Q&A: Guillaume Néry (Panerai)

Freediving champion Guillaume Néry has explored the depth of the unknown, and in it found the limits of humanity.

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How did you get into freediving? What attracted you to the sport?

I discovered freediving by chance, doing a challenge with a friend on the bus to school. We were just trying to hold our breath the longest. I was 14 years old, and this was an experiment to [find] the limits of my body. That was fascinating to me. Because I was living in Nice, by the Mediterranean Sea, I decided I should try [doing it] underwater. It was much more interesting than just holding my breath on the bus! I fell in love with this feeling of going down deeper and deeper, like I was discovering an unknown planet. Today, the quest of the unknown, the exploration of human limits—these are still my passions. But lately I’ve [used] freediving for reconnecting with my own body, getting this harmony between the body, the mind, and the water. I don’t need to compete or break a record to experience it. Every time I go underwater, it feels like a moment of peace and happiness, whatever the time or the depth. Of course, as an athlete, I like world record attempts or world championship dives. I have prepared for so many hours, days, weeks, months, and you just have one chance to make it perfect. That’s the most challenging part. Freediving is all about relaxation, letting go, but it’s very hard to relax when you know you are about to attempt the deepest dive ever. In the end, the most enjoyable thing is when you can forget about all that, and just focus on the great feeling of gliding in the water.

What benefits does a good diving watch provide while you are underwater?

The watch is the only thing from my life on land that I bring with me into the deep. The watch becomes a link between my aquatic and outside life. The watch is a kind of symbol of the time passing, and when I am underwater on a single breath of air, life is time! I have to trust my body and the watch that [measures] the time I spend underwater. A good diving watch should be big enough so that you can easily read the time, but also not to heavy so that it feels like a part of your body. On top of that, I try to share the passion of the underwater world with the larger world, so aesthetics plays a huge role when people film me or take pictures of my dive. I try to be very careful in my movement underwater, to be graceful as I truly believe it helps the efficiency, and I want to wear the best outfit. The watch needs to have the best design and look that will combine my quest of aestheticism and performance. Today, I have found the watch that meets my expectations.

Do you ever get frightened before, or during, a deep dive?

Freediving is known to be a dangerous sport, but in reality we are doing a very safe activity. The main rule is: never freedive alone. I am always surrounded by my team when I am training or taking part in a competition. But, of course, sometimes you can experience the unexpected, and you have to be trained to deal with unpredictable situations. In 2015, I was trying to break my fifth world record, attempting a dive at -129 meters. The organization made a mistake on the rope measurement, and I dove at -139. It was of course too deep, and I lost consciousness a few meters from the surface [during the ascent]. It could have been very serious. I recovered after few days, because I was in a very good shape. But the deepest dives are not always the most dangerous. The main danger is overconfidence. It’s very important to stay humble and remember that we, as humans, are very vulnerable and small in this world, especially when we are deep down, like a small drop of water lost in the middle of the ocean.

Q&A: Géraldine Fasnacht (TAG Heuer)

Some get their thrill by climbing mountains.

Snowboarder, BASE jumper, and wingsuit pilot Géraldine Fasnacht gets hers by jumping off of them.

When was your first wingsuit flight?

In 2001. I prepared so much for it. Practicing my way out of the plane, my position to fly, my movement to safely open my parachute. But I could not imagine this magic feeling, to fly like a bird. It was so incredible that I just flew straight away from the airport and forgot completely to fly back. It took me two hours to walk back there, but I was the happiest girl on earth.

You’ve participated in many adventure sports, including BASE jumping, speed riding, and snowboarding. What’s the common thread in all of these?

It is like being a painter in front of a white canvas. I am an artist, I am drawing lines on the mountains, trying to follow the shape of the ridges, the light of the sun, to compose my flight or my [snowboard] ride, to be part of the elements. It is like a dance, a communion.

These sports can be dangerous, and you’ve experienced the tragedy firsthand. [Fasnacht’s husband was killing in a high-speed skiing accident in 2006.] What keeps you coming back? Would you ever retire?

