Bambou Gili

Les Dîners de Mamito, 2022

Painting and the challenge of storytelling

Bambou Gili’s paintings are world-building projects, sprawling in narrative and unified by rich, tight colour palettes. Throughout her body of work, fantastical landscapes activate the feminine figures inside them, allowing for nature to become an ally, a co-conspirator, a unique character in and of itself. In each series, the artist — whose inspirations range from the animation of Hayao Miyazaki to the French Impressionists — dives into a singular colour spectrum to experiment freely and tap into possibility. Oil drippings in green, blue or purple produce a textural, eerie stillness that moves across tableaux like an omniscient spectre. Gili’s surrealistic scenes, imbued with this energy, are both clandestine and playful: lush plants, serene bodies of water and ethereal trees conceal subjects from one another as their concurrent stories unfold, and each protagonist exudes a presence that matches the magnitude of her surroundings. Within Gili’s alternate universe, environment and human emotion vibrate at an equal frequency somewhere between waking and dreaming.

Your paintings deliver an intriguing sense of mystery, a haunting quality,sometimes spectral but in some cases almost ironic. The subjects are oftenwomen portrayed in nature or domestic settings. One particular work or yours, Sleep Paralysis(2021)reminds me of The Nightmare by Heinrich Füssli(1781), while others bare similarities with the secret forests of Rousseau. Beside arthistorical sources, what are the inspirations behind your works? Do you look at peoplefrom your personallife,photographs,magazines,socialmedia?

Yes! Neighbourhood Sleep Paralysis was based off of Nicolai Abildgaard’s Nightmare (1800), after Heinrich Füssli. Regarding inspiration, nothing is off-limits. I tend to gravitate towards working in series. I like to focus on an idea for a long period of time and see what bodies of works come out of it. While I’m doing research for that idea, I scour everything. If I see something that makes me think of the series, I document it and store it in my series folder. So, take my last one — I was looking at imagined scenes from Calvino’s Nonexistent Knight, 14th-century armour from the MET collection, Scooby Doo  stills, etc.

While looking at your works one can clearly notice the predominance of blue and green, applied both for living figures as for landscapes. Where does this fascination with these tones come from?

Ha! I get this question a lot. Fun fact: In Zulu, ‘blue’ and ‘green’ are the same word. When I go to the MET, I’ll end up staring at a bright green Lisa Yuskavage painting, admiring the use of colour.

In my last solo, The Non-Existent Night, the series started as an exercise to focus on colour at night. A way to consciously limit my palette to greens, blues and purples. That’s not to say I want my next series to focus on these tones exclusively.

Aggie & Pieter, 2022

Talking about light work and how important it is for you, I was reminded of theimpressionists, who often tried to capture the same subject under different light. Can you tell me something about this study of light and how you incorporate it inyour practice?

Light at night is notoriously hard to capture. You don’t often see a true representation of lowlight scenes. Photos and videos often do a bad job portraying those blues. Which is what led to my night series.

I find the dichotomy of timeframes in your work very interesting: on the one hand, the depicted subjects don’t belong to a specific era historically, on the other, they’re located in the specific — and narrow — time frame of the night. How do you look at time when addressing a new series? Is there a straight conceptionoflinearity?

Honestly, I have not thought about it! I think that the red thread here is the fact that all humans have experienced the night.

I had the pleasure of seeing a preview of your new series, which you willexhibit in your next solo show at Night Gallery (LA) in March. Can you explain the inspiration behind it and how you shaped it through paint?

The work is based on, built around Goodbye Earl, a country song by the [Dixie] Chicks. It’s an upbeat tune, just four minutes or so, but as you listen, you’re introduced  to an entire saga — two childhood friends grow up together in a rural area. One moves out, the other stays. The one who stays ends up in an abusive relationship and, try as she might to leave, can’t seem to escape. Well, after exhausting legal outlets, she falls back on her old friend, who returns and helps hatch the plan…Earl has to die.

Now, the thing that intrigued me about the song was the storytelling. They manage to build this entire world — give you details about the friendship, walk you through a murder, get you on their side — in a matter of minutes. Not a movie or a six-part series,  but a short song. But somehow, there’s considerable depth, a lot of colour to the story and the characters.

As a painter, I thought that’d be an interesting challenge. Can you, like The Chicks have  done in a song, tell a story in a series of paintings? A story you physically walk and move through? And more than just illustrating a story, can you express the same depth? Have it stand on its own — draw you in, intrigue you, where is this going? ‘Oh shit! But, wait, oh yes, let’s go’. In short, can it move you the way the song does? A world-building exercise.

Storytelling is thus pivotal to your work. Whether it’s to convey a specificsense of mystery, like in the 2020-22 series on the night, or an actual concatenation of events, a single painting exists in relation to the other. Thinking in these terms, what was the difference between your old works and this last series?

Surely there’s some stylistic coherence. So they’re loosely related. But I mean, every year of my life you could ask me to look back two years in the past, and I’d be slightly embarrassed of who I was and what I was doing. You could read that really pessimistically,  but the way I see it…if you’re not feeling that way, you’re not evolving.

Blue Kitchen, 2021

While talking about your upcoming show, you told me that the theme of the song slowly became close to your personal life while you were painting the series. In what sense do you think that this song by the Chicks and your translation of it in paint can be relevant for yourself and for collective society, women in particular?

Making the works, you’re forced to view the Goodbye Earl narrative through the cultural context of 2022. It’s not just an arbitrary story. It’s about friendship, relying on your fellow women, revolution if you will. That if it really has to come down to me or you, well, I’m choosing me, bitch. Fuck you. That rings different after 2022, after overturning Roe. Gives it a stronger bite.

But still, there’s a femininity to the murder. They kill Earl over dinner. Compare that to, say, the Goodfellas painting (from this series) — the opening scene, Pesci, DeNiro and Liotta are driving down a dark road, they hear some bumps in the trunk. They pull over, open the trunk, where there’s a guy, barely alive and covered in blood. Pesci stabs him a bunch, DeNiro shoots him multiple times, and Liotta’s voice-over: ‘As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’.

You gotta love that these ladies didn’t want to kill someone, didn’t want to take it there —  so when they’re forced to, it’s considered, it’s bloodless. Just a poisoning of peas.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

It’s an opportunity to experiment with new colours, new themes. I hope it feels completely  different.

Evil Twin in Vivienne Tam, 2022

Artworks

  1. Les Dîners de Mamito, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles Photo: Charles White
  2. The Face Stealer’s Pond, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Perrotin, New York
  3. Neighborhood Sleep Paralysis, 2020. Courtesy the artist
  4. Aggie & Pieter, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles Photo: Nik Massey
  5. Mind-Body-Body Problem (After Junji Ito), 2022. Courtesy the artist and Lyles and King, New York
  6. Blue Kitchen, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Arsenal Contemporary Art, New York
  7. Evil Twin in Vivienne Tam, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Lyles and King, New York

Amanda Ba

Titanomachia, 2022. Courtesy of PM/AM

Post-humanism, Otherness and diasporic memory

Amanda Ba is a Chinese artist based in New York City. Born in Columbus, Ohio, she spent the first five years of her life with her grandparents in Hefei, China before moving to New York and graduating from Columbia University in 2020 with a BA in Visual Arts and Art History. 

Ba’s work is influenced by critical race and queer theory. By utilising these frameworks, she aims to explore more nuanced understandings of identity and examine themes such as post-humanism, Otherness and diasporic memory. Through her art, Ba challenges traditional notions of identity and representation, and creates works that are thought-provoking and impactful. The feeling of attachment and nostalgia and a desire to reconnect to China are influential in Ba’s work. Her goal is not to flatten identity, but to challenge the notion of what it looks like and formulate a more complex way of understanding identity, which creates a tension in her work. Her scenes astray from a larger hypothetical world visualised through her personal narrative imbued of a specific colour code intertwining between red and green. Ba’s use of various mediums, including sculpture and installation, allows her to experiment with different forms of expression.

You were born in Ohio, United States but raised by your grandparents in Hefei, Anhui Province, China, until the age of 5. After that, you settled back in Columbus, Ohio. What are your earliest memories being in Hefei? Are there any elements from that time that you like to draw back into your practice?

How did you immerse yourself into the arts, especially within figurative painting?

I have this specific memory of my grandmother dropping me off at preschool for the first time —back then, preschool was just a small, two-room building within the apartment complex where my grandparents lived. When she left and closed the door behind her, I thought that it meant I would never see her again, and dread washed over me. I think I cried all day, until she picked me up and explained that she would always come back to get me. 

I also have a lot of memories of food, going to the local science museum, and picking small snails off of garden walls along the sidewalk. Mostly when I think back to that time, I remember a feeling of strong, inseverable attachment to my grandparents. That feeling of attachment, of nostalgia, and wanting to reconnect and re-understand China always factors into my work. I feel lucky that I was able to experience growing up in China, so that I always have an entry point back in. 

Drawing was an early hobby of mine that developed when I was in China. My grandfather was an industrial drafter during the Cultural Revolution, so he always had lots of nice paper and pens, and would teach me how to render things in the third dimension. I latched onto the human body pretty early — it has always been a central focus of mine.

You graduated in 2020 with a B.A. in Visual Arts and Art History from Columbia University in New York. What has your major taught you?

Art History taught me how to be intentionally referential with my work, and that there’s always room to rework and redefine the canon. Studying the canon made me realise that perhaps I would rather dwell in the under-commons. It also taught me not only to hone in on the artist’s life, but to contextualise the way they were working within certain political and geographical conditions. 

How is the landscape of New York influencing your work? What is your interaction like with the City?

New York is challenging, but it’s a playground. It’s a hard city to live in — even daily tasks are ridden with obstacles — but the challenge keeps me energised. The challenge is fun. 

In an interview for Columbia Daily Spectator, you’ve quoted a saying that goes ‘the more words are written about an art piece, the less people see it’. That being said, is there an element within your paintings you would want people to absolutely perceive?

That’s a quote I actually regret saying. Well, maybe not regret, but I did say that in my freshman year, as an 18 year old who didn’t really know what their own work was about. I think because I couldn’t properly verbalise it, I came up with an excuse that left it all up to audience interpretation. Now I write and talk extensively about my work, and I wouldn’t be caught dead saying that. I think that art writing is actually crucial, and good art writing expands on the meaning of the work, rather than telling the audience what to think. Good art writing poses new questions and contextualises the work in a way that makes the audience curious for more, not satisfied with a conclusion. 

One thing that I hope people get from my work is that I’m working from a place of tension between representing identity and rendering it unintelligible. I hope that it’s clear that my goal is not to flatten identity by making paintings that are simply about ‘being Asian’ or ‘being an Asian woman,’ but rather challenging the notion of what ‘being Asian’ looks like in the first place. In this sense, one could even say that the paintings are more about ‘being American’ than ‘being Asian.’ Ultimately, I’m trying to formulate a more complicated and uncomfortable way of understanding identity. 

In your paintings you depict surreal scenes involving bodies and animals, more specifically women and American bullies characterised by their seemingly equal relationship.

Significant otherness, which was coined by Donna Haraway in her book The Companion Species Manifesto in 2003, is that precise bond between the lives of dogs and people. Dogs are here to live with, not here just to think with. What made you want to explore that thematic?

The series draws from the book Animacies by Mel Chen, and from The Companionship Species Manifesto by Donna Haraway. Animacy in linguistics is the quality of sentience/liveliness/human-ness that a noun has, which then has grammatical and syntactic consequences. Mel Chen tugs the concept of animacy away from linguistics to argue that animacy is just as applicable in queer and race relations, one example being how ‘dehumanising insults hinge on the salient invocation of the nonhuman animal.’ The Chinese title of this painting ‘狗女人放狗屁’ translates literally to ‘dog woman releasing dog fart’, but it is actually a combination of two common insults, the first half meaning ‘bitch’ and the latter half meaning ‘bullshit.’ To tack on ‘dog’ in front of an animate ‘woman’ transforms it into an insult, just as tacking on ‘dog’ in front of an inanimate ‘fart’ also transforms it into an insult. In these cases, a very notion of a dog is dehumanising and degrading, revealing a human-centric metric of worthiness and value. In the painting, the woman and the dog take on the same stance (known in Western yoga practices as ‘downward dog’), but our desire to project a human understanding of gesture prescribes sexuality unto the former and playfulness unto the latter.

Bitch and Bull, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

In The Companionship Species Manifesto, Haraway makes a case for reevaluating our relationship with all our worldly co-habitants, dogs being a significant example of the intimacy and historical co-evolution that humans are capable of. However, the value of dogs’ lives do not and should not depend on their obedience to or intimacy with us, (i.e. if they are loved/accepted by us or if they make us feel loved). Marginalised communities have long been put down by being compared to animals (dogs, monkeys, general pre-homosapien ‘savages’), and thinking of ourselves as truly no better than dogs is the first step in working towards a non-anthropocentric post-human future.

You employ a specific use of colours in your artworks with a very appealing dramatic red and an unnatural neon green. Could you delve into your colour code and the connections it holds with your background?

Would there be another colour you would want to introduce more frequently? What would be the symbolism?

That series started because I wanted to practice using the colours red, and the colour green is the complementary colour on the colour wheel. But, because red and green often look festive and Christmas-y, I wanted to use the neon green to avoid that effect and create a more psychological atmosphere — if you put two complementary colours that have the same value right up against each other, the eye will create this vibrational effect that I find very effective. 

Right now I’m trying to work in more drab colours — restraining your use of colour can be just as hard as amplifying it. I’d love to make a series of black paintings one day, like Goya. 

The nude women you paint present such strength about them. There’s a mix of grotesque but also realistic elements. What is your idea of beauty?

My idea of beauty is self-assuredness, and that finding the thing that works for you is sexy. 

American Western, 2022. Courtesy of Gagosian

Would you say your artworks are self-portraits?

