design from the University of Colorado and a M.L. Architecture from The University of Southern California. Born in California, she has lived in Paris, New York City and Berlingen, Switzerland. She’s now based in Los Angeles.



Marcelo Gomes: Faith, Beauty, Phosphorus and Lime
by Claire Cottrell

I first met Marcelo maybe a decade ago in Los Angeles. I took him to a window service hut selling homemade pies in the woods and then a tiny Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo. Today I’m talking to him through a screen. He’s in Paris, where he now lives, sitting next to an open window in the low purple-green light of a summer storm.

He has just published his first monograph, Pathêmes, that includes 168 of his images and two texts. One by him and one by his friend, the writer Durga Chew-Bose. The images span time and place. He traverses Nicaragua, New Zealand, his native Brazil, Brussels, New York City, and Rome, among other things. A line in his essay caught my attention and was the catalyst for this conversation. He wrote that, “Once I can see as structure, a field of faith, the image itself irrigates and fills the cracks.”

We talk for awhile and his thoughts meander eloquently and honestly through topics that range from fatalism to Tropicália.

As the storm blows into his apartment and he rushes to close unsettled windows, he makes me think that maybe his faith is beauty. He’s devoted to it and believes in the role that it plays in life, and specifically, in his life, marked in the modern way by ascending geographic ranks to find an unforeseen way of being in the world.

I think about the idea that accepting beauty is finding faith. 

Marcelo, it’s so nice to see you.

I know, I feel like the last time I saw you was in Los Angeles. It was a long time ago.

I don’t even know how long ago that was.

I have no notion of time. It completely escapes me.

How are you enjoying Paris?

I’ve been here for two and a half years, and I’m really happy. It feels like I should have done this a long time ago. New York does this thing to you. It’s like it’s the only place in the world to live, and then it’s not. Then you realize that it’s actually not at all.

I think of you as an artist more than I do a photographer. Is that an ok thing to say? 

Of course. I’m really aware of the sort of moribund state of being a photographer. I get it. We are the lesser art, and I’m ok with it. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but that’s what I’ve always thought. All the work that I do is essentially because of an envy of painting. That’s really what I wish I could do and can’t, but that’s why the work looks the way it does. I think this idea of painting really comes through in Pathêmes.

Have you ever painted?

I mean when I was a kid, yeah. It’s not about the facility of painting, but I think it’s a mindset. It’s definitive, and it’s so difficult to begin and finish. Take for example, writing. Writing is really, really hard. It’s also really hard to begin, and it’s really hard to get into it, but you can go back to it and continue sculpting. You just keep hacking away at it ever so slightly. Day after day you can massage it, and you take this part or that part out. It’s a process. You can actually go back in time, and that makes it feel possible for me. Painting isn’t like that. I know that there are ways that you can go back, but the level of skill that it would require to really be able to do that is an entire education. I feel like I have hang-ups like that about all kinds of things. Like the other day it sort of dawned on me that I’ll never be able to read in Greek. It’s just never going to happen. I’ll never read Virgil in Latin; it’s not in the cards, and that’s just how it is.

I paint a bit, in a very specific way. I was taught to paint architectural renderings at university in layers of watercolor, and in that process you can influence what you’ve done before with each new layer that you add.

This is what I mean though. It requires a whole education. It’s like if I could read and write Greek, then I would have access to this, this and this. If you have the preparation, if you have been taught the very, very basics, then you can go back and manipulate time.

So there is a learning in being able to manipulate. I connect that to your work because you do that. You manipulate.

Limitation begets fruition, and I really believe that. I restrict the areas of work to those in which I excel. I feel very much a master of specific tools, but it took a long, long time to get to that place. It’s coming from a place of knowledge, but it was a very, very roundabout way of arriving at this place. I wouldn’t say that I’m an analog photographer. Not that any of that actually matters. It doesn’t really matter to me, but in the context of photography, I wouldn’t say that I’m an analog photographer. The digital part of the process takes up just as much time and space as the fact that it begins organically; it begins through chemistry. I digitize images myself. I scan them, and I do some of the burning or dodging on the computer.

