In my opinion, Dragana Jurisic is one of the best artists working in Ireland today. A photographer based in Dublin, Dragana’s ability to blend narrative and technique in her work makes her practice both accessible and stimulating to viewers. Her openness in conversation made talking to her such a rewarding experience. I hope to do her justice in this interview.
Can you describe what an average day in the studio is like for you?
I get up early and do some exercise, get a coffee and I am at my desk by 8am. My studio is tidy, I like my work environment to be organised. I’m not a person who will have test prints all over the space – studio is where I think.
What does the camera mean to you?
For me, the camera provides a tool to better understand the world around me. When I studied psychology, I worked a lot with children on the autistic spectrum, and I would observe how many of the kids would need to have a support in the form of an object, an animal, a ritual, something to help focus, to open up and learn. I understand that need for separation from the world, in order to be able to see it with more clarity. This is what photography gives me. It’s a membrane that helps me filter experiences and make sense of them. Otherwise, life can be overwhelming.
I touch on it in Seeing Things, my first significant photography project, a Government commission to depict poverty in Ireland. My position in Irish society, at that time was one of an outsider. I used the symbolism of a bird flying in and out of the photos to illustrate the role of the photographer in these kinds of situations; we’re just flying in and out, we don’t have to live the lives of the people we’re portraying. I think Seeing Things represents my discomfort with being in a position of power, or should I say, discomfort with an intrinsic exploitative nature of photography as a medium.
A famous example of issues with social documentary is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. When Lange took this iconic photograph, she never asked the woman what her name was; Lange only asked her how old she was. And when she would talk about that picture, Lange would say that the woman allowed her to take photographs of herself and her children, because she knew that by helping the photographer, she would be helped somehow. Many years later, when the journalists found this woman and interviewed her, she was still poor, living in a trailer camp in Modesto, California. The photograph didn’t do anything for her. She was a face of one of the most recognisable images of the twentieth century, a face that made Dorothea Lange famous – but has done nothing for the person portrayed. Her name was Florence Thompson.
I wanted to ask you about your recent work Tarantula – can you talk about that a bit?
Tarantula was a commission by the National Gallery – Brian Fay, Maser and myself were asked to respond to the Vermeer exhibition [Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, 2018]. The idea was to take three artists who work in Ireland and who are all very different, and try to see what they come up with.
I was interested in women in Vermeer’s work and also in how critics tried to diminish Vermeer by saying that he used camera obscura to make his paintings, claiming he was stencilling out of nature. But there are two main subjects in Vermeer’s paintings, women in domestic settings and light, and light is not something one can sketch by using camera obscura. That’s why I photographed a female figure over a number of hours, tracking the light in my studio and then made a composite image that consisted of multiple layers. The idea was to animate the pensive female character that features regularly in Vermeer’s paintings, and by doing so to capture the light dancing around the studio. The title ‘Tarantula’ was inspired by Ibsen’s Doll House. I used the seventeenth-century Dutch frame from the National Gallery’s collection – producing an object that to many appeared almost like a religious icon. People spent a long time in front of that piece.
Do you feel you will do more composite images?
Yes, I think so. I enjoy making them; perhaps because they take a lot of work! Some kind of magic has to happen for them to sing.
I also like the idea of movement inside of the image. I feel like a lot of work that I do is attempting to do something that’s not possible by nature… the photograph is still and two-dimensional, and what I’m trying to do is to animate that still image.
100 Muses is another work that uses that composite image technique – could you talk a bit about how that project came about?
When I started making the 100 Muses project, I didn’t know it would become what it turned out to be – for me, it was an experiment. It was an experiment to see if I, as a female artist, would treat women the same way they were traditionally treated by male artists. Specifically the traditional master kind of approach. That element of nameless, anonymous women who are only used as the subject of the work, but they are never given credit. When I started making 100 Muses, when the first person came in, I did what “they” do… I started manoeuvring women into position. And I realised very quickly, within the first session, that this was totally wrong. This is taking away the woman’s agency; she had no decision about what image is going to go out into the world to represent her. So at that point in the process, I realised that I can’t dictate how they move and behave. And then the project became about collaboration – I became a facilitator, not the maker. Women performed and directed themselves, and they chose their own image.
What was your relationship to the muses?
I knew about eighteen of the hundred women I photographed. The rest were strangers. There was a great element of a surprise every time a woman who I did not know, rung the studio bell and came into the room. Once a person took their clothes off, the majority would tell you something very personal and intimate, they would share traumatic experiences from their lives. I guess when you disrobe in front of a stranger, you’re already feeling vulnerable so you might as well! So that was quite surprising at first, but also an incredibly intimate and powerful experience. It was a quite cathartic thing for them, and me as well. 100 Muses was a growing experience; every woman who told me something, I could see myself reflected in their story. It was a two-way therapy, a healing process. A lot of contemporary artists are scared of this idea of art as a therapy, but I really could not care about that. I have no desire to appear cool! Of course it was not all serious and intense, there was an element of play in the project as well, lots of joy – lots of dancing and goofing around.
The research you did is very evident in your work.
I enjoy research. At the moment I’m writing a novel and I love the research part – it delays you from actually committing words to paper, because to start making is to invoke self-doubt. I have very high aspirations, I set the bar very high for myself. So it is challenging to plough through that kind of treacle of self-criticism, in any kind of creative endeavour. For me it’s important to hash out all of the possible pitfalls of a creative project, before I show them to the world.
You’re collaborating with Paula on a project at the moment – do you mind talking about that?
Paula Meehan, what can I say? She is a wonderful poet. Dublin City Council commissioned the two of us, to respond to Number 14 Henrietta Street (a Georgian townhouse that went from being a family home to a tenement). Paula wrote her poems first, and I got to read them before I said yes to the commission – I mean, after reading them it would have been impossible to say no.
It was important to me I create images worthy of her poems. Luckily, I was collaborating with a very helpful and openhearted person – she was so generous with her time and her ideas. I’m not a poet so I don’t know a lot about structures of poems, but she patiently explained her process to me when writing Museum and that helped me unlock a way forward, a way to photograph. The book is out in July. It’s a beauty.
Looking at works like YU and My Own Unknown where 100 Muses comes from, I feel like there’s almost a through line in some of your work, a theme of birth through destruction?
Yeah, that is very interesting, I think you’re right – there is continuity in my projects. From YU that looks at loss of national identity and loss of a country, to My Own Unknown that takes the life of my aunt as a starting point (a woman who escaped Yugoslavia and became a spy in Cold War Paris), to pondering on a status of representation of female within the Western Art tradition (100 Muses).
A lot of my works seem to come from some kind of personal or societal devastation. I am attempting to use art as a way of putting back the broken pieces together, reassembling, reconstructing, making good. Like that Japanese art of repair – Kintsugi – where gold is used to fill in the cracks. Making broken beautiful.
Let’s finish by talking about influences.
I think the best exhibition I saw in the last ten years was Andrea Fraser’s retrospective at MACBA. She’s in her fifties now, and she has been working for the last few decades, so I am embarrassed to say I never saw her work before, or even heard about her, which is even worse! A lot of her artwork revolves around institutional criticism and also a critique of modes of representation. My favourite piece was White People in West Africa, where she photographed and collected photos of white people in West Africa. White tourists taking pictures of the exotic Other when they go on holiday, safari style; a pale guy in Birkenstocks dancing his socks off during a tribal dance! The last image was of a white rhino hiding in the bushes – brilliant. The work talks about the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on Africa, and at the same time is saying something about the art world too. She does a great job of parodying the cult of the artist.
Finally, I’m delighted that Vivian Dick is here in Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. I love her work. And it is nice to be able to become friends with someone you admire.
You can find out more about Dragana’s work through her website link below
Cléa van der Grijn is an artist based in Sligo. Her deeply personal work has often delved into matters of mortality and memory, and her latest touring exhibition JUMP is no exception. I recently got a chance to sit down with Clea to discuss the new exhibition, her influences, and the variety of media she works in.
Why did you call your recent exhibition JUMP?
I called the exhibition JUMP because there is a sense of suspension in jumping where time can hold still, since you are neither here nor there. Jump is a place in between.
The exhibition is a combination of my paintings and a film that I’ve written and directed in collaboration with a soundscape creative called Joseph P. Hunt and cinematographer Ciaran Carty. Michael Cummins designed the pod which it’s viewed in. The pod is really important because I am in control of each person’s experience – so I know that if you see it in Sligo or Dublin or America or wherever, you will all have the same experience. I think the word is immersive; I wanted it to be an immersive experience. Experiential.
How do the paintings relate to the film?
