Her vibrant photos are as beautiful as they are unsettling

Montreal artist Michelle Bui is creating a unique visual poetry with her colourful images, earning her the prestigious 2022 Prix Pierre-Ayot.

Montreal artist Michelle Bui is creating a unique visual poetry

Michelle Bui in her studio, sitting on a stool with prints of her work on the wall behind her.
Michelle Bui in her studio. (Jill Schweber)

When Montreal artist Michelle Bui walks through the crowded markets in her neighborhood, she's looking for objects to populate her alluring but often troubling photos. "Sometimes it's colours and textures, or ridiculous items that capture my eye," she says. "But it's also objects that are so common that they might otherwise remain invisible."

Harsh plastic items might get contrasted with fleshy entrails, or fluorescent backgrounds juxtaposed with natural flora. Heading back to her studio, bags overflowing with a palette of fresh produce and inorganic findings, Bui is ready to create. 

What immediately grabs your attention in her final images are the vibrant colours and sensuousness. These collages of collected and found objects, debris, and other castoffs are as pleasing as they are destabilizing in their depictions of all things squishy, moist, and rubbery.

The artist — who was born, raised, and currently works in Montreal — creates compositions which thoughtfully combine photography, sculpture, installation and even traditional life drawing or painting. This work recently earned her the 2022 Prix Pierre-Ayot, the city of Montreal and the Association des galeries d'art contemporain's (AGAC) most prestigious annual art award for an artist under the age of 35.

Installation view of Michelle Bui's Projet Pangée. Floral paintings on the wall are interspersed with columns of plastic sheets with floral collages.
Installation view, Papier 18, Projet Pangée, Montréal, 2018. (Michelle Bui)

"It was nice to receive this recognition in the city where I have had all these formative experiences," Bui says, while sitting in a plush blue chair in her studio in the Mile End neighborhood. A quintessential Montrealer, Bui is a perfect mix of Francophone and Anglophone cultures that are often pinned against each other in the public sphere. During our in-person interview, we move between languages, speaking a healthy amount of Franglais — a form of French that casually borrows words and idioms from English. "With my childhood friends we naturally speak Franglais. For me, that is the real Montreal, as well as a sign of most cultures who deal with multiple identities, to move between two languages and express words and thoughts in both, without any complexes," she says.

When asked about the Anglo-Franco divide in the Quebec cultural sector, Bui evokes a fluidity and slipperiness that parallels her work. "I don't see that much of a distinction, to be honest. While in the past you might be tied to one over the other, I think most of us are looking beyond that binary mindset, blurring the boundaries if there are any.

After a pause, she adds, "Maybe that's also part of being a first-generation immigrant, being a chameleon and adapting to new structures."

Bui's brightly coloured photographs, which often capture raw materials like plastic straws, upholstery foam, glass beads, lemongrass stems, or the pinkish skin of a skate fish pretending to be something else in their distinctive configuration, are the product of decades practising different types of collaging.

"I think my first interactions with art were in these small magazines we received at home. They provided the option to print images on mugs or cushions with, for example, a reproduction of the Venus of Botticelli." Bui then learned the ropes of a studio practice in an after-school program from two passionate artmakers.

"Mission Renaissance was the first place I made art consciously," Bui recalls fondly. "Hélène Béland and Daniel Brient showed me a universe where being an artist could be a career as well as a way of living poetically. They breathed and loved art, and the ambience of the drawing courses I took on St-Denis Street with them felt like entering a near-sacred space."

Installation view of Michelle Bui's Mutable Materialism on the wall of a bus stop in Vancouver. Five colourful photos of objects like flowers and plastic tubing.
Installation view, Mutable Materialism, Yaletown Roundhouse, CAG x Capture Photo Festival, Vancouver, 2022. (Rachel Topham Photography)

The youngest of three, Bui's path into fine arts was not a given, yet her parents supported her every step of the way. "My parents have always encouraged my practice and my interests. I believe my dad has artistic sensibilities, but perhaps did not have the space to pursue that route for himself. He keeps little books of poetry illustrated with such imaginative and expressive drawings of his that speak of the tumultuous period of the 1960s in Vietnam."