How do you define this field of faith that you find in your process ?

When I was writing about faith in the book, I was really thinking about safety. Very directly, when I was thinking about a field of faith, I was thinking about a structure that feels like an end, like a bottom. That’s what the grain of an image does for me. I need to believe. In order for me to believe and have faith that it’s actually a thing, a tangible, palpable thing, there has to be a bottom. Imagine you’re in a pool. At some point when you dive down, you have to be able to touch the bottom of it. The grain does that for me. The unit of it makes me feel that I can swim around and find my bearings. I can compose. Then it’s about a matter of scale and how much of that unit I see.

That faith then is in seeing something or visualizing something specific that is tangible to you.

Exactly. It’s a texture. I think that’s the problem that I have with digital photography or digital video is this idea that it’s endless. I mean obviously it’s not endless, but there are too many pixels to the point where I can’t see it or feel it. It feels like you’re floating in space and there’s nothing to hold on to, and for some reason my mind can’t deal with that. Or when you think about absolute zero, when there’s essentially no information, it’s white, and there’s nothing there, I don’t know what to do. I can’t breathe.

I have Pathêmes and I have a really early booklet that you made with a green cover, but aside from that, I’ve only ever seen your images on a screen. I’ve never seen one of your shows. So much of experiencing an image is seeing a digital representation, and having that thing to hold on to does feel like a lifeline.

To be honest I hadn’t thought about that, but actually it makes perfect sense. That’s very much a part of it. These things live mostly on the computer. It’s an interpretation of something. I think it became even more important for me to see grain and feel something. It’s like touching with my eyes. The idea of the book, including the processes and the papers that were used, was to emphasize what I write about in my essay which is texture. We wanted to exaggerate the tactility of it, and I think that comes with faith. The fact that I had faith in my own work. I knew that I didn’t have to worry about fidelity. Fidelity was never really a concern. I’m living these images and experiencing these images in RGB, and the moment that they become 4-Color you lose something, especially when you use color the way that I do. Faith plays a big part in this transition because I think you can really only take that step and let go when you believe. I’ve been believing for a little while now.

Why do you need to have that belief? Not from a confidence perspective, but why do you need to have that grain? Why do you need to see that or have that as your starting point?

Safety is the point I keep coming back to. I never feel safe. I never have. I keep looking for it, so having something that I can feel, a modicum of control, which again we don’t really have, but projecting this hologram of control is really important. There are some other things too. I have been able to identify the fact that I’m obsessed with anything Hellenic. I love Classicism. I love the Greeks. There’s a sense of order, a colonnade and a place to start from.

Does this apply only to your work, or is it bigger than that?

At this point I think everything is my work. I really don’t separate stuff, especially given my forays into other things. I read a ton these days, and I don’t have a hobby, for example. I actually don’t. Well actually maybe I do. I listen to basketball gossip when I have tea in the morning for 10 minutes. That’s really the only thing that I do that I don’t think of as work. 

What is your spiritual understanding of faith?

I don’t really believe in anything I guess. I don’t think of myself as a very spiritual person. I wouldn’t say that I’m a nihilist, but I don’t even really believe in people. I was watching this thing the other day and I sort of identified with this guy who said that groups of people freak him out. Groups of people freak me out too. I like individuals. I can feel a lot of empathy for people. I love people in that way, like the way we’re talking. I’m very curious. I want to know about you. I grew up Catholic, but I’m Brazilian so it’s sort of a brand of Catholicism that has very little commitment. I went to Catholic school, but it’s not really a thing. It’s very different than growing up Catholic in Ireland. It’s actually the opposite in a sense. Now in the context of what we’re talking about, not having a safety net seems like I’m making my life more difficult than it needs to be, but, I do love religious music. I love churches.

Why is that?

I think because, well, it’s the idea of the pastoral. I remember as a kid watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, that Franco Zeffirelli film, and it’s funny because it’s supposed to be about St. Francis of Assisi. I guess nature is probably the closest thing to a spiritual connection that I have, and it is one of the earliest associations of divinity. It resides in nature. I mean you can see it. I’m a sucker for a really beautiful landscape. Every time it gets me. That’s the closest I feel to anything in the beyond.