The paintings are like instants of the film: very beautiful little flickers. Stills, which hopefully give one, time to reflect back at what was experienced. The smaller are like moments, flickers of the film.
[The paintings] were painted alongside the making of the film. I have a fairly big studio. This was where we did all the editing and tech for the film. I wanted Joe, Ciaran and Michael to see my process while working on the project, and allow them to respond to it in some way.
I know exactly what I want. So, I strive to act on that vision. Professionalism is important when working with others. Even though I can be exacting, it’s the same expectation I lay on myself.
Can you talk a little about the film?
What I hope to do with the film is put forward questions to the viewer. I want to create a platform for a narrative, for a dialogue. I want people to engage, and maybe to keep still for a little while. To gather their thoughts and reflect: what is death and what is life? What are memories, real and perceived? What about false memories? Can they become real memories? I really just want people to stop and think about mortality and life.
The film does not intend to be disturbing. But it is, meant to make people consider what death is. It gives us a little moment of reflection, where we can perhaps almost project our own feelings onto the film. Yes, it could be about death but that is only a very small thing, and the culture around death is a very large conversation. This is something I’m personally trying to unravel.
Death is a subject you have touched on in the past.
You’re talking about Reconstructing Memory which was a rather huge exhibition I did in (The Model Gallery . Limerick City Gallery, Rochester Arts Centre USA and Solomon Dubli) It was a real in-depth investigation into culture’s relationship to death, in particular Mexican death traditions and how they compare to the Western sense of mourning.
When I started the project, my whole family went to live in Mexico to understand the culture of death. It was quite a lonely experience making a show by myself of such size. When working on that, my only direct involvement with other people was with my family. And god love them, they spent two years growing and cutting marigolds!
Elements from Reconstructing Memory like marigolds appear in the film. Can you go into that?
Within Mexican culture on Dia de Muertos, dead souls are drawn back by the very pungent smell of the marigold. Marigolds play a strong role in both Reconstructing memory and JUMP.
Repetition is also really important to me: I don’t know if it is my rhythm or if it helps my mind to stay clear. Even though my paintings are different to one other, there is still a form of iteration to the paintings. Even if you go back, back, back, there are elements which are reused continuously in my practice.
The death mask was another element from Reconstructing Memory. I have three death masks made. The masks were made because I think that people are celebrated when they die but not while they are alive, and I find that quite interesting. Why? Why this way and not the other way round? Why does Irish culture or culture generally prefer to celebrate the dead and not the living. This is what the death mask asks.
When it comes down to it, there are similarities between Reconstructing Memory and JUMP. As I continue to develop this state of “in-between” in my practice I am aware of things becoming simpler, of a paring back. Of allowing the essence of my subject to be more … perhaps subtle.
I am also looking out more for references whereas before I always looked within.
Going back to what you said about eyes; one of the paintings literally depicts eyes. That has to be deliberate?
The eyes in the painting are a reference to the hand-blown glass balls from Reconstructing Memory. They are direct replicas of my eyes. I should say that the painting is called Ways of Seeing (which is based on the title from a book by the writer John Berger). I believe that, as the title says, you don’t necessarily need your eyes for seeing. If you just remain still, you can see with your heart or your emotions. There are so many different ways of seeing without your eyes. And when you die, the first thing to go are your eyes. I have a lazy eye myself, and eyes have always been important to me. I’m aware of the many other ways of seeing.
I love titles, but I think that once you title something, that’s it. It can often close ways of interpreting a work, so it can be a delicate balance.
That’s interesting that the name comes from Berger’s book. There seems to be text written into the painting itself.
I have scraped the text into the painting. It says, “I dream of dead people”. And I do – I dream of dead people all the time because they are alive in my dreams.
Reading is something that is really important to me. I am a voracious reader. I have book shelves which I live vicariously through. I’ve just read Marina Abramović’s memoir.
I like to write and often write in my work, I wrote a book which is now finished. Most was done in solitude over an intense two-week residency in Cill Rialaig, overlooking the Skelligs.
I’m now awaiting an agent to find the correct publishing house.
JUMP as the book is also called is a fictional memoir. A tale of wicked truths interwoven with dream, imagination and dark thoughts. JUMP is a celebration and a curse about dysfunctional families.
It is about addiction and the search for a way through.
The protagonist is a young woman whose experiences and memories (both real and perceived) are outlined from her birth to the death of her brother, when the story abruptly ends.
Writing it has enabled me, as an artist to have more confidence in my practice.
Let’s delve into your influences.Are there names that come to mind?
That’s a hard question but I can say that seeing the work of Francis Bacon when I was either ten or eleven had a huge impact on me. It sticks with me as the first time that I really became enthralled in a work. Because I was brought up around art, I didn’t notice it most of the time but I remember seeing Bacons painting well. We were visiting a little chapel in the south of France and the Bacon painting was there. I remember just going, “woah!”.
What’s next for you?
I’d love to make a feature film but I need time to breathe first. The film has been picked up to premier at the New York independent Film Festival (NYIFF). So, I would like to let this digest. I’ve only just started painting again. Where is that going to go? I don’t know. I have to keep working in some capacity. If you don’t, things won’t happen. You can’t just switch it on and off. It’s something you have to keep active but I’m keeping my options open.
You can find out more about Cléa’s work through her website links below
Marcus Cope is an English painter working out of APT Studios in London. He’s also a curator and the co-founder of the Marmite Prize, an award for painting. His thought process, not only on his own painting but on art in general, is fascinating and insightful – my conversations with him have really made me think differently about how I look at art and its relationship to the viewer. I hope this interview is as thought-provoking for you as it was for me.
Let’s talk about the painting that you’re working on at the moment.
This painting is a story of a moment in Turkey over a decade ago. I went with my girlfriend, travelling from Northern Cyprus to southern Turkey by ferry – there was a delay once we were on board which made for a really long journey, almost 24 hours I think – and this ferry was very basic, no café, or shops, not quite like the ferry you would take from Wales to Ireland.
Once we arrived transport was difficult, we got on a bus but that didn’t quite work out so we got a dolmuş, one of those shared taxis. When we got off in this little town called Silifke, there was this old guy sitting there, under a tree… and he just came up to me and shook my hand, and he was so happy to see us, and welcoming. At that moment for us, everything was new because we were the ‘out of towners’, but he saw us, and we must have stood out, both looking like we were new to this town in southern Turkey, both with wild blonde hair. For him it must have been like, ‘Wow, look at these guys!’. Something different to the norm, coming into his town. For us, it was like this whole weird thing, and we were so knackered from travelling, so I guess that made it a memorable moment in that sense. And he is represented in the painting by one of the figures.
Part of the work of making the painting is trying to remember that situation, I mean, to ask ‘Where was he?’, ‘What was the situation around that moment?’. So the process then is me finding an image of the tree and whatever else surrounded it, substitutes of the situation, the scene, finding this stuff, finding the right images to try to recreate the moment in an image. The [image I used for the] guy comes from a postcard that John Kasmin had collected. John established the Kasmin Gallery in the 1960’s, but he’s also an avid postcard collector. He’s produced a few of these books of his postcard collections and I found a picture of this guy in one of those books, and he seemed to fit the bill. The other figure in the painting is a partial redition of a guy I had taken a photo of in the Serpentine Gallery, looking at a painting by Hilma af Klint.
So, there’s a little bit of me trying to remember the scene, but I’m also putting things together so it feels organic – those decisions are in the editing. Most of my paintings are total compositions of other stuff… I either make up a space, or I find an image that seems like the right thing, or an image of the actual thing, and then everything else comes together during the painting process.
I’m always a bit cautious of leaning into representing memory – this moment is a fleeting memory, he’s kind of there but he’s not there. From my point of view everything should be a little transparent in the picture, not just the figures. I think this painting… maybe it has a slightly filmic quality, imagining these ghostly figures in the way you remember a place where something significant has happened. There is something about how a person is central to a painting, and yet I tried not to overemphasise that, or ‘over-paint’ their features – it could be a slippery slope, I think. I just tried to keep that sort of feeling of their simply being part of the painting, part of the place. It’s quite a tricky thing to do, every time I paint a face I wonder, ‘How do I do this?’, it’s like I haven’t ever done it before…
I intend to call it Handshake with a Giant. In this situation I’m the giant, but you can’t see me because it’s from my viewpoint (which is quite a high vantage point). I want it [the title] to be intriguing, or something to make you think, because there isn’t actually a handshake going on and there isn’t a giant. Titling paintings is a tricky one, because obviously with every painting I make, I don’t know if I am even going to get an opportunity to show it. I don’t really think of the title, maybe sometimes it just brews up and appears as a thought, or I think about the title, but not in relation to the audience. When you show a painting, the title becomes your opportunity to have a little influence on the conversation with the viewer, which is something I’m always debating, how instructive or descriptive it should or could be.