Yes and no. Painters always say that any painting of a person that is not of a specific other likeness (as in, a figure you make up vs. an image of a celebrity) is in some ways a self-portrait. Even a portrait of someone else can be a self-portrait in the sense that it portrays the artist’s relation to the sitter. But I don’t think of my paintings as self-portraits unless specified otherwise — I use my own face and body for reference, but I distort them to my liking. Maybe these characters are more like my kin. 

What’s the process behind an artwork like usually? Do you sketch it before hand or do you just directly, sort of intuitively, paint? How is your research process like? How long does one painting take you and do you ever work on different paintings simultaneously?  Do you prefer focus on one canvas?

At this point in my career, I’m mostly working towards shows, so first I think about what the overall theme of the upcoming show is, and how I want all the paintings to interact with one another and comment upon the theme. Then I read, watch films, go to galleries/museums and browse through images until I know what the content of the painting should be. Then I make several sketches until I’m satisfied with the composition and then I take my reference images. Once I’ve collected everything I need, that’s when I begin the painting. I usually focus on one image at once, but sometimes I start the under-paintings of two or three and leave the paintings that are harder to figure out to marinate at this stage, before going back to them months later.

The figures you paint almost seem like sculptures in their shapes and their volumes. Would that be a medium you would want to explore too? There is also a certain cinematography that envelops your paintings, almost stills from scenes. Would you explore film making too?

Yes, I have every intention of exploring sculpture/installation and film. I think it would be refreshing and surprising to gain literacy in a new medium — painting is so familiar and legible to me. That’s actually happening very soon, so stay tuned…

I watched an interview of yours published 4 years ago, in which you showed your paintings and shared how the atmosphere of those was similar to your dreams. I noticed a shift in composition and technique in comparison to now. Of course artists evolve constantly but I was curious to know if there was anything specific that had happened that instigated this new direction, almost allegorical?

I think what you’re picking up on is that my research process changed a lot, and that’s really affected the kinds of images I come up with. Perhaps before they relied more on personal experience, and now I’m trying to move things beyond just how I feel. The theory that I read helps me to connect what I’m feeling to larger events, and opens up avenues for research. For example, I’m currently working on a show that is Ohio-themed. Maybe 4 years ago, I would have just thought about experiences I had while in Ohio, but now, I’m thinking of my time growing up there as a gateway into Middle American life: white culture, the ideological and political consequences of a swing state and late-capitalist revival of post-industrial cities. 

Dinnertime, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

You used to sell one-of-a-kind handmade and hand painted items and clothing before, and had gained quite a following on your Depop account. We have seen artists before collaborating with brands, for instance, American photographer and artist Andres Serrano with Supreme in 2017, Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo with Kim Jones for Dior Spring Summer 2021 and Spanish artist Santiago Sierra for Balenciaga Spring Summer 2023. Would you ever envisage collaborating with a fashion brand? If so, which one and why?

I’d totally do that, but I wouldn’t want it to be like something I painted printed on a t-shirt. I’d love to go technical and make a bag or shoe collab, something structural and sculptural that takes a little more thought and work to design. I also thought the Prada x Elmgreen and Dragset collab was cool — that set of a Prada store out in the middle of nowhere, along a highway. That one defied the typical art x fashion collab (less like wearable art and more like an outdoor installation about fashion). I think the context of the collab really matters too, so it’s hard to pick a fashion brand without knowing the intended audience or the campaign. But maybe Margiela — Galliano’s own eponymous brand was already fusing art and fashion from the very beginning. Other than that, maybe something more democratic, like Uniqlo. I love Uniqlo. 

Your first solo exhibition Homecoming was actually in Hefei, China at the Lai Shaoqi Art Museum. What was that homecoming like for you?

Homecoming was an exhibition, but it was also something of a performance. It became a literal homecoming — I was swarmed with local press, who were interested not so much in my artwork but in my backstory, which could easily be framed into something along the lines of ‘Chinese girl born in the USA loves her family and her homeland so dearly that she has returned to her homeland order to introduce her Western-educated art to her hometown!’ As I was making the works and news of the show began to spread, I could feel the increasing pressure and expectation of this sentiment. In the end, it was the desire to grasp what is likely the only opportunity for my grandparents to see an exhibition of mine that overrode the many forms of quiet tension I felt while producing this body of work.

You had your second solo show, The Incorrigible Giantess, last year at the PM/AM Gallery in London. Do you have any plans of showcasing your work this year, and if so, where?

I have a show in Columbus, Ohio coming up in September that I’m prepping for. Maybe that will be another homecoming of sorts. 

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of the artist, Gagosian, Gladstone and PM/AM

Sun Woo

The Trip, 2022

Exploring the intersection of technology and the human experience

Sun Woo (b. 1994, Seoul, South Korea) is a visual artist whose work embodies the intersection between two cultures and generations, and the way technology can inform and transform artistic practices. Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Sun Woo migrated to Canada around the age of ten and despite the challenges of being an immigrant, the experience of growing up between two cultures has deeply informed her identity and artistic practice, especially in a time of rapidly shifting technological landscapes.

Her compositions evoke traditional paintings with a precision almost only possible digitally. By integrating digital tools into her practice and merging them with analog approaches reflecting the generation and cultures in which she grew up, Sun Woo explores the intersection of technology and the human experience. Her work reflects the sense of in-betweenness that characterises the contemporary experience and questions the location of the body in today’s technology-filtered reality.

Sun Woo discusses with NR her upbringing, her creative process and the messages behind her recent exhibitions. She explores how her experience growing up between two cultures has influenced her work, why she chooses to use a combination of traditional and digital techniques, what she hopes to convey through her art and her perspective on the merging of cultures and technology in contemporary art.

You were born and raised in Seoul, South Korea but left for Canada around the age of ten. What are your earliest childhood memories there after migrating? How did those two places aliment your desire to create and paint?

When did you start creating? When did you realise this was something you wanted to pursue?

Moving to Canada was not an easy experience as I had to leave my life at home behind and adjust to a completely new environment. Even in the company of friends, I constantly felt alone and never fully understood, which naturally led me to seek other things that could help fill these holes. These first became movies and magazines rented from my aunt who ran a small variety store in town, and later on, new devices such as computers and online platforms began to emerge. They allowed me to remain connected to my community in Seoul, but the physical distance still made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere.

“I think this kind of upbringing and the sense of groundlessness strengthened my desire to create and paint, as it gave me a voice that was free linguistic and cultural barriers.”

When I moved to New York to attend college, I began to pursue my practice more seriously. Placing myself in a community of artists triggered me to dive into art making as something I’d like to continue to pursue. So after receiving my degree, I moved back and got a studio in Seoul, which is where I’ve been based since then.

What would you say has been most impactful from the merge of these two cultures? Is there one you feel more strongly attached to?

Your compositions evoke traditional paintings but with a precision almost only possible digitally. Airbrushing, hand painting, photoshop are some of the traditional techniques and digital tools you use for your artworks. Why have you chosen those? How do you think technology and analogue coexist together?

I think both my identity and practice have been heavily informed by the experience of growing up in between two cultures and generations. Being an immigrant in a time of rapidly shifting technological landscape allowed me to reach my homeland any time through the screen, while staying physically tied to the cultures of a foreign country. At first, it was difficult since I was born before these devices were introduced and had to teach myself how to utilise them. But they gradually became an intimate part of me, both as a friend and a channel into the world beyond physical bounds. This experience naturally led me to integrate digital tools into my practice, merging them with analog approaches as a way of talking about the generation and cultures in which I grew up. Through this process, I also wanted to reflect on the time that we’re living in, the sense of in-betweenness that comprises a large part of the contemporary experience.

“I often find that my identity bears resemblance to today’s digital images — the way they wander without an anchor.”

Circuit of Requiem, 2022

On one hand, I think this sense of empathy drives my urge to take these images out of the screen and ground them in the physical space of a painting. Because I imagine them as virtual bodies floating in the online environment, the process of distorting and augmenting them on Photoshop reflects my interest in exploring the transformative aspect of contemporary body, fostered by its increasing interaction with technology. By bringing them out of the web, giving them a tangible form through bodily labor, and putting them back on the Internet, I’m trying to question the location of today’s body — including my own — especially after much of our activities have transitioned into the digital sphere after the pandemic.

Could you tell us about your show ‘Memory of Rib’ curated by Jeppe Ugelvig with a special screening of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Mouth to Mouth (1975) and your show ‘Invisible sensations’ at Carl Kostyal in Milan in May 2022? What were the messages behind these exhibitions?

‘Memory of Rib’ was a show that brought together a group of artists whose works evoke or deal with the idea of corporeality. It explored concepts like the body’s instability, limitations and contingency by looking at the ways in which it interacts with today’s technology and sociopolitical landscape, while also thinking about how we detect and identify with images of the flesh seen in commodities and media. It included a diverse range of artists in terms of age, sexual identity and cultural background, especially with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose work from 1975 provided a historical anchor to which younger generations of artists could contribute their discourse.

The works that I presented in the show, titled Silent Companions and Baggage, developed from my research on prosthetics and medieval armours and weapons — tools that have evolved to complement physical weaknesses and came to function as literal arms, legs, and skins of an individual.

“Weaving these histories with the relationship between today’s body and technology, I tried to construct compositions in which the organic intersects or collides with the mechanic to become something transcendental.”

Through images like melting meat-candles and strapped rock-flesh, I tried to address how it feels to be a body in a digitally mediated world, which at once “enhances” you and nurtures your feeling of insufficiency.

‘Invisible Sensations’ was my solo show that opened earlier that year, and it also dealt with the emotions and sensations related to inhabiting a technology-filtered reality. It included paintings and 3D-printed sculptures that evoke body’s limits, vulnerabilities, and struggles to resist their mortal fate, as well as social constraints that continue to oppress the female and coloured body. Images of my own body parts, including medical scans that I carried with me at the time to treat a prolonged illness, were collaged with elements that allude to mechanical presence, becoming fragmented, reconstructed, and translated into otherworldly beings. Through this convergence, I tried to look into the fragility and endurance of today’s bodies and question the extent to which their unification with technology can liberate them or transform the atmosphere they inhabit.

Diligent Heart, 2022

How is the process usually for you when putting together a solo show?

In my past interviews, I’ve revealed that I collage images via Photoshop. But even though my works are presented as images, they actually begin with text. From stories to dissertations, various sources of written materials provide inspiration for my work. Despite this, I am interested in creating something that can only be communicated by being in the presence of my works — something that is to be experienced and surpasses the written language.

“Paintings are not simply re-enactments or something that fits perfectly into an existing theoretical frame, but they are a result of materials that I channel through my own body and create to evoke a response that cannot be fully harnessed by rationality.”

Sometimes, the exhibition space also determines what I decide to paint, even when it’s a white cube. It is important to me that the works speak to the space and vice versa, and that the work is presented in a way that reinforces the viewing experience. As a result, I tend to spend a lot of time contemplating on such a dynamic, which often determines the work’s size and form.

Detail crops from The Crimson Letter (Triptych), 2022

 Your work also interrogates Korean societal desires and more specifically the ways in which female bodies are viewed and represented. Could you talk more about that? How do you think gender roles and stereotypes surrounding being a woman in Korea, will evolve?

Because my practice interrogates today’s social condition and technological landscape through the lens of my own psychological and bodily experience, many of my works are inevitably tied to my identity as a Korean woman. In result, they often speak to the experience of being a female body in both online and offline environment, as well as a body inhabiting two different cultures.

In addition to my painting practice, I’ve also been working on a project called Dadboyclub with an artist and friend, Sangmin Lee since 2021. Dadboyclub, to both of us, is a platform to channel issues specifically regarding the experience of being a woman. For the first iteration of our project, we exhibited virtual ‘products’ that each house a story about womanhood. Objects like an inflating, studded baby pacifier that obstructs a woman’s throat, or a ‘flower’ with a rolling eye that detects and destroys hidden-cameras with automated spears, reveal the conditions and violence women may experience in society through a long-winded joke. These products do not actually exist, in real life nor as NFTs — so they cannot be sold — which was an important aspect of this ‘virtual store,’ which was also a commentary on how female narratives embodying pain are consumed as entertainment online or through popular media. 

Sinkage, 2022

Absurdity is a driving force of this practice, as we navigate the ways we can express our discontent with inequality as well as emotional pain that is regarded as superfluous. Whether it be a small feeling from a failed relationship, to discovering violence embedded in the myth of Psyche and Eros — Dadboyclub re-situates women’s stories, old and new, revealing a prickling truth of reality that was often disregarded as minute and obsolete. We believe the personal is political. 

There have been some progressive developments over the past few years regarding gender issues in Korean society. There has been a change of perspective regarding parenting and housekeeping especially, which have been regarded as female duties up until very recently. More women are speaking up about sexual violence and trauma, which have been looked down upon before the Me Too Movement in Korea. But at the same time, there still remains a local issue of victim-shaming and the taboo of publicly claiming yourself a feminist, grounded in the society’s age-old history of Confucian patriarchy.

“Discussions regarding female equality are voiced more often, but with the growing polarisation between a progressive agenda and right-wing counter-movements — which seems to be a global phenomenon — the backlash hits harder, making it difficult to gauge whether we are moving forward or simply repeating the past.”

Which other mediums and tools would you like to explore? Would you consider using AI systems such as DALL·E?

Actually, my current practice already involves AI in a way, since I often use images that are fed to me by my search engine and social media — which, after analysing and machine-learning my interests, provide me with new sources. In this sense, I often allow my devices to become the agent rather than controlling all aspect of the process, and the resulting work becomes a joint product of these voluntary and involuntary selections. Even so, I sometimes find new programs like DALL-E quite haunting. How do artists justify their practice when AIs actually produce artworks on behalf of them? What new roles are we to take on?

Detail crop from Diligent Heart, 2022

There is a certain longing for the 2000s in your work. Is there any recent pop culture events that has marked you? What are some of your favourite music albums and films?