I love being in the mountains. They are my inspirations and my way of life. It is my place and I feel lucky that I have found my passion where I can totally express myself and be part of the evolution of the sports. I will continue so long as my body is feeling good, and I [can maintain] the high level of training [needed] to realize my projects and objectives. If one day I cannot do these things anymore, then I will feel too unsafe, and I will retire, yes.

Can you explain the differences between wingsuit flying from an airplane and wingsuit flying from a mountaintop? Is the sensation different? Is one more exciting than the other?

It is totally different. From a mountain, just the way up makes it already special, climbing or walking to the top, being aware of the weather conditions, the shape of the mountain for the exit and the line I would like to fly, getting geared up at the summit and enjoying the view. Then I am analyzing the conditions again to decide my way down, visualizing and memorizing my line. There is just me at this present moment, composing with the shape of the nature. I know that my movements have to be perfect from the take-off to the landing. No mistakes.

From the plane, you are flying in the middle of the sky, starting from 4,000 meters high. When I am doing my last checks before my flight, like, when I prepare my plane before taking off, I am very focused. Then I walk to the edge of the cliff and I do my countdown—3-2-1 BASE!—and draw my line along the mountain.

In YouTube videos, you sometimes see wingsuit pilots throw a stone off the mountain before taking off. What is this ritual, and where did it come from?

It was our way to calculate how many meters vertical drop we had to jump off the cliff. One second equals five meters. Two seconds equals 20 meters, three seconds equals 45 meters, four seconds equals 80 meters, five seconds equals 122 meters, six seconds equals 176 meters, seven seconds equals 240 meters, and so on. Now I use a laser. It is much more precise and more convenient, as I can also know the exact [grade] of the slope below, to know if it is steep enough to fly over. This is very important for the technical jumps, like the top of Mont Rose, which is 4,634 [high] and [has a] 60-meter vertical drop, as I have a very short drop to take off.

You grew up in Switzerland, near Verbier. What do the mountains symbolize to you? What do you love about them?

I feel lucky that my parents always let me do what made me happy. Being outside in nature, playing with my friends, snowboarding, skateboarding, building huts in the forest. Not so much “girl” activities. The mountains are my inspiration, and growing up here made me imagine more possibilities. Not only the way up, but also enjoying the way down. I was born at the perfect time to live an incredible evolution of snowboard free-riding and wingsuit flying. I could explore and open a lot of different lines that were not possible before. Enjoying the mountains in winter make me imagine lines for summer, and knowing the fields in summer made me able to realize lines with my snowboard in winter. My first flight was from the top [of the Matterhorn] in 2014, which I imagined after snowboarding down the east face in 2009. I just had to wait to have a wingsuit high-performance enough to do it!

Q&A: Alain Hubert (Rolex)

Alain Hubert is a certified mountaineer, polar guide, civil engineer, and entrepreneur. But more than anything, he is an explorer. 

When did you realize that you wanted to live a life of adventure?

Probably when I first reached the summit of a mountain, in Austria. The sun was setting and I had below me a sea of clouds stretching to the horizon. At that particular moment, I knew that my life would be one of a mountaineering. Through that, I became a polar explorer. But essentially, I’m an entrepreneur without any boundaries between all my activities.

You first ascended the East Ridge of the Amadablam in Nepal in 1983. How have exploring tools evolved since then? What is the biggest advancement you’ve seen during your career?

Definitely the lightness of all our equipment, and the synthetic fibers for clothing and all the technical materials, which gives us the possibility of pushing the limits while at the same time being closer to nature. One of the most important evolutions was the GPS and, later, satellite phones. Not for the progression of comfort, but for ultimate safety. Although now I am a little nostalgic when I think of the total isolation of my first expeditions.

What about watches?

My first Rolex was the Explorer II. I still use it on expeditions because I know it will not stop out on the ice and it is also the one I wear every single day of the year. In the middle of the Arctic Ocean, I’m surrounded by an environment that is white as far as the eye can see. You can only find your way by using the sun and the wind. But my Explorer can be used as a compass to help me keep my bearings in any conditions. I just have to look at my wristwatch to check my direction in relation to the sun. When I’m not on expedition, a quick look at my watch is enough to remind me that I made some fantastic expeditions and it makes me dream of new adventures.

How has the brand impacted the field of exploration, not only for you directly, but overall?

