BY ALLISON FONDER
I remember speaking with someone recently about the bulk of people’s relationships with art, specifically with paintings. Often I’ll notice that if someone wants to buy a piece of art, they want to connect with it — instantaneously, intrinsically. It’s a type of mental insurance. This seems like a nice idea; something that “speaks to you”, a reaffirming pat on the back. But what if there’s a counterpoint to this? What if this intrinsic feeling is not as much about intimacy as it is about ego? I find that people often want to believe they’re ‘intelligent’ enough to automatically understand a work, but given we live in a world of vastly different perspectives, isn’t it okay to be comfortable with approaching something we can’t automatically grasp? Don’t we have enough confidence in ourselves to try and figure it out?
Artist Angharad Davies, a UK transplant currently residing and working in Chicago, states somewhere in this interview that she asks a lot from her audience — and when it comes to one’s perception of their own quick-wittedness, when viewing her work, ego must be checked at the door. Within Davies’ work, she often asks the viewer to become comfortable with immersing herself in enigma; in my eyes, this connects in one regard with her ‘foreign’ status and perhaps her desire to share this feeling with others. Her video work is magnetic; expertly syncopated and investigative, exploring many ideas but never giving away the artist’s own idea. That part is up to you. This enigma is arguably something surprisingly rare in the “art” world today. Whether it’s a painfully obvious conceptual construction or a work of art with the ever-popular synopsis placard, we like to interact with work like we do many stimuli in our everyday modern world: spelled out clearly or blurb attached (140 characters or less). Toying with language, proportion in relation to the body, and understanding of the commonplace object, Davies’s work doesn’t blur and confuse for the sake of pretension; in fact, it’s optimistic toward the possibility that perhaps people can become comfortable questioning what they think they know, and is that not the true and original intention of an education? In today’s world, we often veer from this idea, preferring the things that are easily digestible as opposed to something that may take patience – something many of us in the modern age lack – and a little bit of our own perspective in order to complete a thought about what’s in front of us.
Allison: We should start with you telling me about your show and what you’ve been working on.
Angharad: So it runs from mid-March to mid-April at Devening Projects. I met [the founder] Dan Devening on the residency ACRE; It’s a ten day residency out in Wisconsin that happens every summer, and they select a number of residents and you go – hang out and make work, meet people; but the really nice thing about it is you get a show off the back of the residency. So you don’t just go and make work in an isolated bubble and then go back to your studio, continue to make the same work without showing it to anyone. The Devening Projects show came out of that residency.
I predominantly work with video, but in reference to painting and photography – there a few oddities in my studio at the moment. I tend not to place myself within one medium. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about interdisciplinary work and that even for me doesn’t sit right, it still implies that you work within/across disciplines and that they must be distinct from one another. I think in terms of painting with regards to composition and color but I also don’t make paintings – I’m not a photographer, but my base root for everything I make is photographs. And I’m not a filmmaker, because I’m not invested in the medium, it serves a function to enable me to I look at the things I’m interested in looking at and the way that I want them to be looked at.
So the piece that I’m making for [the show] is a video installation with an 8 ft by 12 ft video projection in a space married with various objects that are the characters from the film. One of these characters is a hula hoop filled with sand that references a jousting ring, I consider this as the environment in which the video takes place. The hoop will be placed in the space in relation to a moment in the video which shows the big photograph that’s behind you (points to a large photograph on the wall). And then the other main character is this vase, which is a vase from the Getty Collection that I saw out in Los Angeles last year. It’s a 18th century Chinese porcelain vase that was exported to France about 20 years after it was made and then the gold scroll mounts were added by French craftsmen, so it becomes a strange marriage between these two histories. It wasn’t intended for export [to France] and it’s unclear how it came to be there. Then two hundred years later it now lives in the Getty Collection. From one colonial power to another. So these objects operate as keys into the video along with the speaker mounts, which are lying flat on the table at the moment. They have a dual function; firstly they will become soapboxes or plinths to support the vases, and secondly the sound for the video is going to come out of these speakers.