I think my works embody a sense of longing and empathy in general, not only for the 2000s but also an older past or even the future. They sometimes long for a certain time, place, or person that I’ve physically experienced but also ones that I haven’t. I find this faux-nostalgia, a longing for a time that I do not know, to be an interesting cultural phenomenon that I also engage in. In this sense, the convergence of the physical and virtual plays not only into the process and medium with which I work, but is also echoed throughout the narratives and depictions that drive the work.

No-landing Flight, 2022

How do you feel our hyper consumption of media is shaping us? Do you think we risk to lose ourselves if less time is spent on building connections or do you think it is an inherent part of shaping our identity?

In this new age of technology, how do you ground yourself?

I also find it hard to navigate a time like this, where you’re seeing so much and being surrounded by so many people, especially through social media. From a certain angle, I feel like the world seemed much smaller when we were less connected, as it gave each of us more presence and weight. Now it seems to be the other way around. Our sense of importance seems to dwindle as we become exposed to the lives of so many strangers and ours constantly displayed alongside theirs. We’re endowed with more options of things to see and people to meet than ever, but simultaneously, we also become one of those options as well. These are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately, and how do I ground myself in an age like this? I still don’t have an answer to that. 

Dadboyclub, Camouflower, 2022. Website

 What was the first piece of art you saw that left an impression on you?

Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois were among the very first, and they still continue to inspire my practice. 

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of the artist and Carl Kostyál Milan, London, Stockholm.

Lulu Lin

Lulu Lin breeds genderless titans for your fever dreams

Lulu Lin illustrates the fever dreams and nightmares people wrestle with in their dream state. Oblong faces glimmer like metal sheets, and silver-polished cheekbones and glinting foreheads show up on muscular facial features. Bald genderless titans dominate her oeuvre, a seemingly vicious reminder of her viewers’ submissive tendencies to fear. Their giant hallowed eyes haunt viewers with their dilated, singular-coloured pupils, emotionless gazes, cry-for-help stares, droopy eyelids and eyeballs roaring in ecstasy. The Taipei-born artist reveres scrunched-up lunar faces too that remind us of the potentially monstrous and monotonous cycles the moon goes through if she ever lived as a walking living being among us. 

Lin’s distinctive digital art yearns to ground a profound and genuine relationship with herself and her viewers by pursuing fears that people sweep under the rug. She draws the longing to free oneself from restrictive despair, impending dread and unshakable fright for whatever reason by springing these very fears onto the viewers themselves. The artist seems to take up quite a literal interpretation of facing one’s fears, and she has not yet quieted down with her style. Words do not cut for the resulting illustrations that attempt to underpin her desire to let people feel the fear they try to escape from, since her signature visuals keep stirring the pot, brimming with alien-ised giants that only live in fantasy.

‘I’m fascinated by dreams and what they could mean. The same goes for my illustrations. They are both means for me to conduct intrapersonal communication. Things like self-analysis, self-discovery, and self-awareness are my incentives,’ she tells NR. On top of dreams, Lin’s imagination runs toward human emotions and how people deal with them. Untangling the tangled and often-complex intricacies of the human psyche excites the artist’s creative zen with all its might. The thrill that flows through her artistic veins when she analyses them by drawing results in monolith, otherworldly beings dressed with ovular physiques. ‘Feelings are a fickle thing, and I’m fascinated by them all. I wish to be more emotionally self-aware, and to be more capable of perceiving and comprehending emotional experiences, to be able to convert the knowledge into motivation, communication and behaviour,’ she says.

Past human fears, the abundant stream of visual influences Lin drinks up springs from the well of everyday conflicts people undergo. She shoulders the excruciating joy and euphoric pain people face in their best and worst selves. She finds her deep sense of grounding from the trivial animosity people bear for each other, such as the air of jealousy drifting the success of others or the feeling of betrayal from knowing that the once favourite is no longer the favourite, and the exciting feats people celebrate, such as saying goodbye to predictable sordid personalities and the quieting of occasional mood swings.

Instead of verbally expressing how her people-watching goes, Lin paints them, drawn from her belief that she is more capable of illustrating them rather than fully realising them in words. In fact, she uploads them on her Instagram page which she named dig a hole. ‘It’s how I view my work. There’s never an end, never a clear image of what to expect, always a work in progress. But I’ll still keep on going for some reason. It’s quite similar to the concept of “hobby tunnelling”, only for me, it’s always a hole,’ she says.

Her social media page becomes a safe space for liminal cults who love being reminded of the immaterial, and at times grotesque, pronoun-less visitors in their hazy dreams. ‘dig a hole’ also leads fans into Lin’s state of mind, a seemingly virtual door that Lin leaves ajar for the public to peer through. Flashes of images appear to reflect what Lin cradles in her mind and heart. In one image, she draws a voluptuous dark grey vase with a twinset of cherubim faces crying in blue tears. The lilac tulips planted inside the vase bend their heads, eliciting a seductive yet melancholic tone. Lin writes that this certain image would be her if she were a non-living thing.

Amid the tangible digital artworks rising out from her introspective state, the illustrations of Lin are pulled out of her intuitive guts. Her dexterity in the virtual tools allows the artist to snatch a magnetic non-lead pen resting on the side of her tablet’s case, fire up her Procreate app on her iPad and let her hand and mind draw. She receives bits of images in her vision, like an omen that ships batches of visual scenes to her conscious memory, and trusts that her mindflow will finish the work. ‘Planning or not depends on whether I’m commissioned,’ she says. For a handful of her personal drawings, her cathartic self-expression is manifested in a myriad of looming-over and squashed figures decked out in subdued colours and shades.

Lulu Lin has always enjoyed drawing, but being an illustrator hot-footing to invite cashflow into her pockets was not on the table. She’s still striking a balance between producing artworks for enjoyment and business, and gives herself some time off whenever she needs to recharge her imaginative batteries. Along the way, her artistic sensitivity, sharpened by people’s tedious weight of misery and their unwavering faith in optimism, opens her arms to soak in a platitude of whimsical dilemmas in life. She wields them well into life sized forces of nature that take up Instagram’s image ratio size.

Devotees of her illustrations keep tapping twice on their smartphones to show their affection for the continuous stream of uploads Lin makes. In return, the artist hustles to produce more, not for the sake of commissions, but to participate in a give-and-take relationship between her and her audience, even though she once captioned an illustration with ‘reciprocity in a relationship is overrated’.

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of the artist

David Bailey Ross

‘Head’ an exploration of the human psyche

David Bailey Ross explores the human psyche, aiming at mirroring the diverse moods humans can convey whether directly or through a more abstract representation.  Characterised by their beautiful transparency, Ross’ works seem transformative. Watercolour pools form in unexpected areas, providing more intuitive distortions. Ross shares here the behind the scenes of @galeriephantom .

@galeriephantom on Instagram is the account on which you publish your ongoing watercolour series ‘Head’, an exploration of the human psyche. Could you tell us more about the title choice and the manifesto behind this series? 

I title the works ‘Head’ as they are not portraits and there is not a manifesto as such, but ‘an exploration of the human psyche’ is the simplest way to summarise the series. I am interested in the different moods or symbolism the human head can convey, sometimes in simple and obvious ways and in others I am looking for a more internal or abstract representation.

Your artworks are characterised by their beautiful transparency. It feels like we have a direct access to what lies beneath the surface — a poetic surgeon almost. Wet on wet watercolour painting means that you should be working quickly to be able to choose where you want the colour to mark the most. How did you master the technique? 

It was through a lot of trial and error with materials and timings. Part of what happens with wet on wet watercolour is by chance, and I like to let the image develop whilst working. Pools form in unexpected areas, distorting marks I had laid down and opening up new possibilities. Watercolour does allow you to create delicate transparencies and there’s something organic and tactile about this.

Do you start from a photograph, or a drawing, or is it more of an intuitive outburst? 

I often use references of photographs that have been manipulated as a starting point — mainly as a reference for shadow and light. At a certain point the reference is discarded and I let the flow of the paint influence the final outcome. Some of the Heads are more literally referenced than others and I do like mix things up and work intuitively as well.

Your artworks are seen digitally through our screens. Do you think the feeling would be the same if we were to see the artworks tangibly? Was that a conscious choice of yours to make your work available through a device? 

Have you had any intention of holding an exhibition of your work and bringing Galerie Phantom into a physical gallery space?

I put a lot of thought into how I would digitise the work for online, but they are physical things that are best viewed in person. I use a lot of metallic paints and subtle textures that you can’t really appreciate on a screen.

BDSM gear is featured too in your work. Where does this interest for masks derive from?

I was interested in the idea of the wearer hiding their identity whilst using the mask to signify a particular role. Some of the gear is more functional, almost treating the head as an object which makes it an interesting subject. On another level, I just think BDSM gear is striking and fun to look at. I want to have fun with what I am doing and allow freedom to explore.

I see there is often a new post from you every day, even though the feed remains with 36 posts. Are you drawing every day and then archiving as you publish?

When I post a new Head I archive another, leaving at the moment 36 on the grid at any one time. I do try to be disciplined and paint everyday although it’s not always possible. There are many more Heads than what I publish, but generally I publish the newly completed ones. The @galeriephantom account is a pinboard for my progress. 

Will we be seeing other types of series? Which other realms would you like to explore? 

There are lots of things I still want to explore with the Heads — I feel like I’m just getting started. There is so much more that can be done with watercolour as well, so stay tuned.

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of the artist

Jon Rafman

Counterfeit Poast, 2022 4K stereo video 23:39 min MSPM JRA 49270 film still

Artificial bestiary for a collapsing present 

The Seventeenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico argued that history unfolded in cycles, with every period of decay being succeeded by one of growth. According to his view such transitions were guided by the hand of God. Fast forward 300 and counting years and, despite the latter statement sounding rather outdated, this conversation still sparks when contemplating the works of Jon Rafman. 

Although the Canadian-born artist, videographer and essayist is an illustrious face of what, since 2009, has been labelled as Post-Internet art, his works retain a powerful Medieval aura. The same shared by the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, by the haunting dreamlike visions of Hieronymus Bosch, of Dante’s Divine Comedy or Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus. But also the street scenes of Flemish paintings, punctuated by a cornucopia of characters sampled from real life and rearranged with moral meanings. As a matter of fact, Rafman recently hosted a performance in which organist Hampus Lindwall live soundtracked one of his films in the evocative setting of the 11th century Swiss Church of Rougemont, as part of Gstaad’s Elevation 1049. 

Rafman’s long-lasting fascination with such iconography actually stems from the present and from his consideration that we’re living through Medieval times. As a society — according to the artist — we are helplessly heading back to a neo-feudal culture in which ‘It feels at times as if the social contract is about to rip apart.To quote Brecht: “Indeed I live in the dark ages! A guileless word is an absurdity”’. 

His oeuvre does no doubt retain an anguishing and disturbing visual element shared by much Medieval art, in which life blended with the realm of fantasy, religion and oral tales. The internet is indeed the closest expression now existing to that approach to world-building and vernacular storytelling, of which one of the greatest examples is Rafman’s Dream Journal, 2016-2019

The occasion to meet the artist comes on the occasion of his exhibition 𝐸𝒷𝓇𝒶𝒽 𝒦’𝒹𝒶𝒷𝓇𝒾 — which reads ‘abracadabra’ — at London Sprüth Magers. 

He is wearing a suit, which may look unexpectedly refined for someone otherwise associated with an iconography made of internet-era American kid bedrooms, with computer keys encrusted with dirt and crisp crumbs, the same he uses to communicate with the press. It is a boxy suit, with cropped wide trousers, as you’d picture an artist in his early forties wearing. 

Despite a broader audience may at first dismiss Rafman’s work as superficial — or even childish — as a consequence of its memetic stance, his words encompass a depth as profound as his carnet of references. They flow with the rapidity of the internet language, and as copious as the amount of work he produces. 

His art is, first of all, rooted in an observation of society, which the Canadian analyses with the critical spirit of a philosopher.
The most stringent issue that seems to equally fascinate and concern him is the fragmentation of contemporary culture and consciousnesses, which since his early works Rafman has been exploring through the creative potential of machine learning processes. His Instagram bio reads, ‘Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined’, which is exactly what his artworks do. 

AI is the tool that enables him to observe society, like a camera. 

‘I believe that similarly to how photography liberated painting from factual representation, AI image-making has the potential to do something equally revolutionary by forcing art to push itself beyond its own self-perceived boundaries.’ 

Rafman jokes quoting Renoir. ‘Photography freed painting from a lot of tiresome chores, starting with family portraits.’ However, although AI image generation can foster a new culture, he hopes that ‘questions about the broader historical implications on these developments are raised’. 

When looking at some of his latest works — like the Club Angels II and Club Angels III series or Technocrats II — one is left wondering where the line of demarcation between the real and the hyperreal lies. The pieces, which at first appear like painted canvases, feature print AI-generated images to problematise ‘the expected sterility of algorithmically generated images, bringing their abstract digitally into physical materiality’. 

‘That space is where I seek the most interesting territories to explore,’ says Rafman. ‘The virtual and the real represent a dichotomy, but in the world we live in it no longer exists.’ 

According to the artist, the German word aufhebung, which contains opposites, meaning abolition, transcendence, cancellation or fulfilment, informs his practice. ‘In my work, I try to reach a state of aufhebung between bathos and pathos, the ironic and the romantic, the physical and the virtual, and so on. That tension is mobilised in my media choices in the paintings as well.’

This theme emerges in Counterfeit Poast, a film composed of a series of character profiles where AI-generated images are animated using face-tracking iPhone apps, resulting in plausible stories that escalate into the realm of the hyperreal, equally disturbing and witty. To stand out is that of a single man obsessed since his childhood with teen idol Jonathan Brandis, to the point he ends up mystifying reality by forging the actor’s otherwise missing suicidal letter and psycho-physically morphing into Brandis himself. The opus encapsulates all of Rafman’s fascination for all things gravitating between the alienation of the individual and the sense of communal belonging of his chosen iconography. 

