Catalogue Article: A Conversation

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A Conversation
Liza Grobler (LG) and Barbara Wildenboer (BW)

LG: For me, the physical qualities of the materials are very important. So, I might find a kind of rope that I like – it just catches my eye in the space within which it operates – I’ll see a specific colour rope, and think: “Ahh that’s pretty, can one make something out of this?”

BW: Maybe our work isn’t really that different, because I remember when I was working towards my master’s degree, I simply worked with materials, motifs, colours – things that I found appealing. I did not really consider why I chose the different things. But, in retrospect it all made sense. You showed me images of that artist who-

LG: Oh, Judith Scott.

BW: It made a big impression on me. I put eggs in nests and wrapped them in nets, I made boats filled with rocks to weigh them down, but I didn’t think why I was doing this. In hindsight, when one looks at the body of work as a whole, there is a certain state of mind-

LG: But also the nests seem to be something we both come back to-

BW: Nests and drops.

LG: I don’t know how you feel about this, but one of the things that truly annoys me: I hate it when people want to start conversations about the feminist angle in my work. It irritates me immensely.

BW: Somewhere there will be a feminist angle in our work, because we are female, but it’s not-

LG: That’s the whole point: I’m also a certain age, and from a certain culture and from a certain… whatever. We are the sum of various different factors, and I hate the idea that it [my work] is always put in a feminist bracket.

BW: All three works in our collaborations have components associated with feminist theory: the concept of craft, the idea of female artists.

LG: We both work with the image of the nest, or the birthing process, we are very visceral in many respects. In my current show, Blindfolded Line, I place red against black – one wants to make a direct comparison with the womb and the umbilical cord. It’s not that I want to cut it out completely, but that is not the essence of my work. I think it’s integral to what I make, but it is not the focus of what I make. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?

BW: They are archetypical symbols – whether you’re a woman or a man – it has more to do with our humanity.

LG: I don’t deny the fact that I am a woman, or that there are links with the womb and motherhood and the creative process of giving birth.

LG: An exhibition is a bit like giving birth – whether you are male or female. To have an exhibition is a bit like having a child, who then develops its own identity – in spite of our intentions or preconceived ideals. Although you still have a connection with it, the exhibition becomes independent of you. Once my work is being exhibited my role is fulfilled. That is why I always try to have collaborative components and performative aspects in my shows, otherwise I feel completely alienated.

BW: It’s a bit like sharing the burden of parenthood with someone [both laugh heartily].

LG: Yes! I remember Timo Smuts, my supervisor, called exhibitions “the graveyards of the creative process”. When the work is up, and so carefully displayed, it’s a bit like tombstones. You’ve worked through a process, you’ve come to some insight (or not), you’ve resolved or consolidated your process to whatever product or outcome and now it is there for people to see, or to interpret – but you as the creator are redundant. That is part of the reason why people always get such intense post-exhibition blues.

BW: Your work has more parallels with people such as Carolee Schneemann and Marina Abramovic – in terms of the performative aspects that are often evident in your work, and the visceral qualities of your materials and how you engage with the work. But in terms of the message and the theme-

LG: What is my message? That’s what I often wonder. Is there a message?

BW: Yes. There is. Your message is-

LG: [Laughs] Please tell me!

BW: Your message is the same as your wardrobe and your clothing style – your work is monumentally spectacular. It is dramatic. Your work is like a visit to the fair. It’s like candy floss and entertainment and sometimes puke that comes with fairs.

Compared to how neat and tight and controlled my work is, yours is totally the opposite, and that was mostly the challenge: I mean, we’ve known each other for very long and, for the first time with the Hong Kong show, we decided to collaborate.

LG: I have to admit, I was actually quite surprised at how well it worked.

BW: You made me look a bit messier, I made you appear a bit neater and it jelled very well. You often collaborated with Jeanne Hoffman and I always thought it made a lot of sense. I thought it wouldn’t make sense if you and I collaborated. Our collaboration was very haphazard, and it came about in a very haphazard way.

Oh, we were talking about what the work means-

LG: Oh!?

BW: And now we don’t know at all! [laughter]

LG: It happens to me quite often – I forget my titles, and then I just fabricate new ones.