To go back to the large photograph of the jousting ring on the wall; this is where the video originated from. I took the photograph in Umbria, in Northern Italy, where every year this one village has an annual medieval versus Victorian festival, a two week long celebration where half the town dresses up as Victorian people. So, they’ll have a boxing match one day in the town square and then the next day they’ll dress in Medieval garb and have a feast — so, again, these strange histories in the same way as they’re constructed in the vase exist in this two week celebration in the town. I visited the festival in 2009 and took this photograph and have had it with me since I moved out to the states to start the masters program. As I was relocating four thousand miles, I only had a couple of suitcases and the easiest thing to bring with me were the photographs that I had been interested in, but hadn’t quite resolved. It has meant that over the last two years these photographs have been the basis of everything I’ve made. And I am reluctant to call it an archive, but essentially it is, albeit a personal one. I’m not taking photographs of friends or family. I don’t take photographs on the whole of people, but their absence is always a part of my work. I predominantly work with images of interventions into architecture and landscape, curious topiary for example. Images that I can use as a means to tell a story about something else.
On that note – Your current show statement touches on photography being a perhaps restrictive lens for understanding history and identity. This is an idea relevant to our world since the beginning of image making, but given the fact that we all currently carry the burden of maintaining our own public image, this also holds a unique importance within this day and age. I would love to hear a little more about your ideas regarding this concept.
Photography is a fabrication. It always has been. It tells a certain truth, someone’s truth, but not the whole truth and often not the truth which it was intended to. However, I think even now, with our knowledge of and ability to manipulate images, there is still an innate trust in the medium. And that’s a very powerful thing, subverting that as well as presenting a photograph as not only an image of a thing but as an object and surface in itself. I find that multiple perspective infinitely fascinating.
In terms of public image or social media, I am fairly shy and retiring; essentially mute, so i’m not sure I can comment on what that might look like. It seems exhausting to me to always be looking at yourself from outside, and presenting a summarised version of oneself. I think we are infinitely more complicated.
My work often needs to be watched multiple times, the videos operate as concertina’s and from conversations I’ve had around the work different things reveal themselves as it is viewed and reviewed. I’m asking a lot from my audience in that an extended attention span is needed to get the most out of the work. In exchange my hope is that the experience is intriguing and rewarding. This strategy is in part an antidote to the speed at which we supposedly consume and then discard information and things. I’m asking people to linger over images for longer so that they have time to reveal themselves in other, and potentially surprisingly ways.
So you mentioned you often use inanimate objects as a representational tool – not necessarily a person but something that represents, you know a story or a history or something like that, and you consciously exclude human bodies from your work – why do you choose to incorporate the things that we use or the things that we carry as opposed to telling a story that involves people? What does that lack of presence do?
I think this is especially true for the last piece that I exhibited, Iceberg. In the same way as you want to give your readers an autonomy of what they’re reading, I personally find it much easier to insert myself, as a viewer, into a piece of work if I become the ‘I’ and I’m looking at an environment which isn’t peopled because then I can insert my own body into it without feeling like I have to communicate with the other bodies. In other words, it becomes the person who’s watching’s territory. This also gives me more freedom to complicate or tell lies or weave together stories. We read so much from the physical reference of a body; about time and history and class, fashion, or race, and I want to ambiguate those things.
Tell me more about this act of fabrication or telling lies — I’ve often thought about this, it reminds me of Werner Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration”, which to me holds a lot of truth regarding art in general. What do you think is the importance of a fabricated narrative? Do you find there is more truth that comes from telling a lie? Is there such thing as a ‘pure’ fabrication or do you think every lie contains some fact? As I write this, I get confused myself about the barriers between these two constructions…
I think all of these things are true. Although I think less of them as lies per se, but distractions or deviations, as a way to make us question what truths we are being told, and what assumptions we make. It’s really a way to readdress our attention. Ultimately it’s about imagination and applying that to the everyday in many different ways.