In Rafman’s view, the opus ‘paints a portrait of a world where the very grounds of reality have become destabilised, a world where everyone has their own algorithmically tailor-made Reality fed to them.’ 

One can’t truly grasp whether such impossibility to trace a sociologically valid universal theory of present culture concerns Rafman, or whether he thrives on this chaos. Surely, the progressive fragmentation of universal symbols and icons and the increasing ‘niche-isation’ of culture is a reflection at the core of his practice. Especially for someone whose artistic research has been widely based upon permutations of appropriated content, spanning from fine art to mass marketing material. One of his most praised and extended works, 9 Eyes (2009-ongoing), systematically used Google Earth screenshots, for instance. 

‘In the past we had the Church, the Bible, Greek myths and a set of languages that every educated person could understand. Even Andy Warhol’s symbols of language, the post-’50s mono-culture icons of Hollywood, are not available to us anymore. Now you have Twitch and Tik Tok stars, who can make millions but nobody has heard of them. Music is fragmented, every fetish, and every little thing is fragmented. So, I use the Internet language which I think is the closest to universal language we have.’ 

With the frequent sampling of elements of Internet and pop culture, the ethical dilemma of copyright and appropriation may open a multi-faceted debate. However, Rafman’s attitude towards the topic demonstrates how, despite the contemporary relevance of the work, his approach comes a long way. 

‘I’m most curious about the social effects and the revelations they contain about our expectations of art both individually and as a society. When you take a bunch of things and put them together in a new way, that’s not even appropriation; it’s some new hybrid. That’s how culture works, through miscegeny, that’s how new musical genres emerge. Every nationalistic artist movement, for example, would go out into the countryside and look for folk culture and pull from it to elevate it to high culture. These days, it is slightly different because the whole high and low has collapsed. The internet flattens everything. You have 4Chan-style shitposts existing alongside a Renaissance masterpiece without hierarchy.’

In this tension between meta-narratives and lore lies Rafman’s freedom. It is very evident in the Egregore series, three 4k video suites in which images found on the internet are triptychally animated, juxtaposing elements as diverse as a wall clock filled with canned beans and the Garden of Bomarzo. Once again, the vastness of Rafman’s archive of found content echoes the breadth of his references, revealing an artist with many things to say and burning to expand his already immense world-building process. Rafman’s restlessness in giving birth to new works is somehow reminiscent of the overwhelming amount of content daily stratifying on the internet. 

Questioned whether the choice of using a 16:9 screen ratio (the same of the ever so popular Instagram stories and Tik Tok videos) for the series was an attempt to evolve and update his register to the sharing and consumption of content, Rafman replies that, instead, the aim was that of taking a detour from what we associate with movies. ‘My idea was to treat them [the screens] like paintings, whereas when you see a 9:16 monitor you think of it like a film. I constantly have to deal with how to portray popular culture in my work. If you want to depict the present honestly, you have to confront the banality of living life in front of a screen. How do you depict a world dominated by screens, from computers to smartphones? How do you show screens within the screen-space of a film and keep it exciting and engaging? How do you make moving, cinematic work if so much of life takes place inside the impoverished space of the screen world? An exciting challenge as an artist is how to make screens interesting.’

Making Rafman’s art even more fascinating is the fact it unfolds over a highly conflictual field, which is that of the Internet and social media. On one hand it has been used — like in the case of 4Chan — as a countercultural tool to go against the status quo, on the other, the censoring policies of Meta have sanitised the medium, to borrow a Foucault expression. In the eyes of the Canadian, the problems lie in the platforms themselves which become a tool to observe and automatise modern subjectivity. 

‘The internet is not new in these respects, but it exacerbates and reflects all humanity’s worst and best traits. Humans have been ostracising and dividing each other in power struggles for a long time. This condition is being made very transparent on the internet. 

‘The only new system I have seen emerging is the Web3 crypto, which is still very tenuous. We still need to figure out how much influence and power it will have on culture in the long term. I’m curious, though.’ 

The use of elements coming from the culture of the deep web, of shitposting and trolling has nonetheless, over the years, put a stigma over artists like Rafman. This especially happened during the rise of Trumpism, which social media 4Chan and its most notoriously associated meme Pepe The Frog allegedly contributed to. 

‘It is very clear there was a desert period during the Trump era,’ bitterly affirms Rafman, ‘the conversation within the art world shifted, focusing more on identity and portraiture, and now that trend has been exhausted.’ 

‘Just because something is problematic and a challenging subject matter, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be investigated and taken seriously, especially if its effects on culture are so profound and create the language of the Internet. Throughout history, artists have explored dark aspects of humanity, but that doesn’t mean they promote them. Instead, they are trying to be truthful and represent the human condition. Some much great art could have never been made if artists weren’t allowed to confront the horrors of existence.’ 

The curatorial status quo, though, seems to have now shifted. What used to be defined as Post-Internet has at last acquired a dignity that it was long stripped of. Rafman is radiant when commenting on the increasing amount of shows his colleagues are having. 

Born in 2009, the movement never truly had a coherent ideology one could associate its artists with, nor a manifesto, although it is explicit the mutual sharing of certain themes and stylistic traits which are both a consequence of and limited by the Internet. Labels can be equally problematic and useful, as they nonetheless offer a source of reflection and a springboard to eventually combat them. Certainly, Rafman’s oeuvre captures the zeitgeist, both in its form and content. After all, its disorientating and thought-provoking element isn’t mere mannerism, but only a consequence of the brutal, conflicting and socially crumbling times we’re experiencing. 

Today’s cancel culture does indeed strike another resemblance with the Middle Ages: the practice of pillorying people to expiate and punish their moral sins. This partially happened to Rafman and the other Post-Internet artists. Will we, at last accept, their social commentary, whether critically savage or disenchanted, or will their art continue to trigger us? That, perhaps, is the question we’re still left with. 

Works

  1. Counterfeit Poast, 2022 (video still) 4K stereo video
    28:20
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
  2. Counterfeit Poast, 2022 (video still) 4K stereo video
    28:20
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
  3. Counterfeit Poast, 2022 (video still) 4K stereo video
    28:20
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
  4. Counterfeit Poast, 2022 (video still) 4K stereo video
    28:20
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
  5. Counterfeit Poast, 2022 (video still) 4K stereo video
    28:20
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
  6. 𐤒𐤓𐤀𐤁𐤟𐤀𐤍𐤂𐤋𐤟𐤚
    (Club Angel II), 2022
    Inkjet print and acrylic on canvas
    186.7 × 134.6 cm
    73.5 × 53 inches
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
  7. 𐤒𐤓𐤀𐤁𐤟𐤀𐤍𐤂𐤋𐤟𐤚
    (Club Angel II), 2022
    Inkjet print and acrylic on canvas
    186.7 × 134.6 cm
    73.5 × 53 inches
    © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
  8. Punctured Sky, 2021 (video still) 4K video, sound
    21 min © Jon Rafman
    Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra (b. Madrid, Spain, 1966) is a contemporary conceptual and performance Spanish artist whose oeuvre continues to be widely recognised and exhibited in major art institutions around the world. Known for his provocative and politically charged artwork that often addresses issues of social and economic inequality, labour exploitation, and human rights. Sierra’s work spans a variety of mediums, including installation, video, performance, and photography, and often involves the use of controversial materials such as blood, human hair, and excrement.

After graduating in Fine Arts at Madrid’s Complutense University, Sierra continued his artistic training in Hamburg. His artistic career began with exhibitions that marked a before and after in his work, such as the Minimal Art from the Panza Collection at the MNCARS in 1988 in Madrid and Zeitlos at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, curated by Harald Szeemann. There, Sierra found minimalism useful due to its syntactic character, which allowed him to incorporate reality into pure forms. In Mexico, Sierra’s work was influenced by the dense reality of the country, and their oeuvre began to weigh more heavily on reality than the history of art itself.

Sierra’s work serves as an outlet for critical thoughts surrounding the forms of violence imposed by the socio-political conditions of our time, engaging with marginalised groups, highlighting their struggles and drawing attention to their plight through his art. Sierra also often pushes the limits of what is considered acceptable, highlighting the presence of societal rules and limits.

He believes that dealing with those unpleasant themes surrounding hierarchies of power and classes and the exploitation of individuals is essential to defining society and the environment His connection with actors in that environment provides a necessary and engaging corridor for exploring these themes. 

Indeed, PAC (Contemporary Art Pavilion) in Milan presented in 2017, Santiago Sierra. Mea Culpa, the first extended Italian anthology dedicated to Sierra’s work. It became clear that there is no art without a call for action, an appeal for individual responsibility. The title of the exhibition ‘Mea Culpa’ reminds us of that indelible debt. There is no specific definite answer but various meanings and observations foster a conversation. The mea culpa serves as a conscious push towards not only understanding ‘on paper’ where it went wrong but assessing our responsibility in the way power structures engage with the marginalised. When asked about the future, Sierra expresses distrust of the proposed future, emphasising the importance of the present and the consequence of our actions.

Santiago, it is truly a great pleasure to interview you, thank you for taking the time to participate in this issue of NR. 

Could you tell us about your beginnings and your artistic training?

What was the catalyst element that prompted you into making art and diving deep into thematics such as nationalistic fanaticism, intolerance, war and racism?

What marked a before and after between my student exercises and my first works are exhibitions such as the one on the collection of Minimal Art in the Panza di Biumo collection at the MNCARS in 1988 in Madrid, the ‘Zeitlost’ at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, curated by Harald Szeemann (with whom years later I had the pleasure to work), or the ‘Anti-Forma Norteamericana’ in Madrid by José Luis Brea around the same time. That year I went to Hamburg where I spent two years. I found minimalism useful because of its syntactic character, and its lack of references to reality gave me something to do with its pure forms, which was to stain that minimalism with reality. So, for example, I placed a cube on the wall as Donald Judd would do, but the skin of that cube was an old and dirty truck tarpaulin taken from the port of Hamburg. Politically I was also clear about my side in the class struggle, but I would begin to develop that more in Mexico in 1995. In Mexico, it was like starting my artistic career again, but now taking into account a dense reality like the Mexican one, which begins to weigh more in my work than the history of art itself. This is why my work begins twice, first when it is linked to art history and then when the surrounding reality comes to the forefront. So my beginnings are linked to those two journeys, one to the north and the other to the south. We could place a third moment in my career at the beginning of the century when I started to work all over the world. From working in little alternative spaces with great difficulty, I then started to work a lot and with means in environments with a lot of visibility. 

“The catalyst is the environment. The work emerges from the environment where it is made and/or where it is exhibited. On the other hand, the work of art is produced in the spectator’s head, so it is the subject matter that the public brings from home that we play with or manipulate.”

It is not the same to exhibit a war veteran in the U.S. as it is to exhibit it in Germany. The audience ends up making sense of a work of art with what they bring in their heads. The environment and the connection with the actors in that environment would be that corridor that leads us to deal with the unpleasant themes that define our society.

You have spent considerable time in Mexico (1995-2006) and Italy (2006-2010). Why those two locations and how did those aliment your work? Is there anywhere else in the world you would like to settle in?

My years in Mexico began with artworks on the street or in alternative spaces. My mission was to develop an artistic work as powerful as the reality I intended to describe. What I came out with, looking back, is a dirty minimalism that some have described as third-world minimalism. The role of the worker in society, or the painful lives of the urban grey masses, took centre stage in my work. From those years come my paid series where the work is activated by the intervention of salaried personnel. Around those years I did a lot of works bordering on vandalism such as GALLERY BURNED WITH GASOLINE [Mexico, November 1997], or OBSTRUCTION OF A FREEWAY WITH A TRUCKS TRAILER [Mexico, November 1998] and other forms of mimesis between my work and the monstrous Mexico City. In Italy, I came more as an artist applying the methods acquired in Mexico to another context, but my work never became centred on the Italian reality alone as it was in Mexico. Italy was a base from which to attend to international projects and a respite after my last year in Mexico spent in Ciudad Juarez making the work SUBMISSION (formerly word of fire) [Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México, October 2006/ March 2007]. The violent reality of Ciudad Juarez made me long for the calm I would find in Tuscany. It was 2006 when I moved to Italy and that year I had also made 245M3 [Pulheim, Germany, March 2006] in the synagogue of Stommeln, Germany, a work that caused great controversy for the clarity of its statement, with which I was looking for in my place of residence. Also a place of rest and escape from a work whose density caused me considerable uneasiness because of the strong contestation caused by its exhibition. This polemic charge of my work was something that I never thought would be so strong, since at the end of the day, my work dialogues with the history of art as much as with the environment. My work arouses very passionate reactions and I attribute this to the change from alternative spaces where one works with little public and resources, but with great freedom to consecrated art spaces with great visibility and therefore subjected to the scrutiny of my detractors. At the end of the day, this was just the result of showing everyone what I used to show to a few friends and colleagues, and I got used to it. 

I could live elsewhere than in Madrid where I now live, and I may have to decide where in a hurry if the European sociopathic politicians do not lower the atomic testosterone they bring with their damned lucrative war. I am not sure where I would go if I left Madrid but I have always loved working in India where I did pieces like 146 WOMEN [Vrindaban, India, 2005], 21 ANTHROPOMETRIC MODULES MADE FROM HUMAN FAECES BY THE PEOPLE OF SULABH INTERNATIONAL, INDIA (India, 2005/2006, London 2007)] or THE THROUGH (PART 2) [Bikaner, India. September 2016]. It is a place I like to frequent.

