Pastel-hued darkness of Rachael Heller's films

Visual artist dealing with relation between mental and physical space

Dora Cohen
April 25, 2017

Rachael Heller's work is dealing with topics like inclusion and exploration of while presenting them in a fun and unique way. Currently majoring at Film, animation and video at Rhode Island, at only 20 she has a bright (let’s say pastel coloured) future ahead. After studying photography at Parsons, she found more satisfaction in moving image that incorporated physical art with building a narrative. 


With your strong aesthetic, do you think colours can support political views like feminism or the LGBTQ+ movement?

A lot of what I do has a sort of pastel cast to it, but not necessarily everything, it depends on subject matter. I have not posted a lot of work in this palette but I also like doing things that have dark reds and kind of bloody palettes or weird skin tones.

Like this new video I collaborated with a bunch of friends on. I used a Blackmagic camera with a macro lens and I recorded people's genitalia super close up. Originally, it was supposed to be a very objective view of genitals. Like, “Look at these parts of our body that we don't like to look at really close“. Everyone should be comfortable with their intimate bits because nobody should be self-conscious about a part of their body that is so personal and has such an important role in people's lives. It's so hard to find images on the internet that aren't porn or medical illustrations. I used the same LED lights that I usually use, this very soft, blue-ish, purple-ish lighting for everyone... turning the body parts into landscapes. I was trying to use it as a way to not gender everyone's genitalia. And sometimes it's just like you don't even know what genitalia you're looking at in terms of oh, what part of the what is that? I was also very fortunate to have a friend of mine that is a trans man participate and he has a vagina and it's drastically altered because of testosterone and that's not something that people see all the time. The way I organised the footage, took the shots and did the lighting I tried to not gender things.



In ‘Real Love Scene’, I have used the same colour palette. The prompt was to make something based on a cliché. I have been wanting to make a little short of people having sex but with these weird organs that are not standard sex organs so I put body latex on their backs. So I made this really cliché romance scene but with a twist. It was also about exploring a queer relationship between two people who are the opposite gender but are themselves queer. In addition to me wanting to explore gross body politics as a gross cool looking thing that short was also about a queer sexual relationship.

I am hyperaware of the fact that a lot of the stuff I am making right now is honestly pretty trendy. Like these pastel shiny iridescent things... But I am very passionate about what I make just like that. Even if we like to use some colours that are trendy- it's fun because they're colours! The abstract expressionists all worked with these really bold strange colours, depicted humans in a way that doesn't even make sense naturally. Colours can be trendy but I don't think that necessarily takes away the meaning, it just depends what you do with them.


You also have films that are very dark- can the contrast of these and the other films say something about what you want to express in general? 

I am trying to figure out the best way to combine the two very different moods, I really love comedy and really absurd and bizarre scenarios. 

I don't really expect people to do a super deep reading of all my work because if you share a video on the Internet the people are usually just taking it on a surface level. But with ‘Advanced Self Tutorial’, towards the end, when I mix all that stuff together and images are flying everywhere I have videos of me crying during panic attacks. I've just been recording them for a while and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all of them but so far I've been incorporating that into my work through that video. It is about the contrast in between my very stylised Internet persona and the way I document myself on my phone, via social media and the really awful moments that have happened in my life that I also record but don't actually show people. There are some photos of self harm in there as well but they are hidden. So that video is starting to work with both themes at once.

All of my work is dealing with some type of relation between mental space and physical space. But I am still working on how to satisfy the part of me that wants to make very dark things because I have a lot of serious issues that I want to talk about but then also on the other side, I really enjoy being funny and I really love just making beautiful, fun things that people like looking at. So it's a weird contrast. 

I like how you combine physical and virtual worlds through film and your installation ‘Chrysalis’ and how you connect topic of the mental and physical wellbeing. 

I think about dreams a lot. The animation ‘Unflower’', in which I cut off my boob, is from a dream in which I shaved my head and said to myself: ‘Now I am ugly’, so I took a huge pair of scissors to cut them off. I wanted to represent that as closely as possible. So I rotoscoped it. I had my friend filming me doing these actions and then I drew over it. This is an example of something that happened in my dream. So that was a super 1-1 depiction of mental illness manifesting itself physically. But it also felt very true because it evoked a lot of real feelings and anxieties that I have.

Chrysalis started when a friend of mine threw a show in his apartment, which has little loft areas, he asked me to deck out. So I made this thing I call Chrysalis. It's basically just synthetic quilt bedding and paint and some other stuff like vinyl and tinsel. I like working with gross and glittery type of things. It's just a combination of everything that I stand for. I am a very feminine person but I am also kind of crude and gross at the same time.

Chrysalis environment creates a safe space for people to go into, for self-reflection and healing as well as for a kind of self-destruction and reconstruction in a positive way. Inside of a chrysalis, when a caterpillar forms into a cocoon and it is growing into a butterfly, it completely breaks down into elemental, bare minimum, biological molecules instead of - what logic might dictate - growing extra legs and wings. Instead of morphing into the butterfly, the caterpillar just turns into nothing and from that it completely regenerates. I like making things that deal with that in-between space of this weird floaty, confusing world cause that's what I feel like I am at right now in life!

So the installation is meant to just be beautiful calming space for people to exist in and even though it is very feminine space it is not that people who are masculine can't enjoy them.

Internet aesthetic changed a lot, everything becomes cleaner and more polished but your clip “Barbar“ reminded me of the aesthetic of 90s low-fi culture.

 I was making this video because I was thinking of the 1960s film Barbarella that I just watched. She's like a space cadet and she has to travel to another planet to rescue someone. On her planet, the future Earth, people don't have sex, they take a pill and stare into each others eyes and have like a mind orgasm. But then she goes to this kind of sexy planet, where everyone is super sensual. That's were she learns about sex. It's a comedy and for a film in the 60s about women and sex it's pretty progressive! I was also thinking about Avril Lavigne, because I was watching a lot of weird, early Avril Lavigne interviews and she's just such a strange person. So everything that is coming out of Barbarella's vagina was like either child's or elementary school's craft supplies or snack foods that I associated with childhood. She was birthing all good things in our world, like Barbarella is our mother, Jane Fonda is our mother, but then Avril Lavigne comes in and she's just such an unsettling persona to me and then these babies are coming out of this bag of chips and she's eating the babies and she's evil, she's the devil. That was more of a fun thing. (laughs)