There is something very unique, very personal, about your work.
Yeah, all the paintings are stories of people I’ve met, or places I’ve been. I just had an exhibition (in May 2018) at studio1.1, an artist-run space in Shoreditch,– I had five large paintings in the exhibition, and four of these were scenes from Cyprus and the other was of my kitchen in London with a little story from Ireland thrown in. I’m kind of painting my history.
I could have marketed the show as Paintings of Cyprus, because all the stories came from time spent in Cyprus or people from Cyprus – it’s a place I’ve been to several times, a place I went to when I finished my degree [in 2003 to do a residency at the Cyprus College of Art]. I don’t feel like it works in that way, where there’s a strategy or a tagline. They are just the pictures that I want to make, so they are personal. It just happens to be that a lot of it is in Cyprus. I do sometimes think I should make some London paintings, but I don’t want to force that.
At one point I felt that every (solo) exhibition I had had to be a complete 180 turn from the last. It was madness, that I felt that way. I remember quoting Lichtenstein in an essay for college, where he said that when he was 31 or 35 or something he discovered his way of making paintings – that we all know as the dots – but before that everything that he was doing, even though he didn’t know it at the time, was him experimenting, trying to find his way, his visual language.
Looking back at my desire to make things different all the time was part of me not having my voice yet… I wouldn’t say I was looking for it, or didn’t realise I was, it sort of fell on me, you know? It found me! I did paintings that were tight, photoreal paintings, and now they’re quite loose, never really abstract but sort of verging on it. Two ends of the spectrum I suppose, and that probably comes from learning about paint and what it does, how to use the mark making, and the simple stuff, maybe? It doesn’t feel like I’ve got that urge to change that I used to have, and even now that I’ve just had a show… I’d like the next show to look a bit like that that one, because it was really good! Yeah, I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
Let’s talk about your day-to-day practice.
My general routine is either I do a day of work and childcare, and I come here at nine pm when I’m a bit tired, or I come here at nine in the morning. I think it probably affects my approach, because at night I’m much more relaxed, a little worn out from the day. If I’m here during the day, it usually means that I’ve got to go pick up my daughter from nursery later.
So, in the morning I try and do watercolours or oil sketches and then come downstairs and do an afternoon of painting. Painting can just take over – so it’s really important to keep creating drawings for future works, even when I’m painting and I’m in the thick of it, because you can come to an end of a painting and feel like ‘What the fuck am I going to do now?’. I need to continue generating the ‘stuff’ that goes into the paintings. I also have things to work from, or to work out within the painting that I might try and resolve with a sketch. I work on several large paintings at the same time, and also I do other things that come up, little sketches, note taking, thinking! It’s a little bit more of a natural process, even with the best intention of ‘finishing’ something, I will find myself working on something else. I sometimes need to take myself away from painting for a bit, to contemplate what’s happened, then do some drawing… I need to be bouncing between them. But when a painting is at the point where it’s close to completion, when it takes off and I have that feeling that’s it’s all open for manouvre, it does take over; it does become my whole focus. There might as well be nothing else.
I have this way of working with a lot of the paintings – I’ll paint something on and I’ll flick paint on it, or some turps and then I’ll get a rag or some off-cuts of canvas and I’ll soak it with some other paint and push it on [the surface]. There is a lot of physicality in the process and yet it’s kind of a vague thing to describe. When you look at anything in the world, nothing is flat clean white – green – red- etc, there are always details, there is stuff in everything, even just due to light, and I try and give every surface of my paintings that feature. I often think, for me things begin to get tighter and neater as the work progresses and gets close to completion, and when I find that I’m going in that direction I’ll pull back in some way, and that is the moment when it can all come together.
Your work often references some of your older pieces – what is the thought process to that?
I guess the most immediate example of this would be Out the Back (2017). In it, there is a vulture’s eye, and yeah, I think it was kind of symbolic of the end of something, and the beginning of something else. The vulture’s eye comes from a series of vulture paintings I did in 2011 called Carrion, where I had based my work on research I’d done into vultures. On reflection it led me down the wrong path, in a way. Anyway the eye seemed to fit in with this outdoor studio which is taken from a photograph I took over a decade ago of the old backyard of the Cyprus College of Art in Limassol. I suppose putting bits of the vultures in there – it’s sort of like putting bits of me, my history of painting, into the work. It’s something that led me towards where I am today. In the end, regardless of content for me, every painting is a series of decisions I have to make, and I try to be very careful with that.
I would add though that those references made to older works are fading fast. And when they do appear I’m not usually completely conscious that I’m doing that. There aren’t any in any of the current work.
As we all do I look at other people’s work on Instagram, and for example… the other day, someone posted a painting of an old Spanish lady with a turquoise face, and I thought, ‘Why does she have a turquoise face?’. It sort of seems like people can be flippant with the colour they use. For whatever reason I can’t do that at the moment, that’s not for me, but it once was and could be again, but for now I want the colours to be representing reality, or at least my perspective on reality. I guess that’s what they were doing for the turquise lady painter too. In the past a turquoise face wouldn’t have been something I’d have questioned.
I see you worked with Sacha Craddock on some accompanying text with your last exhibition – would you care to touch on that?
It’s always interesting when someone else engages with what you do. Sacha came in here, and said: “I don’t want you to tell me what you think they are about – I’ll tell you.”
She is interesting. To have that perspective, that comes from forty odd years of experience dealing with art… she has much more experience than me. So often people don’t really tell me what they really think. Or maybe they say what they think I want to hear!
I had asked her to write a text for the exhibition, I respect her opinion. She was adamant the paintings are not about the stories, it’s still about the painting and what it looks like. The story is the starting point for each work, and directs the collection of the visual materials, but from there it becomes about my relationship with making paintings. This is totally true. That relationship is formed through decisions (editing), and that’s how the piece of work became this thing in front of you. For so many years when I went to the studio, I wouldn’t know what to do, so I would just do anything! I’ve always been very productive, and I do sometimes think, when something went against the last thing I did, I thought that was enough. That sort of confusion in what was going on, it meant there must be something going on, but now I just get on with it, because there is something going on. No questions. There’s another story and another encounter and another situation that is occupying me, and that directs the image search, becomes the sketches, develops the paintings… so it feels really positive.
Finally, can we talk about some of your influences?
For a long time I was really into Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu, those old Dutch guys. And whenever I go to the National Gallery or the Wallace Collection, those are still the ones that I’m drawn to. But these days I’m more influenced by people like Daumier, or Jean-François Millet, their paintings and drawings of real people in real situations. Especially the sort of paintings Millet did, a lot of paintings of people working in fields – they were a big influence.
I’m a lifelong fan of Philip Guston, that never seems to abate. And Goya of course.
One of the big recent influences was seeing the Daniel Richter show at the Camden Arts Centre a year and a half ago. That show, I thought it was really hit and miss, but the ones that hit, they really hit. And that’s what made me realise my desire to do my paintings really big – because when you’re confronted with a painting that kind of size, and the figures in it are almost life-sized, you have that real sense of it being an actual space that you can interact with. I suppose that’s kind of theatrical. I like that. I remember I came away from that show and ordered some big stretchers straight away. It was a very immediate response, almost overwhelming that desire to do that.
More recently I’ve been thinking about the subtleties of Vuillard and Bonnard – and perhaps even Sickert – and how they got their figures into spaces without them dominating. It’s great stuff!
You can find out more about Marcus’s work through his website link below
Mullingar native, Mark Garry is a talented artist that I have respected and looked up to for a long time. I met him first when his show A Winter Light was being shown in The Model. At the time I was not even a year out of college, and my job was to sit and watch over parts (and make sure nothing got broken) of the exhibition. ‘But regardless Mark was still genuine and friendly, answering questions, even complimenting my choice of reading material while on the job’ (Stillness and Speed by Dennis Bergkamp, if you were curious). I will always be grateful for the generosity and respect he demonstrated towards me as someone starting out in the art world I hope you enjoy this interview as he is a great artist with some great ideas.
Let’s start first with North of the West, which recently became part of the IMMA collection.
North of the West was part of a series of works that kind of looks at the sea – its cultural impact and its social impact. I suppose it stems from a project called Drift, which ended up being a performance and film project which was played out in Detroit and Sherken Island off West Cork. I worked on Drift with a composer called Sean Carpio, we have collaborated a lot. We agree on a lot of things, but disagree on enough things for the creative relationship to be interesting for us both. We don’t really recognise a divisions in cultural genres.