You also kind of have this obsession with complexity and blurriness. In my eyes, you seem to be fascinated with the grey area of an idea, whether it’s the way you feel emotionally about something or time. I don’t know if that seems to resonate with you at all, but – I’m curious to know more about that – like I feel like with your work there’s this sort of in-betweenness that you’re playing with.
That’s certainly true, but it’s also the before and after, the either side of in-betweenness that we don’t necessary see. It’s easier to talk about this in reference to specific pieces — there was a work I made in 2013, Flood: Trailer for an installation, that began as an installation and I now present it as a video trailer for this installation that no longer exists, so it is becomes past (document), present (we are looking at it now), and future (the trailer). I don’t know what else you’ve watched —
I mean, I’ve watched a little bit of everything but I kind of wanted to hear more about what your thoughts were behind it. I was interested to know if you had a certain motive when people view your work of what you want them to experience, like, is it supposed to – when you’re looking at something – this vague object, does it help you (the viewer) refer back to something personal to you?
Well, you can never know what someone else is going to be thinking, I feel like I can suggest things and direct things, but the power of association is so unique and that’s really exciting and where the connection between what I am showing and you are seeing happens. I’m constructing work through my own personal understanding of how associations exist, but I’m always reassured when an audience can read the work how I intended and often, especially when something is really new, my understanding is very instinctive, so it’s wonderful when people bring their own narrative to the work; complicate it and complete it.
The things that preoccupy me are usually overlooked and unremarkable. Spaces that I find curious, tend to be what I take photographs of. An example would be, A Portrait of Earth, which I made in 2012, at Swap-O-Rama market on the South-side of Chicago. I was assuming it was going to be more akin to an English car boot sale with some older stuff and good bargains, but actually quite a lot of it is just plastic and crap, imported and mass produced. But it also has a really nice, intriguing community around it. You get stalls that are selling plastic toys, but you also get hairdressers and perfumers and blindmakers. You pay a dollar to enter the market and it’s open Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but there are businesses there that you would conventionally have on like a high street. I was fascinated by who went to the market to get their hair cut? And wanted to understand it. To me that seems like such a strange idea, in part because I‘ve had the same hairdresser since I was 13 and I get my hair cut when I go back to London and tend to not get it cut any other time – it’s a very personal relationship. But the idea that that could exist in this seemingly temporary, hectic space, that level of intimacy is something I’m looking at — that intimacy in an institutional space is an access point for a kind of conversation or a moment of understanding between two people.
So if I can, I guess, zoom out a little bit from that spiral about some guy getting his hair cut on the South Side… There were spaces in the market and I really wanted to do something that was sensitive and respectful of the community that is there. It was essential that I questioned my position, ‘who I am? here?’, especially, and I felt very foreign at that time because I had just moved to the States. I became really interested in one particular market stall which had been occupied by a cobbler, and then had been left. But the space itself is totally beautiful but utterly crummy, it was made out of pegboard, the pegboard had been painted a bunch of times, the paint was worn away – the space basically had been doctored and changed and fit for purpose for the person that was working in it and then had just been left. You could see all these traces of where the shelves had been because there were these ghost images where they had taken the shelf with them and the paint that had been around the shelf was still there. So I started working with that space and inserting my own photographs that I felt resonated with the architecture and with that type of informal commercial setting; scrappers and oddities and curious junk of the people who negotiate and make money in that space, I inserted [my own work] into the stall and then ended up filming the photographs in situ. The final piece was a video work that exists outside the space of the market entirely. But at the time it was about pointing to that environment and in part, the conversations I had with people there when I was doing it. In a way, that becomes entirely is my own experience, which is not transmitted into the work. But the sense of dislocation, recognition and companionship carries over into the piece.
So being someone from a different country, are you often dealing with this idea of displacement?