You’ve mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the occasion of the opening of your exhibition ‘Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed’, on show at Lisson Gallery in 2012, that one of your heroes and inspiration is Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, the pioneer of conceptual art in Spain. He’s said before “Art is a personal action that may serve as an example, but can never have an exemplary value”. For him, art only makes sense when it makes us aware of and responsible for our reality. Would you agree?

Do you have other artists or people in mind that have inspired you?

Isidoro has good phrases but the ones you mention seem to me to refer to a posture before the world, beyond art. We could change where it says ‘art’ and put ‘life’ and the phrase would work the same. Sometimes when we artists say art we mean the art we make. Evidently, art is an extensive phenomenon in the history of mankind and therefore it has been given an infinite number of uses. Leni Riefenstahl or any king painter from the Prado Museum is also art. Art also ignores reality as does minimalism for example. Art is diverse as is the human being through time. Perhaps the most obvious generalisation is that art will be owned by those who can pay for it. So the relationship between the work of art and its final owner determines its contents since the origin of human civilization, having been for millennia another instrument of the powerful. Isidoro is one of those people, and nothing links him to the final owner of his work because it is simply not sold as it lacks material existence and because the artist makes a living from something else.

It is easy to see the artists whose work I build mine off because I quote them constantly. For instance, the aforementioned work 245M3, in which long black pipes collected the smoke from car exhausts and introduced it into a disused synagogue, was a tribute to the German post-war artists who have influenced me the most. That work was built from a mixture of J. Beuys’ ‘Honey Bomb’ and Gustav Metzger’s Mobbile. The staging was reminiscent of Wolf Vostel’s decollages, the arrangement of the pipes inside the church was intended as a quotation to Eva Hesse, the documentary photos with pixelated pictures referred to G. Richter and so on. Not only contemporaries. Casta paintings (or mestizo paintings) were an artistic phenomenon that existed in New Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru in the 18th century and inspired ECONOMICAL STUDY ON THE SKIN OF CARACANS [Caracas, Venezuela. September 2006] or Goya whom I frequently quote for example in THE WALL OF A GALLERY PULLED OUT, INCLINED 60 DEGREES FROM THE GROUND AND SUSTAINED BY 5 PEOPLE [Mexico City, Mexico. April 2000] is a version of an engraving by Goya in which the dead come out of their tombs. In general, I like to walk through places already travelled by others. In NO, GLOBAL TOUR [Various locations, 2009] for example, the NO belongs to everyone, I can’t keep it or attribute its authorship to myself and that’s why I use it because of its lack of originality and in spite of that, a singular work appears. I use asphalt or cement that people see every day, or cars that are ubiquitous icons, or I show people to other people. My work does not pretend originality because I do not believe in it, nor do I believe in creativity, which seems to me a monotheistic category, a quotation to the Creator. In reality, we all build our work on that of our predecessors by re-contextualising it and appropriating it to formulate something different.

Your work shines a light on the limitation of space for freedom. Occupation and definition are two functions in your work, mirroring our reality, juxtaposing freedom and constraint, individualism and community, nature and culture. Could you talk more about these elements and what they mean to you? As an artist, do you feel free to think? Have you ever felt limited?

On February 3 an exhibition of mine closes in Madrid. It has two floors. The exhibition on the ground floor is open to the general public and the one on the second floor is a private exhibition which is by invitation only. This is explained on the room sheet:

‘On the first floor of the gallery — where the exhibition entitled ‘?’ is on display — the right of admission is reserved exclusively to those who have received a personal invitation. The contents of this exhibition will remain hidden until it has ended by means of a non-disclosure agreement aiming to protect it from those who might be offended; gearing it solely to individuals known to be open-minded independent thinkers. In this way, we hope to avoid those who are outraged by anything that has not been curated for them by an algorithm.’

On that floor we exhibited SPANISH NATIONAL FLAG SUBMERGED IN BLOOD [Madrid, Spain, October 12th 2021] and SPANISH NATIONAL COAT OF ARMS STAMPED WITH BLOOD [Madrid, Spain, October 12th 2021], two works that if exhibited to the general public would not only run the risk of having to cancel the exhibition but could attract violent elements to the gallery, putting at risk the integrity of its workers so we proceeded preventively.

We all know that freedom is a word that defines something that does not exist. To be free is an aspiration, not a reality. I like that you ask if I feel free to think, not if I feel free but free when I think. There you hit the nail on the head because it is not so much the freedom of expression that is denied us but the freedom to think. Millions are spent every day to appropriate our thoughts by filling our minds with irrelevant content, garbage or fears and this makes it clear that it is freedom of thought that we should be concerned about. I don’t know if self-diagnosing myself in this regard would have any value, I imagine I have come a long way in my own emancipation and art has helped me in this but being a freethinker is also just an aspiration. We all bring a reactionary inside during the educational processes, during the consumerist leisure or through the mass media and we have to get it out.

I have always felt limited but this is not an anomaly, even in the freest and most egalitarian society it would be because from physical to human laws the world will always have rules and therefore limits. In my work, I often point to those limits by placing myself on the edge of what is acceptable.

I would like to talk about a performance work of yours: Line of 160 cm tattooed on 4 people, Salamanca, Spain, 2000 which saw four prostitutes addicted to heroin, consenting to be tattooed at the price of a dose. Two heroin addicts were shaved with a 10-inch line on their heads in exchange for one dose. I found it to be two very emotionally charged pieces, because to me it says a lot about the state of our society and how far the system has gone into surrendering people to accept certain things. I think it might have been easy at first for the audience to think you were exploiting these four prostitutes or these two heroin addicts, but the intention was to unmask the exploitation that exists outside. Why did you want to tackle these particular thematics?

Has there been a governmental action taken after the making of these artworks? Do you think the situation has evolved in these areas in which heroin was at the time heavily used? Do you think the audience was receptive to these series?

Is Picasso’s Guernica a painting that honours Nazi aviation for its success in the annihilation of the civilian population? No, it is not, even though during the recent NATO summit in Madrid, where we saw the Prado Museum used as a picnic area for murderers, we could also see a group pose in front of Guernica by the couples of the warlords. That the directors of the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia National Museum used Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica as a photo call of neo-Nazis does not mean that Goya or Picasso was. The betrayal of these institutions with art and their intentions is very clear. I cite this case because it is well-known and easy to understand rather than to compare myself to these authors. I have never read in the press to ask the head of the Prado about the merendola of genocides or the Reina Sofia for this matter, or directly for having directed a Museum that bears the name of the Queen that Franco left us, the same one that went to the German aviation to raze Guernica to the ground. Guernica is like Montezuma’s plume; it is a spoil of war and it is exhibited so that it is not forgotten who defeated whom. I say this not to evade the answer but because here there’s no confusion and everything seems transparent while something as pristine as saying how much a model charges in the urban lumpen of Puerto Rico is an unacceptable act of exploitation and you don’t know how many times I have heard it. So amazing that we even have a book of interviews where I keep responding to that accusation from the most disparate angles. Almost every city has a school of fine arts with models posing. I was in one like that in Madrid. If you paint a picture in which you portray them you can call it a thousand things, but if you call it Young Romanian Girl Posing Nude and motionless for four hours a day at 9 euros an hour, you will be accused of being exploitative, just for saying how things are in your local fine arts school. Now step away from that school and tell us what you see, is the exploitation still there or is it gone? 

Being paid for being a worker is essential. For whom? For the worker. People are perplexed when they find out because we move among people who do not work. If you tell them how much they are paid, you will see what faces they make, like in a movie. And if it is because of drugs, it is funny that living in a narcotised society we have to remember that the junkie, the one that everyone looks down on, is a person. I don’t know if there is anyone left in our society who sees it that way with so many zombie movies. Now in the U.S., there is a plague of Fentanyl which is 60 times more potent than heroin. Maybe the gentlemen visiting NATO museums know more about this than I do.

Your use of skin or humanity as a canvas recurs in other works such as Line of 30 cm tattooed on a remunerated person, Regina Street # 51, Mexico City, May 1998, Line of 250 cm tattooed on 6 remunerated people, Espacio Aglutinador, La Habana, Cuba, 1999. Why was it necessary to disclaim that these people were paid?

It would be hiding the reason why it was done from the worker’s point of view. So it was very necessary to say it and to do it in the title. The person paid so much to do this other thing, because that’s how you sum up what it’s all about, clearly, without embellishment. The more money you put in, the longer the line you can tattoo. A few years ago I did a book in which the participants were long-term unemployed. I hired them to write over and over again as if it were a school punishment, a sentence that said: Work is a dictatorship. Obviously, for those who do not have to offer their body, their time or their intelligence on the market for the benefit of a third party and earn enough to replenish their energy and return to work, this is not a dictatorship. But for those who have to work, it is. Everything is a matter of perspective and the essential thing in perspective is the point of view.

Do you think that your work only gets completed with the audience’s active participation in it?

The work of art is produced in the head of the viewer. Sometimes actively and sometimes passively. In the end, this equates to art and demagogy, but it is so, art is a story and the human being is built with stories. We do not have hundreds of pages to explain ourselves, sometimes it is only an image that conveys everything, so the work must be a quick poison and a slow balm. Perhaps that is the reason for my interest in minimalism because, with a visual stroke, you understand the whole work with admirable effects of presence and evidence. There are pieces that also function as pure stories without anyone seeing them. For example, in 100 HIDDEN INDIVIDUALS [Calle Dr Fourquet, Madrid, Spain. November 2003] that nobody except the organisers saw. The public took that piece home and didn’t even see it, because the work of art is produced in the spectator’s head.

90 cm Bread Cube, Mexico, 2003 is a 90cm bread cube, specifically baked in the format indicated in the title and gifted as a charity in a shelter for homeless people in Mexico City. Could you talk about the installation, the message behind and its reception?

This work showed an outline of a work of charity. It was to feed the hungry. A large bucket of bread was made and delivered to a soup kitchen. The curiosity about the large edible object was at times very Kubrick in 2001. Charity is a form of social intercourse that especially bothers me because it is always a public relations operation in which the funder is seen as a good person. The bread didn’t pay for any service rendered, it wasn’t a salary, it was a given. Then it was about filming this and I asked Artur Żmijewski to do it, that’s why it is one of my few colour videos. When the action took place the participants were the audience as well. The general public only knew the video.

I have used food a lot as a generator of action. In the trilogy of PIGS DEVOURING PENINSULAS [Various locations, 2012/2013] or in CUBE  OF CARRION MEASURING 100 x 100 x 100 cm [Coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, September 2015], where this time it was vultures satisfying their hunger. Hunger is something very basic, very primary, and it makes actions with food always very simple to organise, because the end is clear; they eat it. In these works, he spoke of the need and hunger as what attracted the homeless of central Mexico who came that afternoon to the social centre, in hunger and tiredness. Those were simple actions that justified the portrayal of that extreme world we can end up in if we are not careful. It is the social panic of zombie movies that were also shown in THE CORRIDOR OF THE HOUSE PEOPLE [Bucarest, Romania, October 2005].

Could you talk about your piece Teeth of the last gipsies of Ponticelli, Ponticelli, Naples 2008, a series of photographs of the teeth of the last two gypsy families of Ponticelli, Naples? A few days after, their houses were burned. What made you take those photographs?

In Naples and other parts of southern Europe, attacks on Gypsies have been occurring in a similar pattern; they are accused of stealing a child and the mob goes after them. During the work of approaching the Gypsy people, we came across a house burning and were able to film it. The gypsies that show my teeth in my piece were the last ones left in the area. I was curious to see up close how their famous gold teeth in many cases are painted with glitter. We took these photos with the gypsy people who had not yet fled and paid them for their services as models. There is a standard treatment towards the victims to generate tenderness, and it is not considered as a seed of hatred that is getting into society. An abused person is a person who is going to show you his teeth. And I liked that idea of not just showing them as a passive mass, but as people who show you their teeth. I love the effect because it’s an effect that has to do with the animalistic. An animal understands this piece. An animal that shows you its teeth knows perfectly well what you want to say. 

With these photos, we did a small campaign in Naples because we didn’t have much money [CAMPAIGN OF THE TEETH OF THE LAST GYPSIES OF PONTICELLI, (Naples, Italy. May 2009)]. And there we exhibited these teeth. The result is that the whole city seemed to have teeth. The windows became eyes. Using their teeth seems to me a very good method to portray cornered masses. It is a method that we have repeated, which in fact is the basis of the exhibition that we are closing right now at Galería Helga de Alvear (December 2022 to February 2023, Madrid). It is a collection, this time larger, of teeth taken at the borders of Tijuana. They are teeth from groups of migrants who cross in caravans of 1000 or 2000 people all together to avoid being assaulted. They arrive in Tijuana and stand there. I have a large collection of photos and also of the eyes of all these people, which was part of the exhibition “2068 Teeth”. This presentation of the Tijuana dentures included a sound piece. The sound on the first floor is CUMBIA REBAJADA LOWERED AND INVERTED [Madrid, November 2022]. Cumbia rebajada (lowered cumbia) is a very popular musical phenomenon that occurs in northern Mexico when DJs discover the success of playing cumbia from Colombia at lower revolutions per minute than the original recording, creating a new sound that is denser and sadder than the original. By manipulating this lowered cumbia again, lowering it even further and inverting it, we get the sound we hear on the ground floor.

The Penetrated, Terrassa, Spain, 2008 is a film that shows men and women of different skin colours performing the sexual act of penetration and being penetrated. As in the binary system, the partners change until they went through all combinations of sex (male and female) and skin colour (black and white). Could you talk about this work and its allegory not only to domination but as well to sexual exploitation?

