Found in Transition

Since 2017, spazioSERRA has been subverting the paradigms of art curation in Milan. The unique exhibition space occupies a formerly dismissed aedicula within the Milano Lancetti train station, a site of commuting, certainly not catered for the arts.

However, over the last five years, spazioSERRA has grown into one of the most distinguished curatorial realities of the city, adopting a grassroots and collaborative ethos that revolves around a multidisciplinary collective of young personalities. They are not afraid to challenge the artistic status quo and try to democratise arts, making it a daily experience for passersby.

Its curatorial practice speaks to the present, moving within sculpture, performance and mixed media, with the now not so utopian aim of sparking a discourse on arts, culture and beauty in a suburban setting that, traditionally, was only seen for its pragmatic and structural means. 

Defying labels and refusing the conformist definition of gallery, spazioSERRA is busy narrowing the gap between art and the public sphere, growing seamlessly with the local community.

We sat in conversation with the team behind spazioSERRA.

Lorenzo Ottone: spazioSERRA aims to promote contemporary art in a suburban context. Howimportant but also challenging it is, within that specific social context, to establish adialogue with such a broad community, made of both locals and commuters, whichmay not be necessarily exposed to nor interested in art and culture and who mayhappen to find themselves by the space for other purposes? 

spazioSERRA: spazioSERRA was established to specifically cater to this audience. Our unwavering mission revolves around fostering an authentic and meaningful dialogue with the community, rendering it a matter of great significance to us. Our ultimate aim is to democratise art, liberating it from constraints both literal and metaphorical, thereby fostering accessibility, openness, and transparency. 

The challenge lies in the undeniable reality that the passersby, intentionally or fortuitously interacting with our space, constitute an immensely diverse collective. Certain exhibitions possess the power to ignite the curiosity of specific visitors, while others engender intrigue in an entirely distinct set of observers. We aspire for the passersby, who traverse the Lancetti railway station on their daily commutes, to discover something within our space that can transcend their routine, infusing it with curiosity and a touch of liveliness. 

Furthermore, cultivating a dialogue with the community holds paramount importance. The irrefutable truth remains that spazioSERRA derives its essence and purpose from this very collective. As an integral part of a bustling urban ecosystem, nestled within a public space of a train station, it finds itself intricately interwoven with the broader social fabric. Failure to maintain this vital connection would invariably result in the gradual erosion of its significance and eventual obsolescence. 

Lorenzo Ottone: The exhibitions you promote range widely, from performances to sculpture and mixedmedia. Can you please guide us throughout your curatorial approach? Within an artworld that is quite multi-faceted and fragmented, what stimulates you the most rightnow? 

spazioSERRA: We actually acknowledge and embrace the diverse and expansive nature of artistic  expression in the present era and ever-evolving landscape. We try not to confine contemporary art into a singular definition or medium and instead we aim to promote art that addresses pertinent societal issues and provokes meaningful conversations. Works that challenge established norms, promote inclusivity, and shed light on underrepresented voices resonate strongly with us. We are committed to providing a platform for artists whose practices embody social consciousness, cultural diversity, and critical discourse. We recognize that different perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and social contexts influence artistic expression. It allows for the exploration of unconventional materials, interdisciplinary collaborations, boundary-pushing artistic experiments, and the fusion of traditional and contemporary techniques. 

Ultimately, our curatorial approach is driven by facilitating meaningful connections between artists, audiences, and the broader cultural landscape. Our curatorial collective is formed by multidisciplinary individuals with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and walks of life. So we try our best to curate exhibitions that both inspire and engage, inviting visitors to embark on a thought-provoking journey through the rich tapestry of contemporary art. Over the years, our curatorial approach has evolved significantly, and we anticipate that it will continue to evolve in the future. 

Lorenzo Ottone: At the moment we are noticing an increasing attention towards archive culture.Whereas a spazioSERRA is located in an environment that unfolds at the speed ofsound, dictated by the passing of time and trains. How can art capture the presentand the zeitgeist when there seems to be so much emphasis on the past? 

spazioSERRA: Art, with its innate versatility and capacity for interpretation, possesses the remarkable ability to bridge the gap between past, present, and future. While archive culture may be rooted in preserving and revisiting historical records, art can infuse the present moment with vitality, relevance, and contemporary resonance. Rather than being constrained by the weight of the past, art can engage with history as a source of inspiration and reflection. Artists can draw upon archival materials, cultural artifacts, and collective memory to create works that explore the contemporary human experience. By recontextualizing historical narratives, art can shed light on the enduring themes, struggles, and aspirations that shape our current reality. 

Moreover, art can serve as a catalyst for dialogue and critical examination of the present. It has the power to evoke emotions and provoke thoughtful contemplation. Artists can respond to the pressing issues, complexities, and transformations of the modern world, using their creative expression to capture the zeitgeist and stimulate collective consciousness. Moreover, the immediacy of art’s impact lies in its ability to engage with the viewer on an emotional and visceral level by creating moments of connection and reflection that go beyond the barriers of time. Through these dynamic and experiential approaches, art can vividly reflect the spirit of the present, surpassing the perceived emphasis on the past and artists can evoke a profound sense of connection to the ever-evolving world around us. In short, art’s capacity to transcend temporal boundaries and its potential to explore historical narratives in a contemporary context enable it to capture the present and embody the zeitgeist.

Lorenzo Ottone: You work with young, up and coming artists. Even your own definition of collective issomething that often hails from youth and underground culture. How is the collectiveand social dimension of spazioSERRA shaping your identity? 

spazioSERRA: The majority of the artists we have worked with are in fact relatively young and emerging; we also had the chance to work with artists who are well established and belong to a different generation. We do want to provide a platform for emerging artists to showcase their talent, share their perspectives, and gain exposure within a supportive community. It is truly needed in the current art world. 

By embracing the essence of youth and underground culture, we shape our identity. We also find our distinct character and purpose through our commitment to fostering a collective spirit and creating a vibrant social space. The social dimension of spazioSERRA is equally significant. Our space is designed as a gathering place, where diverse individuals can converge, engage, and experience art in an inclusive and dynamic environment. By facilitating interactions and dialogue between artists, visitors, and the community, we cultivate a sense of shared ownership and participation. Our identity is driven by the collaborative energy that permeates spazioSERRA while fostering a sense of belonging. We strive to remain receptive to emerging trends, societal changes, and the ever-changing landscape of contemporary art. By engaging in ongoing dialogues, we ensure that our identity remains relevant, vibrant, and in tune with the aspirations of our artists and audience. 

Lorenzo Ottone: Last year, your call for artists was titled “Un posto impossibile”, an impossible place,which is what a gallery within an underground railway station may look like at first sight.Have you found an answer to your question? How utopian is spazioSERRA’s visionnow, 5 years after its opening? 

spazioSERRA: It depends on the question to be answered. Our aim is not to necessarily provide answers but more so to create an environment that could potentially generate questions. Every visitor can have their own answer or simply reflect on the questions they personally perceive. spazioSERRA is a peculiar place situated in an underground train station but it is not really a gallery and this is why the expectations from a space like this can be somehow unusual but certainly not entirely impossible. We never set out to have a utopian nor a dystopian vision. While our vision continues to evolve, we find that spazioSERRA’s essence remains firmly rooted in serving the community. The journey of the past five years has allowed us to realize that the vision itself is an ongoing pursuit—a continual exploration of possibilities and a quest to defy limitations. By seamlessly integrating art into this dynamic urban environment, we seek to reduce the boundaries that traditionally separate art from the general public sphere. Yet, we acknowledge that the road to achieving our vision is ever-unfinished. As we navigate the complexities of operating within a train station and engaging with diverse audiences, we continuously adapt, learn, and refine our approach. We try to promote art as an integral part of people’s daily lives. Art has a transformative power. The diverse voices that have graced our space, and the connections forged between artists, visitors, and the broader community determine spazioSERRA’s impact as an exhibition space. The fulfillment of the vision also depends on its ability to sustain its operations over time. These factors can shape the overall vision and determine the extent to which it aligns with the initial starting point.

Shirin Neshat

In Search of Opposites

Shirin Neshat (Farsi: شیرین نشاط, b. 1957) is an Iranian-born visual artist who lives in New York City, known primarily for her work in film, video, photography, and opera; directing Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Salzburg. Her artwork focuses on the notion of opposites between the East vs. West, femininity vs. masculinity, spirituality vs. violence and the beautiful vs. the disturbing; highlighting the contradictions between these subjects, through the lens of her personal experiences of exile and finding a sense of belonging.

She has exhibited her work internationally at numerous museums and galleries, including: the Serpentine Gallery, Stedelijk Museum, Hamburger Bahnhof, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Faurschou Foundation, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and Museo Correr, which was an official corollary event to the 57th Biennale di Venezia in 2017. Neshat’s Turbulent was awarded the Golden Lion Award, the First International Prize at the 48th Biennale di Venezia (1999). Her first feature-length film, Women Without Men (2009), received the Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. Her other feature films are Looking For Oum Kulthum (2017) and most recently Land of Dreams (2021), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

In concurrence with her recently released short film and exhibition The Fury, NR Magazine spoke with Neshat about her memories of her childhood, transition from working between different mediums, working with subjects originating from the Middle East to the US, and about the excitement of embarking on her most recent projects. 

Dara: I would like to start by asking you about your early memories of your childhood growing up in Iran and later moving abroad.

Shirin Neshat: I grew up in one of the more religious cities in Iran, Qazvin, with a lovely family. My father was a farmer and a physician, and my mother was a housekeeper. We were 5 children, and we had this dream life in a home with a beautiful garden. Therefore, my early life in Iran, up until I was 17, was quite normal and peaceful. I left Iran at the age of 17 because my father, like many other Iranian families at the time, wanted me to continue my education in the West. So, I came to Los Angeles with my sister, and that was a pretty dramatic transition for me. This was because the image I had in mind of America and what had been depicted for me was very different from what I saw and experienced, which caused me to fall into a depression. This period was in 1975, a few years before the Iranian revolution, and I remembered I really wanted to go back to our small town because of how ill I was feeling leaving the proximity of my family. 

Unfortunately, my father was quite persistent for me to stay, and shortly after the revolution happened in Iran. During this period, I had just turned 20 and began my studies at UC Berkeley. Therefore, the early days of my studies in college coincided with the revolution taking place, followed by the war with Iraq that led to the breakdown of diplomatic relationships with the US, and my total isolation from the rest of my family due to not even having remote family in the US. This experience was quite horrifying as a 20-year-old who never really felt comfortable living here, and this feeling was perpetuated by the inability to communicate with Iran through post or telephone service. 

Therefore, my early memories of my childhood in Iran were quite peaceful and happy, but this quickly transitioned into a very dark period of my life was quite traumatic, as I’m sure many other Iranian people that experienced this separation could relate to. During this time, I suffered from anxiety and was stuck in this constant feeling of being ill that caused me to not perform well in my studies. I think this period, from when my sister left back to Iran a few years prior to the revolution until when I eventually moved to New York in 1982, was the most difficult period of my life. 

After moving to New York, I started to finally find the right community, and I married my Korean partner at the time, which led me to join him in running a non-profit organization dedicated to art and architecture. Starting this new life in New York was hard at first because I didn’t know anyone and had no money, but due to the nature of the city, it allowed me to find a sense of security and community. During this period, I didn’t have the opportunity to go back to Iran and see my family for 11 years, partially because of the war between Iran and Iraq and the diplomatic breakdown between USA and Iran, but I finally had the opportunity to go back in the early 1990s. 

The reason I explain this background is that it has a lot to do with the art I create, and the emotional, psychological and even at times political substance of my work. My work is a reflection of the sense of exile and loneliness I experienced during this period, and the anxiety and alienation that came from that. Therefore, many of my characters in my films are very representative of these feelings. Following my return from Iran in 1996, due to me beginning my work as an artist, I have been unable to revisit ever since. 

Dara: I can’t imagine how difficult this transitional period was for you, especially considering all the events that took place during that time in Iran. I’m sure many Iranians moving abroad prior or during this time can relate in their own way to the feelings you’ve shared. I’m curious to hear more about your experience of visiting your family for the first time after over a decade, and how this experience felt and influenced your work that followed.

Shirin Neshat: It was both exhilarating and horrifying. I remember during this time my son was born; he was 3-4 years old and had a Korean-Iranian background. It was kind of strange after 11 years because there was a distance between the life that I had lived and the life that my family had lived in Iran. There had been so much that had happened: the revolution, war with Iraq, and the economic situation that had followed, which caused a gap between us that was hard to distinguish for me – understanding who they were before and who they were now.

On a public and societal level, everything had transformed, even visually. It was almost as if the color had been lifted off the cities, and everything had become black and white. In some ways, I felt excited because I felt the life that I had lived during this time away was so meaningless. I thought my life during this time was so individualistic and so much of it was about me caring for only myself. Being in an environment where people had suffered so much, in the early 1990s where all these events had taken place so recently, and having the opportunity of seeing and reconnecting with many of my old friends, I finally could try to understand and feel what had just happened. I had the opportunity to read books and material on all the events that had taken place, and also hear experiences to try to immerse myself in this time that had already passed.

Therefore, when I returned to New York, I found it really difficult because my heart was no longer in working on our non-profit organization with my husband. I just really wanted to go back again and I did a few times until I had trouble being able to visit. All of these interactions, impressions, and inspirations I had during my visits to Iran ultimately culminated into my art. What many don’t understand is that prior to these initial visits to Iran, I wasn’t an artist, and I was mostly interacting with art through helping other artists in their practices. But I realized that all I wanted was to connect with Iran and what I had just witnessed during my time there, and art very organically became this connector and a great tool for raising questions or creating a dialogue with all the issues I found interesting.

I believe that there was a misunderstanding of people thinking I was trying to make a statement or claim towards the events that had taken place, but this was never my intention. I knew very well that I was an outsider, and my intention with my work was to focus on a subject that interested me, and I would try to research that idea. For example, with Woman of Allah (1993), I read my friend’s philosophy thesis on the subject of Martyrdom (Shahâdat) in post-revolutionary Iran, and I was mesmerized by his analysis of the correlation between love of god in religion and the violence in death. To me, this was an incredible paradox that inspired me to make that series of photographs,. To this day, I’m attacked because people think that by creating this body of work I supported the fanaticism of the current regime, and on the other hand, the government thinks that I was critiquing the regime. My intention with this body of work was to raise questions on a very symbolic and conceptual level.

My artwork was triggered by my return to Iran through my experiences and inspirations during these visits, and it grew from there very organically from one medium or topic to another.

Dara: What really moved me about this body of work, Woman of Allah, is the juxtaposition present in the heaviness felt in the composition of the images and the use of calligraphy, and on the other hand, the sense of vulnerability felt through the presence of the woman’s body. As a viewer, I found myself positioned at the center of this paradox. Can you further discuss your position and process behind this series and your decision to use calligraphy in your work?