With Drift, I was interested in the way that our cultural, historical and day to day relationship with nature. Since the beginning of the Industrial age we have felt the need to dominate nature both philosophically and physically, but when you live on an island you have a much more respectful reciprocal relationship with nature. Nature also dictated the aesthetic/performative encounter with this work . We attached an Aeolian harp,(a harp played by the wind) on to a traditional wooden sailboat and located this instrument in the centre of a space called horseshoe bay , which is a beautiful natural amphitheatre, we located a brass quartet and a solo saxophone player on the shore and these instruments performed with the wind harp using a form of improvised orchestration. The piece itself was based on a series of translations of a Sumerian hymn, the first documented song, and they again relate to nature. Sean and I were also commissioned to release a 10” vinyl from this project.
North of the West was a film work that was also concerned with island life – the ways in which living on an island and this isolation makes it easy to control your surrounding environment, and I guess that’s what the Catholic Church did in Ireland for sixty, seventy years. That work was about my relationship with religion as a kid: something being majestic and beautiful, but also terrifying. So the sea acts as an analogy for that.
There are some really direct references to Japanese culture, which I’m really interested in, and in particular in a movement called Mono-ha, which is a short-lived 1960’s Japanese land art movement. It was really interesting to me, the idea of something that was deeply embedded within thinking, and craft, and nationhood. How they all become kind of intertwined. I’ve never been, but Japanese culture is definitely had a significant impact on my work.
Sean and I tried to compose a new musical soundtrack for piece for North of the West, and while Sean and I were trying to figure out the composition for it, Sean suggested that we try Drift, and they both just seemed to work together. It just seemed to make sense in the end, and it was kind of a nice way to revisit an old work.
It’s interesting how interactive the piece is.
Yes with this work there is a record player with a record located close to the film and the audience gets to decide whether to have a soundtrack or not. I suppose I was trying to encourage a less passive encounter. That’s why I’m interested in installation art, as an opportunity to interact with spaces in a non-passive way. Essentially, where you as an audience member are the activator of an artwork. With North of the West, we literally become an activator of the work – you make the decision of whether you listen to the accompanying music or not, you decide when the music comes in… That one decision adds complexity to how we experience things. it is a very open work in that sense.
Music is a recurring aspect of your work – can you touch on that a bit more, what are you listening to ?
Music and listening play a large part of how I think, in some ways a bigger part than visual art.
I’m listening to a lot of Donald Bird at the moment. I’m also listening to Frank Ocean, and Ithink the things currently happening in hip-hop are very interesting! Then there’s this Scottish classical composer that I really like called Anna Meredith, who is making really beautiful, interesting music. And a guy from another island, Jersey! He’s called Mura Masas – beat-driven music.
I have an extensive vinyl collection, and am a bit fetishistic about music. The way we listen to recorded music has change quite dramatically over the past twenty years. The quality is very different, we listen to stuff on our phones through tinny speakers at a compressed rate, and you don’t get the nuance or the particularities where you hear something on vinyl… you get a much more visceral physical encounter. When you listen to something on your phone, it is wholly separated from the initial idea that created the music. You have this ‘removed’ kind of digital experience, whereas with a record you can actually see and hear from an acoustic perspective how it’s actually happening, and how the sound is created.
Let’s talk about some of your collaborative work, as that often has musical elements to it.
I have made a whole series of collaborative music projects with a small core group of people – Eileen Carpio, Sean Carpio, Nina Hinds, Karl Burk, Fabien Leseure, and myself. We started as a group called A= Apple. Nina and Karl and myself were the starting point, and then Fabien joined.
We as a group respond to different sets of conceptual criteria/material with each new project; it’s quite a simple setup, in a sense that we go to a gallery space or a non-conventional studio space, and convert it to become a studio for a short amount of time. Each person brings a number of their own responses to that conceptual material, and then as a group, we basically expand on those responses. It really requires an awful lot of generosity from one participant to the other. Depending on the location, we also usually invite musicians from the local community to come and collaborate with us.
A Winters Light was recently released as a record – would you like to talk about that?
A Winter Light was kind of different, in the sense that it was responding to a show of mine rather than something outside of the group. With that show while I was developing the exhibition I sent the participants small sections of pieces I was reading, or pieces I was developing, or things I was thinking about and this may have subtly impacted there responses.
With A Winter Light, we invited Claudia Shwab, Oliver Acorn, Robert Stillman, and Pádraig and Cillian Murphy to come become participants. We invite other people to become part of it, and it’s kind of amazing how people are just so generous with their time and energy. And their talents! It got released by Blue Stack Records, which is a small label in Sligo as well. So, it was very northwest based.
Research seems to drive a lot of your work. Can you go into that a bit more?
My practice is both research-driven and process-driven. While there are consistent methodologies in the work each particular exhibition responds to a new set of conceptual criteria. This is often site responsive, in the sense that I will be invited to make an exhibition somewhere in the world and will try and respond to some political, social, historical element of that local society. But the outcome of the work is never dictated before the exhibition – there are always things left open, and elements are developed throughout the installation.
I did a project in Charleston South Carolina called “We Cast Shadows”, Charleston and integrated a number of historical and socio political elements such as its relationship with the slave trade.
That being said they are not always overtly site/situation responsive , other than being architecturally responsive. I am doing a project in The Mac in Belfast next year called “Songs of the soil“ that broadly has to do with the relationship between Landscape and Song.
Let’s talk about your string works.
So, my string works are constructed to suit each space, and it depends on the
architecture of that space or the light of the space, or just the place that space is in, within the country or the world. So for example, in a bright spot I make darker work, and with darker areas I do lighter work. It’s just finding how to activate that specific space at that particular time. But also, to kind of activate the higher spaces in a gallery which we aren’t usually interested in. Those spaces that aren’t the walls, the spaces in between. The space that you don’t really notice because they are generally not activated. I suppose the way the string works are set up optically, they transform as you move around them so you again can’t have a passive relationship with them.You’re a participant in the work. And I hope they act as a marriage of spectacle and empathy. I recognise a strength is subtlety and quietness.
You can find out more about Marks’s work through the website links below
Eileen is a young painter from Meath, currently residing in Dublin. I came across Eileen’swork while doing research for the blog, and her paintings caught my attention instantly. Her use of colour is so eye-catching and carefully considered, I just had to find out more! I was glad I did – talking to her even for a minute will show you how enthusiastic she is about her work, and that enthusiasm is infectious.
Let’s talk about your current exhibition.
Meanwhile, Rummage until Combined is my first solo show – it opened on the 25th of October and it’s running until the 22nd of November. I was introduced to Catherin O’Riordan, the director of So Fine Art, through Neil Dunn, who was an artist who was a year or two ahead of me in college. He introduced me to Catherin, and I’ve just been working with her since. I was in her exhibition Young II, In summer 2018 Catherin and I Planned my first solo exhibition. For this exhibition, I wanted to show a group of paintings together so they could have a conversation, between one another. And I hope that the contrast between the paintings will enhance their features. As an example, Concreate Mixer which is a much more expressionist and energetic painting contrasts with Continued From Before that has more elements of realistic representation. Paint is so versatile that it allows me to do both.
Paint is fascinating to me. For me when I’m painting, it’s more about creating something out of paint, really using the materials. I like to push the paint to its limits. To keep pushing myself to see what else I can do with paint, or what else I can draw from it… I don’t see myself like Jackson Pollock where he draws attention to who is making the marks – for me, the material makes the painting. I’m not doing some performance, the property of materials spark an interest in me, and that’s what I hope to get across to the audience.
I’ve always had a need to make things from other things. I think that there are so many options for how you can go about creating. I used to work in the ASTI [Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland], on the reception desk, and one of the jobs I had to do every day was open the post. It’s just something inherently in me to make stuff out of materials around me, so I started collecting all the envelopes that I opened for work – I made Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, loads of other things, just from this one material. I’m really influenced by what’s around me every day, and it’s just something about me that I have a need to create.
I’m kind of funnelling my creativity through a specific prism – I’ve gotten so used to paint that that I really connect with it and it really excites me when I go to galleries, and I’m like, oh, look how they made those marks, or the surface of that is really lovely. I love Joseph Albers, who has this book called Interaction With Colour – it’s a whole book of tricks around painting, how you can create a sense of space with paint. There are so many tricks that you can do with it, and that fascinates me. Amy Sillman as well, she talks about paint in a way I really connect with. She gave a talk about what it means to draw, to mark, to explain, to map… she uses loads and loads of different verbs to describe what it means to draw. I just think it’s exciting; it fits with my ethos, that you can do so much with relatively little. I think creativity is for everyone, but you do it in your own way.
Let’s talk about that process.