No one captures nature like you do. Can you talk about how you see it?

I wouldn’t consider myself someone who is well traveled, so I think because of that I am very much still in awe of everything. I was in the South of France last week shooting, and I was in awe all the time. I just couldn’t believe it. How can it be that beautiful? It’s absurd. I went to New Zealand, and I just couldn’t get over it. I thought how is this even possible. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I have traveled just as much as everyone else. I don’t take being on good terms with pleasure for granted. That’s really what I was trying to say. I’m really ok with being in awe. I don’t think it’s uncool. I’m very happy to drool over something. There’s no shame in it. In sports there’s always these silly things that coaches say when you beat a team that you’re not supposed to beat. The coach will say something like don’t celebrate too loudly or exuberantly. You have to behave as if you’ve been here before. I really don’t get that. If I see something that baffles me, I will be very effusive, and I will tell you. If something makes me cry, I’m not going to hide my tears. I used to struggle, well not struggle, but I used to question my Brazilianness because I really made myself an adult in the US. I think that I’ve identified that sense of awe as my Brazilianess. I have this ability to welcome pleasure, comfort, touch, and expression in a more exuberant way, always.

Why is that something you connect to being Brazilian?

I’m going to take the scenic route if you don’t mind (laughs). I dedicate Pathêmes to Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian artist. For me, it’s this triumvirate. It’s him, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Brian Eno. To me, they are the most complete living artists. Sakamoto is in the book three or four times. Caetano is in the book twice. I never got to photograph Brian Eno. There’s a certain trench of Brazilian culture that is so incredibly important because it contains the avant-garde and the very, very popular in a way that is unlike any other, and I think Caetano more or less embodies that. There’s a kind of risk-taking and a freedom. That’s why I’m inspired to be that daring without feeling the weight of risk, and that was very much a characteristic of the Brazilian vanguard in popular music, especially in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s. I mean there’s also a sensuality, and I mean sensuality more in this idea of touching, wanting to be close and exuding warmth. I approach my work with that sense of the sensual. Like in the way Kate Bush would describe the sensual versus a sexy type of thing. So finding tactility, shape, warmth, form and curves. You know, Oscar Niemeyer, all of that stuff. It’s almost like a civilization from a different planet actually.

Why do you think that comes out of Brazil? You see it across music, architecture and so much.

Well, you used to. That’s one of the saddest things. I think that the day Caetano dies, so much of that culture will die with him. It will be a very, very sad day. I do think it’s because it’s the tropics. The modernist movement in Brazil is marked by a week in 1922 where this guy, Oswald de Andrade, talks about the concept of anthropophagy, which is essentially this idea of swallowing things, ruminating on them, and then squeezing something else out. I think that’s what happened, which is so fascinating. Tropicália is essentially that; it’s taking American pop culture, The Beatles, The Stones, and just digesting all of it and creating something completely new. It’s incredible that it happened there, to the point where you have Bossa Nova. It’s jazz, but it’s beyond jazz. It’s a beat. It’s funny actually because Bossa Nova is structural, but what makes it the thing is the fact that João Gilberto sings just after or right before the beat which nobody else had ever done. Again, there are these curves. It’s sensual. The other day I had this thought that Stephen Malkmus kind of did a similar thing in the way that he would sing. If you think about the actual instrumental part of the track, his voice would appear just right after. It created this thing that’s not supposed to work, but then it kind of does.

What was growing up in Brazil like? Did you live in the city?

I come from a very middle class family. We didn’t grow up in the city, not at all. From age eight to fifteen, I lived in this place called Fortaleza which is a city in the north-eastern part of the country. Everything that appeared to me was American and I thought that was cool, which is really unfortunate. I don’t know how to put it, but it was a very normal life. I remember my mom loved Queen for some reason and I remember going to buy Queen records. It was a radio culture. The vanguard was nowhere near my house. I had never met an artist. I think I had met one architect, which was the closest thing to it. It wasn’t even a friend of my parents; it was just someone they had met. There were no art schools anywhere. Either you became a doctor or a lawyer and that would mean success. I had no idea that there was the possibility of being anything other than a professional of some kind.

