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Claire Nouvian paints an ecstatic portrait of creatures from the deep sea that tease and haunt us with their strangeness, their inaccessibility and their living reminder to marvel.

Claire Nouvian paints an ecstatic portrait of creatures from the deep sea that tease and haunt us with their strangeness, their inaccessibility and their living reminder to marvel.

The single inspiration for the greatest human accomplishments is always wonder. Bioluminescent, sinuous, frighteningly bizarre and sometimes even comical creatures come through Claire Nouvian's book, The Deep. After years of a passionate quest to assemble the discoveries of deep-sea scientists from around the globe, Nouvian presents these creatures with an aesthetic aplomb that is charged with the wonder of life.

A visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, and a later voyage 1000 meters down off the Gulf of Maine, inspired Nouvian to collect over 5,500 pictures that were acquired by remotely-operated vehicles, robots, submersibles and oceanographic research
ships. Hours of editing and detailed research formulated her unique vision of this world that is inaccessible to the majority of human eyes. An exhibition of her accomplishments is on view at Paris's Natural History Museum (http://www2.mnhn.fr/abysses/) – and is slated to travel the world.

Highly motivated to use her intelligence, enthusiasm and public outreach capacity to protect the delicate ecology that harbors these creatures, Claire Nouvian, a native of France, has dedicated herself to an unprecedented book project that is creating a sensation. From the coffee tables of artistic sophisticates to the desks of eminent scientists, The Deep straddles both worlds, already declaring itself as a modern classic.

The Deep portrays what Nouvian herself describes as, "aliens from inner space, throbbing and pulsating at the heart of a liquid sky." These fragile beings, which are both threatening and charming, and this place of darkness with a life that is so removed from our human life inspire nothing short of poetic reflection, philosophical questions and a deep sense of humility.

Seeing some of these animals live, what feelings did this experience inspire in you?

Wonder, amazement. After the dive, I was not able to talk about it. I could not say anything. Every time I tried to talk about it I would cry. It is such a complex, beautiful, primal emotion.


The images remind one of portraits - these creatures have features that suggest the human face but can also recall flowers or other animals; they are captivating characters, in a sense.

Sure, we project things that we know onto them. The philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch said that we have such a fascination for animal perfection because we look at it as if animals had been manufactured, bit by bit, like we ourselves create a perfect machine. But of course they are living beings; their complexity eludes technology. It is really the ultimate encounter – the encounter with the Other, the different, so it questions a lot of things in us, philosophically.

What was it like descending into the deep? Did you want to stay there? Were you afraid?

I don't usually get scared. The only thing I'm really scared of is human violence – that chills me to the bone. Otherwise I'm not a very timorous person, I just throw myself into things; I act. Just before diving, I was really excited, I couldn't keep still. During the dive, there was so much to see, I didn't want to miss any of it. All the animals I had seen pictures of were there, they were real, they existed! It was like taking a trip in space because it's so dark, and there are all these suspended particles called "marine snow." All over the porthole you have specks and sparkles that look like stars. When you go through the water column with all lights turned off, the submersible disturbs the animals, so they emit light. There is light everywhere, of all different colors, mainly blue, and of all different shapes.

What's your next project?

Next there's going to be a film, but I am also writing another book on overall ocean problems, not just the deep sea. I realize that everyone has a patchy knowledge of what is going on with the fishing industry, the effects of climate change on the global oceanic balance, acidification, pollution, etc. The book is going to be aimed at both the public and political leaders, in order to work from the top down and from the bottom up. We need governments to do their governing job and to be visionary, to have guidelines and enforce them. We need the public to say, "We care, we are worried" – to express their concern. Governments move through public pressure, so we need to get these vital issues out there. The book has had a huge impact – in less than a year we've published 120,000 copies around the world, so there are signs that the public understands the emergency of the situation. That's positive.

You can't deny, however, that while modern technology and progress have caused climate change, pollution and over-fishing, they have also allowed us to descend to such deep places where we could not otherwise go.

I don't question technology, but rather its use. The very original framework of progress – and the rise of technology – in the mindset of thinkers in the 18th century was meant to serve a lofty, noble cause: more freedom of mind, greater wellbeing for humanity, and universally. There is nothing universal about wellbeing today. Hopefully, we will use progress to get ourselves out of this mess, but for the moment, progress is serving progress, like a self-feeding monster that has to be on the constant move. This pattern has led us to generate a non-recyclable society which is not viable and which is sending us more signs than we need to understand that we can't take it much further. So now, our challenge is to start using progress for its real cause again, to make sure it serves the right purpose.

Was it your intention to make people aware of nature and the necessity for conservation through beauty?

Yes, absolutely. Aesthetics count: our visual sense is the first thing that we use to discover the world. It is natural to be attracted to beauty, everyone is, and I believe that the exterior – from the natural or urban environment to home decoration or one's own physical aspect – has an influence on how we feel inside. It is therefore important to use appearances in order to grab the public's attention on the deep ocean for instance. To discover that, although unknown to us in their vast majority, some of these animals are already facing the danger of extinction because of human activities is mind-blowing, in the negative sense of the word. No one remains neutral to that. As you see, beauty for me has a purpose: it is a means of linking people with the deep sea. The real challenge will be to be able to keep the "freshness" of our gaze, even when the "object," whether it be deep-sea fauna or anything else – a tree, a bird, your partner, for that matter! – becomes accessible, common, in reach, acquired. We usually admire things that are rare; we praise exclusivity and long for things that refuse themselves to us. The magic of the first encounter is phenomenal, but the complexity of beings unravels over time. In essence, I think beauty is a double-edged sword. If you remain on the simple level of beauty, you're stuck in the visual world, and that leads to emotional misery and a lack of respect for objects, whether human, natural, or vegetal. If used as point of access, it can be the gateway to a realm of infinite richness and complexity.

Claire Nouvian's Definition of Luxury:
Time and freedom. That's exactly what the sponsors of my book offered me. But in general, I view luxury as something superfluous, on top of vital needs; something that gives little windows of wellbeing.

Place:
A very small fisherman's house by the sea with a fireplace, so I can write looking at the ocean.

Object:
Really great hi-fi speakers, as I listen to a lot of classical music. And great wine. I love good wine and wish I could afford amazing bottles more often.

Moment:
I tend to associate luxury with a dream or a gift. My dream moment would be to address the leaders of the most important fishing nations at the World Trade Organization.

Person:
People with free minds, who are committed and inspired to change the world.

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