12th Dec 2019
*Apologies for the delay – I escaped town post-semester, which means I also escaped responsibilities! It was great to come home to delicious coffee, and to have time away to reflect. Thanks so much for these questions.
My background as an artist is in photography. For a long time, this explicitly meant going out into the world w/a camera & responding, but in recent years I have shifted to constructing work in the studio (this probably has a lot to do w/ ‘Rosy Crimson’, so I’ll get to that!). I work a lot from found material: art historical images, commercial photography, text from “The Odyssey”, and household objects are all examples. Sometimes found material is the inspiration, while other times it is the actual material of making – in any case I’m interested in breaking down and reconsidering some of these dominant works + ideas of the Western Canon. I’m curious about who & what gets left out of our collective historical timeline, how a male-dominated Western education has formed perceptions of the world. This goes literally + philosophically back to photography for me: photographic technology has quite literally shaped how we see the world (which has historically been a colonized viewpoint and it has the slippery quality of emphasizing both truth & artifice).
To expand on the above and be a bit more specific, I am currently working on a project called ‘epoch, stage, shell’. I stumbled upon a set of children’s picture encyclopaedias from the early 20th C., and I started ripping out these beautiful photo etchings in them. They mostly depicted Greco-Roman Statuary, and I started thinking about how certain poses or gestures still manifest in contemporary culture – for example the S-curve or contrapposto. When sculptural convention shifted from a static figure to this more dynamic pose, it became so popular it was adapted into furniture design, historical painting (for ex. Aphrodite), and eventually into commercial/fashion photography, which in turn still influences how women hold themselves, or what culture defines as ‘beautiful’. This is an example of how a project organically starts for me.
So I continued collecting images, pulling mostly from art history and contemporary fashion (a particular fave is 1990s Calvin Klein ads) and sometimes diving into the history behind a pose or convention, artwork or campaign. Aside from some supplemental reading, that’s about the extent of research – it’s very intuitive. I often feel like I am pulling a lose thread from an old, loved sweater.
To make this work, I am photographing myself performing these found poses. Then I cut up, reassemble & re-photograph my compositions to strategically emphasise or disguise my interventions, rendering the images as both whole and fragmented, dimensional & flat. In the work, I’m re-evaluating how women’s bodies have been historically presented & consumed. These works complicate the legacy of the Western art historical canon, and they propose a messier standard of beauty: one that I mixed, eroded & patched together.
I’d love to talk about ‘Rosy-Crimson’! I think this was both a pivotal project for me, and has deeply influenced/helped me understand my practice. Not too dissimilarly from ‘epoch, stage, shell’, I stumbled into this project. I was re-reading "The Odyssey” as research for another project. I lost my copy and the new copy I purchased was a totally different (and quite bad) translation – something I had not considered at all. When I tried to re-orient myself in the text, I kept coming across the phrase ‘dawn’s rosy fingers’. I underlined it throughout, but then forgot about it for a couple of years (!).
Eventually, I found this phrase is a mnemonic device in the text that is tied back to oral tradition – a prompt to remind a storyteller. Because of the experience of these two translations being so vastly different, I started thinking about how fallible translation is: if it’s a formal translation (meaning more word-for-word), the words may not convey the same meaning as the original, but if it’s interpretive, it’s not only mediated by another layer of subjectivity, but the words themselves are different. It basically seems like an impossible task (has anyone read Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’?), and that one points to the glaring subjectivity and failure of communication in all forms.
I found and excerpted (with some creative liberty) each instance of ‘dawn’s rosy fingers’ across 13 English translations of "The Odyssey". Initially, I thought I was going to somehow make a photographic response to this material (just to contextualise my practice at that time…2015?). With consideration of The Odyssey originally being a spoken story, I eventually arrived at rearranging the found, repeated text into a script to be performed. Because it’s all of the same text across translations, the variation comes from placement in the original text and the specific translation. In some places my script flirts w/ narrative, but it always falls apart. In other places, it’s pure mantra. I collaborated w/ actors to perform the text, experimenting w/ both voice & body language. Volume, pitch, pace, intensity & silence – as well as the chemistry between actors – alters what meaning is conveyed by the repeated language. The same words used combatively in one moment can be employed at another to convey a romantic or seductive mood.
Prior to this I had never worked with actors. I have had the fortune to present ‘Rosy-Crimson’ on 3 occasions, which has allowed me to experiment w/ different approaches. In the last iteration, presented @ the Queens Museum in NYC, I collaborated with 18 actors (!) who worked in pairs and performed throughout the museum. At the 1st read through I gave the actors the prompt: how have you tried to take power from someone in a relationship. I blind paired the actors, and they performed an excerpt of the repeated text w/ this intention. As someone not in an acting world, it’s so compelling to watch people find and manifest intention, particularly when the words don’t match! It really emphasizes how much our intonation and body language give us away.
From here, I let the paired actors interpret the script together and build their own performance, shaped by my ideas for the work. Some performed the text as lovers, siblings, or friends, while others approached the text more formally, almost as poetry. One pair embodied Greek Statuary poses, which distinctly influenced their performance! This last iteration necessitated trust & a collaborative spirit – with 9 pairs of actors, it was impossible for me to micromanage. I had to trust that I conveyed my vision for the work, and I was so deeply inspired by what these actors brought to the project. Not to mention I worked w/ costume designers, videographers, and a co-producer, who were all integral as collaborators.
Rosy-Crimson was pivotal because I had not worked this way before, and it opened new possibilities in my practice. Rosy-Crimson also helped me pinpoint that my work isn’t fundamentally about communication, rather the fallibility of existing canons of knowledge that are taught as objective fact.
Teaching is incredibly important to me – I learn constantly from my students (as much as I hope that’s an exchange), and this feeds directly back into my practice. My educational training is in the theory of Multiple Intelligences, which basically identifies different learning styles and emphasizes designing lessons that activate different kinds of learners. For me, this is collaboration. How do you design a class where the visual learners help the analytical learners & vice versa? Similarly, how can I activate different kinds of viewers to engage w/ my work>
Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey (she’s the first woman to translate to English!) / George Kubler’s book The Shape of Time / Anything Hito Steyerl writes – fave: “Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”