Was that in the ‘80s?

Yeah. ‘80s, ’90s.

When did you come to the US?

It was in the late ‘90s. I was an exchange student, and I just sort of stayed. I never really looked back. I started to play sports, and that’s really what changed everything, which is odd given what I do now. I was offered an athletic scholarship to go to university, and then I went to New York.

Do you see any connection between sports, being an artist, and faith?

You know what’s funny, actually I do. It’s sort of the most obvious thing and now the way that you said it, the way that you packaged it, it makes perfect sense. Do you know Walter Pater? He’s hard to really summarize, but he’s a Hellenic Greek guy. I don’t really read for concept or ideas. I mostly read for language, so it’s rare if something strikes me because of its philosophical flesh. He’s the first person that I ever read. He proposes a treatise on art and aesthetics, but not just in a one dimensional way. He really talks about this idea of one, of being in touch with your body. It’s very striking. It’s beautiful. I talked about this to a class of architecture students at the Harvard School of Design. I think this passage addresses it.

“What is the whole physical life in that moment but a combination of natural elements to which science gives their names? But these elements, phosphorus and lime and delicate fibres, are present not in the human body alone: we detect them in places most remote from it. Our physical life is a perpetual motion of them – the passage of the blood, the wasting and repairing of the lenses of the eye, the modification of the tissues of the brain by every ray of light and sound – processes which science reduces to simpler and more elementary forces. Like the elements of which we are composed, the action of these forces extends beyond us; it rusts iron and ripens corn.” (1)

Again, not to cheapen it, but I think it’s all part of the same thing. Everything is everything. I definitely think about it. Sport is still a big part of my life. In the morning, for example, and it’s gotten really bad since I moved to Paris, I’ve noticed that I feel insulted when someone emails me before 11am for anything to do with work, which is absurd. I wake up and I read for an hour or an hour and half; then, I go to exercise for an hour or an hour and a half, and that’s when my day starts. That’s when I feel at my best. I know it sounds silly and potentially cringeworthy, but it’s really all the same for me.

I’m so intrigued by the connection between mind and body. I think that making art is really about being in your body.

It’s a practice. 

Even sitting at a computer, when you’re using it as a tool in the way you would a pencil or a paintbrush, becomes a bit of a different thing.

I agree with you, and think about this. I’ve had the ideal day that I just described. I’ve already scanned film, so now I’m sitting at the computer, looking at the scans, making sense of them, re-composing and cropping. Those five or six hours in front of the computer bring me so much joy. I actually haven’t, for a long time, watched any image-related documentaries, but a dear friend of mine sent me this film about Robby Müller, which isn’t great, called Living the Light, but what makes the thing is that there’s a lot of footage from his Hi8 stuff and it’s so cool. He’s such a genius and he says that when you’re shooting, you’re not trying to leave with anything, you’re just hoping to carve out the best piece of marble and then when you get home you start hacking at it to hopefully get something out of this great piece of marble. I was just thinking about the idea of having that piece of beautiful marble at home waiting for you after you’ve done your work in the morning and worked out. Then after lunch, you tackle this beautiful thing.

Can you talk a bit more about faith and pleasure? You had used the word awe.

If I could, I would spend half of my time looking at beautiful things, taking pictures of beautiful things and the other half of my time doing exactly what I just said I do in the morning and afternoon. That’s pleasure for me, seeing something I haven’t seen before and marveling at it. That’s the attraction for me with language. It’s become such a big part of my life because I get to do the same thing with it.

What makes something beautiful to you? Why is experiencing beauty so important to you?