Shirin Neshat: You have to keep in mind that I was educated in the West and due to this, I developed a Eurocentric background in my relationship with conceptual art. On the other hand, my subjects are very rooted in Islamic and Persian art and architecture. If you look carefully into my work on an aesthetic and visual level, you notice an emphasis on symmetry, repetition, harmony, and integration of text. There is a reference to sacred text experienced in Persian poetry and Islamic architecture. Therefore, many of my ideas are borrowed from authentically traditional Persian and Islamic art that points to my heritage, but the language of my work is very much that of conceptual art. I grew up influenced by the work of artists like Cindy Sherman and artists who were predominantly working in self-portraits. Therefore, the enigma and abstraction that are present in my work are not coming from traditional influences but my experience of Western conceptual art.

The paradoxical sense of duality you mentioned about Woman of Allah and my work at large comes from my subconscious strategy of finding contradictions, opposites, and paradoxes in the work I create. This duality is evident in Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), The Fury (2022) and my other work as well. These conflicting ideas and notions of opposites, for example, men vs. women, spirituality vs. violence, the beautiful vs. the disturbing, or open natural landscapes vs. controlled fortresses, both aesthetically and conceptually influence my work, ranging from photography, film and opera. This duality is represented in my emphasis on working in black and white, juxtaposing realism with surrealism and dreams, and has stayed constant throughout my work.

Dara: Before we move on to your films and your transition into moving images, I want to take this opportunity to further discuss your body of photographic work, such as The Book Of Kings influenced by social and political movements throughout the Middle East.

Shirin Neshat: Over time, I realized that subconsciously I found myself referencing history in my work. For example, The Book Of Kings (2012) was influenced by the Green Movement, Women Without Men (2009) was influenced by the 1953 Coup, and Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017) was influenced by Egyptian history during my time there in the Arab spring. I tend to approach history in a very fictionalized way, and in The Book Of Kings there is a focus on this notion of patriotism influenced by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book Of Kings), which is a long epic poem of tragedies that focuses on the core narrative of these heroes that self-sacrificed for their virtues and their nation. Ferdowsi’s book is largely credited for saving the Farsi language following the Arab conquest that ignited the introduction of Islam in the Middle East. Also, The Book Of Kings is influenced by the more recent Green Movement in Iran, which was a forward-thinking movement not focused on religion, and people demanding a new idea of liberty while not overthrowing the government. These powerful notions of the spirit of patriotism that later on continued throughout the Arab spring tend to always intersect with genocide, violence, and cruelty, similar to what is present in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh where you read about men’s heads being severed. I found this tension between compassion and love for the nation, and the brutality, violence and genocide that came with it incredibly moving and profound. I represented it in this series of photographs through symbolic gestures such as having a group of patriots with their hands over their hearts, a group of villains with scenes of war from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh inscribed on their bodies, and a group of 45 images depicting innocent bystanders observing this circus. My intention with the series of photographs was to capture the spirit of patriotism during the Green Movement in 2009 and for it to serve as a remembrance for those who lost their lives, and also as a reminder that history tends to repeat itself.

Dara: It’s interesting to hear you move from such a personal subject so close to you to a more expansive conversation with a wider audience throughout the Middle East. I’m curious to hear why you decided to transition from photography to moving image as a medium to continue this discourse. Also, as a starting point, I wanted to ask you about your first short film Turbulent and your application of music as a communicative tool throughout this project.

Shirin Neshat: I think after Woman of Allah I received such a dogmatic response to it as a project, a response that was quite political and the judgment was so heavy. This experience made me feel that the nature of photography limited me from building more ambiguity, and to be able to take the audience to a place where they were not forced to impose their relationship to the subject of politics. Therefore, transitioning into moving images felt like a massive departure for me. It opened a new door to a whole new medium that refused to be reduced to these types of judgments because I had the opportunity to be far more evocative and abstract – even if my work was politically charged. The other advantages this new medium offered were the opportunity to set a background or a landscape, and to introduce music and choreographed performances. Also, it gave me the ability to situate my audience to have them experience it in a way that I could control as an artist.

With a photograph, as a viewer, you are placed in a situation where a single photograph has to say everything. This became quite difficult and problematic for me because most of the time, that image is reduced to a few symbols such as a veil and a gun, and this leads to the loss of every other complexity present in the work. Therefore, I found my transition into film as a beautiful new and freeing journey. Turbulent focuses on critiquing the sociological issue of women in Iran being deprived of the experience of music. It does so by again placing the audience in a conflicted point between two opposites: one being a man performing a song to an audience and being applauded for his performance, and on the other hand, a woman performing alone with no audience, and her performance escalating into a form of protest. But this is the impression that is first felt on the surface of the film. Gradually, there are these layers of meaning that begin to show themselves below that surface. There is a conflict between the conformist and the rebellious, but also between tradition and the act of breaking away from that tradition; to start something new. What I loved about Turbulent was that I felt that my audience, from every corner of the world, got it and truly understood it, and I didn’t have to say anything in that process.

This was a great realization for me that moving image and all the qualities that it comes with granted me the opportunity to create experiences that are far different from what can be achieved with a photograph. This made me step away from photography for a few years and make other films, such as Rapture, which again introduced a paradox through two separate screens; one showing a group of men in a fortress and the other showing a group of women in nature. But at the end, the audience understands the message behind this enigmatic film, which was that the women started this journey from where they started and end up in this boat that they depart in and leave, whether to commit suicide or reach freedom, but the men end up staying and being left behind in the same place. So there was this symbolically calculated outcome that was delivered through form, shape, music and poetry leading to an end that evidently had its sharp knife.

This quality of progression in storytelling in moving image inspired me to continue making many more films and staying away from photography. When I finally decided to return to photography, I had a completely different approach to it as a medium.

Dara: I found your use of two screens in these films quite effective because, as a viewer, you find yourself in the middle of two subjects that are having a dialogue with each other. This experience can be quite emotional and moving, but can be quite overwhelming and uncomfortable as well. Sometimes, you get one screen focusing on one subject and the other giving you a wider context of the surrounding scene or environment. I found this duality in the experience quite powerful.

Shirin Neshat: As mentioned earlier, all my films are built around the notion of opposites, and having the two separate projections only adds to that. The audience cannot watch both screens simultaneously, and they become an editor that has to make a choice. When they focus on one screen, they are missing something else on another. I like this idea of forcing the audience to be a true participant and to be drawn in by the device that this film has created, hence becoming a part of the film. This experience can sometimes be quite uncomfortable for the viewer.

Dara: I felt that sometimes we, as viewers, make the decision of where to look subconsciously. We get drawn into a particular scene and want to continue to follow that narrative and subject. I found myself watching parts of the film again because I had completely lost sight of what was happening on the other screen. I think this ability to have a choice to follow what you connect with is quite freeing.

Shirin Neshat: The viewer’s role becomes much more active. They are not just passive recipients of the content; they become engaged participants who are making decisions and interpreting the narrative in their own unique way.

Dara: I want to ask you about some of the other films you worked on, moving onto doing full feature films and switching from black and white to colour.

Shirin Neshat: When I work with a medium for some time, I end up in a place of stagnation, similar to how I felt with photography. Also, I felt a bit exhausted from only working within the art world because everything was more or less focused on commodity, and you were valued based on how much your work was worth. At this point, I received an invitation from the Sundance Film Festival asking if I was interested in making a feature film, and my immediate answer was no. But after reflecting on where I was at that moment with my artwork, I realised that I was at a point where I wanted to take a new risk. This led to Women Without Men (2009), which is based on a book with the same title by Shahrnush Parsipur. It took six years for the film to be made.

I think the opportunity to make feature films was interesting for multiple reasons. One was the ability to connect more with popular culture and to show my work to an audience that may not necessarily know me as an artist from galleries and museums. But for the most part, I wanted to know if I had it in me to make a feature-length film. So, it became an education for me over the years, working with different scriptwriters and learning how I could invent my own language in cinema by borrowing from what I’d done previously in my work as an artist, while fully embracing cinema as a medium.

Although I had received a lot of criticism telling me to stay in art and not to take the risk going into cinema, Women Without Men was quite well received and this motivated me to keep pushing making more feature films. My next project, Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), was much more difficult because I was making a film in Arabic about an iconic figure in Arabic culture. As a non Egyptian and someone that didn’t speak Arabic, making this film became a tremendous effort. This film became semi biographical and semi artistic, and I wouldn’t say it was fully successful. But I believe none of my work had come without their flaws, yet I never regretted making them. 

My next feature film was Land of Dreams (2021), which was shot in New Mexico staring Matt Dillon, Sheila Vand, William Moseley, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher McDonald and Anna Gunn, was one of my favourites because I had learnt by this point how to direct and how to think about scriptwriting in a way that I didn’t before. I had the opportunity to work with Jean-Claude Carrière alongside my husband Shoja Azari to create an original story, which was humoristic and based on my own ideas. This process lead to me being very happy with this film, and I never expect to make films that are main stream but for them to be very uniquely a manifestation of a visual artist.

With Land of Dreams, it was the first time that I simultaneously did a feature film, 110 photographs, and a double channel video projection. It all came from my obsession with my own dreams, and followed a three part video project I did two years prior called The Dreamers, which depicted my own nightmares. So Land of Dreams came from taking that obsession and going after other people’s dreams and nightmares. There was a parody about America being the land of dreams; this place where people come to make their dreams into reality, which I believe is true in many ways. I wanted to play with this idea of me going after Americans dreams and collecting them. In doing so, questioning if dreams are a manifestation of our fears, which I believe that they are, and what the subjects are fearful about. 

The video that is part of this project involves this strange colony inside of a mountain where all these Iranians are busy analysing Americans dreams. The same actress I worked with in Land of Dreams, Sheila Vand, acts as a spy for the colony, going into a near by town, pretending to be an artist asking American’s whether she can take their photograph, later asking them about their most recent dream, and then taking this information back to the colony. 

But with the feature film itself (Land of Dreams), We took it a step further where she (Sheila Vand) is working for the American government’s Census Bureau, and that the Bureau has made a new requirement that, along with regularly requested data, every citizen is asked to share their latest dream. This concept is rooted in my interest in the way governments and corporations are using surveillance to develop an understanding of our subconscious. There is a humoristic but also disturbing side to this film; in the fact that we ourselves are targeted by people in power, whether governments or corporations, to be controlled. Also, the film focuses on a main character who is an Iranian woman and an artist, which is based on myself, that is quite haunted because of personal and political reasons.

Therefore, Land of Dreams ended up being quite layered sociologically in regards to America, but also on a individual level. I think with this film we did well in terms of developing a script or story that is very concise, while having many layers and enigmatic subjects. There is a true balance between humour and absurdity in this film, but also between what our ideas where and what we were able to convey.

Dara: This is a good point to ask you about your latest work The Fury, your process of making this short film and your decision to go back to the two screen installation experience.

Shirin Neshat: The Fury (2022), in some ways, goes back to the same nature as the Woman of Allah, which is something I tried to stay away from because I knew that if you get close to some of the issues in Iran, people tend to come after you. However, I was influenced by the testimonies shared during Hamid Nouri’s trial in Sweden about women’s experiences in prison, similar to what is being shared today, and how even some of them ended up committing suicide after they were freed. Also, it is important to mention that this film was shot in early 2022 before the recent events that have happened in Iran following the death of Masha Amini, even though many people think this film was influenced by these more recent events. I was very interested and moved by the psychological and mental breakdown of women who are traumatized by sexual exploitation, and due to my consistent focus on the subject of women and how the body of women is used as a space for ideological or religious discourse. In a sense, women are forced to embody the rules of men. 

In the case of The Fury, this idea evolves much more into the concept of the women’s body both being the subject of desire, but also of violence and brutality. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a person outside of Iran, and the story of a woman who can no longer cope with her reality and goes mad. I referred to my own experience of living among a large Hispanic community in Bushwick, New York, which are hardworking people and come from poor backgrounds. Sometimes, I found myself walking in the streets, listening to Persian music, and feeling like an alien, asking myself what I’m doing here. I experienced this feeling of displacement or disconnection from living among a foreign community, all the while constantly thinking of Iran. 

With The Fury, I wanted to create a work that emphasized this experience of displacement, conveying a story of a woman who feels completely out of place as soon as she walks out onto the street, while going mad in her head because of all the traumas she’s dealing with. She’s living inside her own head, and you can get a sense of this early on in the film from her dancing by herself to no particular person. My intention was for the film to progress into a flashback of a trauma where, in order to survive and not be killed, she had to dance nude in front of a male audience – and this is in no way comparable to what women experience while being incarcerated in prison. In the film, the men never actually touch her, but they are brutal in their gaze towards her. When she finally escapes their gaze and runs outside into the middle of the street, she reveals this sense of vulnerability. What is very profound at this point is that all the people on the street who are initially shocked by seeing her outside end up coming to her rescue. This is something I’ve felt in my own neighbourhood; even though the people I live among and I are worlds apart, if anything were to happen to me, these people are my community and would go out of their way to help me because they are good people. To see this community come to her rescue and it turning into a form of protest or dance, in an uncanny way, is exactly what happened after Mahsa Amini’s death. Her death became an impetus for the unleashing of other people’s rage because we’re all angry and we’ve all experienced some form of injustice. Therefore, it is an opportunity for everyone else on the street to also express their pain and anger, turning the scene into this fury. For me, it was about how the pain and suffering of a single human being can be contagious, unleashing our pain, and that we are all ultimately part of one humanity. Many of the people cast in this scene are my friends and members of my community, making this project quite personal to me. 

I didn’t want to create a work that tells you what is right or wrong, but I wanted this work to place emphasis on the idea of power, the male gaze, and the vulnerability of this fragile body. The idea that we can all be fragile in the hands of power, but when bad things happen to certain people, it affects others as well and that is our greatest weapon. I received criticism for the assumption that I was labelling all women as victims, and I do not believe in the notion that all women are victims. However, Mahsa Amini was a victim because she was killed and all the other women imprisoned or killed are victims. That is the reality, but the other reality is that we respond to that because it is unjust and unacceptable. 

I believe that The Fury has a very bright light at the end of the tunnel, meaning the connection between people, no matter where they come from in the world. Even though they may not fully understand what has happened to her, it causes them to come together in solidarity with her.

Dara: Shirin, I want to finish by using this opportunity as a platform to ask you to share a message with women, especially Iranian women, that are practicing art and are pursuing their creative journeys today.

Shirin Neshat:Firstly, I believe that art shouldn’t be anything else than an obsession that you are at its service. Secondly, I often think about liking myself more when I’m vulnerable, and not liking myself when I’m not. I think it is important for women to allow themselves to be vulnerable, and look at their vulnerability in a positive light because by doing so you are more truthful and can make art that is more truthful as well; art that leads to other people seeing their own vulnerabilities in your subjects. Unfortunately as Iranian women we’ve had so many setbacks, and when we make art there are so many expectations and judgements towards us. Therefore it is so important for us to go within and connect with our internal world, and not care too much about the external world. This is a way for us to check what is so pressing within ourselves to bring out and share with the world, and if there isn’t anything at that moment we shouldn’t do so. Leading to my final point, I hate to say it but mediocracy is the worse of it all and we don’t need to contribute to mediocracy. It must be work that we absolutely feel the need to do and bring out because it has something significant to say and is asking us to be brought out into the world. Otherwise, be patient and don’t rush it.

Dara: I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being a part of this issue with us. It has been a pleasure to have this conversation with you, and I hope it will move and inspire our readers the way it has done so for me. 