Well, when I first come into the studio, I’ll put up a huge page on the wall. And then I’ll either listen to music or listen to documentaries, and while I’m doing that, I try and get all the things that are in my head out and onto the page, so I can start fresh.
Before I paint, I like to choose between a few different ways that I approach painting. So sometimes I will put like all colours out around the pallet, and mix about the colours as I go. Other times I’ll have like, say, three colours, and I’ll mix them up, and then use those colours and the colours derived from those three to make the painting and no more. At times the colours develop in tandem with the image, and other times it’s completely separate. A friend observed that I don’t really use colours transparently very much; a lot of the time, you can’t see one colour under the other. When I put a colour on top of the other, that one becomes the most prominent. I use colour solidly.
I tend to work on a lot of paintings all at the same time, so they all kind of develop together. I might have around ten works going at the same time, and some of them could be in the studio for like two years before I feel like they are finished. My paintings are formed from lots of layers built over time. Some pieces might take me a year and a half to make, but during that time, I actually spend more time planning than painting. The mark-making is quite immediate in a lot of them, but there is a lot of time in between, to see how they are developing
How do you begin a painting?
I tend to work from photos. Most of them are either ones that I have taken myself, or photographs from my mam’s family album. I feel if I have a personal connection to them, it makes more sense to me.
The categories that I have for the images are things that are intimate snapshots of things,
where I think the colours are really interesting; it could just be that wall against that grey, or something that I think would look really cool to take and put into a painting. Then other ones are more kind of about body language or composition. A lot of the time I crop photos – I’ll take the photo, but it might only be one area that I’m interested in. So I’ll print that and cut it, so that I just have what I want and the rest of the information isn’t getting in the way. I go through my photographs and select ones that I feel merit being translated into paint. That is kind of how it’ll start, and then when I’m going through the process of adding different layers, I’ll go through them again to try and find the element that the painting needs. But it could be, you know, ‘I really think this painting needs more circular shapes to balance those harsh lines’, or ‘I need something that will frame that section of the work’, or ‘I need something that slows it down’… fast marks that really need something that has more time built into it, something slower, something with more detail to be observed. If that makes sense?
I suppose, you know, ‘sometimes the person’s just there so you can look at the window.’ I have that written on my wall in the studio. And what I mean by that is that sometimes I’ll include a human in a painting as an excuse to draw what the person is standing beside. You might think that the object is more important or exciting than the figure, but an individual is a natural focal point that you can draw someone in with, and then you have an excuse to draw the window.
I really find the names of your paintings intriguing – can you talk about that?
To be honest, I kind of hate naming paintings, because I don’t think that you can put words on a visual thing. They’re like two different languages. Words will never describe what you see visually, or how you interact with the material. But I don’t like calling things untitled, it feels a bit sad! Sometimes I’ll call things after a theory that I have been researching – I love reading about behavioural psychology, other ways of looking at how people work, all that kind of stuff, and I think that kind of links in a lot with how I feel about painting.
I’m not so much interested in portraying a very specific message through my work. I do have different topics that I like to portray to the viewer. But for me, they are more a platform for the material. It’s a process of doing, of making. I always say, it’s not a poster – it’s not trying to like explain something specific. It builds itself up from… you can reflect and put meaning and onto that afterwards, as a viewer.
I called one of my paintings Five Languages, which comes from an idea that you have five different ways that you can show love. (1) You can show someone love by giving them gifts, (2) you can show someone love by saying affirmations, (3) you can do things for people and (4) you can be a time spender, or you can (5) show love through physical touch. Those are the kind of things that I love reading about, and I can talk about that all day. How do you translate those kinds of things into a visual and get that across to the viewer? Or for instance, there’s another kind of concept that interests me, the idea that you tend to a need when it comes to the fore. So it’s like, you won’t do something until you need to do it, so you won’t process something emotionally until you’re ready to. It might lay dormant for a while until you’re prepared to deal with it, and that is kinda the same thing to painting. I can leave a painting there, and then I’ll really need to put some like pattern on top of this! And then I’m like, I have to let that sit and then I might do three or four levels on it. But I definitely think it’s linked to your emotional being, without sounding really airy-fairy about it. I think it’s good to think about it in the holistic sense. But I’m still trying to understand this side of my creativity.
My process is definitely affected by my emotional connection to things, so I find if I’m in a certain mood I’ll look for a certain kind of information. I might look for something more familiar, or if I’m in an indifferent mood, I might look for something more of a pattern.
Let’s talk a bit about your influences.
I love Jules de Balincourt. I’m mad about his work – I saw his show in London, and I was just enthralled by it. The colours alone are a huge influence. I also love Diana Copperwhite, I was lucky to have her as one of my tutors so she was influential, learning from her and Robert Armstrong (another of my tutors in college), it really developed my practice.
My peers like Elinor McCoughy and Emer Murphy are really close friends of mine. We work differentially, but cos we talk so much about art I definitely feel we influence each other. I shared a studio with Alex de Roeck, and he is so good at throwing new artists out that I had never seen, that really helped broaden my horizons. I think you learn a lot from your peers.
Do you Feel your practice has changed since college?
Yeah, for sure. Especially the layers of paint are so much thicker now. I had a few of my older paintings at my mum’s house, and I’m like, oh god, the paint is so scabby! Also, I think they are a lot more chaotic now and a lot busier. Whereas before they were like like two, maybe three colours, now it’s like one million colours all kind of mushed together, trying to push and pull in a way that creates a space for people to mentally move in and out. Hopefully that way, I can engage the viewer’s creativity.
You can find out more about Eileen’s work through her website link below
Jennifer is an extremely talented Irish artist/vocalist/curator/anything you can name! I was lucky to get to know her through the exhibition Aisteach when I helped with its installation in The Model. the depth of thought that goes into all her work is remarkable. It rewards the viewers that take the time and effort to look. There are clear lines of thought that go through a lot of her work even when she is using different mediums, and I hope you all take the time to check out the exhibition when you finish reading the Interview.
(this interview was recoded in September Prior to Culture Night 2018)
Let’s talk about your current show Aisteach is on in the model at the moment.
Well, to talk about Aisteach I feel we must first talk about Grupat. I feel the two are linked in a way. Back in 2007 up to 2009, I had a commission from South Dublin County Council – I applied for that commission in 2006. It was at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, they were giving out public art funding to do very, very big public art projects, and I would probably say maybe more progressive and more experimental work than ever before. Simply because they had more money. Microsoft and Facebook had built campuses, and the ‘Percent for Art Scheme’ generated a lot of money for the South Dublin County Council… the council is Tallaght, and it crawls through sort of west Dublin, so it’s not a posh area of Dublin like Dún Laoghaire and Rathdown. They really wanted to do something that they felt that would put them on the map as public art commissioners, so they commissioned me and four other people, and we all did projects for two years. The project, it was the kind of art that county councils might not usually be interested in – a lot of the time with public art, it might be a sculpture that you have at a motorway roundabout or something like a poetry writing project that you might do with the library.
I was a kid we lived Lough Line which falls into South Dublin County Council, and I had this feeling that there were loads of interesting people, but there wasn’t really an experimental art scene out there. So I thought ‘what if I just made one up?’ With the hope that kids growing up could feel, yeah I can do that. That is within my capabilities. So, I made up this sound art collective called Grupat, all born within five years of me. I was thinking, these were sort of my people – my team, you know? I could have worked with these people. If I can put it this way, for me, Grupat are alter egos. We’re very used to the idea in pop music that people will have alter egos, like David Bowie will also go by Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. We’re very used to that idea.
Turf Boon: The Softest Music in the World (2009) (Jennifer Walshe)
For me with Grupat, it felt very natural that it could be me in the same way. And for two years we did the project, and with lots of exhibitions, performances, we had two books published as well as two CDs released, and the culmination of it was in 2009 – we had a retrospective in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, as if Grupat had existed for years and years.
From that I then had an exhibition in the Chelsea Art Museum in New York in 2010, it was a solo show called Irish Need Not Apply. I decided that I would put some Grupat works in that show, but it was also in that show when I started exhibiting works that played with the idea of created history. I claimed that some of the work was on loan from the National Museum of Ireland. The Robert Boyle alchemical ceramics that are in the current Aisteach show in The Model, they also saw the light of day for the first time in this Chelsea art show.