Rolex has such a long tradition of supporting exploration that the name has become intrinsically linked with it. It’s a connection with all the explorers who have experienced firsthand the fragility and exponential speed of change in the environment. This partnership with explorers and scientists has put Rolex in a privileged position. It has become a form of recognition of achievement.

What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve experienced during a climb or expedition? Is there a time you remember being scared?

Certainly my first encounter with polar bears in the Arctic. One huge male surprised me from the top of a block of ice. I had just been pushed back by an extremely strong wind while trying to cross an open lead in the middle of a big storm. I thought it was the end. And yet, at the same time, I was fascinated by the majesty of this animal, rightly called Lord of the Arctic.

In 1998, you set a world record crossing the Antarctic continent in 99 days, the longest crossing ever made on foot and ski. What other record would you like to attempt?

Nowadays breaking a record is no longer the most important goal in my life. When looking at the huge challenge of building a future—to be able to survive and live together on planet Earth as a human family—I have to do all I can. [I want to] share this new human adventure.

So how can we build a more sustainable world overall? You come from an engineering background, and developed the solar- and wind-powered Princess Elisabeth Station in Antarctica. What lessons did you learn?

The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station was designed and built with the International Polar Foundation. It is a zero-emissions station, with a micro-smart grid that produces all the energy needed for our activities. Having to adapt the rhythm of our activities to the availability of the energy, which depends on the sun and the wind, we realized that it wasn’t that difficult to change our habits—and that it didn’t imply suffering or reducing our standard of living. Building a more sustainable world will only be possible if we reconsider our relationship with energy. This is absolutely feasible. But the question is: Are we able to adapt?

Artist Profile: Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman’s baroque, psychedelic paintings capture our eroding environment.

Portrait & Studio Photographs by Christopher Garcia Valle

“I have a lot of anger and anxiety and sadness and also love,” Alexis Rockman says. The artist is talking about the environmental calamity that fuels his complex work, an oeuvre of ominous, baroque, pop art–inspired wildlife paintings, which evoke John James Audubon, if John James Audubon liked to watch Godzilla movies and drop acid. Rockman’s sitting on a bench in Tribeca, outside the same sparse, utilitarian studio he’s been occupying for the past 30 years. “Oh fuck you!” he screams to a passing off-duty fire truck, whose driver leans on the horn a few excruciating beats too long.

Rockman, 56, has reason to be irritable. It’s a sweltering summer morning, a Monday, and last week he buried his beloved dog of 13 years, a pitbull-lab mix named Padme, after the Star Wars princess. Today, he’s running on fumes thanks to the one-two punch of a late-night Chicago opening of his “Great Lakes Cycle”—five sprawling tableaux depicting the ecological evolution (and subsequent degradation) of North America’s greatest bodies of fresh water—followed by a delayed flight back to New York. After this interview wraps, he’ll be playing a game of hoops—something the former athlete does almost daily—and then he’s off with his wife and two children to Ménerbes, a hilltop walled village in Provence, where the restless artist has produced some of his best recent work.

Alexis Rockman in his Tribeca studio.

“If you make stuff about ecology and you’re living in New York City, how can you not be inspired by travel?” says Rockman, a New York native. His deadpan is inarguably charming.

Indeed, travel encompasses a large part of Rockman’s painstaking process, one that begins with a journalistic hunger for facts and truths, and ultimately leads to him embedding with archeologists, anthropologists, and various locals during extended, Indiana Jones–esque field visits. Over the years, these have come in the form of everything from far-flung death marches to midnight hikes in Madagascar with lemur conservationists.  

Rockman took a similar tack for his Great Lakes Cycle series. He sailed across Lake Michigan, explored the area’s defunct copper mines. He even joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents dispatched to control sea lampreys, a breed of bloodsucking, eel-like fish that invaded the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s and have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem ever since.

Rockman’s “New Mexico Field Drawings,” a collection of 76 works, all organic material and acrylic polymer on paper, on view at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York through August 3.

Each of the resulting 12-foot-wide, wood-paneled oil paintings unfurls like a horrific hyper-lapse of the eroding millennia. On the left, you begin with pristine glaciers, schools of indigenous fish, migrating caribou; on the right, the inevitable destruction of sunken planes and ships, armadas of floating timber, the toxic green runoff of factory farms and cities. And while there are no humans present in any of these works, the message is clear: Behold the death and destruction mankind wrought.