“Que te den por culo” (Fuck you in the ass), is a phrase that is not used to describe a pleasant, consensual sexual relationship, but as a threat of rape. It synthesises the desire to get hurt, to have a bad time. So, sodomy comes in popular culture or in popular expressions, associated with doing harm. ‘Joder’ also in Spanish has a double meaning. To fuck can be to make love, to fuck, but it is also to be hurt. ‘Me jodieron’ means that they ‘hurt me’. Around this phrase and also taking into account the ‘unproductive’ sex, I brought in my head a phrase by Jorge Luis Borges who said that he hated copulations and mirrors because they reproduce people. That’s why the place where we shot LOS PENETRADOS [El Tórax, Terrassa, Spain. October 12, 2008] was all covered with mirrors. They were all copulas and mirrors, but without reproduction. Of course, he also spoke of the relations of domination, of the male/female relationship, of the black/white relationship. All these tensions that have to do with this so-called ‘melting pot’ we live in, which is nothing more than a constant class struggle, mirrored and reflected in a thousand ways: with reflections in sexuality, with reflections in the colour of our skin, with reflections in the way we talk. It is the pornographic work with the largest number of participants ever filmed in Spain. But nevertheless, it was all very orderly, all very repetitive. There was such order that it didn’t really call for excitement. It is a tremendously anticlimactic work in spite of everything. I was very struck by the amount of public that came to the show. There were lines of people every day. But I was even more surprised when we showed it in New York, at Team Gallery, because normally in New York we might have a percentage of the population of African origin that is maybe 30 or 40 percent of the total public. When we showed this piece in New York, there was about 60 percent of the public of African descent. And I think this was because of the ending. In all the series that were there, it started with the whites penetrating the blacks, but the last scene of the film was the blacks penetrating the whites. In the sequence of events, finally, they were the ones penetrating. Black men anally penetrating a white man. Suddenly it takes on a tone, if not emancipatory, at least of a certain revenge, of a certain aesthetic revenge, which I think attracted many people to see it.

We had difficulties shooting in Spain. Just when we were shooting, they had passed a law in Barcelona that criminalised the practice of prostitution in the street. This doesn’t sound strange apparently, but the problem is that the police see a black woman and think she is a prostitute. So they were fining black women just because they wanted to, because the policeman wanted to. So they were intimidating black women in Barcelona during that period. It was very difficult for us to get close to the black women of Barcelona and you can clearly see in the video that some of them are missing, and that we didn’t complete the series. I don’t like the pieces to come out exactly as I have planned them. I also like that everything that comes out is the result of taking a piece of the real world. In other words, it’s not Hollywood what I do, but it has to do with the reality of what I find and I want those mistakes to have importance in the work of art.

A few of your works were made in association with external organisations. For instance in 2012 with Artifariti for World’s largest graffiti, Smara Refugee Camp, Algeria; in 2001 for Person in a ditch measuring 300 x 500 x 30 cm, Space between Kiasma Museum and the Parliament building, Helsinki, Finland for which you made contact with an association for the homeless; in 2002 for 9 Forms of 100 x 100 x 600 cm each constructed to be supposed perpendicular to a wall, New York, United States, you required the services of local job centres to find the participants. Why was that important for you to involve external non-profit organisations in your work?

My studio is more like an office with people calling on the phone, looking to see how to solve things, but it is not a place of production. I have friends that produce their works as a man makes chairs in a carpentry shop. That’s not my case, I work with the outside world. So organisations and people of all kinds participate. Even to set prices, there are organisations that tell you what to pay and what not to pay. I also do a lot of work trying to link up with people who are doing a good job and include them in some way and relate to them. For example, now with this piece of the SPANISH NATIONAL FLAG SUBMERGED IN BLOOD [Madrid, Spain. October 12, 2021], it was a real parade of people, not only from the art world but people who had a social concern to which my work gave an answer. So yes, there is a lot of collaboration. But there are also a lot of people who really help you because they agree with you. And the clearest case is this one of the flag submerged in blood, where there was no payment, you can’t buy people’s blood, it’s not legal. So people gave it to me. And finally, it is a work that is not from the studio, it is from the outside world and therefore is linked to organisations, to people, to specific characters or even to the lumpen many times. But it is a work that begins when I close the studio door and go out into the street.

A strong visual presence can be noticed in your body of work, for instance in 50 kg of plaster in the street, Madrid, Spain, 1994 depicting each vehicle’s journey on the floor as a homage to the strong presence of the construction sector in Madrid. I really liked the contrast of the white plaster outlines with the asphalt. The same with 50 litres of gasoline in an abandoned field, Madrid, Spain, 1994, which left a large black stain on the ground and with Black posters, staged in various cities, 2008-2015, which saw the collage in a mass of black posters on buildings, cars, thus providing a visually striking counterpoint to the advertising messages in the public space. Or with Canvas measuring 1.000 x 500 cm suspended from the front of a building, New York, United States, 1997.

Was it important for you to have these kinds of messages be so visually direct, contrasting with the environment, in a graphic way?

I spend more time on the street than in museums. I see more art in the street than in museums. I see it constantly on stickers, on lampposts, and in writings on walls. The vandalism acts that the urban masses do on weekends have also interested me a lot. I think they are very much related to Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting, for example. And so my work refers a lot to that, to the street. I think I’d liked to do all-terrain work, but I think there’s an abundance of streets, that’s my place. In Dublin, during an England-Ireland soccer match – I don’t like soccer of course, it’s something I abhor, like all mass events – I had the city of Dublin all to myself. Everyone was watching the game. So, I spent my time lifting up all the car windshield wipers I came across during the soccer match without anyone saying anything to me, because everyone was watching the soccer game. The result is a beautiful, surprising work, with all these windshield wipers like little graphic stripes denying reality. Of course, it is something that I think about, the graphics of the image, everything that is graffiti I love, although I love it as a texture. I don’t read who wrote it or what name is being advertised to me, but the stains, the colours, the combinations. Working in the street is funny because it is completely the opposite of working in a museum where ‘authority’, in quotation marks, helps you. In the street, the authority chases you, you have to be careful. There is also a time for all that. I think I had much more fun doing this 20 or 30 years ago than I do now, but I always like the street, going back to it in one way or another.

NO projected above the pope, Madrid, Spain, 2011, realised in collaboration with Julius Von Bismarck, saw the projection of the word NO during a few of Pope Benedict XVI’s appearances in protest of his visit to Spain. This is one of many instances in your body of work, in which you take the subject of religion. How was this event staged?

Religion is the ancient method of social control that still retains some effectiveness although I believe it has been largely superseded by the mass media and by a law that goes into every minute detail of daily life. Social control right now does not need religion but it helps and it is there. Everything that is spread from religion, and especially from the Catholic religion, is the denial of our own body, the denial of our own freedom, the denial of our own intelligence, the submission to the criteria of some millionaire lords who simply make money with your candour. It is necessary to answer. When that work took place in 2011, months before the arrival of the Pope, there was a great concentration, one of the great demonstrations in Madrid that are still known as the 15M. A left-wing demonstration where people showed their weariness towards the structure of political parties and towards a politically delirious Spanish reality, with the entire political class stealing from the rest of the population by the bucketful. And this youth day in Madrid was planned with the presence of the Pope, of this Pope who has just died, who was ugly and bad, as a response to this 15M. They brought young people from all over Europe, young Catholics, and they filled Madrid. Normally in Madrid, the police are always on top of the youth with a repressive attitude. During this Catholic meeting the city was theirs like other times, only this time we were waiting for them. I knew the work of Julius von Bismarck, who by the way seems to me one of the most important people of his generation. He is a brilliant artist and a good person and colleague. And we collaborated in the production of this work, which was simply projecting a NO behind the Pope. It was part of my NO, GLOBAL TOUR [Various locations, 2009].

The device we used is a device invented by Julius von Bismarck called Fulgurator. It is a device that hacks analogically. That is, there is a camera that as soon as it detects a nearby camera emits a flash, then responds by very quickly emitting another flash. But this flash contains an image, a very brief image that is not captured by the human eye but is captured by the camera. In other words, what this device does is hack into other people’s photographs. Any photograph preceded by a flash activates the Fulgurator and it sends you an image. Julius had used it on multiple occasions and we used it to get these huge pictures of the Pope with a NO behind him. They are photos that we might think are Photoshop, but no, they are actual photographs of a real event that happened on a large scale. Suddenly we had thousands of people, we projected huge NOs and only the photographer saw it, the rest of the people did not. We also projected it on policemen, on pilgrims. Anyway, there is a long series on the subject.

I would like to delve now into your set design work for the Balenciaga Spring Summer 2023 show held in Paris. The Parc des Expositions de Villepinte convention centre on the outskirts of Paris was filled with 275 cubic metres of mud, creating a mud runway for the show. How did the collaboration unfold? Was this your first collaboration within the world of fashion and would you do it again?

Balenciaga was a commission, a very specific commission to make the scenography for its fashion show [LOS EMBARRADOS (THE MUD SHOW / BALENCIAGA) (Paris Nord Villepinte, Paris, October 2nd, 2022)]. I thought it was wonderful to do the opposite of what someone would expect from a fashion show, reaching a situation where we muddied the audience, we muddied the models, where it was difficult to walk. I liked it a lot. It was about getting the elites muddy, that was the concept, to mud the elites. The mud could be a synonym for reality or it could be a synonym for a Europe that is on the verge of being blown up by the stupidity of war. It brought back a lot of reminiscences, a lot of memories. It reminded me a lot of the phenomenon rasputitsa, which occurs in Russia, Ukraine, in Eastern European countries, where twice a year, during the autumn rain and during the spring, snow melts and you can’t get through because of the amount of mud. The evolution of the news day by day confirms to me how accurate the piece was. It is indeed a muddy elite but at the same time a muddy environment for everyone. I think that in this fashion show, we really managed to represent the reality in which we live in a very powerful way, through fashion.

Is there any particular performance of yours that has impacted you more than another?

Yes, there’s a work I often remember because of its intensity, THE CORRIDOR OF PEOPLE’S HOUSE [Bucarest, Romania. October 2005] by Minhea Micnan. For this piece, we built a black corridor (240 meters of longitude per 120 centimetres wide and 2 meters high) inside the house currently occupied by the National Museum of Contemporary Art. That area was previously devoted to the personal rooms of dictator N. Ceaușescu (1918/1989). The corridor crossed through the 2 stories assigned for exhibitions in the building, but it crossed in the shortest possible way: going from the entrance to the stairs and then to the exit. 396 adult women were invited to fill that space for two hours at midnight on the 14th day of the month. Placed on both sides of the corridor, the women were ordered to repeat the phrase ‘Give me money’, literally and in Romanian. For this work, each woman received 20 leis (about 6 euros) and they also kept the money earned through the beggar. The audience could only access it individually, one by one, passing through a weapon detector placed at the building’s entrance. The whole action was very uncomfortable for the visitors and workers due to various reasons such as the detector at the entrance, the time of the day in which it took place and the abundant rain. It had a lot to do with the social panic of zombie movies. 

Santiago, what is your idea of the future?

We dedicated a piece to the future in Valencia [BURNED WORD (El Cabanyal, Valencia, Spain. July, 2012)]. In Valencia, there is a very nice area because it is close to the sea, which is the Cabanyal, which are working-class neighbourhoods. A working-class neighbourhood with beaches, where Sorolla painted many of his paintings of boys on the beach bathing. And of course, being a working-class area on a beach, real estate greed fell on them. When I was there the whole neighbourhood was fighting to stay alive, not to be destroyed by the speculative vortex and lose their homes and be given to tourists who spend a week in Valencia and leave. And well, I got in touch. That was part of an exhibition called ‘Periferias’. My piece was to use a very common technique in Valencia, which is the ‘fallas’. The ‘fallas’ are sculptures that are made every year to be burned. I thought it was a fantastic idea to make a work specifically to be burned. So I worked with Manolo Martín, one of the most powerful ‘falleros’ there, with whom I would later work again. We made, with the typography that I usually use, the word FUTURO. Once we had it there, we set it on fire and watched the future burn. Evidently, the future is death. Our future. For that is what awaits us. Eons and eons of nothingness, of emptiness, of not existing, of not being here. Therefore the future does not seem to be something very interesting. And yet, it is something that from the institutional discourse or as a culture, as humanity, is all the time being put before and put on. Hold on, resist, because in the future this is going to be wonderful. Yes, now we are reforming this or there are works in the street, but in the future, this street is going to be wonderful. The future is at the same time, from an institutional point of view, like the heaven that is promised to us. In the future, our country is going to be at the head of I don’t know what. There is something religious about it. When in reality the future is death. There is a vindication on my part of the present. The present is the only thing that exists. We have to take into account that our actions in the present have consequences. But apart from that, the future is something to burn. What matters is the present. The future that is proposed to us is something I don’t want to go towards, not only because it is death, but also because it is an evolution of humanity that is more and more unstable, less and less reliable. It’s going to make us all uncomfortable to leave for those who stay here.