The other thing I showed in this show was the DORDÁN piece. It has these fake Ellis Island immigration records that claim that this is this early drone music, this idea of making historical stuff that sort of started happening like within a year of Grupat. My interest was drifting from contemporary, living alter egos. I think it’s notable that it began in New York, because I was very good friends with a drone musician called Tony Conrad – he’s sadly dead now, but he was a close friend, and he was involved in the discussions about who invented drone music and who invented minimalism. Was it La Monte Young? Was it Dennis Johnston? Steve Reich, Phil Glass? And that DORDÁN project was a way of saying ‘no no, none of you invented it! It was invented by an Irish trad musician who was doing this weird sort of music!’ For me, that was a different of way of intervening compared to having a contemporary alter ego, because it was it was a way to go back and actually question history – how we told stories about music.
When I started working with the idea of imaginary people who are dead I didn’t think of them as alter egos, I thought of them as personae. That might seem like a technical difference but for me it was important, because I felt these aren’t me acting in the world right now. These are people, and I really have to imagine what they were like now that they are dead. They are a way to hack my brain to try and do something differently. I guess it’s the classic artistic way that you set yourself constraints. So in a way, all the backstories… they’re just a way of making a score, and then I have to make the music from that score. So the first person that I came up with was Caoimhím Breathnach. And that was completely organic. I had just bought a house in Knockvicer in Roscommon, and I had felt very strongly attached to that part of the country. Buying the house really made me I feel so privileged and so lucky that I could buy that house, and it sort of rooted me in a way I had never felt before. And so Caoimhím Breathnach sort of started happening in my head. He was the first person to come along, and I would have done the first exhibition of Caoimhím’s work in the ‘Roscommon Arts Centre’ in 2011. Around that time I also had this idea of this making a series of pieces called Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde, which was driven by me and just my interests. I knew I wanted to start off with Dada. So by 2012, I had made this piece called Historical Documents in The Irish Avant-Garde Vol 1: Dada.
Aisteach actually has contributions from other artists – how did that work?
I think of it as something like Marvel or DC Comics. I’m open to others using my characters or introducing new characters to Aisteach. It really depends on the person/people so, for example, Alice Maher said to me, ‘I don’t have any time to make something new’, and I said to her ‘well, do you have something you have never shown before? We can use it and I’ll fit it into Aisteach for you.’ So she gave me this bronze cast of the mouth, and it’s fantastic because we already have this idea that Steven Graham had come up with for Aisteach called the Keening Women’s Alliance and so it was a perfect fit for that! I had to curate the piece and create a history for it.
It was the same with Vivian Dick. She had this film, Images: Ireland. I thought ‘ok great, can we say that some of the people in it are part of the Kilkenny Engageists?’ She was great and let us go for it. And on the other hand, we have people like Mark Garry, who’s like ‘right, it’s Sister Hellen Brown and she makes these collages of her bullfinch Susan’, and he just ran with it. I do in a way have to give it over to other people. Like, when Mark Garry says he wants to do a nun who teaches a bird how to sing I have to think – okay, well, we already have a Sister Anselme who does these drone organ compositions, should they have any relation? Or do we need more nuns?
Then we have Kevin Barry who made this character Benji the Rant, where I went over and recorded him to make a sound piece. And probably the two most involved in the whole exhibition Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Jack Fennell who both wrote three thousand word essays about their personae that they came up with. Jack mocked up a fictional notebook, Doireann created a suitcase. For me that is the scale. On one side we have Doireann and Jack, then close to them is Mark Garry and Kevin Barry, and down the other end, we have Alice and Vivian. I’m really happy with all those contributions – I just try and keep an eye on things. And I try and edit it well. So my role becomes curator and editor and dramaturge, just trying to make sure that Aisteach still makes sense. Something I’m really happy with is that we have loads of women involved in every level – we have the female artists and we have queer artists and it’s not just a roll call of dead white men. I had never given anyone that brief, but I think it is quite deliberate. Because people want to write into being the type of Ireland that they want to be in and the one that we hope that we will be, and that is an Ireland that’s very pluralistic.
I think a product, I think it is really interesting and one of the things about Aisteach is that every single person who becomes involved in it becomes part of the project – it’s not me. Grupat felt like me, whereas Aisteach feels like a much more collaborative effort. So everyone that worked on the project in any way becomes part of it, whether it is technicians preparing the rooms or the artist who contributed to it and all the performers. And what I love about that is it feels open. It feels that other people could step in. I kind of feel like the editor or the dramaturge. I watch what people are throwing in and I’m trying to balance the universe.
What I love about this model is that it creates fresh openings. One thing that was really sweet that happened last year: there are these sound artists based New Zealand, called Sisters Acumatica, and they just decided one of the Aisteach personae – her name is Róisín Madigan O’Riley – that they wanted to do a performance of Róisín Madigan O’Riley in New Zealand. And so they emailed me, and I was like, ‘go for it’. And I thought how beautiful Róisín Madigan O’Riley was, and Felix Ford [English sound artist who studied in Ireland] who invented Róisín Madigan O’Riley, and these New Zealand women the other side of the planet – laying out all these stones and radios on the beach doing this performance of this imaginary Irish persona.
So I’m quite happy because I think Aisteach first and foremost is an idea, that a lot of Irish and non-Irish people are very invested in, which is the idea there is a bunch of weirdos out there that we want to show a lot of love and support for. We want to find those weirdos and lift them up and let people see that there are weirdos who do weird, cool and interesting music, and isn’t that beautiful? And that idea is bigger than me.
There is more to Aisteach that just the exhibition itself. Would you like to touch on the performative element, specifically your plans for Culture Night?
I think that in Ireland it is changing, but certainly a lot of Irish people feel very conscious about their body and they feel shy – they feel like they can’t dance, or they shouldn’t dance. That shyness about our bodies is everywhere, even in the changing rooms in swimming pools!
I’m currently doing a lot of hip-hop dance classes at the moment, and I was working with the dancers who were part of the Worlding performance at the opening. They were always teaching us new tools like warmups, we did a lot that has made me enjoy life more. Everyone does two things when they’re drunk, they dance and they sing. When they feel that horrible voice in their head observing them is gone, they dance and they sing, and so the thing that we want to do is for Culture Night in The Model is try and make that space for people. And to say to people, come along and do some vocal warmups and learn just a little bit about how to use your voice. Instead of saying ‘I can’t sing’, people will think everybody can sing and people can try so many little dance things. There’s a lot of joy to be had with that.
It’s interesting to see how Aisteach plays with false history, as at the moment we have a lot of people editing their own versions of history on Facebook.
I think that you’re totally right. The thing is, with social media, even if you just think of Facebook – people are creating curated versions of themselves on Facebook. I read an article about teenagers on Instagram lately, and it mentioned how everybody has a Finsta, which is their account which is just visible to their small group friends, and then they have their ‘real’ Instagram where they’re projecting this idea of
the perfect life. And the thing that that I thought was amazing, was that the Finstas were much raw and honest, and far from perfect – and I thought, ‘that is amazing, it sounds so much more interesting than the real Instagram, I want to see the Finstas!’
I would hope we are becoming more used to the idea of that we go online, and we might not necessarily trust the sources of news we are getting, because there was Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey testifying to the United States Congress about Russian actors having influence, these Russian ads that have been on Facebook to try to sway the election, to sow deception… but still everybody is opening Facebook willingly, to willingly be exposed to those, and we are all having to contend with Holocaust denial, people who say climate change isn’t happening, things like that.
One thing that Aisteach tries to talk about is, who gets to curate? Who gets to choose what an artistic canon is and why? What do we say is worthy, and if we are making a combination of Irish music from the last hundred years, who should be in there? Who are the people making those choices and why are they in there? And with Aisteach, in a way we just said, ‘hey, we’re going to make those choices by just making it up!’ Because we realised a lot of the people who would be represented (and are represented) within Aisteach, those kinds of people wouldn’t have been represented. You know what I mean? We don’t know about all the people in Ireland thinking of all sorts of mad shit! There must have been. They just ended up working in the docks in Liverpool or having to emigrate to the US. Or they were barely capable to keep things together financially. So there has to have been tons of weirdos – there are so many weirdos now, how could there not have been? We genetically come from weirdos.
You have quite a range of skills, and actually you might be better known for your compositions like your opera XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! Let’s talk about that.
So XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! is an opera that I wrote for Barbie dolls.
My sister and I always thought that I would never write an opera – I think if you go and see a well-produced Wagner opera, it can be very beautiful, but I just thought that this way of expressing ideas just didn’t make sense to me living in the time I do live in – and then at the time I was reading about marionette operas. Because Mozart and Beethoven had written these marionette operas for puppets, that they would do at the summer retreats. The second I read about that, I remembered the Barbie dolls house that my sister and I had in the attic, and I called my mum: ‘do you still have that? Please tell me it is still in the attic!’ And my mum said ‘oh yeah, it’s great that I want to write this opera for Barbie dolls!’ Through working on XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!!, I got to know the operas of Robert Ashley and composers like that, which I feel is closer to contemporary ways of using speech. Even a bit closer to rap music. It felt like their approach to producing opera made more sense to me, you know, in terms of how we use the voice and how to tell a story. Things like that made a big difference.