Claire Barrow

In The Middle of It All 

Claire Barrow’s work balances in between worlds of pop culture, politics and ethereal creatures. With a combination of the media she consumes and the topics she’s passionate about, the result is an unexpected display of these themes colliding into different disciplines. Whether it’s paintings, sculptures or illustrations she has dreamed up and then translated onto clothing, her art is boundless and unpredictable.

Born in Yarm, a town in Northern England, Barrow grew up watching Disney films on repeat and listening to bands like Slayer and Sonic Youth. Daydreams of moving out of her small town and a career in fashion didn’t seem so far-fetched when she moved to London in 2008. She studied fashion design and it was not long after, her career in fashion started to bloom. Catching the eyes of industry leaders Barrow describes her move out of the traditional fashion calendar to be more freeing and expressive. 

“I’m grateful to come from a fashion background, there’s been so many benefits and collaborations that have evolved from my history within that but I’m also grateful I can pick and choose when to enter back into that world, it’s not about money for me,” 

Barrow tells me over Zoom, behind her lies a stack of boxes and canvases ready to be moved after almost 10 years of living in the same house and studio space.

There are many passions and interests Barrow weaves into her work– her theater upbringing, fashion and makeup seamlessly appear through her work. Her most recent show, Victim of Cosmetics, presented in an office space was inspired by the wasteful nature of the beauty industry. Currently, Barrow is in the midst of expanding her studio space, where she’s excited to create more sculpture work.

In this very exclusive interview we catch up about inspiration, creating in a climate crisis and pop culture.

Jessica Canje: The venues you pick to showcase these shows are often unique like the Piccadilly Tube station or a reformed office space, how do the venues you pick intersect with that specific show?

Claire Barrow: I love to build worlds that resemble the spaces you visit in dreams, trapped places, and half-remembered theme parks from childhood, the big supermarket where your mom dragged you around that felt like an eternity. Recurring places and scenarios stick with you and get filed in your brain’s office cabinet. The feng shui is off.

The tube station (Piccadilly Circus) was thanks to Soft Opening for inviting me (thanks 👍), but otherwise, the office, the field in Hackney where I did a show, and my website reflect this kind of experience. Being big into games and theme parks as a kid, and then in my teens and 20s, creating fashion presentations and experimenting with the use of space to showcase my collections. It’s something that has stuck with me as I’ve transitioned into making art my primary practice, and I would love to explore it further going forward.

Jessica Canje: I love your current website, do you often think about how people will interact with your work virtually if they don’t get to experience it physically? What was the thought going into making your website the way it is? Can you describe it for those that may not have seen it or may never get to?

Claire Barrow: Glad you like ! So, it was created in collaboration with Rifke Sandler of DXR Zone, who formatted and coded it. The site is heavily inspired by early, now-defunct net platforms such as Active Worlds and Geocities and it functions as a hybrid of an 3D online museum, an underground bunker, and a frozen metaverse of my current art and archive, complete with a gift shop! It is designed so that you can navigate it with clicks, clicking on different areas to move around the site. When you first enter, you find yourself in a field with earth in the sky above you. Going into the pink Wendy house with the blue roof in the garden leads you underground into the foyer, where you can choose a door and explore different galleries. The galleries feature 3D renders of my art, sometimes flat to the wall, and sometimes arranged in themed rooms, secret passageways, with soundtracks and GIFs. There is the option to view it all in 2D instead, if you’re that way inclined, or too confused.

Essentially, this platform serves as a way of inviting people to view a gallery showing of my work, outside of the traditional gallery system or Instagram, irrespective of their location. So, when I’m exhibiting work physically in a specific location, I think it’s nice for people who can’t attend in person still have a way to engage with it through this platform. I understand 3D viewing rooms at Art Fairs are becoming super popular, so I’m leaning into the trend in my own way.  

Jessica Canje: Your last show was partly inspired by the wasteful nature of the cosmetic industry–how do you feel about the impending doom of climate change and waste? How does it translate into your work?
A name from your recent show Victim of Cosmetics came from a quote by Khloe Kardashian, Bury Me In Lip Kits and Eyeshadows, 2023
Is your work intuition led or is it through thought and research and much deliberation?

Claire Barrow: I got the title from this lady, Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, who died 1760 from the lead poisoning caused by her makeup. She was a superstar beauty icon, like the Angelina of her day, and named the “Victim of Cosmetics” in the papers.

This body of work was heavily research-based, more than most of my others, which have been led by absorbing my reference points into something initiative. But still I used intuitive techniques; like, I was often creating wet canvas then applying paint, allowing it to dry then informing the structure of the painting. Before the invention of the world in the 1640s cosmetics were referred to in general terms as ‘paint’, so I used paint, and dyed concrete powder.

My algorithm selected this project for me, it’s just something I felt I had to make due to the images and research I was receiving. Then it further developed into a response to beauty capitalism and pressure to work hard in the beauty and cosmetic production industry. The sculptures resemble inside-out makeup bags, keeping things hidden inside them, but flipped out.

I re-watched the Kardashians, from top, everyday while making the show. Which was such a slog and depressing, honestly.

But I was to try and pinpoint a time when the world changed and yassified itself, like they did, valuing beauty and perfection above all else. It was around season 12, a few years after Kylie’s Lipkit success.

Jessica Canje: You’ve been based in London for quite some time now, how is the creative atmosphere in the city at the moment?

Claire Barrow: A claustrophobic feeling of coexisting but it’s exciting and scary and fun, and being a bit shit, but that’s ok.

 Jessica Canje: It’s always exciting seeing you release new work as you’re often reinventing your output, what can we expect to see more of in the future?

Claire Barrow: I’ve just just moved my studio to Camden, the punk graveyard, I think it will have an impact shortly. I hope to give back more, to be strange and brave… and make up some dances.

Jessica Canje: Have you seen Barbie?

Claire Barrow: Yeah I liked it. It didn’t talk about anything to do with plastic, I thought it was quite interesting, you know? In the midst of a climate crisis. It’s a crazy waste of plastic, all these toys with non recycled plastic.

Jessica Canje: Do you like sci fi?

Claire Barrow: I love Sci Fi and horror and tacky action films I’ve been really into. I love John Wu films. 


  1. THE BOTTOM, 2022
  2. ETERNITY BITCH, 2023. Installation View
  3. PIPE, Dinner Party Gallery, 2021
  5. VICTIM OF COSMETICS, 2023. Installation View. Fieldworks, 2023

    All artworks courtesy of the artist

Ai Weiwei

Navigating Through Life 

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) is undoubtedly one of the most influential and fearless voices of our time. In a world where the right to express oneself is often taken for granted, Ai Weiwei’s unwavering commitment to this cause emerges as a clarion call to create inclusive spaces where every voice is respected and cherished.  “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”. A statement followed through by the immense outspoken nature of what Ai Weiwei’s body of work testifies to be. As he beautifully puts it in this interview, without free expression, we lose our expressive uniqueness, “akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky.” Ai Weiwei’s art transcends mediums, seamlessly merging with activism in works like Remembering (2008) and Human Flow (2017) where he sheds light on the plight of refugees, compelling us to take action and empathize with those in dire need. 

His exploration of cultural heritage, craftsmanship, and the value of everyday objects in his latest exhibition at the Design Museum in London serves as a testament to his enduring commitment to preserving our shared history. Our conversation with Ai Weiwei also delves into his relationship with technology and social media, illuminating the complexities of online engagement in a world marked by censorship and rapid change. He offers his perspective on the evolving role of design in contemporary society and reflects on his deeply personal connection to the objects he collects. 

In this interview, Ai Weiwei also delves into how his journey with his father, Ai Qing, not only shaped the man he became but also paved the way for the unique connection he shares with his son. Standing at a crossroads of generational wisdom and personal growth within the complexities of parenthood, identity and the world he envisions for the next generation, Ai Weiwei finds himself tasked with the delicate balance of imparting the lessons of his past without allowing them to cast a shadow on his son’s future.

Ai Weiwei shares not only his artistic vision but also his unwavering commitment to the values of human rights, freedom of expression, and the enduring power of art as a force for change.

Jade Removille: Ai Weiwei, it is a pleasure to be able to have you as part of this upcoming issue. Where are you now? 

Ai Weiwei: I am in London at the moment, but my residence is in Portugal.

Jade Removille: On your website’s homepage, the powerful statement “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”, urges society to create inclusive spaces where everyone’s voice is respected and honoured, reinforcing the notion that self-expression is not just a privilege but an essential aspect of our shared humanity. As an outspoken dissident artist and a fervent activist for human rights, could you delve into how significant self-expression is to you? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for your insightful interview question and for taking note of my comment on free expression. Free expression is often perceived as a core element of human rights. In a deeper sense, without free expression, each individual loses their unique attribute that belongs to them. If such circumstances prevail, our society would be robbed of its expressive features, akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky. Such a world is indeed a daunting prospect.

Free expression facilitates our ability to perceive the world as an extension of our senses and emotions, enabling the manifestation of our unique perspectives. It is through this individualized articulation that we can truly appreciate the richness of human nature and the value of our shared humanity. 

In my view, free expression is not exclusive to artists or to those who construct foundational thinking paradigms. Rather, it is the most crucial element that defines us as human beings. Stripping away the right to free expression is perhaps the most damaging action against individuals, as it strips away their very essence.

Jade Removille: Has your sense of belonging to China been undermined since your exile in 2015? Have you found your oasis of peace? Do you see a future in which you would come back?

Ai Weiwei: My sanctuary of serenity resides solely within my heart. Much like a diligent gardener, I continually tend to my personal thoughts and expressions, nurturing them so they can flourish. It would be accurate to describe me as a person without a homeland. From my birth, my father was deemed an enemy of the state, so I grew up in exile within my own country during my early years.

Subsequently, I embarked on a journey abroad, having lived in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Portugal. None of these places can be referred to as my hometown. My maternal language is Mandarin Chinese, which makes my existence in these foreign lands akin to navigating life with a disability, relying heavily on body language and gestures to barely communicate. Nevertheless, I am profoundly grateful to these countries for providing me with opportunities to engage with issues that matter to me and to remain active.

Jade Removille: At 15 years of age I was introduced to your work through the Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern (Kui Hua Zi, 2008), and it left a lasting impression on me. I remember my parents and I were utterly amazed by the meticulous craftsmanship of the seeds, their delicate nature, and the sheer scale of the installation, which was difficult to fathom.  In an interview for Tate, you mentioned that sunflowers symbolised the revolution, providing both spiritual and material support for the people. The immense quantity of seeds created for Tate Modern was unimaginable, yet you accomplished it. Witnessing such a meaningful installation also benefiting and providing employment for the hundreds of artisans involved was truly moving.  Could you talk more about this work? Did you plan on the installation to interact in a specific way with the location and the visitors? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for sharing your experience of encountering this artwork as a teenager. I must confess that I also first saw this installation in its entirety at Tate Modern. At that moment, my feeling was the same as yours. 

When an artist embarks on creating an artwork, it begins merely as a concept. The particular characteristics of this concept were its grand scale and voluminous nature. What is more important is that these 100 million sunflowers were each meticulously painted by hand by 1,600 women. These women, dedicating two weeks of their lives to this project, rendered it almost a religious activity of a kind of daily expression. The sunflower seeds are the embodiment of their craftsmanship.

In Jingdezhen, the town of these women, this is their tradition as well as a means of survival. Concurrently, their straightforward task of painting sunflower seeds encompassed a profound sense of interest and engagement. This imbued me with a feeling of the enduring power of art. It doesn’t simply draw people’s attention, but its creation is also a testament to the investment of time, the grandeur of volume, and the concerted labor of many hands.

Jade Removille: I would like to address your practice as an architect. You used to run FAKE Design with which you realised 60 projects. FAKE closed down shortly after the Olympic ceremony for which you had designed the Bird’s Nest’s stadium in collaboration with Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. Your involvement in this project helped to shape its iconic and innovative structure. You brought to architecture, the humanity it needed but you have mentioned before that you had had enough of it. Why does this medium not suit you anymore? 

What was your very first architecture project? 

Ai Weiwei: My first architectural project occurred before I even recognized it as such. It was when my father and I resided underground, in a ‘diwozi’, devoid of electricity and water. Our bed was merely a platform left from the excavated earth, topped with straw. Our only source of natural light was a small window above. Occasionally, pigs would pass by, sometimes partially sinking through and hanging halfway from our ceiling before scampering off in panic. That was our reality.

Amid these circumstances, I needed a place for a lamp. We carved a small square hole, around 20cm high and 30cm wide, where we placed our oil lamp. This humble hole, dictated by the constraints of our environment, has left a strong impression on me. I hadn’t realized it then, but it embodied an essential element of architecture: providing solutions for our fundamental needs in the most basic ways. Such solutions can range from a modest hole for an oil lamp to a colossal stadium meant for an entire nation.

The year we completed the National Stadium was also when I decided to abandon architecture. I came to realize that the application of architecture wasn’t based solely on individual desires but could be manipulated as a tool for national propaganda. I felt a sense of regret for our work. Despite creating an ambitious and unparalleled piece of public architecture for Beijing, its usage contrasted starkly with our original aspirations. It became a symbol of power projection and a mechanism to sideline individual existence. That’s why I chose to step away from this highly politicized practice.

Jade Removille: Intensity, care, resilience, memory and recovery in the face of immense destruction are recurrent threads in your work. With Remembering (2009) at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, Germany, 9,000 backpacks were arranged to display a quote in Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world. Each backpack in the installation represented a life lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, particularly the young students who perished due to the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings.

In your 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, you had created a striking and thought-provoking installation using 90 tonnes of steel bars salvaged from the debris of the earthquake. Each steel bar was meticulously straightened by hand, a labor-intensive process that imbued the artwork with an additional layer of meaning and significance. 

Through your work I sense that part of your message is conveying the indomitable spirit of affected communities and their ability to rebuild. How do you think governments could be held more accountable on systemic issues and what is our role in this? 

Ai Weiwei: My focus on straightened rebars as artworks emanates from a deeply personal place, as they are connected to the lives tragically lost during the 2008 earthquake. Uncovering their names and identities became a necessity. Yet, such simple and concrete facts can often be brushed aside and forgotten in some societies. In my view, neglecting our shared memories and disavowing our communal sense of guilt for the disasters of the past render us accomplices in evil. Consequently, if we believe in our right to seek freedom, expressing human rights equates to our duty and obligation to remember those who have been hurt and forsaken. Such endeavors serve to constantly remind us not to devolve into beings devoid of feelings and a sense of justice. The recollection of past experiences, the understanding, and empathy require a language and means of expression. My artworks are an exploration for such a language.

In terms of whether my artworks strive to hold governments accountable for disaster management, I feel that I have failed. My artworks only represent what I, as an individual, can accomplish, in tandem with those who resonate with my cause. They do not appeal to the government, which is not a single entity but a complex mechanism operating on the principles of bureaucracy and power. More often than not, the governmental understanding of human life and rights stands in stark contrast to our own. This dichotomy underscores the necessity for every individual to voice their perspectives.