Everything I’ve made deals with some level of displacement, some level of loss, and hopefully some level of optimism or negotiation with that. But I don’t necessarily think that has to do with foreign-ness, isolation is universal and exists even in our own homes.
Obviously being from a different place from those around you that equips you with a different perspective, but there’s always a way to fit that within your present context and find an optimistic point of view through that.
Also finding some way to make connections within an intimate space. There are obvious differences but there are also so many similarities — these are both good things and are both necessary.
What do you think the benefit is of you focusing on like you say, mundane objects, what’s your attraction to that idea?
I’m always slightly terrified of the word mundane because it’s used so often, so imprecisely and more importantly I don’t think these objects are mundane. They are everyday, but I look for intervention at the point of necessity, it’s creative, often an aesthetic founded in survivalism rather then mundanity.
So something like, the topiary of this hedge that looks like it’s been sliced in half as a cross section of the world but it’s also presenting itself to the sun, and it’s scorched as hell. Someone has performed this task on this object or the piece of ‘nature’, it’s not in any way natural, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing, it’s someone’s version of what is appropriate behavior and that – I get really interested in that. The question of what is acceptable? what is appropriate? Because that changes so quickly in so many circumstances, it becomes a question of manners and [other societal circumstances]. But I’m intrigued with that, when that becomes visualized, it tends to be what I photograph. To me there is nothing mundane about that.
I guess I’ve just seen that somewhere —
It’s any easy shortcut. It has a similar overuse as the word empathy, which for a long time was the way I used to contextualize what I was trying to explore in my work. In the past couple of years I’ve reexamined that as a way of talking about the work and came to the conclusion that wasn’t what I was interested in; actually it was much more to do intimacy, not in a sexual context, but with empathy there is an implied knowledge, that we understand, and can anticipate what someone else is feeling. But to actually really truly do that I’m not sure is possible. With intimate relationships you bring something of yourself in terms of offering your own compassion and your own understanding, you are at stake – it’s about the relationship between two people rather than just a relationship with one person looking at another.
In your work, are you trying to simulate that feeling of complexity when it comes to intimacy, understanding one another, and trying to break that void of misunderstanding? Do you lament about the fact that we cannot achieve a pure intimacy with others?
I’m not sure it’s about misunderstanding, but more as a proposition for interacting with those around us and a way of reclaiming something that feels fundamentally human. My interest is predominantly in intimacy in institution spaces, this is considering the institution not only as the office, school or museum, but sites of the status quo, where acceptable behaviour is determined by consensus, and often a consensus that is totally dislocated from the space and imposed from above. For example, how the individual vendors alter and decorate their rented market stall booths at the Swap-o-rama, or how a maid cleaning a hotel room decides to fold the toilet roll ready for the next guest. These things offer us an indication of the hand in spaces where to the most part it is not meant to be detected. It re-humanises these spaces. It also leads us into a conversation around memory. That is very important to me, for when we can imagine another human occupying the space it forces a relationship to a place that doesn’t exist otherwise.
Particularly as a foreigner in an originally alien but now familiar environment, what’s your take on this idea of intimacy with a place? Are you more inspired by the perhaps uncomfortable feeling you felt when you first arrived to the States or by the feeling after gaining a certain feeling of familiarity, or are both just as valid to you?
I’m still trying to understand my immediate environment, and certainly being new to a place gives you the gift of naivety, which can be a really productive space, but it’s also exhausting and so at a point in order to make work you have to shut off that way of seeing for a while. I try to travel as much as I can even if it’s as rudimentary as walking a different route than my normal one, or taking the alley way over the street. I never equate a new place as uncomfortable, in fact I love that feeling where everything appears flat because everything is equally as illegible, and then as time passes it becomes three dimensional again as experience and memory up in the space.
Talk of intimacy reminds me of something I’ve been reading lately about desire in relation to Greek mythology and the concept of aidos, which is the idea that you’re in an intimate setting with someone but you’re also aware of the boundaries that you have and that affects your relationship and I guess the way you interact with someone, what you choose to refrain from sharing with them and what you choose to hold back and protect – and that’s in a physical and mental way, but in its most basic sense it’s a bodily thing. You have a physical separation and you have to be aware of that, but also intimacy is possible – it’s just that we’re two different bodies. I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot.
