the strange beauty and horror of girls playing with snakes

Artist Clare Strand explores the terror and allure of snakes, found photography, and spam bots in her new book.

by Clementine de Pressigny
27 October 2016, 2:00pm

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

British conceptual artist Clare Strand's body of work includes a fairground stall that offered punters the chance to win a photographic print, a book that consists entirely of photographs of tables with skirts and a totem made of Popular Mechanic magazines complete with Post-it notes marking pages that interested the artist. Threaded throughout her practice are elements of surrealism, playful subversion, trickery, and idiosyncrasy. Her latest book, Girl Plays with Snake, combines found imagery of exactly that, paired with automatically generated words. The project started rolling when Clare's young daughter came home from school and informed her that she'd held a snake. The artist — who is not a fan of snakes — went through her archive of imagery she has been collecting since she was a teenager and found photos of snakes she was both drawn to and repulsed by. We spoke to Clare about the role of chance and research in her work, the power of contradictory meanings, and why oddity is inherent in her art. 

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

What interests you about found photography? Do you want to know about the person who took the image and the context? Are you more interested in the meaning you place on it yourself? Is it a kind of collaboration? 
I'm interested in 'found' photography because there's nothing fixed about it — it has a shapeshifting nature depending on its context. I do see it as a collaboration but with the image rather than the originator. The use of found images is just a fraction of my output, but I see them as resource in the same way as I see photographs I make myself.

Snakes have so many connotations: horror, eroticism, religious — the temptation of Adam and Eve. What was it that initially drew you to images of girls with snakes?
I've always been scared of snakes but have collected images of them nonetheless. This seems, even to me, to be a rather perverse act. I'm interested in the power of dialectics and, in this case, the push and pull of repulsion versus attraction. Throughout my career I have looked at a number of photographic genres, but never wildlife photography. This could be considered my take on it. Of course the historical context of women portrayed, in images or literature, with snakes is part of this investigation and is implicit in the images without too much effort to highlight them.

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

There's a strange juxtaposition in the photos between the light heartedness of the girls smiling and having fun, and the feeling of danger and creepiness that snakes tend to evoke. Was that something you were looking for in the imagery?
Women and snakes have always been the central to my thinking — the sheer clash, set alongside the historical comparisons and fictional collusions between women and snakes. As a reader you can find them creepy or alluring, comforting or threatening, empowering or part of a difficult history.  

Where did you find the imagery? Once you began collecting photos of girls playing with snakes was it something you continually sought out?
My six-year-old daughter came home from school and told me she had held a snake. I was rather shocked but at the same time, I admired her temerity. Bridging a gap of 30 or so years, I went back into my archives and started to look at the images I had collected of snakes when I was young — I then started looking out on eBay, at yard sales, for images of snakes and women. 

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

Why was the inclusion of words crucial for you in this book?
The text is not supportive but active within the book. Girl Plays with Snake is a book project in its totality (it would never work in exhibition form).

Like the images, the words tread a line between darkly poetic and childlike playfulness. Can you tell me about how you choose them?
The texts were all part-generated using automatic poetry sites. I wanted the texts to be produced using a similar method to the way the photos were collected — a kind of distant collaboration. I knew I didn't want to tie the book down to any one meaning or to act as an aficionado on snakes. I entered in the title "Girl Plays with Snake" (drawn from the title on the back of one photo) into an automatic generating site and waited to see what came back to me. The final poems are the result of to-ing and fro-ing between myself and the generators. Automatic writing has always interested me, from the work of Gertrude Stein to Breton and the Surrealist movement, and more recently the use of spam bots. 

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

What role does chance play in your work?
A leading one. It sits alongside intention as both a companion and adversary.

The images of snakes on their own give quite a different impression, they're like scientific specimens, while the other images are like strange family snaps. What did you have in mind with this juxtaposition of image content?
The lone snakes act as pacers throughout the book. I like to think that they are themselves pondering their role, their fate, their tragedy during the flow of the book. They are also immeasurable out of context of a human figure.

How do the images you collect inform other works you make? What role does this kind of research play in your practice?
Research is the main area of activity in my work and life in general. I'm always sifting, looking, thinking, storing — never knowing what will be of use, but holding it back for recall when needed. 

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

There's something weird and unsettling about these images. Other work you've made has been described as creating a sense of oddness — is that something you're consciously creating?
I don't see the point of showing work that the viewer can be 100% sure of — otherwise where's the rub, where is their process? I always feel a little odd about the things I do in my work. I've always felt that I am bit odd myself, so perhaps it's only natural that my working output might be considered a little odd.

How would you describe this book?
I think it is a book that can be viewed in many ways, by many different people and from a variety of perspectives. It's not a photography book in traditional sense, neither is it really about snakes.

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

© Clare Strand 2016 courtesy MACK

'Girl Plays with Snake' by Clare Strand is published by MACK.


Text Clementine de Pressigny

clare strand