Jade Removille: You touch upon interconnectedness of life and art, how art is about life and its reality. Art becomes a means of activism. Human Flow (2017) your film about the refugee crisis is a poignant call for action. Had you always thought about the role of art or the role of an artist in this way? How far do you take art as a means of activism?

Ai Weiwei: My interest in the refugee crisis stems not from the principles of activism, but from my desire to comprehend the world more deeply. When I left China in 2015, my understanding of global issues was rudimentary, superficial even. I needed a pressing international event to deepen my insights. Consequently, I immersed myself in the refugee issue over the following years.

I traveled to numerous countries, visited countless refugee camps, and conducted interviews with hundreds of refugees and the volunteers aiding them. These experiences culminated in several films and provided me with an understanding of the political landscape in the context of globalization. Whether as an individual, an artist, or an activist, the labels don’t matter. What truly counts is how I use my limited time to acquire a comprehensive and balanced understanding of humanity as a collective and the world in which we reside.

The formation of such understanding requires the assistance of both activism and art. Without activism, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to engage firsthand and experience these situations deeply. Without art, my involvement wouldn’t find an adequate channel for expression and release.

Jade Removille: You place great value in the past and artefacts and throughout the years you have researched history, ideologies, materials and artistry. Within your work there is an embrace of the handmade and reverence for craftsmanship in an era in which automation and mass productions are revered.  What does destruction of cultural heritage mean to you?

Ai Weiwei: Humankind is hurtling at an unprecedented pace towards accepting new realities, a process that demands the hefty price of forgetting our roots and striving to erase our most innate attributes. These original attributes encompass our need to employ our hands in work and our feet to gauge distances – aspects now largely replaced by technology. Consequently, we no longer actively use our hands as we once did. Our hands, once vital and irreplaceable extensions of our creativity and thinking, thus becomes disconnected and irrelevant to our struggles and understanding of the world.

In this light, human nature is evolving because the functions of the human body are changing. This leads to shifts in human logic and language. It is why I persist in believing that we must retain these basic abilities – not only do they ensure our survival, but they also imbue our thought processes with meaning.

Jade Removille: Your new exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense at the Design Museum, London explores the value of everyday objects, from ancient stone-age tools, fragments of pottery from your Beijing studio (which was demolished by authorities in 2018), as well as an impressive collection of approximately 100,000 ceramic cannonballs and 200,000 broken spouts from teapots or jugs. You have said we are products of our time, giving new interpretation based on their own knowledge. What does design mean to you in relation to our time now?

Ai Weiwei: Whether intentional or not, design has always primarily been a reflection of one’s identity, and subsequently, it communicates our collective identity to others. To truly comprehend who I am and who we are, we must delve into our understanding of history, our origins. It is only by acknowledging where we come from that we can grasp our present state. As for where we are headed, that remains uncertain.

What we possess are the history and memories that have shaped us, the processes that have defined our identities. Our understanding and recollection of history, our awareness of various conflicts and contradictions, these are indeed what will form the foundation for who we might become in the future.

Jade Removille: What was the first object you consciously decided to collect and why?

Ai Weiwei: In fact, I’ve never regarded myself as a collector. In the society where I grew up, there was no private property or personal ownership; everything we possessed, including our thoughts and individual actions, belonged to the state, to be assessed by its standards. The only possessions I could call my own were my early memories.

Upon my return to China, I found many items that I deemed valuable casually for sale in markets and on display, without anyone paying much attention. These items included Neolithic stone axes, spouts, and porcelain balls. My impulse to collect them stemmed from the belief that the sheer volume of my collection could serve as tangible proof of our collective disregard for our own history and the values it embodies. It reflects our blindness to the foundations of our existence.

Jade Removille: All this materiality and collectibility contrast highly with a sense of having survived at some point with nothing but yourself, your mind and your health. How has your self-perception in relation to the collective evolve after remaining isolated in secret detention for 81 days, in 2011?

Ai Weiwei: We arrive in this world bare, and equally bare shall we depart from it. All our collections merely signify our deep affection for the people and things in this world, or perhaps, a certain curiosity. However, these are attachments we can’t carry with us in birth or death. They are public resources, yet under many circumstances, they must be understood and curated by individuals.

When I was secretly detained, my loss was not simply of the items I had collected. Instead, I was deeply affected by the reality that everything lost its meaning because I was isolated and could not communicate or exchange with others. This included memories, which also lost their significance, as they are resources meant to be shared and utilized by the public. That’s why I embarked on writing my memoir immediately after my release, even though it took almost a decade to complete.

Jade Removille: Which specific places in the world have had a profound impact on you and left a lasting mark? How have these places helped position yourself in relation to the collective? 

Ai Weiwei: To be frank, my travels have taken me to many places, driven by work or personal curiosity. Yet, the place that has had the most profound impact on me is one I hadn’t appreciated for many years – the ‘diwozi’ where I moved in with my father as a child. Out of all the places I have lived, the ‘diwozi’ holds the greatest significance. It was there that I came to understand common human nature, the value of things and political idealism, which has enabled me to stay alert and aware to this day.

Jade Removille: As a keen user of technology and social media, to which extent do you think you are reaching a level of connectedness with your audience? Do you feel more free online? 
In these recent days we have been seeing the introduction of a new social media platform. Will you be using Threads?

Ai Weiwei: In my time in China, I initially believed that social media could help us overcome communication difficulties, censorship, and restrictions on expression. However, my experiences soon revealed the absurdity of such a notion. Today, social media in China operates under severe political censorship, leading to a limited form of expression. It manifests as a peculiar form of media—altered by power, favoring entertainment over depth, serving as a platform that lacks profound expression. In the West, social media isn’t entirely free either. It’s akin to a bustling disco, where the clamor, the overarching melody, and the rhythm still dictate the overall environment. I don’t perceive social media as a medium for deep thinking. Its real strength lies in serving as an information channel and fostering a diversity of expression. It enables us to experience a time, unimaginable prior to its advent—a time imbued with mythical connotations, feelings, and expression. As for its impact on societal development, I believe it merely accelerates society’s existing trajectory. Be it politically or economically ascendant or descendent, social media hastens the pace.

I’m not familiar with Thread; I’ve only recently heard of it. My requirements for social media are akin to my needs from a pair of shoes. I wouldn’t purchase a new pair simply because it’s available, not until my current pair is beyond use.

Jade Removille: Which other artists inspire you?

Ai Weiwei: In my younger years, I found inspiration in Duchamp, the artist who shattered the barriers of conventional thought. Alongside him, I regarded Andy Warhol as a pioneer in the realm of communication and artistic expression.

Jade Removille: What does process mean to you and what does the finalisation of a project bring to you? 

Ai Weiwei: To me, process signifies everything. Life, from birth to death, is a continuous process. The completion of one project merely marks the inception of another. Until our final breath, nothing is ever truly finished.

Jade Removille: Looking towards the future, which current projects are you working on? What do you wish to learn more of? 

Ai Weiwei: First and foremost, I don’t believe I possess a future. I don’t hold any grand ideals or ambitions either. My desire is simply to navigate through life with greater serenity and tranquility.

Jade Removille: Finally, the theme of this issue is Personal Investigation. In your memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, 2021, you delve into your personal experiences and shed light on the events that unfolded in your life and that of your father, Ai Qing, a significant figure in Chinese literature. Drawing parallels between your own journey and that of your father, who faced challenges in his time, you were also finding yourself a father to a two-year-old son. Considering this context, could you share your reflections on the intergenerational impact of personal experiences and how they shape your role as both an artist and a father? How do you navigate the complexities of your own life while also contemplating the kind of world you want your son to inherit?

Ai Weiwei: When my father was alive, our father-son relationship was largely unfamiliar to me. I bore the brunt of the calamities my father brought upon our family as a writer and thinker; these adversities were shouldered by us all. Our relationship was always fraught with complexity. My father never envisioned us becoming a thinker or artist, mainly because it was evident that such individuals often brought immense hardships to their families. As I strove to extricate myself from these political chains, my efforts persisted for decades. Throughout this time, I never considered starting a family or having a child. However, when my son turned two and I was secretly detained, I began to realize that my understanding of my father was quite limited. I also acknowledged the responsibility I had towards my son, namely, the obligation to pass on what had transpired between my father and me. This was necessary because there was always a risk that I could perish at any moment, and it would be a shame if I didn’t fulfill this duty. The relationship I had with my father shaped the one I have with my son. I don’t want him to be influenced by me at all, as he will face a time and lessons utterly different from my own. However, I also don’t want him to forget his roots. My son is now 14 years old, and I must carefully consider how to prevent my experiences from negatively influencing him.


  2. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova
  3. WEIWEI CAM, 2012 DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN, 1995 (1)(2)(3)
  4. GLASS HELMET, 2022
  6. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova

    All artwork images courtesy of the artist

Yuri Ancarani

Practicing Reality

I met Yuri on a warm morning of July in Milan, the city where we both live.

The original idea was to interview him with specific questions concerning his works, but it quickly became clear that our conversation would span way beyond the question-answer dynamic. 

Unpacking his extensive body of work means tackling a plethora of themes: from the idea of reality and imagination to the concept of truth, from language, symbols and the importance of sound to the overall theorization on aesthetics and the genre of the documentary. The core of his works lies, I believe, in his idea of reality, and the consequences that this vision entails.

In each of his films, from the oldest series Memories for Moderns (2000-2009) to his most recent work Atlantide (2021) Yuri’s depiction of the here and now is so dense in its realness that it manages to transform into its opposite: imagination.

Quoting one of his key inspirational filmmakers, Dario Argento, Yuri says that reality is the true source of horror. The horrific aspect of the everyday is, however, not always sinister.  The extreme simplicity of things, the daily life of the portrayed subjects, can be felt as scary if seen from the outside, but there is also an element of fascination, a strange allure to it.

Moreover,  instead of inserting imaginative elements from the outside, Yuri portrays things as they are, showing how it is precisely the ordinary that allows the otherness of things to emerge. Reality in itself is framed as intrinsically imbued with possibility: everyday working environments, with their specific set of rules and vocabulary, contain a certain mystery, a subtle touch of magic, which does not come from the outside but from WITHIN. 

The usual unfolding of regular practices, such as managing a marble quarry (Il Capo, 2010), the functioning of an hyperbaric room in an underwater station (Piattaforma Luna, 2011) or performative actions in a medical setting (Da Vinci, 2012) is filmed in its naked truth, each environment characterized by its specific language. The vocabulary varies, sometimes it’s gestures, sometimes it’s a list of orders, sometimes it’s silence. 

The construction of a world of symbols within the realm of the familiar is what generates this switch: a normal setting becomes fascinating, mysterious, not fully graspable. This lingering feeling is strengthened by the employment of close ups and camera shots that are carefully edited, delivering a strange dichotomy between the closeness of the subjects, whose gestures are filmed in detail, and the detachment of the viewer’s gaze, who observes as an outsider. Intimacy is suggested and denied at the same time.

In this context music and sound play a key role, carefully studied either as translations of the epiphanic moment partially reached (see the end of Piattaforma Luna, for instance, where the composition by Ben Frost represents a moment of freedom, an escape from the almost claustrophobic reality of the hyperbaric room), or as a suggestion, like the ironic employment of orchestra music in The Challenge (2016), hinting towards the classical pomposity of Hollywood Cinema. 

Some of his films, like Whipping Zombies (2017), a documentary on a dancing ritual in the tradition of a Haitian village, are entirely without dialogues. The faithful documentation of this cultural phenomenon relies entirely  on the registration of sounds and music produced by the local community. In his San Siro (2014) the stadium is filmed as a concrete entity that functions as the container of an almost mystical happening, its architecture framed in its curves and angles, inside and outside. The stadium is the protagonist, the game is never filmed. Here again the only sound is given by the footsteps and the roar of the exultant crowd, and the preparation towards the football match can be read, once more, as a ritual, punctuated by different practical steps.  

This idea of rituality, seen as a constitutional element of any society and fundamental in the construction of meaning, comes back often in Yuri’s works. 

Its most blatant form is seen in the short film Séance (2014) in which psychologist Albània Tomassini entertains a spiritual conversation with the deceased Carlo Mollino. Fulvio Ferrari, tenant of Casa Mollino, serves the dinner to the two guests, one visible and the other invisible. Through the voice of Tomassini Mollino speaks about the sense and the aim of his passed life, as well as the direction towards perfection. This agonized perfection is reached, in Mollino’s view, through the conjunction of idea and realization. The projectualization of a work and its actual form become one, in what is beauty and truth at once.

This precise correlation was at the core of Yuri’s working method in his latest film Atlantide. While talking about this idea of truth he told me about his choice of not using any script for Atlantide, the dialogues in the film consist of footage collected during the almost four years of research, in which Yuri followed the protagonists in their daily life around the Venetian lido. 

The entire creation of the film was an ongoing process, in which also practical elements such financing was collected throughout and not entirely beforehand. This experimental approach allowed for a unique challenge, in an attempt of capturing reality ‘’as it is’’, reflecting precisely Mollino’s conception of perfection in the work of art.

After our conversation I left with different thoughts in my head and the belief that a lot had remained unsaid, but the overall feeling I keep to this day is the full comprehension of Yuri’s desire:  to create a work in which truth unfolds in its totality, in a temporal frame that is both process and end. For a brief moment, entirely real. 


ATLANTIDE (2021) Video stills
THE CHALLENGE (2016) Video stills
SÉANCE (2014) Video stills

All images courtesy of the artist.

Vanessa Beecroft

Rules of Non-Engagement

Vanessa Beecroft (b.1969) discusses how her work serves as a form of therapy, exploring personal conflicts and universal issues within a group. Her exploration of body image and gender politics has influenced her perception of herself and society. 

Her performances are known for their powerful portrayal of vulnerability and invulnerability, creating a unique interaction between the audience and the performers.The intentional discomfort provoked in her performances pushes boundaries and stimulates thought-provoking reactions.

This interview offers profound insights into Vanessa Beecroft’s artistic journey, delving into her personal investigation and its transformative impact on her life and art.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Vanessa, throughout your career, your work has been deeply personal and introspective. Could you tell us about a specific work where personal investigation was particularly critical to its development?

Vanessa Beecroft: The way I work is to live my life like an artwork in all aspects. The hard part is life. Once that is addressed, work comes as a consequence. 

A particularly challenging experience has been the project in South Sudan, which started as a personal venture and became an intricately tangled dilemma that compromised the stability of my own family. I traveled to South Sudan immediately after the war in 2005 in the attempt to shoot a documentary film on the presence of the Church and was invited by the bishop to the local orphanage where three newborns were unable to latch onto plastic bottles. I nursed them for two weeks and continued to return to South Sudan several times while in New York I was nursing my son Virgil. I developed a bond with the twin boys and wanted to adopt them, but in the end I was persuaded by my ex-husband that it wasn’t the best option for the children. I photographed myself breastfeeding the twins in an image that suggested a white Madonna with two baby black Jesus’s which became controversial. I was commenting on the new form of neocolonialism espoused by the Church, using myself as a symbol of white righteousness. The image was purposefully ambivalent—loving, maternal and confrontational. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille:You often use performance art to express complex emotions and concepts. How do you prepare for these performances mentally and emotionally? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I don’t prepare for the performance. I prepare by living a certain life, abstaining as much as possible from the mainstream, living my own version of a contemporary romantic life and always being alert. Many times, I am not prepared for a performance. I just hope that nothing tragic happens. Artistically, regardless of whether the audience is happy or not, I am never satisfied.