Credits

  1. 10 PEOPLE PAID TO MASTURBATE
    Tejadillo Street. Havana, Cuba. November 2000
  2. 10 INCH LINE SHAVED ON THE HEADS OF TWO JUNKIES WHO RECEIVED A SHOT OF HEROIN AS PAYMENT
    302 Fortaleza Street. San Juan de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico. October 2000
  3. 160 CM LINE TATTOOED ON 4 PEOPLE
    El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000
  4. 20 WORKERS IN A SHIP’S HOLD
    Maremagnum Mall and pleasure-boat moorings in the port of Barcelona. Barcelona, Spain. July 2001
  5. 68 PEOPLE PAID TO BLOCK A MUSEUM’S ENTRANCE
    Korea, 2000
  6. 50 LITERS OF GASOLINE IN AN ABANDONED FIELD
    Los Focos. Madrid, Spain. December 1994
  7. HIRING AND ARRANGEMENT OF 30 WORKERS IN RELATION TO THEIR SKIN COLOR
    Project Space, Kunsthalle Wien. Vienna, Austria. September 2002
  8. 133 PERSONS PAID TO HAVE THEIR HAIR DYED BLOND
    Arsenale. Venice, Italy. June 2001
  9. 90 CM BREAD CUBE
    Plaza del Estudiante, 20, Mexico City. July 2003
  10. CAMPAIGN TEETH OF THE LAST GIPSIES OF PONTICELLI
    Naples, Italy. May 2009
  11. 78 PHOTOGRAPHS OF EYES OF MIGRANTS IN TIJUANA
    Instituto Made Assunta mixed shelter, Por los Derechos Humans de America mixed shelter, Casa del Migrate mixed shelter, Movimiento Juventud 2000 mixed shelter, Movimiento Juventud 2000 men’s shelter, Enclave Caracol social dining. Tijuana, Mexico. February 2019
  12. THE PENETRATED
    El Torax, Terrassa, Spain. October 12th, 2008
  13. CANVAS MEASURING 1000 X500 CM SUSPENDED FROM THE FRONT OF A BUILDING
    Seventh Avenue and 29th Street. New York City, United States. September 1997
  14. NO, GLOBAL TOUR (IRELAND)
    Several locations. Ireland. October 2017
  15. NO PROJECTED ABOVE THE POPE
    Madrid. World Youth Day. August 2011
  16. HOUSE IN MUD
    Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, Germany. February 2005

    All works courtesy of Santiago Sierra

Yein Lee

Lee’s biomechanical forms

After completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Seoul, South Korean-born artist Yein Lee went to the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, Austria. She stayed there to live, refining her technical prowess into an intensely profound body of work. And she is far from done.

Combining her past experience, dexterous innovations and interest in advancing technology, Lee has exhibited her work in numerous locations, showing her work ten times just in the last year. Her sculptures have approached the world with the strength of a cyborg. Their creator has constantly developed alongside them, her mind evolving with the same creative mental software that transforms these objects into personable, breathing beings.

Her work has an unrelenting originality. The sculptures are crafted into augmented forces. Lee approaches the overall composition with creativity in mind; she creates the presented proportions, and her treatment of the fabricated flesh can be felt through panels and poles. Lee installs biomechanical forms that brush against the fabric of a wall. The dark, drooping and dagger-sharp bodies poke out of the white walls of a gallery. Xylophoned rib cages jerk out with splayed bones, like arachnid arms reaching around a polymer and epoxy heart. Loose limbs fall like sinuous vines bleeding black and stretching into nothingness like the electrical wires that they are. These forms are obscure and anything but human. However, they hint at a humanity that can be found within ourselves, only with multiple jabbering mouths sealed in polymer paralysis. If humans are contorted in hate and loosened by drink, Lee’s hand-made creatures are intensified with the cold glitter of a PVC plexiglass and wires that twist like wilted willows.

These are not merely artworks in stasis. They transform over time and have a life of their own. Lee transfers the essence of being into objects with an actuality and reality at their core, giving the pulsations of a creature with a soul.

You originally studied traditional painting in Seoul and then moved to Vienna. Since finishing up at The Academy of Fine Art, you have continued to live there. It has been almost a decade since you graduated from University in Seoul. Why did you stay?

I had no idea about the city at all. Soon, I decided there was a young, active scene going on, and there were many spaces for artists to produce, especially considering the smaller scale of the city. Many artists were around the city, and everyone was working around me, and I enjoyed this input and movement. Now I really have a sense of community here.

Did this sense of belonging come immediately or over time?

My friends are here, my partner is here and my studio is here. I now know how to source my materials, and I know how it works here when it comes to running my studio. This usually takes some time. You have to get used to a German-speaking country and then deal with the art bubble (which is all in English).

Your material practice has branched out from the norm and has spread into the realms of technological components, metals and alloys, and plastics and organic materials. At what point did you move towards sculpture?

Through my BA in Seoul, I focused on Asian painting, and then for my Masters, I followed a more modern path with Contemporary Art Direction. I went to Berlin and then went to Vienna for the Academy of Fine Arts, where I continued in the painting class. I struggled a bit as I couldn’t find my own visual language through paint. At the time, the whole Zombie Figuration discourse was going on (in the mid-2010s), and there was an overwhelming overload of paintings.

So, what did you do?

I tried to forget everything I had built so far, and I decided to leave Vienna and go to Shanghai for an Artist Residency Program. But I didn’t bring any material with me, on purpose. In the program, there was a lot of leftover material from the previous residents, so I just collected it all and began using these random materials that artists had left behind. Leaving my old studio behind and starting with new tools was really helpful. I started using hot-glue guns, plastics, acrylic colours and polyurethane. I started working with these new materials, and after that, my painting became more sculptural. When I returned to Vienna, I kept experimenting with different materials and processes, and learning casting and welding helped me get closer to what I was looking for.

The scale of your artwork varies, yet the forms depicted remain relatable. One can see a drill-motor heart and limbs of steel, a chest with spread combs like fork prongs and body positions that feel so human. When you returned to Vienna, how did you start collecting the materials for your sculptures? Are there human elements you search for which operate as surrogate body parts for the forms?

I like that it feels human. In 2018, I really started getting into sculpture. I turned to casting and melding metals out of curiosity, but soon I fell in love with it. After using these plastics and metals for painting, I began making the frames for the works, which later became structures in themselves. As I explored these forms of matter, I knew I needed an anchor to communicate with the viewer, as my visual language of monstrosity tends to be less communicative and more framed. Using the human form was a translator. There has always been a presence of organic matter in my work. Even before I went to Shanghai, I had always used bodily elements; when I returned, I deepened my research on organic structures and was influenced by pop culture and movies. This all helped push out my creativity, and body machine parts started working as surrogates, but sometimes they just expanded on body parts.

Technical skill is a quality by which sculpture is evaluated. Does your practice involve meticulous working and reworking until you are happy with the result?

Every time I work, there are millions of possible next steps to creating the sculpture. For example, how much should I bend this piece of metal? But I like that. It is nice to explore these possibilities and refine the options for finality.

“Finding what’s ‘right’ is a thrilling feeling.”

And how do you know when to stop?

I could pretend to be a genius and say, ‘I just know’, but there are rules to follow for basic forms; I have an individual formula, focusing on the completeness, content, consistency of form and ratio of texture to balance in the composition. When everything fits into what I want to talk about, I know it’s done. I’ve definitely grasped more of an understanding of finality, which came over time and through more experience with my materials. The experience gives me more choices in what I can do. The experience makes it easier to see what is possible.

“The point of arrival for artwork is the ability for the piece to be presented.”

However, for many artists with a strong technical focus, the mastery of a process can be overlooked for a purely aesthetic interpretation; it can become cold. Despite this, your pieces have a lucidity, a sense of being which can speak. 

How do your technical skills allow you to grow such a concept?

Coming from a painting background, I came into sculpture with quite a messy and dirty technique, but I let it be like that, and it turned out that I liked doing it the ‘wrong way’. For instance, with latex, I was supposed to pour it carefully into the mould, but actually, I did it the wrong way to try something new. It gave me a more instant expression. At times, being used to traditional techniques makes the work enter a certain frame, whereas what I wanted to say about sculpture and how I wanted to expand my work was more fluid; let it drop and overflow. I thought, ok, let’s break some rules, see how far they can be broken and how I can use the pieces, whether they are ‘failures’ or not.

Do you wish for your sculptures to communicate with the audience somehow? Do you want them to breathe like us or remain objects for opinion?

I always have my own intentions and ideas about my sculptures. Sometimes I have favourite parts of a work and what it is supposed to be. However, once the sculpture is out of my studio and leaves my hands, it is not mine anymore. Sculpture should have its own agency, and it should be able to deliver certain things to different people but without the arrogance of a god. I like to leave it up to viewers with what they see. Sometimes it is very different, and I think, ‘that’s ok’.

How does it feel to separate yourself from them? And how do you feel about your work as a whole?

I feel strange. I do a lot of drawings, but they are not necessarily related to the outcome. Some parts of a drawing can be involved in this outcome, but the journey is only partially planned. Once I have finished a piece, I think, ‘what are you?’. Sometimes I feel alienated from the sculpture, and other times I feel attached to it. It’s a weird mixed feeling because I never planned to make this sort of work. After completing a sculpture and it is sitting in front of me, whether it is the scale or material elements, It still takes me by surprise. 

They also possess a depth that seems personal. Rather than being shells or a disregarded snakeskin, they could almost be seen as extensions of your personality. Is your working method related to this emotional connection?

I make my sculpture in a way that fits my personality. My working method is who I am. I am always slightly rushing, determined and sometimes slightly clumsy and rough. But my character is shown throughout my work, and it’s funny to see it, but the gestures do show.

Are they autobiographical?

They express how I feel, but they aren’t autobiographical. Many artists take inspiration from their experiences, so some of my experiences are embedded into the process and final outcome. But then, for me, it often gets separated; the initial idea that exists when I start a work sometimes changes while I’m working as my thought process goes into a meshed structure rather than a linear method.

When you are in the process of making these artworks, what do you feel and see? What sort of environment do you put yourself in (besides the physical surroundings of a studio)?

Not too often, but sometimes I get into a trance. It feels like a buzzy, feverish and floating sensation when I really concentrate, but that could also be the caffeine and exhaustion. When I get highly focused and concentrate so much, I get absorbed into the process so much that my body disappears and it is just my brain and hands.

How do you want people to react to these works? The sculptures are hardly embodiments of peace and harmony. At least in the conventional, Edenic sense. Sci-fi characteristics emerge when words like ‘hybridism’ and ‘cyborg’ are thrown around. Still, your work takes a step further by removing the past and melding present silhouettes into alien forms articulated to a raw framework you have created. How do you react to sci-fi labelling and labelling in general?

Hybridity has been such a significant term that has circulated, but it is now a natural concept at this point. With sci-fi, the concept is a current metaphor for our imagination and society. It is a present-term idea that moves around our dreams and narratives. There are many bodies today that are very attached to artificial material, and I see the hybrid concept as a phenomenon that already exists. I was always more into manga and animation, so I got more ideas from these magazines than from traditional sci-fi; I didn’t grow up with it, but lately, I’ve been watching all the classics, but only as an adult. My works are about what I see and observe, but people can receive them as one ‘type’ of art. It is the same with science fiction: it gets categorized as one thing. The artist Ivan Pérard says, ‘Sci-fi’ is a modern fable’, which I very much agree with. Animism and mythology operate around nature and culture, and science fiction mirrors society just as much. It is about our life as it stands now.

And what do you want to change this attitude?

It is essential to keep talking about art in a way that doesn’t limit terminology and simplifies the language that describes it. In my work, there are lots of languages of monstrosity, and people immediately think of the artist, H.R. Giger and how many monster-esque forms are coming back in art.

“The sculptures embrace distinct ambivalent emotions.”

For me, the works are in a status of becoming. I want people to discover hope in the form of reflection on our current society. It is necessary to focus on the details and have more sub-categories to be aware of.

Do you think your work promotes that concept?

I hope so. I have been trying to find a way to communicate it with metamorphic presences, blending the ‘me’ and ‘you’ and ‘us’. For that reason, I worked more into the human form to express a language of monstrosity that is less misunderstood and more anchored. Making these forms relatable makes them beings you can communicate with. Components resembling human body parts communicated and specified what I wanted to say.

These sculptures have their own weight. They possess a dense mass that stands perfectly. They support themselves just like Francis Bacon’s creatures in his Crucifixion paintings did. There are various rods and stabilising factors involved. However, these prodding protrusions make the artwork whole by grounding the body and creating a proportionate form. How do you want your work to stand?

Through wires and steel supporting the sculpture’s weight, they can look weightless and rooted to the ground at the same time. Being in the air is a nonhuman thing, and my works take components of human anatomy beyond bodily function. I want them to stand with natural and artificial elements growing from this body coexisting.

And towards what environment do you see them moving?

I want to explore all sorts of locations. I don’t just want my work in white cubes. I’m working on this sculpture park exhibition in the Netherlands which will be interesting; the surroundings there are radically different, which will also dramatically affect how the sculpture behaves and how it is interpreted.

Your production has led to your works avoiding the limbo between weightless futility and a heavy, immobile mound. In many senses, the fact that these works float yet are still weighed down by gravity makes them appear as embryonic creatures captured in stasis. Do your choices in materials and proportion impact the presentation/display of your works and their ultimate impact on audiences?

Proportion is only one part of the decision-making on form, so it’s hard to say it’s the ultimate effect, but it is crucial that my works have a certain openness. With Devouring Chaos (2022), I liked having a balance between the human anatomy, electrical wires and wooden branches that poke out of the skins. The branches make the piece float in the air and, at the same time, stay rooted to the floor as if it were a plant. I like having a duality and coexistence of weight and weightlessness, a growing and wilting being. I find that concept really interesting, and I want to explore it further in a different direction.

A word that sparks to mind when observing your work is protuberance. Not only in the content of your subject matter, (as it juts out of a human shadow with the suddenness of a razor-sharp guillotine) but the context of these protrusions. Do you want your artwork to jut out from the norm?

“I want them not just to jut out of the norm but to stretch out the norm and expand normativity. These forms convey that we are all simultaneously different and alike; it is the form that decides the content just as much as the content decides the form.”

How do you decide what form these sculptures will ultimately take?

In the beginning, the size of the works themselves is planned. Because of shipping, the scale is regulated for practicality. When I started working on my latest pieces, I fixed their average size first. However, the forms then develop and grow out of my imagination, and with Devouring Chaos, I got the idea of this fazing face and legs frozen in motion from a long exposure picture. Showing constant movement across frames in a particular image was an interesting visual element that led to a transition in the movement process.

Your expertise in gleaning used and disregarded materials comments on the extremes of consumerism and assists in communicating the issues regarding the state of the environment today. How do you see your art playing a part in the way we move forward?

I would like to embody specific thoughts and concepts in my sculpture. They are metaphors and suggestions. Let’s say a viewer could see a broken iPhone cable as part of my work and wonder, ‘Yeah, I do have a couple of broken smartphone cables somewhere at my home, too’ Then it’s a good start.