“As someone said to me last night in Chicago, ‘You’re not really making paintings about the good news,’” Rockman says with a sardonic laugh. Even he admits to often feeling empty and depressed after dealing with the cruel, unvarnished truths depicted. “And that’s kinda the point. It’s like I don’t see any good news. If you’re into ecology, you’re in fucking dreamland if you think that there’s good news anymore.”

The artist’s natural selection of souvenirs and ecological ephemera.

He talks about climate change, over-fishing, the cognitive dissonance he feels being an environmental activist who still eats meat. But while Rockman’s ecological anxiety is ever-present in his work, there are other influences in play, too. Having grown up a city kid, Rockman loved escaping to Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, marveling at the dioramas and dinosaur fossils. Yet he was equally content losing himself in the darkness of a theater, watching monster movie matinees and sci-fi flicks. If you look closely, this is evident in his work, too.

“I’m so comfortable with my unconscious,” Rockman says. While field research is key to his art, so is forgetting everything he’s learned and allowing his subconscious—one bursting with russet, post-apocalyptic sunsets, ruined cities, and creepy-crawly things that go bump in the night—take over the process. “It’s all the same bouillabaisse of stuff.”

Alexis Rockman “Bananas,” 2013. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

It’s this equilibrium of the methodical and the loose-on-the-reins that begets Rockman’s distinct and deliberate style, something he describes as “almost taboo, like very seductive paintings about decay and mortality.” What you’re left with are beautiful and intricate series like “Rubicon,” vibrant oils of animals—some familiar, some grotesquely mutated—taking over vast, abandoned cityscapes. Or “American Icons,” a lucid series of rotting landmarks including Disney World and the Hollywood sign, which to Rockman represent ideas about “tourism and disgraced symbols of American imperialism and success.”

Alexis Rockman “Untitled (Cherry Blossoms)” 2013. Watercolor, ink and goache on paper. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

But Rockman’s work isn’t all so ominous. In 2009, he collaborated with Academy Award–winning film director Ang Lee on the trippy aquatic visuals for Life of Pi; more recently, he produced New Mexico Field Drawings, a collection of spontaneous and lyrical drawings of the high-desert flora and fauna outside Santa Fe. For each, Rockman bagged and tagged unique soil samples, then used their pigments for his sketches. It’s a technique he developed some 25 years ago when his art supplies ran out while traveling in the Amazon. Not only does it lend his work a sense of organic authenticity, but the materials allow him to return to the place he’s painting. “When I do the field drawings, I’m using the place I’m longing for,” he says. “The work is literally made out of that place.”

Alexis Rockman “Common Black Hawk” from “New Mexico Field Drawings” (2017). Organic material and acrylic polymer on paper.

Unsurprisingly, places are a preoccupation for Rockman. He rattles off those he longs to see, or see again: Tasmania, Borneo, New Guinea, Antarctica, numerous locales in Central and Southern America. Then, just as quickly, his mind is back in New York City. “Did you know there are jackrabbits at JFK [airport] under the runway?” he notes. Apparently, there were walruses at Jones Beach 10,000 years ago. “I revel in the idea of life in unexpected places.”  

As if on cue, Rockman’s attention zeroes in on a dragonfly. He stares in genuine wonder, and you can see him mentally cataloging the insect’s otherworldly anatomy, its crepe-paper wings, its pixelated compound eyes. “Hey, check this out,” he shouts at a passing stranger on the sidewalk, a flood of enthusiasm cracking his cast of cynicism. “There’s a beautiful dragonfly right here!”

Watch This Space

Do you know the name of the last man on the moon?

The painter Michael Kagan does. This April, sitting in an a Williamsburg studio built one brackish spray away from the East River, he spoke about portraying men on the edge of other boundaries.

“Eugene Cernan knew he was going to be the last. He was up there, looking at earth—not religious at all—he said it didn’t really hit him. ‘There’s earth.’ And then he turns around and looks at the blackness of outer space. That was it. The profound thing was seeing nothing.”