 The models are given “Rules of Non-Engagement,” simple instructions to follow during the performance: do not talk, do not smile, do not move too fast, do not move too slow, wait until the end of the performance, you’re like a picture, your action reflects on the others… etc.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What role does vulnerability play in your artistic process, and how does personal investigation tie into the therapeutic aspect of your work?

Vanessa Beecroft:Vulnerability is in dialectic with invulnerability. Two parties, the audience and the performers, are confronting each other in real time, for the duration of a few hours, without a rational awareness of what is going on or the nature of the confrontation. They are both vulnerable from different positions. The audience is vulnerable in the face of their taboos and the women are vulnerable to the audience’s gaze.

I think the models in my performances express personal issues and these personal issues become universalised by being multiplied by the many women in the groups. What was a particular instance becomes universal by extension to a larger group. I handle my personal conflicts and investigations by projecting them into a larger group of individuals more or less similar to me (at least at the beginning of the work, in the 90’s).

Alexandre-Camille Removille:Given that your work often revolves around body image and gender politics, how has your personal investigation of these themes affected your perception of yourself and society? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I wasn’t fully aware of the themes of my work. I tried to approach my performances as a portrait of a large group of women, similar to how we painted the model in art school. While portraying this woman in the performance, many other traits emerged, mostly not formal, but emotional, social and political. That is when I started to push in that direction, regardless of how that would impact myself socially. Sometimes I went really far and got in trouble.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:In your experience, how has the art world responded to the type of personal investigation you portray in your work? Has there been any resistance or particularly impactful support? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I felt as if art world abandoned me after the initial success. The other worlds embraced me, but I didn’t want to be embraced by them so I tried to use those platforms to further the themes that I couldn’t otherwise investigate. The art world may come back. I became desensitised to these ephemeral worlds that are fundamentally false. I believe in addressing the art world in a historical sense. I had fun pushing my visions, while being financially depleted by these facts.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: In many of your performances, you seem to be exploring issues related to identity and body politics. How have these performances been a means of exploring your own identity?

Vanessa Beecroft: They have been means of exploring my own identity by studying other cases and relativizing mine. Externalizing these issues through my performances perhaps avoids a true healing of the self, which recalls the acts of a saint martyr, which is a hero of mine since a young age (Joan d’Arc, Santa Lucia, Santa Barbara etc.)

Alexandre-Camille Removille:Your work is often characterized by a strong female presence. Can you talk about your intentions behind this focus? 

Vanessa Beecroft: It is self-representation. A portrait. I couldn’t accurately depict anything other than a woman. By being a woman, I can push the subject further. Experimenting on myself first and the group second.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:There have been debates about your work from a feminist perspective, with some critics arguing that it reinforces harmful stereotypes of women. How do you respond to these critiques? 

Vanessa Beecroft: By presenting a group of women naked in front of an audience I am not objectifying the women, I am showing the audience a group of naked women, which triggers them—their beliefs, self-perception, anger, prejudice, and more. The women are placed there for this reason and until they cease to provoke this reaction will continue to be exhibited. The fact that they’re exhibited as art makes them “intellectually safe,” like being on diplomatic ground.

 Alexandre-Camille Removille:You’ve spent a significant part of your career in the United States. How do you navigate your dual sense of belonging to both Italian and American cultures in your work? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I never felt as though I belonged somewhere since I was a child. I relocated to Italy when I had already learned English in London and from that point on, I felt displaced. So what I do is to assimilate the elements to which I feel closer in every culture. Italian language and artistic heritage, music, architecture, landscape. American contemporary spirit, ethnic diversity, power, politics. I absorb culture from other countries too. My work is where all of these elements converge.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Have you ever felt any tension between your Italian roots and the global, often American-centric, art world? If so, how have you navigated this? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I am probably considered an immigrant. I will never completely adapt to the new country as I don’t need to, and I like to be alien in all countries. The proliferation of my work is probably compromised by this, but I am not running a business. As long as the work itself is not compromised I am happy with the discrepancies. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What learnings or insights have you gained from projects that didn’t materialise as planned?

Vanessa Beecroft: Many projects didn’t materialise as I’d hoped. The learning is that certain topics are untouchable politically and that the wider world is one. And it is all connected and self-sustaining.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:How do you decide whether to persevere with a difficult project or to let it go? Are there specific factors or considerations that guide this decision?

Vanessa Beecroft: If I decide that a project is worth pursuing, I will continue until it is completed. Unfortunately the project sometimes gets artistically weakened by complications and adversities. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What role does your family play in your creative process? Do they influence your work in any direct or indirect ways? 

Vanessa Beecroft: As they participate in my life, they influence the work too. They humanize me and therefore indirectly affect my perception of the world, of other human beings and my life experience. My son Dean, for example, helps me in the creation of music and photography, I photographed my daughter and in general I created a large photo album of them which isn’t public.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Many of your performances are known to provoke discomfort in the viewer. How intentional is this in your work? What do you hope the audience gains or learns from this discomfort? 

Vanessa Beecroft: Initially I sought to apply the Brechtian idea of staging the drama, giving clues to the audience from which they might come to their own ideal conclusion or synthesis. As the audience resisted, I started pushing harder. Developing concepts to provoke a reaction. Making them graphic. I could only present the problems with paint or mise-en-scène. I thought the audience to be educated and righteous. I didn’t think the art audience needed to learn anything, but they did. I want the audience to go home touched and to think about what they saw as if it was real.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Vanessa, looking back over your career so far, what impact do you hope your work has had?  

Vanessa Beecroft: It is almost like a dream. Today I see the world I was dreaming of as a child, visualised. Many ideas and images I had in my mind are now current. Aesthetics mostly, but also fashion and images of women, colors, patterns. Many times they appear differently to how I envisaged them, but now they exist so that I can move forwards towards new dreams.

Haley Josephs

Glowing Underfoot

Painting is not easy. In fact, “It’s hard to make paintings”, says Haley Josephs. (A painter.)  Josephs is not wrong. Art is old. It has survived time and has broken ground longer than civilization. From the Kununurra petroglyphs in Australia to the Chauvet Caves and Fayum mummy portraits, art has grown old, and painting has grown up. But it has never been easy. No matter how ‘simple’ Matisse made his forms, there is more than just technical skill required to paint something that endures. Although modern stresses spread on the contemporary skyline, art and creation are myriad and many. 

Some people paint humanity in its barren reality, while others depict the trees and the abstract emotions of humankind. Some grow grass and paint horizons that are endless and gold or muted in a haze. And some people paint both. 

Haley Josephs paints atmospheres stratified by living forms and forests. Look at the paintings long enough, and the figures and shrubbery sway, form into forest and producing form. They are separated by time and depicted in a scene. Superimposed by a colour that glows from afar like hot fire or heavy foreboding, soon to reach but still at a distance. Intimately separated by layers of paint and the glazes that hold them. Josephs shares emotional figures that come with a sense of accepted loss. They radiate mystical serenity. 

Her paintings give us something to ponder on, to feel. They shed light and emotion like myths and time, spreading out into the present like glowing bulbs in a century that is gloomy and dark, somewhat starved of and simultaneously surfeited with hope.

With a pictorial attitude that runs along the lines of an “If I don’t do it, then it won’t get done, so only I can do it” attitude, Josephs discusses her work and how she mines her mind, constantly experimenting — and at times failing — in a drawn-out process to improve and develop more and more work. When she will be done is unclear. Actually, the answer is clear. She won’t.  She has a lot of work to do and isn’t stopping anytime soon. 

Billy De Luca: Where are we calling from now?

Haley Josephs: Just home in Brooklyn. My studio is nearby in Williamsburg, but I’m around Domino Park next to the East River.

Billy De Luca: The last time you exhibited your work was at the tail end of last year.  How did you feel about that show in London?

Haley Josephs: I feel like so much has happened since that show, but it really set me up for where I’m at now.  Having made so many works with such intense colours from my time in and around Acadia National Park really helped me feel free. I learned a lot from all the explorations of colour, the references to nature, and even just being up there, honing in.

Billy De Luca: And what are you doing now?

Haley Josephs: The work has been progressing into a darker territory. The show gave me the nutrition to keep going; many of the exhibition’s works were made out in nature. I made a lot for that show, and I could have kept going. I just felt this need to produce. There was just so much to do, even though there was less time and space. It was the most I’ve ever felt OK about a show; I always feel pretty weird about putting all this emotion into something and putting it out into the world and having people watch you. But this show, I felt the calmest. I used to be very judgemental of myself after a show, but after the London exhibition, I felt ready to move on to the next step. 

Billy De Luca: And now that this exhibition is done, what would the ‘next steps’ be?

Haley Josephs: I used to be interested in the lusciousness of paint right out of the tube or barely mixed on the canvas, letting that be and sit on the surface. I thought that was really sexy. Now, I feel like there’s more nutrition in delving into how to capture colours in a shadow. I want to spend more time on the paintings I’m currently working on. I want to be layering more, practicing with different glazes, and working on the complexities of deeper colours. Finding colour within the darkness.

Billy De Luca: The darker tones reflect light when glazed, and it’s a fascinating experience up close. When you look at a Caravaggio, you can see how much layering goes into his dark background and how many colours sit behind this ‘darkness’.  

Haley Josephs: And it’s attractive. When I was in London for my show, I also explored parts of Europe over the weeks. I realised that when I was surrounded by paintings in museums, I was attracted to those with darker tones. Before, I felt intimidated to push through and challenge colour. But now I am more interested in the browns, greys, and greens that have these complexities. 

Billy De Luca: How do you achieve that?

Haley Josephs: I’m now using a material called Canada balsam (a natural resin that has the effect of an old master’s glaze). They almost look like there are colours underneath glass, layered so much and keeping the vibrancy without muddying it. When I go up close to a painting, I like to see what the artist was thinking about, like how tree bark is expressed through the paint, not just colour.  There’s this one painting I did with a Unicorn, and it had an extremely glossy surface, so much so that when you look at the painting in person, your body is also in the image. It’s almost like a mirror, and you have to confront being a part of the painting and interacting with it. That’s also why seeing the picture in person and not just online is essential.

Billy De Luca: What sort of dialogue arises from your work? 

Haley Josephs: Well, I think the truth is my work is really hard to talk about. I think of paintings as metaphors and try to create worlds of emotional landscapes. There’s this surreal aspect because it’s so otherworldly. Sometimes the landscape or sky or abstract landscape is supposed to represent this inner world, one where people get this intensity of emotions that are unnamable. 

Like everything is sort of unnamable.

Billy De Luca: It can only ever be boxed into a word…

Haley Josephs: And that’s why I make paintings. It’s my way of communicating, some people can say things in words, but obviously, not everybody can articulate everything. I can only hint at certain things that it’s about. It is up to the viewer to feel how they feel; that doesn’t have to be described in words.

Billy De Luca: How do you feel about these works? 

Haley Josephs: I mean, to be honest, this work feels like me. More like what I’ve been trying to describe in the past. I feel like I came up short before and couldn’t really tell you what I was trying to tell you. However, with this recent show, I felt closer. The works I’m making now are more ethereal and feel less about the figure and more about emotion. It’s not always just about narrative. People notice there’s a greater intensity to the work. Maybe it’s because of the shift in a darker palette, but I think it has to do with me being more intentional about how I start my compositions and what means I used to execute the work. In the past, I would let myself be more content with things and think, ‘Oh, this is OK,’ and wouldn’t really question everything in a way that I felt like I was really challenging myself. But I am now.

Billy De Luca: Have you changed your practice method?

Haley Josephs: I used to use source materials, sometimes taking photos of myself to get the anatomy right or looking up pictures online to inform my vision. Now everything comes from my imagination. I’ll draw out a composition in my sketchbook, letting it come out onto paper. Making sure I have the correct design is just as hard. I just draw it out until I get it. It’s now coming from this true place and looking how I really wanted it to look.

Billy De Luca: That’s very much like Giacometti’s visible reworkings in painting.  Fleshing it out shows how hard painting and proportion can really be. When did you start working in that way?  

Haley Josephs: When it came to school, I mainly painted from photographs of family members. I liked older photos (there’s something interesting about the colours of older photographs), I liked the palette, and I then started working on pictures of female family members that had passed on. My sister and my aunt passed on, and they sort of became characters that naturally came up in my work. They inserted themselves organically. When I was using source materials, they’d still be there. Now I’m more intentional about using images in my head. I’ve started doing work that is authentically me, and I’m beginning to rely on my inner narrative and imagery. I have to hone in on that.

Billy De Luca: When did you begin making art in general? 

Haley Josephs: I grew up attending a Waldorf school (Steiner School) with a huge emphasis on art. We did a lot of watercolours and form drawing — and a lot of the prompts were biblical. But before then it starts with a memory. I was four or five years old, and my cousin (Sophie) and I lived together for a little while.  We had a basket filled with old crayons and scrap paper, and we would draw all day for hours. We used to get really into this thing where Sophie would take all the neon-coloured crayons, and we would try to invent a new colour. We would draw one layer after another with these neon crayons. They would build up on top of each other, and I would have this feeling in my stomach that made me feel tingly. I wanted to get this…colour experience.  It felt like a trip, like I was in this other world, and I realised that, through drawings, I could make this different world. A lot of kids, when they grow up in challenging situations, can interact and react very differently. Drawing this other world allowed me to escape. 

Billy De Luca: And the landscapes? With these paintings, there is less immersion in nature — it almost pushes back.  Are these backgrounds reflecting a sense of longing?

Haley Josephs: I think I was very much influenced by my time in Maine. I was excited to be painting so much, diving into that sense of movement and place and the inner world, the emotional landscape of the characters. Sometimes, however, the paintings are done in a more abstract way, but still holding to representation and having this dream world be real but fantastical. Not everything has to be recognisable. 

The landscapes are also a part of the symbolism in my work. They revolve around my aunt. When I was a kid, she went missing and was in this accident in Montana and walked off into the wilderness and was never found. It has a very specific image in my head of this woman walking off into the Montana landscape, filled with rolling hills and a big sky. When I was at art school getting more into my specific style, I kept painting this scene with a woman and this landscape in her head and then outside of her because I imagined her disappearing into the horizon. Sure, the characters in my work can have this sadness, but the image also sends a message of perseverance and going through difficult times, of overcoming. 

Billy De Luca: And do your paintings have a style? One could place a sticker of ‘surrealism’ on a work with melting skies and name anything ‘fantasy’ following an unimaginable scene. But they aren’t only surreal. They are on a canvas and imagined by you…

Haley Josephs: Yeah I mean I have always had a problem with labels, like my whole life. But I think they are probably just paintings. 

Yeah. They are paintings. 

Billy De Luca: Brilliant. Have you always worked in oils?

Haley Josephs: When I first learned how to paint, it was in acrylic. And being at the Steiner schools, we would paint a lot with watercolour. Watercolour was technically my first experience, but I got hooked on oils, and you can’t go back from oils. It’s just so luscious and. sexy, and I love it.  Also, before I went to college, I was really into ceramics and sculpture too, and I still have a sense of clay, but my heart is definitely into paint.