Citing Montreal's vital cultural scene as one of her main inspirations, Bui recalls influential exhibitions she visited at a young age: "The Nan Goldin exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 is where I understood I wanted to be an artist. There I saw how art could be totally other, deeply intimate to the artist but also profoundly resonant for others. A certain politics emerged from the stories she presented."

These early childhood and adolescent influences, whether the Jean Cocteau exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2004 or the experience of peeling the imperial-roll pastry sheets with her mother for Vietnamese fried spring rolls, are all apparent in her current practice.

"You can't see your life like a big symbol," says Bui when responding to a question about overt signs of cultural identity in her projects. "It really expresses itself in the day-to-day — the various gestures, big or small, that make up your life. It's the accumulation that becomes symbolic." This aligns with the political sensibilities of her work, which require the viewer to look below the surface to grasp at the artist's social message.

Installation view of Michelle Bui's Naked Excess. Large photographs of layered wet floral discards mixed with thin sheets of translucent plastic and gelatinous substances.
Installation view, Naked Excess, Esker Foundation, 2022. (John Dean Photography)

Take, for example, Bui's most recent exhibition, Naked Excess (2022) at the Esker Foundation in Calgary, where the artist presented large photographs of layered wet floral discards mixed with thin sheets of translucent plastic and gelatinous substances. In this impressive frieze, precise gestures — akin to preparing a delicate dish — produce Cocteau-like, surrealist-inspired montages and a unique visual poetry.

The aesthetic vocabulary Bui has devised is distinctly hers, carrying traces of her own body as well as a curiosity for flesh and the overlap between the consumption, excess, and wastes of plastic and food. "I'm always thinking about membranes, bodies, and what dries and changes. My practice at its base has an interest in objects that succumb to gravity, objects that become soft over time."

Most surprising is how the artist can make seemingly disparate, sometimes gross elements, like intestines and lovely Japanese anemones in Pretty in Pink (2017), function together in harmony, generating undeniably picturesque scenes. Despite the lure of this attractiveness, Bui remains skeptical of the ease of creating beautiful images.

"An image can be complicated while being made very rapidly. There's the element of surprise that I like when I create. If I can surprise myself, if friction appears, that means I should pursue this direction. If it's simply beautiful and elegant, then I'm suspicious."

Michelle Bui's Pretty in Pink. Intestines and Japanese anemones on a bright red background.
Pretty in Pink, pigment print on paper, 2017. (Michelle Bui)

Having recently given birth, Bui has also felt a shift in her work which is so invested in fluids, viscosities, and disintegration. Pregnancy allowed her to see her body differently, motherhood also introducing new kinds of chaos which she welcomes. "I've been faced with the extendibility of the body, its capacity for change." Translating maternal appetites toward her practice, Bui is witnessing mutability from up close.

Forever the shapeshifter, it feels as though Bui is on the cusp of something different in her artwork. "The projects at the Contemporary Art Gallery, in Vancouver, and the Esker Foundation felt like the conclusion of those series. I have this feeling that I can literally tie a bow around the photos. I'm looking for a process which keeps me in that in-betweenness — in trouble, perhaps."

Unafraid to move away from what has earned her success and acclaim, Bui's career trajectory seems malleable and bold, ready to adapt to changing conditions and try new and surprising propositions. This is perhaps her biggest strength: to not remain fixed in one place, but to always evoke an organic, eel-like ambiguity that blurs the edges and categorizations. 

"It's a complicated relationship with beauty," says Bui. "As an artist, you want to evolve in your practice. But when you've found the solution to an image, you want to return to not having it. That's where the work becomes interesting again."


Didier Morelli is a Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQSC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois). Associate editor at Espace art actuel, his work has also been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse Arts + Opinions, Frieze, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Say hello to our newsletter: hand-picked links plus the best of CBC Arts, delivered weekly.


The next issue of Hi, art will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.