I guess it comes down to the body and to moments where two bodies, be they animate or inanimate things, touch. Aesthetically I really enjoy the relationship of two pieces of paper next to each other and that line that they make. I think of my videos as collages in this way. Where intimacy becomes visualized.
Let me jump to a different subject – after seeing some of your work I’m interested to know what your relationship is with language because I feel like your work is a visual means to maybe something more poetic, like an actual, like, more language based idea.
Yeah, language is fundamental to my work. It’s so useful, but can be so arcane. And therefore unhelpful because there’s so much truth and falsehood that’s tied up in language. I hope I use it to suggest other, to either point to something to be looking at or to ask people to look away and think about something else. It moves from being confessional to being narrative to being factual.
What do you mean by that?
Good question; for someone who works with language that is fairly veiled use of it. What I was getting at was that on one hand language is very simple, very direct, very accurate and on another hand, especially when combined with voice, language becomes very complicated. It can be confessional or narrative, imaginative or factual. Words have definitions where images don’t. I use language to define image with the ambition is that it will support, contradict and complicate the image. That it both provides a clarity to the work, whilst also opening it up to the audience to make their own interpretation.
You seem to really honor the idea that it takes time, patience, and a kind of openness to shift our own perspectives in order to try and understand something like a work of art. Which I’m guessing is why you might do a lot of time-based work – you have to take that time to commit to something in order to understand it.
Because I am working with image and language and most recently with instrumental sound, there’s a lot of stuff going on – my videos need to be watched several times, which is in part why they tend to be shown in gallery spaces because, unlike at film festivals you don’t get that privilege. There’s often that feeling of ‘I don’t get it’ if you only watch it once. I guess that’s what’s interesting about what you’re doing [with WUT], the fact that often the perception of contemporary art is that if it’s not instantaneously accessible then either you aren’t intelligent enough to understand it, you don’t have the right education or you can’t get anything out of it. I try and set up something that works with illegibility so that you have to bring something of yourself into the reading in order to get the most out of it. It has to be a conversation between the artist and the viewer.
Yeah, you’re forcing yourself maybe to come to terms with your own way of understanding something or, just challenging yourself maybe to understand the perspective. And I mean, most artwork – I feel like a lot of people nowadays want.. Well, you go to a museum and you want that description that’s right next to the work..
Depending on my mood I’ll either fastidiously read interpretative text or purposely ignore it. It’s a nice experiment to see what comes to the surface without that guiding hand, to see if the work is really doing what it says it is doing.
Exactly. You’re supposed to approach the work and use critical thinking, hopefully understand you should look at these visual elements and maybe think about how it connects to your own perspective about something… but we all like the ‘cheat sheet’.
We live in an age of mediation by the screen or through the internet. I like to undermine that. For example I love the texture of a photocopied photograph. It locates the image in the world rather than as a digital ghost. I tend to try and point to the photograph as three things – the first is the image itself and what its showing us, second is the image as a physical thing or object, and the third is its surface. I’m using a camera to point to those different things, like focus and depth of field, and play around with that stuff, and often, reveal the edges of things. Once you fall off the edge you realize you’re actually in someone’s studio, or outside of the image. So you can construct multiple spaces within one shot. Certain expectations are made which are then undone or complicated to ultimately create relationships between images that in turn creates a narrative.
We briefly discussed an important element of your work being about presence too and arguably, true consciousness. You mention making work that is life size scale so people are aware of their body in relation to the space, and how the work is therefore inevitably difficult to convey to those who are not “within” it. How does your most recent work you think speak to this idea in particular? What’s your take on people today in relation to presence? Do you think as a society we lack a certain amount of consciousness generations before may have had?