Billy De Luca: And it’s been ten years since you graduated from Art School and got your MFA. Do you feel comfortable with what you are doing now, or are you still exploring the subject matter and changing things? 

Haley Josephs: I think from my earlier work being influenced by pictures of my aunt to now, there is a level of looking back which makes me realise it’s kind of always been about this chase. A chase to deal with representing and overcoming as a character, seeing a kind of salvation in different ways. In parts of my life, like after grad school, I got really confused about what my work was supposed to look like. I did a lot of really weird things when experimenting, but I think that’s an important thing to do while you’re there. Trying different things and messing around, and not being so precious about things. It took a lot of reckoning to get through graduating and having your work put in a box. Now, I feel a lot more free, and that’s why the narrative and feelings are still as present as they have always been. But it’s when the work is free that the images and story come out in a more authentic way. Even if it takes a longer time to get there. By making a lot of mistakes and failing a lot, I got to the point of being comfortable with just that, not judging whatever happens. I think the thing that hindered me the most was fear. A fear of expectations of others and myself. Now I feel like I can let go of that, and the absolute truth can then spill out. I’m always there in the paintings, but it got fogged up a lot for a while. It became uncertain. It took a long time, but now I’m breaking free of that.

Billy De Luca: But now, what makes a good artwork?

IHaley Josephs: look for a sense of deep exploration and curiosity. I don’t like settling for something and fitting it into some equation of expectations of what one’s work is supposed to be. If there’s something you want to say, say it, and have a real sense of intention and not be held back by the confinements of style.

I like the idea that art comes from this unknown and trying to say the unnameable. It has to be free; I want to see that there is freedom in the work and that it’s been pushed enough. A good painting is one where you push it out into space — nearly out of control — and then you bring it back down. You have to let it get out of control and then hone it back in.  That way, it can capture something that is in this magical realm.

Billy De Luca: And does that mean you know when to stop?

Haley Josephs: I think in the past, I would feel like I wanted the painting to be done in a matter of a day or two, and when I had the composition, the picture would be done (while the paint was still wet). I’d think that’s it. But I stopped too prematurely. Now I’m layering to prolong the painting process. It is getting harder to know when it’s done, but you learn something if you go too far. It’s really nice to have them sitting with me more.

Billy De Luca: I’m sure glazing would help. Titian glazed his paintings up to 20 times back in the day.

Haley Josephs: Glazing, yes! It does so much and shows you how you can think something is done, but then you add another glaze and realise, ‘That’s actually that’s so much better than it was… I did need that when I thought it was done.’  And that’s a big thing to learn. You have to be OK with messing it up. You have to be OK to fail. I like to see paintings that involve a struggle because safety is safe. I think pushing yourself, scaring yourself, and messing with it could be better.  Being so precious is not always the answer.

Billy De Luca: There was a recent work you painted that exemplifies this. There is so much depth coming from behind a treelined background, and a glowing filament of yellow light shines past the darkness. Those colours coming through balance with the form on the left, but how are they balanced?

Haley Josephs: Colour is really hard. I wanted there to be this glow, to make them have this luminous quality. I want there to be a sense of glowing from underneath instead of having light on the surface. It also furthers my work as it revolves around this sense of pushing out from underneath. This work aligns more with what I’ve been trying to get out for a long time.

Billy De Luca: It reminds me of a Turner yellow. The luminosity aspect of his paintings also redefines the parameters of how a painting interacts with light. A casual observer could think, “Your old series is bright, and your new series is dark”, but it goes deeper. You are not going from bright to dark. You’re going from bright to luminous. There’s a darkness in front of it, but you can see the light seeping through.

Haley Josephs: That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s super hard to achieve. There’s something about working towards getting that effect that feels like an exploration of the character as well.  The character gains a sort of sensibility through a mined inner psychology. The act of layering then feels more appropriate. I’m always learning, even with the glaze I’m working with now.

Billy De Luca: It’s true. There are many aspects in the painting process that are involved in making a painting…and making it glow and making it real.

Haley Josephs: Yeah, it’s about capturing some kind of energy that somebody can react to. The same energy that I felt when I was a kid drawing with those fluorescent crayons, trying to capture colour in this complex way that you have to work towards. And it’s not just one crayon that you can draw with, so the question becomes, how do you find the right grouping?

Billy De Luca: What would you say your harshest criticism of your work would be?

Haley Josephs: There’s always this feeling of being really misunderstood. It’s natural, and it happens a lot. In the past, the work has been talked about in a ‘cutesy’ and ‘pretty’ way and in a less-serious tone. It’s not like the work wasn’t taken seriously, but the subject matter was less regarded because of the emotional femininity of my past work. I went through a whirlwind of emotions, but I ended up with a drive to be more me and push. We all have a unique perspective we all show, so I have to try to show mine and keep going. I have a lot of work to do.


All artworks courtesy of Haley Josephs

Elsa Rouy

An artistic metaphysical surgeon

Grotesque bodies writhing in pain, catharsis, and even brief relief emerge in the artworks of Elsa Rouy. She is fascinated by the way bodies behave as vessels as if the form humans inhabit were once empty containers now filled with external impurities. In her paintings, the young British artist dissects women figuratively and literally. Blood and flesh intertwine, and their vivid shock and detailed stupor are brought out by every brush stroke. Eyes far apart, wet hair, dripping fluids, a cut-up chest, an eye coming out of the labia, entangled bodies, and complex, undefined, and intricate emotions to be unpacked and explored. These paintings unravel the mystic center of all kinds of emotions, anatomizing them until their influential power and how they come to play in daily life seep through and become known.

Elsa’s themed focus undulates too. There is an evolution in how she approaches her art, and it is evident in her recent paintings and their more pronounced technical elements. Her earlier works ooze abstraction with enough visual cues to pinpoint who the figures are (take her mother and child series where, for example, she explored the concept of bodily fluids and motherhood). Recently, her paintings take a darker route, a sharper solid state, and a more emblematic yet relatable spin on emotions. A temporary shying away from the diaphanous bodies of women, her artworks employ female forms as a medium of absurdity that hopes to make viewers feel unsettled. A gnawing feeling digs into their emotions as they gaze at the paintings, trying to pull themselves away from her artworks yet already too deep into Elsa’s world for them to let go.

In a conversation with NR, Elsa revisits the themes she explores, attempts to define the abstruse emotions that flow from her to her artworks, and reflects on her paintings as a gateway to who she is; the “metaphysical surgeon” moniker someone calls her; and the parts of herself she is still yet to unravel. 

Matthew Burgos:  I want to start our conversation from the beginning. Can you tell me about your introduction to the art world, paintings in general, and any personal experiences that made an impact on your artistic journey?

Elsa Rouy: I’ve always been into art, and it’s something I’ve done since I was a child. It makes sense for the trajectory of pursuing it as a career as an adult. There have been a couple of times that changed my view on how I approach art. When I went to college, I started seeing it as both a career and a hobby. This perspective became stronger in university. Thematically, my artwork is a development from childhood. I’ve always channeled my emotional experiences into a creative process, mainly through drawing and writing since I was a child. As I’ve grown older, this has become more prominent, extending into poetry and painting, exploring other art forms. Now, I’m working on this idea, but with the awareness to critically engage with concepts and consider their reaction to an audience rather than just myself.

Matthew Burgos: Would you say you grew up in an artistic environment?

Elsa Rouy: Yes, it was definitely encouraged. I think my parents weren’t artists or involved in the arts, but my mom used to draw sometimes, and whenever we did something creative, we were always encouraged to make things and draw. Doing anything with our hands was never discouraged. So I think it was a healthy environment where we were allowed to grow artistically.

Matthew Burgos:  Were you conscious of the themes that you wanted to explore in your artworks? 

Elsa Rouy: No, I don’t. I’ve always liked drawing the body, but I think it was only recently that I started to think deeply about it. It developed through my studies, but it’s only been in the last year that I’ve honed in on what I want to explore with my artwork and try to do that with precision, rather than just painting whatever comes to my head.

Matthew Burgos: But did you go through that process? Did you experience a time when you dabbled in so many themes, trying to figure out what you wanted to focus on?

Elsa Rouy: Yes – I think this happens a lot with everyone where you go off on different routes. There were definitely points where I was trying to make more explicitly political artworks or ones that were less overtly sexual, and maybe more about the ordinary, but I realized that I was interested in this idea of using the body as a vessel and manipulating it to express emotions and explore the brutality of the human condition. So, that’s what I want to focus on rather than trying to go down these other routes.

Matthew Burgos: Do you think there’s a spiritual context going on with this artistic thought? 

Elsa Rouy: I guess so. I’ve never thought of it as spirituality, but I guess it could be in a way because I’m looking into emotions, and there’s a lot to do with, as I always said, about the body being this vessel, this container, and the idea of having these emotions and the existence that we have within it, the containment, and then the leaking out of it, and how we try to contain everything emotionally, but it doesn’t work. And that’s why I’m interested in the fluids coming out and the breaking of the body to signify this false sense of containment that we try to have. So I guess it could be spiritual in that sense, but I don’t think I do stuff for very spiritual reasons.

Matthew Burgos: What are these emotions that we’re talking about?

Elsa Rouy: It’s quite difficult to explain. So it’s not one emotion. It’s trying to look at the intensity of different emotions. They could be like despair or destructive emotions, or maybe even softer emotions like happiness. But then it’s taking them to the limit of complete chaos, basically. And I think a lot of the time inside, it can feel like that, and it’s trying to find the balance between the soft emotions and the brutal emotions. It’s hard to pinpoint which ones because it’s a different range. I guess they used to look a lot at shame, but I’ve moved away from that now, and it’s more of an exploration of different emotions.

Matthew Burgos: Are these emotions that you personally firsthand experience, or ones that you want to focus on in your art?

Elsa Rouy: I think it’s a bit of both. So it’s going back to what I said at the beginning where a lot of it’s taken from emotions that I feel. Then I write poetry, and it would normally be in the moment, get a couple of sentences out. And it’s the same when I come up with an idea for a painting. This image will start forming, but then I go back to them and from a non-emotional point or mindset, I change them. So it’s more like observing the emotions from a distance rather than them being chaotic.

Matthew Burgos: You’ve mentioned before that your works are a visual portrayal of mixed emotions, very complicated and hard to define. But at the same time, you set boundaries between you and your work because, at the end of the day, you’re not your work. But you also added that self-reflection is part of your work and that painting allows you to reflect on your emotions. When does this process of using paintings as your medium start and end, and how do you separate yourself from your art?

Elsa Rouy: I think when I said that I’m not my artwork, I meant it in a quite literal way. When I get criticisms or if I get frustrated with an artwork, I don’t see the artwork as myself, and I try not to let it affect me so directly. It’s not like somebody is attacking me as a person if something goes wrong with the painting or if somebody doesn’t like it or gives a critique. I don’t take it as a personal attack. But I think with the actual artwork itself and myself, it’s a blurred line. And I don’t think there’s ever a clear separation. It’s difficult because when you do it every day and you’re constantly thinking about it, it kind of becomes part of yourself.

I was thinking about this question earlier when you asked me, and the best way I can describe it, it may sound pretentious, but it’s like myself and my artwork seem holistic. All the artworks that I’ve made before and the ones I’m making, as well as the ones in the future, seem to already exist in my head as a space, but not physically. So I think there is a detachment from the physical artworks, but the creative process, the ideas, and the concepts that form them are very ingrained in me. They’re constantly there, and I’m constantly picking them in my head, trying to figure out what I want to do, referencing what I want in the future with my artwork, or what I want in the past and trying to make that now. It’s like they coexist in a plane, and they’re webbed together. There’s probably no escaping being fused with my artwork now, but on a mental level, not physical.

Matthew Burgos: Do you continue the themes that you worked on in the past, or do you prefer to explore new ones and inject nuances of the past themes?

Elsa Rouy: It depends on the theme. Some are recurring, which is natural in my practice and life. But I also leave behind themes that no longer feel important or have reached their limit in exploration. However, even the themes I leave behind still inform the ones I want to explore now. For example, I used to focus on grotesque women and their bodies, but now I use the female form to create absurdity and make people uncomfortable in a different way. So there’s an evolution in how I approach certain themes.

Matthew Burgos: I came across your series where you conceived artworks related to bodily fluids and mothers, and looking at these paintings, how did you correlate these two?

Elsa Rouy: The first theme I explored was about containment and expulsion of the body. Initially, I focused on bodily fluids explosively leaving the body, but now I examine them as leaking or coming out. Whereas before, it was more like violent explosions. Pregnancy and giving birth represent a similar idea, with the body as a container releasing something in a chaotic and violent manner. Both themes touch on the delicate balance between life and death. The expulsion of body fluids can signify dying or illness, while giving birth is about bringing life into the world but also carries risks of death and health issues. To me, these themes have similar meanings as images. The mother figure was significant because it relates to a personal aspect. I used to have fears about becoming a mother, but I’ve now overcome them. When I painted these images, it was like a weird compulsive thing to shift this idea.

Matthew Burgos: What qualities come to your mind when you think of the words mother and child?

Elsa Rouy: The qualities I explore in my artwork related to the mother and child theme are both self-evident and multifaceted. On one hand, it’s about ideas of nurture and protection, creating a safe environment for growth and survival. However, I also delve deeper into the notion of the mother as a safe space while the baby represents something strange and potentially scary that the mother may reject. It’s about examining these complex dynamics.

As for the child, I see them as innocent, fresh, and malleable. They embody a sense of purity as they haven’t been influenced by external factors yet. At that stage, they just exist as a being, growing and learning without the complexities of language and cognitive processes. It’s like witnessing the pure essence of human existence before the complexities of life come into play.

Matthew Burgos: Can you describe your relationship with your mother?

Elsa Rouy: We’re very close, and I consider her one of my best friends! She’s actually visiting me at the moment.

Matthew Burgos: That’s great to hear! And about your recent artworks, you depict a lot of transfigured feminine bodies that exude a wide range of emotions. It made me wonder if these paintings portray psychological dilemmas or distress experienced by the subjects, and if the use of body and nudity serves as a medium to express these emotions. Could you provide some insight into the world that inspired you to create these images? What kind of environment did you immerse yourself in, and what did you envision while visualizing these artworks?

Elsa Rouy: Yes, my recent artworks explore points of emotional brutality. I use the body as a vessel and manipulate and distort it, completely objectifying it until it becomes uncanny and uncomfortable. This allows it to express intense and palpable emotions. I set up scenes with doll-like figures to awkwardly express these feelings. I prefer the snapshots of moments in the paintings because I’m fascinated by the spaces in between things. The slightly abstracted, broken, and distorted bodies create tension, leaving gaps for the audience to interpret and create narratives in their minds. There’s no predefined narrative; the bodies are like puppets placed in a scenery for the audience. The distressed and distorted faces evoke personal emotions in people, making them feel connected and touched. It’s interesting to use the body in a cruel and brutal way to bring out vulnerable and soft emotions in ourselves.

Matthew Burgos: And you did quite visually and literally dissected the body in one of your paintings. Was it a way for you to metaphorically look into the person or explore who that person is?