I was at a friend’s house on Friday night; he’s a musician. He’s so talented and his work ethic is unparalleled. Our research is similar, although he’s very much a musician. His name is Pierre Rousseau, by the way. He’s very focused. He’s like the opposite of me. I’m curious about all the kinds of beautiful things. I mean he is as well, but he reads about music. I’ll read about whatever. If there’s beautiful language in it, I’m in. We were talking about this idea of beauty. We connect on this. We’re both unashamedly into beauty. We get high on it. I don’t know if I can tell you what is beautiful to me, but I think that what is beautiful to me is probably beautiful to other people too. I mean maybe I see more to the left and more to the right, but it’s like pop music. “Wichita Lineman” is a perfect pop song. It’s just so beautiful. It’s so short, but there’s so much in it. If I’m honest, everything is beautiful to me. I’m in Milan. I go to the Pinacoteca di Brera; I’m in front of a Tiepolo, and it just blows me away. It just does. That’s the kind of stuff I really love. Seeing a Pontormo.

In listening to you, it makes me think that beauty is an action and a choice. One chooses to see it. As you said, everything is beautiful. In the way you describe it, it’s a way to see, but it’s also about the choice to look and see that way.

I think I struggle at times because I think beauty is so overpowering that I don’t really engage with the world. Most of the times I feel ok being removed from reality and what’s really going on, but sometimes I feel like it almost wouldn’t make a difference when I’m alive. I feel bad sometimes, and I think that I shun so much. It’s not that I prefer not to look; I just hurt. I prefer not to deal with it. It’s alienating. Beauty doesn’t make me feel alienated because I’m choosing to be removed. The thing is, I think most people enjoy beautiful things. I think that I’ve gotten to a point where it’s somewhat viable to live this way, but it’s also scary because it incentivizes me to be evermore removed from the world.

Do you think beauty is a privilege?

I think to bathe in it all day every day is a privilege.

I would separate the two things you’re talking about. How you see and how you live. I do think that how one sees doesn’t have to be a privilege. Have you ever read Watermark by Joseph Brodsky?

No, I’ve never read Brodsky. I mean I’ve read a morsel of a poem here and there.

He wrote this simple line in Watermark that I love, “Beauty is solace.” I do think in the world as a whole there can be this looking down on beauty. Like you said, there’s something about beauty not being cool.

I get what you mean. I dated a Ukrainian person for two years; it’s fascinating that it lasted that long. What you’re saying about Brodsky is almost exactly the difference between the way she sees it and the way I see it. It’s almost like that’s the negative space and this is the positive space. I just look at it like that’s everything there is. I think that when Brodsky says that beauty is solace, he means that you have to search it out, find it, keep it ever so close and use it to keep going. In a way, that’s sort of an inversion of how I deal with it. Brazilian people are more emotive and we’re purveyors of high drama in a different way. It’s not against all odds.

I think there’s also something in that statement that somehow makes beauty more ok. To what you were saying, it makes it not a privileged thing.

I think I understand your reasoning. What I’m concerned about is that I use it like a drug and rely on it too much as the thing that makes me happy. That’s when I feel concern because it does make me reluctant to engage with the world. Like the book, there is nuance, rhythm and arc, but really it’s just beauty. It’s hard for me to imagine a future after it began to exist. Most people are already thinking about the next that they’re going to do. I can’t imagine making something after this. It took so long to make. It was so hard. The writing was so hard. The process was hard because I always thought that it was going to fall apart. We were doing it during Covid. There were papers that stopped existing. The printer went out of business. There were so many things like that, and that might explain some of my reluctance to use beauty as solace too. I’m very much a fatalist, but I think that’s also part of being Brazilian. There are two sides to the coin. Brazilians are always very optimistic, but Brazilians also always think that things are going to go wrong. I tend to think that, until proven otherwise, things are going to fall apart. I was at the printer here in Paris and I could see the inevitability of the piles of paper on pallets, something finished, and I remember thinking, just to myself, well there could still be a fire. That’s very much in me.

Do you ever think that when you’re making the work?

No. When I’m making work I’m happy as can be. I’m so overjoyed. I think of the possibilities, but then I come down from that high and I’m like, yeah, but you know what that would mean. You would have to actually write this thing and you would have to really try and carve out the time. It oscillates. I think as a rule I don’t have a lot of faith, which is horrible to say.