Seeing nothing is an odd aspiration for a visual artist, especially one like Kagan, whose large-format oil paintings are predominately figurative, and often include real figures. His main preoccupation, and most fruitful artistic ground, is men like Cernan—the astronauts who flew during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. Rendered in oil, his portraits combine the slickness and formal strength of their source material: old NASA publicity photos, with a bright palette of black, white, and only a couple of dabs of color. As seen most often, condensed into a square on Instagram—Kagan has more than 19,000 followers—the paintings are entirely sensible and compact, taking no more than the duration of a swipe to comprehend.

“Those Who Came Before Us” 2018. Oil on linen. 96″ x 72″.

As Kagan says, “It’s like—boom, astronaut.”

That consumable nature, a stylish repurposing of midcentury propaganda, caught the eye of Pharrell Williams—himself a man who makes serious coin tweaking material from the Space Age. (Williams’s 2014 smash “Happy” is both wholly his own work and a retread, in vocal style and sonic exuberance, of Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “Move On Up.”) In 2012, having seen a profile of Kagan’s work, Pharrell purchased the rights to three paintings. A year later, they appeared on pieces from his streetwear line, Billionaire Boys Club. Half a decade on, they still trade above retail.

All of which is to say that Kagan’s paintings work great in miniature. On a screen, on a card, printed on T-shirts, the spacemen appear antiseptic and tight, with a geometry befitting the era of rocket science. This, the “seeing something” version, works very well.

“Moonwalk” 2018. Oil on linen. 36″ x 36″.

But sitting in the artist’s studio, an arm’s length from some canvases, you see how Cernan’s appraisal of oblivion, or at least of an indiscernible world, appears in Kagan’s work alongside all this order and shapeliness.  

Take “Mercury 7,” an 8-by-8-foot canvas painted from a pre-flight still taken of the Mercury Seven, the name NASA gave its first class of astronauts. Initially, it seems quite heroic.

“These guys were the ultimate rock stars,” he says of Buzz Aldrin, Leland Melvin, John Glenn, and the others in NASA’s pioneering space programs. “People would clap when they walked into restaurants. They had huge parades down Fifth Avenue in New York. Everyone was behind it in a positive way.”

In the painting, the seven men are posed indoors, but washed, somehow, in the harsh, high-contrast light of the sun unfiltered by the atmosphere. With their visors up, you see that the figures are clean-cut pilots, handsome instruments against Communism. Their transgressions—boozing, speeding, and sexual opportunism—quashed by NASA’s press office, scrubbed from the official portraiture.

Yet, in person, you realize that the smooth convexity of those NASA helmets is rendered by Kagan in topographic daubs of oil paint, used as if its didn’t cost $200 a tube, applied with a squeegee as often as with a brush. The forms waver; the balance shifts. The strokes are dispersed, disordered.

“We Have Felt the Ground Shake” at Bill Brady Gallery.

It’s a small violence: To approach a Michael Kagan painting is to watch the pristine whites of a space suit disintegrate.

Kagan likes that conceptual wiggle—from seeing something, to nothing, and back again.

“Some people say I should take a side photo of my paintings with a raking light, but I don’t want to,” he says. “I like that it tightens up in the small Instagram format, but up close, it falls apart.”

It’s the touch of vertigo that swells between “something” and “nothing” that makes Kagan’s work about more than rockets and space. Where Eugene Cernan had an encounter with the void, we, the earthbound, have the opportunity to encounter art, in hopes of forcing a perspectival shift—to see our institutions as edificial and then, in three steps, dissolve into artifice.

The first watch on the moon? Not exactly. Kagan wears an unexpected yet sentimental Seamaster from Omega. (Photo: Christopher Garcia Valle)

“When you’re in space, you don’t see borders. You just see the globe. Everyone comes back and they question why there’s so much fighting and political strife. One of [the astronaut] goals was to see in the future if space travel could be a normal thing—could we take a bunch of politicians up? Could we take people up and see what good could come from that perspective and new way of thinking?” Kagan says.

From space, through a reinforced window that shares Instagram’s aspect ratio, the world is tidy, creamy, and perfect. Only on the ground, after the Command Module has plopped into the sea, do all the jagged divides make themselves visible, and the sense of unity collapse.

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