Philomène Longpré’s Queen of the Night

Philomène Longpré’s Cereus Queen of the Night is an installation at the PHI Centre that tries to capture the one-night-only bloom of the shy cactus, presented as part of the Elektra Festival.

Cereus Queen of the Night.

Cereus is a type of cactus that blooms for one glorious night before its flowers wither and die. Sphinx moths, drawn to the smell, come in cloud-like flocks to pollinate the shy plant. For that one evening, the Cereus cactus is Queen of the Night. Montreal installation artist Philomène Longpré saw one while in New Mexico. “You have to wait,” she says, “You cannot predict when it will happen. When it happens, there’s nothing but this big white flower that opens and all these moths from nowhere. You never forget it.”

Turns out Longpré is a bit unforgettable herself, and fortunately seems to bloom a lot longer than one night. Her latest piece, Cereus Queen of the Night, is showing on home turf at the PHI Centre as part of the Elektra Festival.

Like its namesake, Longpré’s installation can be coaxed into full magnificence, but the event requires patience and a bit of luck. On first appearance, Cereus looks like a giant mechanical bud suspended upside down from the ceiling in a darkened room. It’s a harmonious blend of opposing forces. The enormous bud looks weightless, as if floating. The curvilinear flower with its graceful petals is offset by its mechanical parts. Once visitors arrive, things start to transform. The room fills with eerie, almost terrifying insect sounds. The petals of the flower change in opacity and begin to open. A ghostly woman’s image appears on and within the petals.

“It isn’t a video game,” Longpré says. “There isn’t direct action. But when visitors come, they will sense the changes taking place.” Not only does the presence and proximity of visitors cause Cereus to respond, but even events that the machine generates cause transformations. In other words, Cereus reacts to her/itself.

This is due to specially created “screens” that Longpré designed and built as the petals of Cereus. “I call them Responsive Video Membranes,” she explains. “They are designed to respond to the video they present. I designed these specifically to match with the images I’m presenting, like colour, brightness of the video, and to the images.”

Longpré’s work also examines how the environment affects people’s emotional responses to screen imagery. “Seeing a movie on an airplane or in a theatre is different,” she says. “The environment affects the experience. I wanted to take care of every detail in the room.” The room and environment are very much a part of the work, making it both immersive and interactive.

In the same way that Sphinx moths are drawn to the Cereus cactus, Longpré wants some viewers to be drawn to her work. “Some people will look at it from far away, some with more intimacy,” she says. “There are no rules. You can stay five minutes or an hour. There’s no beginning and no ending. It is a non-linear experience.”

In particular, Cereus is meant to evoke changing emotions. “I am interested in the transition between two emotions,” Longpré explains. “The nuance between feeling peaceful and a very different sensation, whatever it is.” In particular, this is achieved through the video narrative of a female character. “That is the heart of the system,” Longpré says. “I want people to meet her. But, she doesn’t talk,” says Longpré, “she communicates through her body, without words.”

Ultimately, Longpré’s goal is not to create an optimized technology, but to evoke an emotional experience. “Technologies are tools for me, like a pencil or a brush,” she says. “I’m looking for the final experience. It’s all about that experience. Something happens and you can feel it.” ■

Cereus Queen of the Night is on at the PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre) as part of the Elektra Festival, May 4-18, free

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