In listening to you, I would say that you have a lot of faith in yourself and the work.

I do. Very much so, yes. Very, very much so. I believe in it. I felt liberated and also so incredibly lucky that someone believed in making something like this book because there’s so much capital of all kinds that are invested in these things. If I’m honest with you, I never thought it would happen. There is very little compromise in that book. That book is 99.6% my vision. It’s how I would imagine my work to be. There’s really nothing to hide behind. It really is how I feel and how I think. That makes it a very emotional thing. It’s just being out there. Naked. It’s a massive thing on the list of all lists, and now I’m faced with this idea that maybe people won’t care and maybe I need to buy a house. I need to feel like I have security. What I really want is a gallery because I know that I want to show this work, and that’s another thing.

Do you have faith in this happening?

No, none. But it’s really funny that you keep asking me the same question about faith. Every floor that we go up, I’m obligated to reassess if I have faith. I should also say that even though I don’t have faith, it doesn’t stop me from trying.

Your work has always questioned what a photograph is. Not an image, because images are everything, but a photograph. Was that an intention?

If I’m honest, no. It became a way through. It became a way to solve a problem, and the problem is something that haunts us all. It’s the question, do I have a voice? Do I have something to say? It’s part of the amalgam. It’s Eno. It’s Eno saying in one of his epic interviews with “WIRED” magazine from the early 2000s that computers are great; there’s just not enough Africa in them. That’s something that always stuck with me. In his diary, A Year with Swollen Appendices, he talks about making the medium as a way to understand. I would love to tell you that it was intentional, but I think I did what I did because of my providence, not going to art school, and not having access to things I have access to now. There was never really a concept when I began. I tended to retrofit things to what I was doing, and that happened through literature. It was a really helpful way of finding explanations for things, and one thing started to play off another. If I met myself at a dinner table with you and a few of our friends, the stink that I would pick up from me is this pulsation that I wasn’t someone who was reciting Milton at age 11, which sounds silly, but it’s true. Now it’s all neatly organized. I have no problem defending the work because it’s a very tight union of things that feel very much mine.

I think that your work is proof that you can have another voice. In a purely photographic sense, I think there is so much lacking that’s asking not how do I achieve a certain level of craft, but how do I have a different voice? Your work is not only about having a different voice, but also about how that can be successful.

I think success is very subjective. I think you’re right, but the caveats I would insert here are that success is very, very broad.

Can I say successful as good?

Yeah, yes. I think success is a matter of vantage point. Given where I’ve come from, I’ve achieved unimaginable success. I can say without flinching that success is when I feel safe and secure, and I don’t feel that yet.

Where do you go from the book?

What I really want to do is show this in a way that is a complete way of showing it, which would mean having the appropriate space to do it, financial backing for the proper framing, and so on. We’re finally doing a launch of the book in September during fashion week at Études. We’re hoping to do a launch in Japan; the book is selling like crazy there. I would love to do more books. I would love to write more. Maybe I get a good, reputable gallery in Brazil and then work my way back to galleries in Europe. It all still feels very new.

Would you say that your relationship to faith has changed at all in reaching this point in your career?

I’ll tell you this. My best friend lives in New York and we’ve been friends for almost twenty years now. This is the person that’s probably known me as an adult the longest. She used to always say to me, all the time, that I need to dream big and that I need to dream bigger. I never dreamt big, and I also thought that I needed to aim for things that are feasible, plausible, and reliable, so I always imagined things in tiny increments, increasing in little bits. In the last few years, I’ve allowed myself to dream bigger. It doesn’t mean that I have more faith as in something might happen, but it’s not as ridiculous as it used to be. I’m not dreaming of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, but I am dreaming of being represented by a gallery in the Marais. Eight years ago, if you had said that I would be dreaming of this, I would have laughed in my own face. Maybe there is a bit more faith.

(1) Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. Matthew Beaumont, Oxford: OUP, Oxford World’s Classics, 2010.