I can’t speak for previous generations, but if we continue to remove ourselves from our immediate surroundings it suggests a lack of interest in them, a desire to be elsewhere. You also shut yourself off from happenstance of noticing or hearing something outside of yourself, and that seems like a really sad thing. So yes, beware the walkman.
In terms of scale I like experience of not being able to see the edges. When you look at a large projection I start to think about the texture of image. You can get inside the colours on the screen. You become immersed. I think it’s true for any work of art that it’s different experience seeing it in person than remotely, paintings and videos are spatial as much as sculpture, they are about texture and sound and smell. They need to be seen from close up and far away and from the sides. You obviously don’t get that knowledge of the work by any other means that being present in front of it.
I was talking with my co-editor, I was reading one of your old artist statements and she was talking about, like, a humor element. She thought that your artist statement was really funny.
Where did you find an old statement?
I think it was on your old website, you linked it to your new one.
I should track that down.
Do you feel like there is an element of humor or sarcasm latent in your work?
Oh yeah, for sure. I come from a nation of sarcastic people. It’s more a dry humor but usually paired hopefully with some kind of generosity or optimism. I guess, this piece “Promise, Resilience, Future” is a good example that.
I spent October to December last year working as a secret shopper, travelling around the US pretending to enroll in schools and higher education institutions that teach technical degrees –dental or medical assisting, and in these schools were many motivational posters. The schools tended to have the same layout plan for each institution, and they also all buy these motivational posters — someone’s making a lot of money on making motivational/promotional posters. So the language in the piece is taken from the posters in these schools. I did not find them to be happy or sincere places. The imagery is taken from archive of photographs. The one on the left is loosely based off an image I took on the CTA. In Chicago we have these heating shacks where people stand and keep warm in the winter when waiting for the train, and often you see cent pieces pushed into the divots in the walls where you stand, so they become these ‘money walls’. I find it curious that in a society so obsessed with making money to see it discarded in this way. The other two are based of collages of other photographs I’ve taken.
Yeah what I notice about the poster after you’re giving me that context is those words, if you look at them at face value, yeah I would imagine them in a context of you know, somewhere like a technical college – I can see the stock photo in my head – but those words in themselves are kind of self deprecating, like, you’re kind of desperate for something good to happen in the future but you’re not quite sure what will happen.
Yeah. But again, they’re positive, supposedly inspiring words. The form of the piece is modeled off a 15th century battle shrine. They used to carry sacred paintings into battle for the king to use as his personal prayer shrine before the fighting began. They have some really beautiful ones at the National Gallery in London. You find other examples of traveling or folding shrines in Indian culture as well. They have the aesthetic of an advent calendar with many folding parts. So the work is pitting the disingenuous motivational poster against the history of nomadic religious devotions. I guess there is a sarcasm there.
You seem to find these kind of modern totems for a more ancient idea, which I really like. Now I’m privy to use the word mundane, because its kind of a blanket term for these things we all interact with, like we know what you’re talking about when you say that – and I actually feel like in this certain day and age there’s sort of become this attraction to the mundane aesthetic.
Yeah I think that’s in part why I’m slightly cautious of it. It loses itself in its popularity.
You don’t necessarily look at it in a common way though. I don’t know, there are just certain things that sit in popular culture today, something like an Evian bottle. That’s like a trendy mundane sort of image. But you’re kind of veering from that, maybe something that can be explored a little more deeply.
I filmed a picture of a water bottle in Iceberg! But it’s a Dasani bottle. I find Dasani very troubling.
I have a problem with bottled water in general. Dasani is just one example, made worse by the fact that it’s owned by Coca Cola, Dasani is coke without the inventiveness of a product. It is baseless. It’s filtered water which produces a waste product. We are fortunate enough to live in a society where we have clean running water in our taps, so it seems insane to me to be populating the world with more waste for the sake of convenience.
VIEW MORE OF ANGHARAD’S WORK HERE
Photos courtesy of Angharad Davies