It’s been quite interesting for me as an experience, because I made it in 2003, we performed it a bunch of times, we released it on DVD and that was great. But you’re onto the next piece almost straight away so I sort of thought ‘that’s fine, if it doesn’t get done again I’m extremely satisfied – it’s on DVD, it’s been performed all over the world.’ But what has been quite interesting for me in the last few years, people have become very interested in the work again, which I think is really linked to the #MeToo movement and changing sexual politics. A group in Chicago called Mocrep decided to do it. And then they did it in the Bendigo Festival in Australia and we just did it in France. It’s amazing seeing these all-new productions happening. Somebody in Columbia just wrote their PhD dissertation about framing the entire opera as consciousness – like how date rape victims deal with reality in the aftermath. Because, you know, it starts out with everyone laughing because it’s a Barbie opera, but it ends with a date rape.
I wanted to make something that created a dialogue, and at the time I was making it I just felt like I needed to make it. To just put these things that have happened to me, and to women I know, to put it in a way that reached out to others. I think it was Louise Bourgeois who used to say that her emotions were inappropriate for her size, so she would make art to put her emotions into, so they wouldn’t overwhelm her. And I think it was the same for me definitely, with my work there is a lot of emotional stuff that gets sort of metabolised through making the work. So with the Barbie opera, it is quite amazing for me now to see a lot of productions and to see people writing their PhDs about it, really going in and doing a deep analysis of things that I had hidden away in the score. You know what I mean? Where they’re saying, ‘this part where the accordion is typed like a typewriter, but they keep crossing out their text, I’ve viewed it this way,’ and I think, ‘nobody’s ever asked me about that.’ Because everybody only sees the accordion typing, and they don’t pick up on how the accordion is typing something, but I have put something in there. So that has been really nice, just to see the pieces have a new life, in a time when people want to have conversations about these things. There are some things that other people are noticing, or paying attention to, or picking up on or trying out. Seeing people take this on is really beautiful for me, it’s like watching a new person draw your characters. And you just think that this is really beautiful, it’s not just something in my head. Whereas when we did it in new music circles, well over fifteen years ago people weren’t so open to those sorts of discussions about sexual violence and gender relations.
How do you compare making music to making art?
For me the boundaries are very sort of blurry. If you’ve seen the biggest piece that I have done recently, a piece called Everything Is Important for voice and string quartet, and that has a massive video part which I made. So a huge amount of the pieces that I write, they are very visual, and that can be in the video part or that could be in things the musicians are doing physically, or often both. So with Everything Is Important, it’s a forty minute long piece and there is video almost the entire time. And there is a piece I did called Self Care last year where I used an accordion, and the accordionist is just moving around and using their body, and then also there are video parts. So yes, those things are blurry, for me anyway.
The issue is that I think musicians are trained in environments where they are told unless they are doing an opera, that somehow they are neutral on stage in a visual way, and it is not true. it’s complete bullshit. I don’t know how much you know about blind auditions in orchestras, but one of the things they discovered in a lot of orchestras was that the only way to get more women into the orchestras was to have what they call blind auditions – so at a certain point in the audition process the person auditioning has to perform behind a curtain they even put a carpet down so people can’t hear if a person is in heels, and what they found was this actually meant that they hired more women. I think when musicians walk onto the stage, it’s a very visual theatrical situation – Prince knew this, David Bowie knew this, and even the free improv scene knows this. But classical music still tries to say that we are all wearing black so you can’t see us. You know what I mean?
It’s interesting you say that, considering the physicality you employ in the works like Women Box.
It’s funny you say that, because Women Box was an example of the sort of commission that you usually hate, which is that somebody says you have a really specific brief! In this case the brief was that it was to tie into the Commonwealth Games in 2014, it was the first year that they let women’s boxing into the Commonwealth Games as a sport, so they wanted somebody to write like an opera about boxing specifically women’s boxing . And Laura Bowler approached me to do it. I said to her, ‘I’m only going to do it if you learn to box. Because I do not want like faking it on stage, that’s bullshit.’
And Laura to her credit said to me: ‘I only want to do it if I learn to box.’ From there I knew we were onto something good! In that situation, it was more like a method acting approach really. When I mean method style, I mean Daniel Day-Lewis style! Laura started training with Cathy ‘The Bitch’ Brown, I even went to a boxing class with her to see what it was like. Laura really trained and Cathy really put her through her paces, and Laura ended up doing a white-collar boxing match! It was really amazing because her body changed, and she even said she was aggressive in situations she never would have been aggressive in before. Working with Cathy and working with Laura was phenomenal because they’re both really committed, and I saw the joy of committing to something that is out of the ordinary. Laura committed to trying out boxing, really ate like a boxer, she took vitamins. And then at a certain point, Cathy got a man to come so Laura could punch him, so she could get the feeling of what it’s like to punch a human being. We talked a lot about what it means to hit somebody – the difference between rough housing and domestic violence, what it means for a woman to hit a man and for a man to hit a woman, and what it means for a woman to hit a woman. All these different things. And for me it was just such a rich way of working.
And that is what I’m interested in. Sometimes in art school, research becomes very dry and sometimes students feel like they need to do this research so they can justify the work of art by writing a good essay about it, and I’m not interested in that. I’m just interested in learning more about the world, knowing more and having a richer experience so for me all the research, learning new physical things, it all comes with having a richer experience of the world.
And going forward?
What I had hoped to have for the exhibition was an AI system that wrote Irish mythology. But the thing is, that is way beyond my coding skills! So to create it, I had to rely on somebody from the States who just didn’t have time, which is totally understandable.
Aisteach introduced me to strange dead weirdos who I’ve viewed as my like great uncles and aunts, and great-great granddaddies and grandmammies artistically. I think that the AI, for me, is a way to introduce a truly other intelligence and alien intelligence in that – last year for instance, I wrote a piece that with a dog in it because I was trying to understand animal intelligence. This year I’m involved in a whole bunch of different AI projects, where I’m trying to understand artificial intelligence.
You can find out more about Jennifer’s work through her website links below
I first got the opportunity to meet Nasan when his work Backpacks were shown as part of the touring exhibition Future Perfect
in The Model earlier this year. In preparation for his arrival, I studied his practice intensely, and I found that he put great thought and depth to his work, and I was so glad that he agreed to do this interview as I am excited to share his process.
Let’s start with Your works Backpacks and where they came from?
Most of my works are related to each other in one way or another, and well the backpacks, they came from a work called What I always wanted to tell you. And it’s a work that you can only really present when an institute has a connection to a busy public space, like a balcony or a huge window. It has to be frequented often, and you have to be able to see the public from the balcony – so not a like a back yard! So, the work consisted of a microphone on a tripod, that was connected to two huge speakers that are turned on. The exhibition space includes access to the balcony or the window where the tripod would be, and when you make one step towards the mic, everything that you are saying into the microphone is broadcast to the public – very loudly. So a lot of people can hear you, and it makes you much more present to the public. Louder than other people. You stand higher than other people.
I’ve shown it in a few different places – I made it in Berlin last year, and I made it a couple of years ago in another city called Wiesbaden in Germany. Istanbul as well, and of course it always has to do with the circumstances in a place like Istanbul. It feels like it is much more dangerous to do it there, as you can get jail for expressing criticism (especially when you do it publicly). In Germany, where you should be safe to say anything in public, the usage is different and that is the work.
In this way, it’s not so much about what the public use the microphone for. For me, it’s more about which kind of context, circumstance, and how the people accept it as a tool for their use. I think we did it in Turkey at a time where it was possible to do it. (Granted, even then the police came and shut down the exhibition for a day, but the very next day we were able to open it again.) Today it wouldn’t be possible – it’s too dangerous because of the nature of the project, because you lose control out of it and leave it to the public. It is about free speech and the democratic way… that means also that people can be given a platform for free speech, and say things you might not agree with, and you are not in control of that. Looking at that freedom, how far can someone who claims freedom for art also accept that? And accept these different opinions?
So the backpacks that came later, they followed on this idea of a place where I create a platform – which can be used, but doesn’t have to be used. It’s more about the thought: ‘do I want to have this position over others? do I want to be louder than others?’ And: ‘do I have to say something to people? Do I have the courage to say it?’ So, all these questions play a lot with the idea of… the question I have is, like, when are you actually active? When you stand in your position in public. It was after exploring this idea when I made the backpacks, as I liked the idea I that I wanted to expand the borders of the gallery, or the institution or the museum. I wanted to create objects which are in the art context – they exist as an art piece, but when you take it out from there, it’s just a functional tool. So it’s about making art pieces that are usable, functional, and that create a platform to ask: what you would use it for?