And the ultimate goal for them?

Being born abroad and living in a foreign country is frustrating, and you sometimes feel like you do not belong. Even the concept of nationality is weird for me here, and within Vienna, I live in a bubble where I only speak English. It is weird but interesting. I want to explore the possibilities of representing the body in this way. For example, the issues of hyper-consumerism and the ecological crisis come up in my sculpture with aesthetics and materials providing belonging in an extended body. I want to embrace more possibilities of the body. I am not just ‘me’, but I am a human. I consist of thousands of cells, fluids, and microorganisms living with me. This comes out in the work with not only the mechanical components and broken machines, but also branches and formed figures that look like microorganisms and then faces. I try to use macroscopic with microscopic imagery to comment on both the body as an individual entity and the world as a whole.

There’s no missing one of your works. Not only do they jump out with their presence, but they are wholly yours and could be produced by no other artist but you. The structures you make are transformed into a veritable presence that catches the eye in a second. Is there more to be done?

I want to keep creating and working on my career. The practice I want to promote is one where humans are not in the centre of the world, but I want my sculpture to coexist with the world in a way that expands certain areas of thought but not in a ‘core’ social sense. I am happy with what I have been able to make, and I try to give credit to myself instead of just being a perfectionist and asking myself every time, what more should I have done? But sometimes, you just can’t push it further because of budget, time or energy.

Are you confident in the artwork you produce?

There is always room for improvement, but the best thing is to be able to learn from your work and improve upon it the next time. Looking back, I did my best work within a limited time, and although it is difficult, I always want to improve. However, I am happy with what I have done and what I will continue to do. Sometimes you have to move on and keep working on the next piece.

“My confidence is in my desire to explore more possibilities.”

Credits

  1. Yein Lee & Nour Jaouda, Installation view 2022, Paulina Caspari, Munich. Photography by Thomas Splett
  2. Detail, devouring chaos – growth of reconstructed time, overflowing bodies, and static electricity. Photography: Courtesy of the artists and Loggia, Munich/Vienna
  3. Yein Lee & Nour Jaouda, Installation view 2022, Paulina Caspari, Munich. Photography by Thomas Splett
  4. Yein Lee & Nour Jaouda, Installation view 2022, Paulina Caspari, Munich. Photography by Thomas Splett

Miriam Cahn

Miriam Cahn, Aus der wuste, 2016
Oil on canvas, 145 x 190 cm
Photo: Oliver Roura. Courtesy Private collection.

The compelling and ethereal paintings of Miriam Cahn: seeing the unbearable and revisiting rules 

Miriam Cahn (born 1949 in Basel, Switzerland) started her career in the 1970s and initiated painting at the age of 45 in the 1990s in Switzerland. Awarded the 14th Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen (previously obtained by Cy Twombly and Francis Bacon) on June, 26th, 2022, an honour combined with a solo exhibition at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen, Cahn is one of the most highly regarded artists in Switzerland. Having her work exhibited in numerous international shows and exhibitions, including documenta 7 and 14, Kassel (1982 and 2017), the Venice Biennale (1984), Kunsthalle Basel (1983), Museum of Modern Art, New York (1984), Fundación La Caixa, Madrid (2003), Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2004), Badischer Kunstverein (2014) and Kunsthalle zu Kiel (2016) and many diverse exhibitions across Europe in 2019. When I first discovered her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Milan (2022), at the GEZEICHNET exhibition (curated by Alberto Salvadori and Luigi Fassi) I was instantly taken aback by her use of the sometimes garish colours in her oil paintings. Cahn though initiated with black and white charcoal drawings. She states her method of painting and drawing was back then similar to a performance whether it was on the floor until her back could not take it any longer, or on tables, or standing up with the canvas against the wall as she proceeds now, with oil painting. With a more diversified use of colours, Cahn was able to monumentally picture real scenarios.

Miriam Cahn, Mutter kind kind, 2016 + 19.03.2017 Oil on wood, 118 x 88 cm
Photo: François Doury
Courtesy of the artist

Ghostly bodies form compelling and ethereal paintings which in turn express the incredible vulnerability of human beings, the uncertainty of life and death, the fragility of nature and what humanity in this day and age is. Womanhood, fecundity, strength, sex, intimacy, violence, war, refugee crisis, oppression are some of the recurring themes in Cahn’s artworks. It is exactly because Cahn is human that she explores these thematics. As the Swiss artist puts it, “everything is influence” for her practice. Flora, fauna coexist with mutilated bodies and brutal sex forming an absurd quasi monstrous but deeply emotive complexity which is mankind not her “invention as she explains. 

Miriam Cahn, Blutungsarbeit, 10.11.1994
Chalk on paper, 54 x 77 cm
Courtesy Private collection, Switzerland

Cahn’ works from the last five decades show her artistic development as well as the evolution of our world and its contradictions, engaging the viewer in seeing the unbearable from genocides, war, displacement, and discrimination ultimately shaping human nature. One may remember Stephan Chorover’s book ‘From Genesis to Genocide: The Meaning of Human Nature and the Power of Behaviour Control’ (1979) in which he explores the blurred lines between psychology and politics, between meaning and power. Chorover stated that theories of human nature linked with society’s efforts to solve serious social issues could be seen as powerful instruments of behaviour control.

Miriam Cahn, Weiss schlägt schwarz, 22.07.2018
Oil on wood, 50 x 54 cm
Photo: Markus Tretter
Courtesy Private collection.

A step into learning from our mistakes to be able to make progress as with Cahn’s paintings, we are invited to reflect on the horrors of the past and the violence suffered. Endless possibilities are left to explore in Cahn’ canvases in the aim of revising rules already established by societal norms trying to conform us.

Miriam Cahn, Rennen, 2013
Oil on canvas, 280 x 200 cm
Photo: Reto Pedrini
Courtesy Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, and Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe

As human, Cahn succeeds in portraying everything that attracts us and repulses us and delivering a contemporary take on the world as it is now. When asked her opinion on the world as it is now, Miriam Cahn states “the classical: NO COMMENT!”

Miriam Cahn, Gitterhaus, 1982
Chalk on paper, 210 x 245 cm
Photo: Oliver Roura
Courtesy Galerie Jocelyn Wolff

Credits

Paintings · Courtesy of Miriam Cahn, Private collections and Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, and Meyer Riegger, Berlin/ Karlsruhe

Elizabeth Glaessner

Elizabeth Glaessner, Ocean Halo, 2021

Therapeutic gateways to an inner world, Elizabeth Glaessner uncovers the realms of the psyche conjuring up a surreal universe in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Elizabeth Glaessner (born 1984 in Palo Alto, California) is an American painter and artist whose work express meanings beyond the figures she paints. Inspired by heroes of symbolism such as Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon, personal memories and art history, Glaessner places the visible at the service of the subconscious and re-contextualise mythological elements in her dream-like paintings. With her distinct use of colour, such as the recurrent visceral acid green as well as her technique of dispersing pure pigments with acrylics, oil and water, Glaessner creates visually striking works that tap into our primordial unconscious, opening a world where surroundings and people are intuitively blurred. There is a sense of fluidity and openness in Glaessner’s work, inspired from her childhood memories and an understanding that the world as it is today cannot be limited by binary thinking. Glaessner thus pushes the conventional societal boundaries and moral codes, and uncovers the realms of her psyche conjuring up a surreal universe in a constant state of metamorphosis. 

Therapeutic gateways to an inner world, Glaessner’s paintings are indirectly a reflection of our time and a window to possible futures.

When did you start painting? Were there family influences at all? 

My mom studied and taught art, so I started drawing and painting at a young age. Her dad  was an art lover as was my grandmother on my dad’s side. Her twin brother Friedreich was a textile designer and my great aunt Mitzi was a watercolor painter. 

Elizabeth Glaessner, War in the Middle Ages, 2022

You are originally from Houston, Texas but moved to New York. How have those two distinct landscapes influenced your practice? 

I grew up in Houston, my parents moved there from California when I was 3, and I moved to New York in 2007.  Houston is a large sprawling city with lots of space. It’s hot and humid and the vegetation and landscape is pretty swampy. It also flooded a lot so it’s a pretty wet climate on the east side of Texas. Lots of frogs and lizards. I’m not sure how much has changed over the years with all the new development. New York is much more fast-paced. Everything is compact and efficient. I love being able to commute without a car and my community is very important here. I’ve gained so much from being able to visit friends’ studios and having access to so many galleries and museums. But it’s very different working here than in a place like Houston and it’s getting more difficult with out of control rent and limited space. There’s always a tradeoff.

Elizabeth Glaessner, Earth Bound, 2022

There is always a sense of fluidity and openness in your work, on different levels, pushing away moral codes and societal limitations. Bodies and genders are interchanged and intertwined. Why those particular thematics?

I grew up in a pretty chaotic environment. When my parents divorced, my mom met an ex nun who moved in with her. The nun was obviously very religious and used fear tactics and violence to maintain power and control. We grew up in two very different realities. My dad’s parents were Jewish and escaped the Holocaust from Vienna so he grew up agnostic and didn’t impose religion on us. Eventually the nun left, I remember feeling overwhelmed with a sense of freedom. So I learned pretty early on the destructive effects of imposed morality, fear and repression and also became aware of our incredible ability to adapt and change.

“I also quickly became aware that we’re quite complicated and can’t thrive in a world limited by binary thinking.”

Elizabeth Glaessner,
Professional Mourners, 2020

Your work feels like an invite into your psyche and dystopian spaces in which the subconscious and conscious coexist together. Do you see your practice as a therapeutic tool and thus liberatory? 

Yes, initially painting was a way for me to escape but also try and understand a surreal and oppressive childhood full of contradiction. I started seeing a therapist at a young age but couldn’t talk about anything.

“Drawing and painting was a tool to deal with experiences in a non-literal way that I wasn’t ready to communicate verbally.”

It’s a survival tool for many people. I’m lucky that I had that.

Elizabeth Glaessner, Misfortunes of the City, 2022

You have cited Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon as references. Who/What else inspired your style?

The first works of art that I spent time with as a kid in the museum of fine arts in Houston were Bougereau’s the elder sister (but just for the feet), Derain’s landscapes with red trees and Turrell’s tunnel. These aren’t artists that I look at now but I think the effect that they had on me at a time when I was forming memories is relevant to subconscious decision making in painting now. I have looked at and continue to look at so much art throughout history – it plays a large role in how I conceive of my paintings so it’s very difficult to just name a few. I look at different artists for different reasons. For example, Cranach the Elder and Carroll Dunham because of how far they are able to take one idea or theme and stretch it with subtle formal variations. Or someone like Chris Ofili or Francesco Clemente for color or feeling, Birgit Jurgenssen for the body and so on.

Elizabeth Glaessner, Escapism, 2022

Some of your favourite readings? What is something/someone you have recently discovered and has marked you?

I’m currently reading Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think he’s a brilliant writer. I also loved Never Let me Go. Haruki Murakami is one of my favorites. I’ve recently been thinking about Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, especially “uses of the erotic: the erotic as power” and how she writes about language in “Poetry is not a Luxury”. And my friend Aisling Hamrogue recently suggested I read a chapter in A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari called “One or several Wolves” discussing the body without organs which made an impression.

The colours used in your paintings offer such vibrant hues. Where does this palette come from?

It’s incredible how personal and associative color is. I have visceral reactions to certain color combinations. It’s often the thing that causes me to repaint a painting – if the color isn’t working with the content, I’ll start over with a different palette. Usually the under color shifts the tone of whatever is on top which can lead to unexpected combinations. There’s an element of intuition but I also think about symbolic associations of color – both my own which have been developed through repetition as well as learned associations. 

Elizabeth Glaessner, Charley Horse, 2022

Some colours are more recurring than others, such as acid green. There is something really appealing to it but it also feels like a warning. Why that green in particular?

I’ve been drawn to that green since I was a kid. I’m sure it comes from many places. Houston is a swampy green city and I was always outside. I was very close with my grandmother who introduced me to painters such as Klimt and Kirchner who also use that green. It’s a color that I feel comfortable with.

“That acidic quality oozes an uneasiness which I think is reflective of what it feels like to be alive.”

Elizabeth Glaessner, Heat Map, 2022

Which mediums other than painting would you like to explore with? 

There is an endless amount of learning I still have to do within painting. I’ve done silk painting – which is something I’d like to do again at some point. I’d also like to explore paper making, priming my surfaces in different ways, experimenting with different mediums when I’m pouring paint. I’d like to do some monotypes in a print studio and try different printmaking techniques. I’d love to play around with clay more but painting is keeping me pretty occupied at the moment. 

Elizabeth Glaessner, Sphinx and Friends, 2022

Could you tell us about the process you go through when you create? 

I usually start with several works on paper that are done pretty intuitively. Some drawing, some ink and gouache. First I pour and then use the color fields to find forms which I meld with preconceived ideas so there’s a balance of control and freedom. I look at these works on paper as I’m making paintings on canvas on linen, whether it’s the color and theme, or just the composition or energy. The surface of the larger paintings is often pretty built up because I change so much as I’m working. Sometimes the composition will work on a smaller scale but doesn’t feel right when I’m working large. I usually get to a point about halfway through where I feel like I’ve completely lost the painting and then have to make some big move to totally change it and dig my way out. But I’ve learned that that is just part of how it’s made so I trust it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my solo show “Dead Leg” which opens September 3rd at Perrotin in Paris. I had a pretty busy year so I’m looking forward to traveling a bit, taking some time to set up my studio again, finishing some books I started, doing some color exercises and starting a new series of works on paper. 

The theme of this issue is IN OUR WORLD. Are your paintings a reflection of our time or are they a window to the future you envision?

I think they’re both. 

“Definitely a reflection of our time which wouldn’t exist without the past and which hints at possible futures.”

Credits

Artworks · Courtesy of Elizabeth Glaessner and Perrotin