Elsa Rouy:  Yeah, I think so. The figures are all somewhat based on me, so it’s like breaking the person to find what’s inside. Someone recently described me as a metaphysical surgeon, and I thought it was funny and accurate. It’s weird, but that’s kind of what I do. I never thought of it that way before, but it makes sense. I liked that idea. I’m like, “This is great. I’m going to run with this.” Especially because I want to explore more about blood and the concept of small cuts on the body. It fits well with these ideas. But yeah, it was funny.

Matthew Burgos: I’m wondering if you like horror and gory movies?

Elsa Rouy: If it’s done well, yes, but I like more stylistic ones. I’m not the biggest fan of slasher movies, but I like ones that are more campy eighties ones with the prosthetics and all of that. I went to see Men (2022) with my friends at the cinema, and there’s this scene of a weird rebirth from a man’s body, with grown men coming out of a vagina and everything. And as soon as it happened, all of my friends at the cinema looked at me. I sort of liked that part – the scene, I mean.

Matthew Burgos: Are there things about yourself that you want to know and/or learn more about?

Elsa Rouy: I want to explore everything! I want to discover new things that I genuinely enjoy and are exciting. There are so many activities and experiences I haven’t tried yet, and I believe they could bring a lot of joy into my life. So, I’m eager to find out what I truly like and expand my horizons. I’m interested in getting back into dancing. I used to do it when I was younger, but now maybe try a different style. Um, on the other hand, gardening seems intriguing. Whenever I see videos of it, it looks so calm and relaxing. I’ve never tried it, but it seems like a nice activity to explore.

Matthew Burgos: Even if you have a lot of things to explore, a lot of things that you want to learn more, do you feel connected to yourself or do you feel like you have to learn more about who you are?

Elsa Rouy: Thinking about it now, there are times when I feel connected to myself, for sure. It fluctuates; sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I see it as a learning process, and it’s natural for it to go up and down throughout life, which makes it interesting. You think you know yourself, and then suddenly you realize that you don’t. It keeps life entertaining and exciting.

But I notice I feel very in touch with myself when I’m using my mind and body together, like when I’m painting. The cognitive movement of my body and the thoughts work in harmony, and in those moments, I feel like myself. On the other hand, there are times when I don’t have control over my body, like when I’m on my period or when I’m ill. In those moments, I feel grounded and deeply connected to my humanity and my body. My brain isn’t preoccupied with self-concepts; it’s more focused on the physicality of the body. And I think that’s when I feel most connected to myself.

Matthew Burgos: And how do you feel today?

Elsa Rouy: I feel pretty good actually. No  crazy emotions going on today, but who knows – it could be different tomorrow.


Artworks courtesy of the artist.

Rae Klein

A Fraying Blur

At first glance: Things held within a cloud of pale air. 

At second glance…

Rae Klein is tough. She has built a body of work that has received considerable praise. She was born in Michigan and is still there, working with a rhythm is respectable and representative of her success in recent years. Today, her role in this relationship is simple: she keeps producing.  However, there is nothing desultory about this method. What Klein does is focus on the essential element of her life. Klein has always drawn but hasn’t always worked in oils. Before attaining her BFA, she planned to become a nurse. Before covering gallery walls, she shipped paintings out of her garage. Now, she has a studio. Oh, and she paints. 

Folds and pleats of curtains separate from tense formality. Her constructions confront yet refrain from congesting the scene (they reference without any upturned noses or scoffs). The closest you’ll get to old-school is a bunch of candles resembling Corinthian columns or caryatids. Still, they are unsupported and unlikely to raise too many analogies to the ‘art of old’ — they are also clearly paintings of candles and candelabras. The source material is deliberate, and she paints it big and small.  

The larger works are considered and organised by preliminary work. Smaller works are usually unplanned and texturally emotive, “If I’m going to sit down and do a painting, I’m going straight in, and I want to know that I can get it done in the session. I don’t want to get back to it later.” However, Klein’s paintings interreact simultaneously on both scales. Vector lines are established, and intense colours are formed. Pallid clouds interact with pairs of eyes in a spiralling stare. In the studio, she pulls up a painting with a horse head from the desk, and it immediately forms fantasies with a luminous white glow, breaking with the background through a plunged brush and sharp contrast. She makes paintings that can absorb hours of looking and hours of reading. As such, she leaves the sensuous appreciation to the viewer, briefing through a blur. Outlines are near perfect, sometimes muddied and obscured like a forest in fog. She restricts the number of brushes she uses, how long she works on her paintings, and how many finished works are produced in a month. 

All in oils, the pigments bleed down like dyes, revealing painted imagery — or, more accurately, echoes of images — sourced from eBay, thrift or antique stores. Then, they are translated, and soon layers are raked in, and blue skies wrap backgrounds like Sistine Frescoes. Using a soft brush solvent for highlights and bursts of light (looking like lens flares from a JJ Abrahams film), Klein creates these marks by melting the paint while running the brush through the surface. The thinner paint draws (using a round brush) a glossy line or carves down (using a Filbert brush) to show the canvas base. “It’s just as important to move paint off the canvas as it is to put it on,” says Klein. The ground comes through like white tree roots, shining with a subtle radiancy. Like cutting away at curtains rather than parting them. But you can still see the paint, just differently.

Contemplating her practice, Klein observes her work through a tinted window, seeing a bit of herself inside but remaining outward-looking. Klein is introspective in her description yet makes her way across canvases with a tender distance. She’s focusing on the work and the process. In other words, she’s honest. She’s tough.

Billy De Luca: This is an early morning chat.  It is 9:00 am.  Where are we?

Rae Klein: In East Michigan. I live and work in a town called Grass Lake. It’s an hour south of Lansing (Michigan’s capital) and an hour north of Detroit.  It’s like a village. 

Billy De Luca: Have you always lived and had a studio here?

Rae Klein: No. I grew up across the State. Kind of by the lake, in Holland, Michigan. After school I moved, and I had been working from my garage in a town called Stockbridge for the past two years. I moved homes and the studio here in October 2022. It’s a cheap place to live, and it’s small.

Billy De Luca: And that must have been during the pandemic too. Did that affect the scale of your work?

Rae Klein: In those days, they were a lot smaller. They went from about 40 inches to now much bigger. My new studio’s ceiling is about 12 feet (four meters). 

Billy De Luca: Does it feel better to have a gallery not to stress about the administrator?

Rae Klein: Oh yeah, absolutely. Shipping was always a doozy. Now a couple of dudes show up and pack ’em up. And that’s it. I think I just have to be there.  So that’s amazing.  

Billy De Luca: Do you stretch the canvases yourself? What makes them so smooth and glossy?

Rae Klein: No, I have a guy in Detroit who makes the canvases, and then I prime them myself. The canvases are all linen. I used to work on larger grain linen, but now I’m switching to a smaller grain. You can get a lot more detail that way. And the glossiness comes from the varnish. I varnish all the works so that I don’t touch them when they are done. Paintings can be overdone so quickly. It takes a lot of self-discipline to let it be the way it is. Some of them are smooth sailing. Others are ‘problem children’. The ones that are more of a struggle involve more problem-solving. I put them in a ‘time-out’ pile I have in the studio of works that are sitting. Eventually, I figure it out. That’s one of the fun parts of working: when it clicks. Then, knowing what to do.  

Billy De Luca: How do you find painting in oils? Does it force you to have patience? 

Rae Klein: All the work up here in the studio is drying…waiting. The oils help. But I still get impatient, and mistakes happen. I’m trying to apply a technique for controlling errors. Some mistakes will cause beautiful results, especially with textures and colours. But other mistakes have to be sorted into the ‘do not make again’ pile, for instance, getting perspectives wrong and disturbing the image or technical stuff like messing up the surface while priming. Learning to control my mistakes is a big part of improving.

Billy De Luca: And when it comes to your colour selection, do you create your own palette of pigments, or do you mix it up a lot?

Rae Klein: I do a lot of mixing. I’m really into earth tones, but it depends. If something is more mechanical and doesn’t have people, animals, or candles, it probably won’t beg for earth tones. But with my paintings that feature more organic matter, I’m squeezing those browns in!

Billy De Luca: And what makes you select your imagery and subject matter?

Rae Klein: That’s always been a tough one to answer. Basically, I think that they are just things I like. That feel timeless. I’m also now realising that they are also liminal: they could be from any place at any time. I think that’s interesting to play with.

Billy De Luca: You’re right, temporally communal. They are not bordered by specific contextual zones like Jasper Johns’ American Flag or a Gerhardt Richter scene of Paris. It’s tailored to a broader audience.

Rae Klein: And it’s not that I’m trying to cast a wide net. I’m glad I’m not thinking about that when I’m painting, but I do like the idea of having people relate to the imagery as if they might have seen it before. In the design phase, when constructing a painting, I’m looking for it to be a little new to me. I’m always trying to play around with it. I want it to strike me as if I’ve just discovered something. I think how I sketch them allows me to play with the idea a lot. The more rigid paintings are constructed much more like collages, and that’s also where I get some excitement. For some paintings, I just sit down and…do. And that’s a whole other thing. When it comes to the physical act, it has a lot to do with texture. It is equally important to fill the painting with exciting textures and marry it with itself. I get several types of enjoyment from different processes.

Billy De Luca: So, one process generates novelty, and the other comes naturally. Would you say that’s how you started making art?

Rae Klein: When I started painting, I was adding a lot of detail to the work. I felt like excitement would come from being very descriptive. Now I’m trying to see if I can leave more out. Like, what if I could just paint a curtain in an exciting and impactful way but also in a way that doesn’t involve planning out the whole scene? I think the exciting part for me right now is saying more with less. That’s the broad journey.

Billy De Luca: I love that. It’s interesting how acts of omission can further the quality of a work. And when you do it well, it feels much better. Like when somebody finds something interesting in your work that you didn’t have in a CV or portfolio.

Rae Klein: Yes! And I’m trying to apply that to my figures. I almost want them not to be a specific person. I want them to be a representation of a person. It doesn’t need a face or even eyes. It can be just one thing. I like setting the tone with objects.

Billy De Luca: I also noted that the smaller paintings involve outlines that come over and into the surface, like a finger through wet sand. They streak into the layers, muddying the paint and allowing the earth tones to spring up. Is that an example of a finishing touch or how your paintings are conducted within a session?

Rae Klein: Oh yeah, that’s both. I use a brush for that, and it’s very difficult to do on the large ones because it takes so much time to fill in an area. And it has to be done last because it marries the background and the foreground. The blend happens within the shapes and layers. I go over an area with the paint from the background to the main subject to ‘cohesify’ the image. Sometimes it creates a more interesting pattern, colour or line; other times, I let the lines show to avoid overworking the painting.

Billy De Luca: What do you think gets people interested? Like a profound experience of art. Do you think people can just as quickly struggle to accept your work?

Rae Klein: When somebody tells me that it makes them cry. That’s when I’ve done a good job with the painting. I’m in Michigan, so most of my interaction with people besides openings is through Instagram. People are all surprisingly friendly. If they leave a comment, it’s supportive. But there have been times when somebody will go, “So, this is art?” But I don’t take my paintings seriously. I’m not heartbroken if that happens. I’m interested in how people see it.

Billy De Luca: So you are removed from your work?

Rae Klein: I think so, yeah. I don’t keep them. Once I’m done painting a work, it has done its job for me. Once it is done, it can go in a pile. The enjoyment comes from making it and learning, not the final result it extracts. I mean, I’m proud of them, but it is not like I am going to keep them. There are always more nuances to learn that come with painting. And they keep coming! So, it’s better to focus on learning and improving.

Billy De Luca: Has the way you’ve produced changed over time? You just got back from your honeymoon. How was it being away from the studio? 

Rae Klein: I took a week and a half off. And I was like…WOW, what’s going on? I just love to paint. If I have free time, I think I could be painting. I just love it.Usually, I’m pretty consistent. It has been stable for the past two years, but the period in which I worked is now widening; when I started, I would ask myself what I could do on the day, and now it’s more about what I can do in the month and how I can plan the next six months. It was interesting because I have always had a schedule, and when I started supporting myself with my work, I would make paintings available every month or two. That schedule is different in the timespan from the gallery schedule, so it has changed, and I’m structuring it a lot more.

Billy De Luca: And who would you say is your toughest critic?

Rae Klein: Good question. The gallery has really helped me grow and become comfortable with talking about my work. Nicodim is great because they are selective with their artists, but I still have creative control. It’s not always like that with other galleries. When it comes to advice, I think it’s probably my husband. I go to him with a problem, and he’ll be honest, and that’s good.

Billy De Luca: What affects your style?

Rae Klein: My method involves a lot of images too, and they are mostly found. I get a lot from that. Then comes the process of making it interesting for myself. I think style is ever-evolving and something that’s in the rear-view mirror. I figure it will continue to change since I’m on a learning journey, and that’s where the enjoyment is for me. Looking back, it seems pretty fluid, but I’ve been told it is pretty consistent. Some people see it that way, but I see it differently. 

Billy De Luca: What would be something you’d always like to keep in your paintings? Is there more to add?

Rae Klein: The first thing that comes to mind is that I don’t see the dogs or the horses going away. I’ve been drawing horses since I was a little kid. I wasn’t a ‘horse girl’ but I did love horses. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near horses, so I had to draw them. I used to paint cars, and as I learned more, I realised it wouldn’t fit, and those got phased out. I don’t think how I get images or anything like that will change. That’s always been pretty consistent. I do want to keep up with technology, though. Trying to learn about AI generation and digital resources is very important, especially how to use that stuff. If you start to fear it, it can cause stagnation in learning, especially since that is where the momentum is taking us. So I’m concerning myself with that right now, and it’s definitely interesting to learn about. I don’t see myself integrating these new things very often, but I want to be aware of them and know how I could use them if I wanted, without having any judgement. I’m looking to coexist.


All artworks courtesy of Rae Klein and Nicodim Gallery

Kate Ahn

It’s Shock Therapy, Baby

Jasper Johns once said, ‘Hollywood is forever young, forever sexy and forever swollen with abundance.’ This makes sense when looking at the figures in Kate Ahn’s paintings. 

However, abundance in these works is qualified by searing faces and billowing forms stretching across the image and twisting in the frame. They are abundant in mixed yet meaningful messages, pained and charmed. Painting in series, Ahn depicts herself in varying stages of movement. Nearly always nude. The relevance of this nudity is open to interpretation. Still, Ahn’s subjects bring to life the late critic John Berger’s words, ‘Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.’

These figures are not just nude but clothed in meaning. They are overcorrections, pronounced perfectionism with an outcome of exaggerated beauty. A swagger of confidence sways on a bed, bounding between big buttcheeks and long legs, wavering between buoyant breasts and the torrential currents of bedsheet and brick wall. These forms are idealisations, idylls of what could be. They are powerful, exposed, fearless, and nuanced in nakedness, fiercely facing everything with glowing skin and stripy socks.  

Ahn is in Los Angeles. She grew up on the United States West Coast and has lived there for most of her life. In recent times, Ahn’s paintings have developed an ethereal strength. She discusses her work and artistic intentions are spread across the social and physical dermis of expressive geography. Ahn’s world is mapped around acrylic paint and produces figures that produce shock therapy that will force any white wall into submission. And they are also nude, but that’s only half the story. 