It’s interesting how your work takes on a functional quality to them, like the woodcuts in Funktionieren.
A woodcut is a work that’s actually a tool, it’s not only a picture or a text, but an object that can be used. People can hang it on the wall, but you can also can take it from the wall and use it as a wood block, like a printing block for wood cuts. It’s an artwork which can reproduce itself in an unlimited way.
That’s the reason I chose woodcuts – it is one of the oldest reproduction techniques known to man today. I think of the invention of woodcuts, where people were able to reproduce many of the same picture or writing for more people, and this parallels today with social media. At the moment with social media, we can provide people with information very very easily, with copy and paste, and Facebook and Twitter – it is a turning point, like the woodcuts were in their time. Nowadays social media is taking over the old media like the newspapers and television, and this has changed how we digest news; there is no time anymore, to rethink what we are reading or to question what we are reading. So, it’s a kind of perception that we have kind of just got used to – very very fast, and very very easy. Easy in way where they pretend to answer very complex questions with very easy answers. So, I tried with these artworks (the woodcuts) to question this, by taking these phrases which I took more or less from social media with these phrases, statements which are very absolute (highly black or white). Statements about very controversial issues, where you are either really for it or you’re totally against it. But that is not so easy – to say I’m totally for it, or I’m totally against it. And the length you spend with something – that also relates to the woodcuts, the reproduction process. Which is such a long and drawn out process, it’s prolonging the time it takes to digest the information – to allow you to question the way that you go through the world, the way you get your information.
It’s also like the whole thing is a confrontation with media at the moment. Yeah, you have two hundred or two thousand television channels! If you don’t like one, in two seconds you make the decision. You don’t give time to anything anymore, and that makes us also very… how do you say? Very ‘influenceable’. So people from the outside… even if you don’t know they influence you, they do. It’s not just about the fastness, it’s also like, who is giving you the information that you are going to use to build your opinion? It always depends on the angles. So for sure, people in Russia will get totally different information from their news about the Ukraine/ Crimea situation compared to the information we are going to get. So, what does it mean to influence people? We are not aware about that, we just take it at face value and just swallow it.
I think art can be a language which can give us an alternative perception. To be aware again about these things. So, I try to demand things from the visitors in my shows or the visitors of my artworks. Usually they don’t function in two seconds like a traditional oil painting might. I get really pissed off with these things, because what does it mean? You know, to give something like two seconds? What does it mean to read the number of deaths in a disaster or an act of violence, and in the next second to read another number? Then another number and another number… it’s not like you are getting what’s really happening. It’s getting super abstract, and you’re not even becoming aware of this – how you don’t actually see the thing. It’s not just about having the information, but realising what is behind the information!
You touched on this in the Cloud series.
Yeah, I mean the Cloud series is also evidence of failing on the part of the artist. It’s an artwork with a purpose, the purpose is that you do something politically incorrect here, because this image is only part of what is being photographed – so the real incident, you don’t even get to see it. There are press photographers all over the world who risk their lives, and many who have died or have gotten injured in doing their job… for us, more or less. And what I am doing with the Cloud series is cutting out all this information, the information that the photographers have risked their lives for. Photographs depicting rioting, acts of terror and war, and what I’m doing is just focusing on the sky in that image. So, cutting everything away and leaving only the sky there. So, what does that mean? How can we properly perceive this photography, this wave of photography that we see every day in the news? Because I can see myself in that position. I was not able anymore to distinguish abstraction from reality, so what I have done is actually what I have done as a child when everything got too much. I would lie on the field and look to the sky for a short moment maybe for a minute or less, and try and forget my problems with family or girlfriends or school, and that was really a dreaming moment. But that moment was very short, and that is exactly what I have done with that photography piece.
So at first glance people see this beautiful photography, something romantic, something vast, but actually, they aren’t really clouds… When you look closer, the clouds are mixed with ashes and smoke, and also the way they are photographed – you also feel that there is something wrong. This is not just a romantic photograph, there is something behind it, and by exploring the whole photographic series, you realise something is going on. I have these tools I use – beauty or romanticism – often to draw the viewer in to the work, but you have to peel away the artwork by spending time with it, to see that there are more layers to it. To get to the core. And that is not so easy, and it is not so easy for me to deal with in the work. But saying that, I feel that art shouldn’t be easy for the viewer, art should demand something. Disturb something! And, make something more than just a good feeling. That’s how I do the work I do.
Let’s talk a bit about your background – how you got into art?
I don’t have what you might call a classic background in art. I never drew when I was a kid, and I didn’t have art on my mind all that much as a child. I’m not that kind of person. The first time I was in a museum I was 18! For me it was more or less an accident that I became an artist, but still it’s something that I feel that I have to do. Like, if you see how the world is going, you have to think also about your role in this society, and that is what I’m doing – I have this feeling, that I can find a role for myself through my art. And the topics that I’m dealing with, I feel they are important.
There are some strong transmorphic elements to your work. I really like that piece of the shattered diamond [Diamonds, 2018] you did recently.
Yes, it’s a new series that I am working on at the moment, where I am crushing real diamonds in a violent act. And because of their material consistency, they don’t break normally – rather, they explode and what you see actually is the result of this explosion. You see many many fragments of the diamonds – from one diamond, many many hundreds and thousands of small diamonds are created that are all different sizes. They don’t have the same value anymore, at least from our usual perspective – it’s more about changing from one form to another variation. And it is not only about the beauty of the diamond, they’re charged with symbolism – with desire, technology (as in how it’s used to cut things which other material can’t). They are the hardest material in the whole world. And actually, when attempting to break it, in the end it created something new, and became something so beautiful. I liked this metaphor behind the picture a lot.
But of course diamonds have other levels of symbolism in our society – we often see that beauty and forget everything that’s behind it. So, what does it mean actually, to see a blood diamond on the ring of a rich man or woman? That natural diamond had to have been found somewhere. So we forget about all this slavery of people in Africa and South Africa, and the people who die for this working in the worst conditions, and that doesn’t concern us because we want this shiny thing… this kind of background of wealth and power with diamonds, I just wanted to break and destroy it. And by breaking it out of that, I created something that is really valued, which is variation. Every splinter is something different in that field. That art market aspect of this is also interesting; you destroy something valuable, and the art makes it even more valuable than it would have been before you destroyed it! So in that context, I also find it valuable.
Tell me some more about your project, Variationen vonKapital.
Kapital is an ongoing work. I’m interested in what the word Kapital actually means today. Economics plays a huge role in the art world today, and from my perspective, it’s not healthy for art. The perception of art that the public has – it’s not the content of an exhibition you are going to read in the newspapers nowadays, it’s almost always going to be of a new record sale. it’s all about maximising the capital out of something and so art is an investment. So, I wanted to create an artwork that deals with these questions of capital, capital inside of art, the desire of art, the role of art, the function of art. But also about human capital, capital work, what uniqueness we can find in this.
For the work I created versions of Kapital, or variations… firstly I worked with a computer technician to write a formula for me, so the computer spits out all the versions all the word Kapital in the German language, that I could transcribe. So I write the word so you can still read it phonetically, but you never actually have the right spelling – you always have different punctuations, like with two AA’s or IH, but always reads Kapital. There are more than 41,000 variations to work from, and then the computer gave me all these variations in a random order for me to transcribe them. So the computer told me what to write! I wrote them down on handmade paper with Indian ink, each of them on a one to one, I signed and dated it, so it became a unique drawing. But this drawing exists in more than 41,000 variations. It takes a while! I only made 800 for that exhibition, but to make the whole 41,000 to finish this artwork, I would need more than ten years. Every day, twelve hours to do it. It’s more like contract work, there are ‘clauses’, and they’re part of the work. For instance, I’m not allowed to choose which one I would like to produce as an artwork. The computer tells me randomly, and I must draw the variation it gives me, so the artist is a tool inside of that project. And then the price of each piece is also fixed at €1,000 each, the gallery is not allowed to make it higher and they’re not allowed to make a reduction to the price either. And then the buyer is allocated one randomly. The artist produced it in a random way, so the collectors also choose one in a random way! So, it plays itself against the usual ways of the art investment market, it goes against the usual conditions. So, if you have one it is a unique piece, but it looks like an edition of 41,000. What kind of value is it, still? It is a question about investment, and uniqueness, and the way you can actually choose an artwork. The work goes beyond the written capital.
You can find out more about Nasan’s work through his website link below