Billy De Luca: You are in LA right now. Did you just have a show there?

Kate Ahn: I had a show downtown at Gallerie Murphy — it’s an extension gallery of Terminal 27 on Beverly Blvd — and they just opened. I was there for one month, which was a great experience. It was very emotional for me because I sacrificed a lot for this show. It was almost 2 years of work, it was everything I had in me.

Billy De Luca: The commercial gallery scene can be terrifying. But having that proximity in LA must have been great. Did it get overwhelming having such access to your exhibited works?

Kate Ahn: Oh, no, I was even there after the opening a few times. I was so much a part of everything. From the paintings to the merchandise with Terminal27 and just the gallery preparation itself, I was there at every step.

Sometimes it is hard to collaborate and find people to take up your vision, but when there is synergy and trust, things always turn out beautifully. I also enjoyed being in the gallery to say hi to whoever came by.  

Billy De Luca: That can be a very personal experience. It changes the context when you see the person who painted the image before you. And how come you liked the collaborative aspect?

Kate Ahn: I like it, but I also think it can be challenging and sometimes divisive. I feel like I am also thinking about the audience and what the general public can digest each time I collaborate. As an artist, when you create your work, you can really just go all in. I don’t think about whether everyone will love it, but you have to consider that in collaborations. 

Having that restriction is also nice because It makes you think outside the box. You have to please other people and yourself; it allows me to have my art in many mediums. It isn’t just up on a wall: It can travel and transform into many different objects and forms, which is super exciting too. I try to do as much as possible within my freedom, but sometimes you can’t go completely explicit – for example, on a pair of shoes.

Billy De Luca: Finding that balance must have taken time. When did you start painting and getting into the fashion side of the arts? Did the transition help with selling your ‘ideas’ to the world?

Kate Ahn: I’ve been painting since I was  6, but I’ve also been into fashion since I was in my mother’s womb. A lot of it came from her. She’s always loved fashion and the arts and was the first person to introduce me to these worlds. From the outside, we are like complete opposites. But actually, I’d say there are more similarities than differences. I have this feeling that my mother sees me as a reflection of herself. Deep down, she’s secretly cheering me on and healing her inner child through me – even though she’ll NEVER admit to that haha. It’s like she’s looking at a mirror to see what she could’ve been (if all the rules and societal pressures didn’t alter or make her afraid of what she really wanted to do). I think I am my mother, and she is me.

But back to fashion haha. She definitely appreciates the design and artistic aspects of fashion, but I think she, just like many other people, is also attracted to the idea of class status that is prevalent in that world. This is where I’d like to think we differ: I love the art of fashion, but sometimes it can feel a little like high school. Personally, I don’t care about what’s most popular this season, who’s seated where, and what somebody is wearing at a show. Although I understand the allure, I just enjoy what makes me feel good based on my own narrative and understanding of each piece. 

Fashion has done a lot for me. It has helped me deal with the insecurities I’ve had my whole life, but it also gave me the freedom that I felt like I didn’t have. Clothing and accessories were my costumes and a mask. I wore it like armour.

Billy De Luca: That’s the beauty of being an artist, don’t you think? Fashion is in that same weird middle ground. It’s like hair. It will grow out of you and can get long enough to be another limb and part of who you are. But sometimes, it can get knotty and be a pain.

Kate Ahn: For sure. I definitely turned to painting to create these fantasies since I had such poor self-esteem (and still struggle with it). It’s how I cope to get through all of life’s bullshit. I think that’s how it is for a lot of artists. We are all struggling and trying to figure it all out. 

Billy De Luca: Do you always paint yourself? 

Kate Ahn: I have since I was 6. I remember one of my first paintings of a beach filled with all these girls, and all those girls were me. I’m not kidding. There were like 20 versions of me on that beach. But even since then, I’ve always encountered these “teachers” that did not seem to fuck with my vision! When I went to a bunch of art classes (a lot of them were Korean art classes), I had a couple of teachers who were very chill and open-minded, but I also had many teachers who were very conservative. One didn’t even offer figure drawing classes because it was ‘inappropriate’. I thought that was so crazy.

Billy De Luca: Where was this?

Kate Ahn: I grew up in Irvine — It’s a really nice area. You know, the suburbs. It’s deemed the safest city in America, with a huge Korean community. But I always hated it. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to leave. I feel privileged to be brought up in such a safe environment, but the environment felt so stale and mundane. One of the art classes I attended was 20 minutes away from my hometown, but the guy who ran the place was horrible. I eventually found another class that meshed better, but as much as I wanted to paint what I paint now, due to my age and environment, it really wasn’t an option. So I focused more on objects and foods that represented the female body and sexuality at the time.  It wasn’t until after college that I got to my self-portraits. 

Billy De Luca: Why was that?  Where was college?

Kate Ahn: I didn’t attempt to do my self-portraits until after college. The love that I got from my parents (after getting accepted into USC) felt too good to stray away from, especially after so many years of rebelling during my tween and teen years. So, naturally, during that time, I gave into their ways — which meant giving up art as a career. I went to school and went from art to Communication (with a minor in Finance). I told my parents — and convinced myself — that I would go into banking and make a lot of money. I thought that after that, someday I’d get back to my art…But that didn’t happen. I never did any of that besides graduating, but that’s something, right? 

I tried my best to conform, but it was just not in me. After my second year, I realised I was never going to be the person they wanted me to be, and I didn’t want it either. After graduating in 2020, I painted my first self-portrait. After my various jobs, I saved a bunch of money and said, OK, let me do what I want … I bought my first HUGE canvas. It had been my dream since I was 14 to paint on a canvas like that and to have enough time to work on such a scale. I was still shy and didn’t show my face. I marked it off. But the bodies remained. They were all me, variations of me or dreams of what it could look like. It became a fantasy.

So yeah, that was my first self-portrait, and it sold, so I thought, ‘I must be doing something right!

Billy De Luca: And how did your parents feel about that? 

Kate Ahn: They are still upset. I can sympathise with how they feel. As conservative parents, I think the subject matter alone would be difficult for them to digest. But on top of that, there is also a very real fear of their only child not having the stability that a more traditional career choice can provide. It’s not easy selling pieces, for sure. But that first piece was definitely something I took as a sign to just go for it. 

Billy De Luca: Do you think that painting is easier than the administrative and sales aspect?

Kate Ahn: Painting is way easier. It would be a dream to just paint and not worry about the selling side of the job haha. It makes me depressed sometimes, and it can feel like things are predestined in this industry. It’s so much about who you know. I ask myself a lot: Are these the things that make or break me as an artist? Do I need to be a person that can talk up my work or have someone willing to do that for me? Yes, it’s discouraging. But in the end, I can’t see myself doing anything else. I can’t stop what I’m doing, and I believe that if you really love it, you’ll find a way.  

Billy De Luca: Beforehand it was very much about the quality of the work and the consistency it bore in improving over time and being relevant in such times. Now, it is about self-marketing. You can have an agent and a Gallery, but if you don’t have a personality, then you can sell paintings all you want — but you may not be memorable. With your work, the images strike and transfer energy. Audiences have received that energy and are buying in. You can sell a painting, but you have to sell a self-portrait.

Kate Ahn: Yeah, I agree. Social media has definitely inflated and put this importance on not just your work but a person being an entire package. It’s like people themselves have become conglomerates: you’re the actor, the producer, the director, etc. Everyone has to become a multi-disciplined brand that must follow the fickle nature of social media. Like a walking billboard. It’s overwhelming, but it can be great because you can get your work out independently, cutting out the middleman like agents or galleries. But at the same time,  there’s a negative side that comes with oversaturating the avenues that lead people to not take you as seriously. I think of Andy Warhol, who essentially went for it and did it all. And unfortunately, having to deal with silly repercussions where some circles of the art world stopped taking him seriously for doing things unconventionally at the time. Fast forward to now, it’s kind of ironic how his way of doing things ended up becoming the standard today. Even now, it’s still hard to navigate what the perfect balance is between doing it all and still being taken seriously.   

And man,  there are so many days where I have wished I could paint anything else. Any object, like food or something. It’s easier to sell that as an idea. Instead, I paint really explicit self-portraits. And on that, there is a double standard. Women are in this really unjust and tough position where we are constantly objectified living in this patriarchal world, but the moment we start owning our own sexuality and our own bodies, we become lepers.  As much as my work receives a lot of love, it also receives so much hate. Even though we’ve been painting nude women for centuries, I think it is still very new for women themselves to be the ones painting our own bodies. I guess that’s too progressive even for this world haha.  

Billy De Luca: And what does that mean to you?

Kate Ahn: That’s one of the very reasons I continue to paint my self-portraits in the nude.I am fighting for my right and everyone’s right to own our sexuality and our body and control our own narrative because that’s a human fucking right. Sexuality isn’t everything, but to me, it is a representation of freedom because that was the first real restriction I faced in my life, and I think many others faced it too. I think women especially have to deal with the double standard of not being able to deal with the freedom of being a sexual being. In my work, I can own my sexuality. I can be who I want to be in my work. 

Billy De Luca: So it’s more than just you?

Kate Ahn: In a way, it is more than me. I think my work can become confusing as I am trying to fight the patriarchy, but at the same time, I am also trying to heal from my own self-esteem issues that may very well come from the male gaze. Critics could say I am just perpetuating the patriarch all over again, and I hate to say it, but maybe they would be somewhat true. But I can’t help the fact that being able to fantasise about myself in these various bodies and shapes helps me appreciate my actual body. It’s similar to how I play with clothing, I put it on like a mask and play this character enough to learn that my real self is actually not far away from my ideal self…it was just my anxiety and self-doubt clouding my brain. Maybe that’s unhealthy in some way, but I think a lot of people can relate to the journey of finding true love for yourself and that sometimes it takes unconventional ways to get there. And at the end of the day, I believe that by taking control of my own body and my own self-esteem issues, I still, in many ways, fight the patriarchy.  

Billy De Luca: Does the commentary influence you as much as it pushes you forward? 

Kate Ahn: With or without the commentary, the paintings would still be like this. But it does help my narrative. The more hate I get, the more my paintings will develop meaning. It just proves to me what I need to express in my work and why it’s important. Some people think I just paint porn…but for me, I feel like I sometimes do paint porn, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. 

Billy De Luca: Is it hard to balance professional composure while being a human behind the work? 

Kate Ahn: Yah, it is difficult– at least for me, it is. I mean, being an artist to me means that you are choosing to be vulnerable. I know many artists that can keep the vulnerability strictly within their work but for me, I am, unfortunately, a person who tends to word-vomit everything I am going through within my work and outside of it too. I know it’s not the best habit. I know most people respect those who have that perfect ‘professional composure’ — characterised by a confident fearlessness, keeping their cool, even when shit is going sideways in their personal life. This might be completely delusional, but I’d still prefer to find a way to continue to be this open book and also be respected for it just because I feel like it’s so much a part of my character. 

Billy De Luca: However, having strong work which is the best thing that you put out at that time. That is what is going to be a huge driving factor. You might not sell. You might go from being very financially comfortable to financially uncomfortable. But through that ringer, one thing is still chugging along, still developing.  And that’s your painting. 

Kate Ahn: That’s right. And that’s why I’ll never stop either. The paintings are me. There’s no costume or façade or anything. It’s my soul. If I think back to where I was two years ago with my painting, it’s like…incomparable to my skill now.  So yeah, that helps me feel better. These feelings of insecurity have inspired me so far, and although I’m working on that, it does still help me produce. The emotions come out, and it makes the art worthwhile. You don’t have to be ‘healed’ to make people feel something — I think I’m just too hard on myself since the years are never easy, and there are so many constant changes. Even if it’s bad feelings, it’s feeling. If you’re feeling something, it’s art.

Billy De Luca: And what else do you see is changing?

Kate Ahn: For my new collection, I want to do more facial expressions similar to the whole 1970s erotica time period, where everyone looked so happy, vibrant, and alive. I feel like that is true for me since I’m a very smiley and happy person. I also want to continue to include more pieces of clothing and lots more socks, as that still is so much a part of me. I did do that a lot this year as I did, like… a lot of stocks.

Billy De Luca: I was going to ask about those…It reminds me of how men in the business sector ‘jazz up’ a suit with a sock. You end up being naked, showing the socks you wear, and they can be colourful and different, but they balance out the grey world of suits. It’s a stabiliser.

Kate Ahn: It’s an homage to my love of clothing…In a way that still allows me to be nude. Certain things go on when you conform to such a society. It’s so difficult to show your identity and be unique and yourself. So yeah, socks are awesome, and you can have so many cool socks. 

I’m obsessed with socks.

Billy De Luca: Besides the clothing, where do the colourful backgrounds come into it? Do the star-shaped pastels of pink and green come as afterthoughts?

Kate Ahn: The background comes later. I usually don’t know what to do for the background. That being said, I feel like it has to do with my inspiration from Japan, especially from love hotels.  Japan is just…different. I want the paintings to feel happy and alive. I learned a lot about love hotels recently. Back in the 70s, during the women’s liberation movement and just after they legalised abortion, all these love hotels popped up, and they embraced and nurtured the idea of sex and love. You can see it in the way they built these themed rooms and structures. It’s a fantasy that invites more fantasy. The beds are spinning, there’s colour everywhere, and the adult fantasy becomes a reality. And I love it. I love how it is accepting of the fact that humans are sexual beings. It’s happy and human. 

Billy De Luca: And does your subject matter and work rely on where you are geographically?  

Kate Ahn: Yah, I definitely think so. When I grew up in the suburbs, the constraints and staleness of the city definitely played a part in my work and also the person I became. That’s where you can see the rebellious nature of my work. And being that I was only an hour away from LA, it became a dream of mine from an early age to move here — which I finally did at 18. I think the environment here in LA is so nurturing to being different. It helped me gain confidence in my work. And the actual physical beauty of the city — the madness, the graffiti, I would say some of the strip clubs down here, too, have definitely inspired some of my works. 

Billy De Luca: Being in LA is historically seen as…intense. ‘Jasper Johns once said that Hollywood is forever young, forever sexy, and forever swollen with abundance.’ How do you feel about LA?

Kate Ahn: I think Jasper Johns is right. LA is forever young, sexy, and so swollen with abundance that I think it’s only natural to have this love-hate relationship with the city. You can’t be young forever. BUT maybe you can be sexy forever — depending on who’s looking — but living life in abundance will always catch up to you. That’s the thing with LA as much as it is a beautiful city, it’s also really superficial, but hey, I think you can find that just about anywhere in the world. I hate it here, but I also love it, and it will always be my home.

Billy De Luca: Last question… Does that solitude drive you to keep going? 

Kate Ahn: I don’t know if it really drives me. I think I am just so used to being alone. Being an only child basically prepared me to be an artist, you know? I think what drives me is that from a very young age, I had a dream of who I was going to be when I became a grown-up, and even though I still have ways to go, I am essentially living it. Even with all the people trying to bring me down and bet on my downfall, I will never let go of my dream. That’s what will always drive me to keep going.  


KATE #3, 2022
All Images courtesy of the artist.

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