BW: With Chance Favours The Connected Mind – what I liked about it: We were sitting there with Seth and Karen and the whole lot, and they helped us make the work and it was between wine and chats and discussions that we came up with the title – which just so happened to be based on that Steven Johnson talk that we’re both familiar with. Everyone had their own associations. That is the nice thing about your art: the idea of “play”. You don’t make a form, and apologise for the female reference, you don’t say it’s a uterus or a nest, but it displays qualities of all those things – and different people will see different things. It’s always like that with art, but perhaps even more so in your work, because your works are always somehow like monsters – like hairy monsters!

LG: I must say, I like that description!

BW: Like the works of Louise Bourgeois, who I know you greatly admire, your work is very open to interpretation. It’s like Rorschach inkblots. The spectator really brings her own references.

LG: I think the challenge for me is to be precocious and coherent, it sounds funny [laughter], but to make people feel comfortable enough that they can open up and acknowledge that things are not as coherent as we often pretend. Or alternatively, that they can allow themselves to enjoy the fact that things are not all that coherent.

BW: We talked before about doing something spectacular that costs a lot of money, that can astound many people for a moment; as opposed to making something that costs less to produce and is purchased by a wealthy individual for a private home. Remember when you were conceptualising the balloon project? I was experiencing a kind of dilemma because of the amounts of money people were willing to give to these temporary public things – and then you told me that there can be one kid that looks up into the sky and thinks, “Wow, things are hard, but here is something amazing!” Visually your work often has that aspect of wonder and you have an exceptional feel for colour and colour combinations. You use materials that people see every day. I think the combination of all these aspects is your redeeming quality – it enables people to relate, even if the work is incomprehensible and bizarre.

LG: I find that old people and children can engage freely with my work, and people that are very informed about art always pretend to know, even though you don’t even know what it’s about. Within the context they’ll try to find some connections – whether they criticise it or not; that is another story. I make different types of work depending on the situation. Certain larger projects, that are public and for everyone, are easier on the one hand, because people don’t have specific expectations. The question as to whether or not a work is art often isn’t even voiced because they don’t “read” it as art in that context. I don’t really care either way; for me it is about creating a sense of wonderment.

LG: But I also want to talk about the weird connections that exist between people that know each other – many of us that are creating work at a given time, and within a specific space or context-

BW: Like everyone starting to use the same shade of green. And the drops – the drops, the nests, the stones.

LG: Yes, so I want to talk about ideas. There’s a nice quote in a novel Genesis; where the character states that ideas are parasites – we think we have ideas, but actually ideas have a will of their own and they will always find a vehicle through which to come out.

BW: Steven Johnson’s TED Talk discussion about where good ideas come from and how people got together in coffee houses and chatted and exchanged ideas, and how the Enlightenment then started: In the same way, through collaborations you double your chances of luck! Because if it is not only strategy and skill, through collaborations you can double your chances.

LG: It’s a very interesting way to think about it – I’ve never thought about it in those terms.

BW: We are blindfolded!

LG: Yes! All our actions are actually a stumble.

BW: Stumbling blindfolded – stumbling through time! [laughter] You stumble and when you trip over something, it is “Ahhh!! Eureka!!”

BW: Intuition is just a sixth sense that we do not acknowledge scientifically. I don’t want to talk about my first solo, but in retrospect I was so impressed. I thought, oh stones are pretty, oh nests are nice. I didn’t think, “I choose this, because this means this and that refers to something else”. I just stumbled ahead blindly. I just did things that felt right. It wasn’t as much knowledge, as emotions and experiences. It was absolutely emotional. I intuitively selected things that meant something in the end.

LG: But sometimes we also choose the wrong things. Generally we default to the right thing as a result of our experiences, but sometimes we default incorrectly. That’s why it’s important to keep the other half alert, to avoid incorrect defaults.

Where were we? Oh, Surrealism. It has to do with the Zeitgeist – ah! How I hate that word (along with “melange”). I think there are shifts that are taking place right now, and now in Paris I noticed it again. Here in South Africa things are still a bit more focused on the socio-political – and that’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how it is. For me it’s always been important that creating an artwork is a bit like making a dream materialise – art is moving closer to the idea of the dream. My dreams aren’t necessarily very exciting, but it’s the idea of making something non-rational visible, that appeals to me. It’s a physical presence of something that should not exist. When I make things, I create objects and they do exist. But they shouldn’t really.

BW: That’s why Thinking Cap is a good work! It’s one of those things that was unfamiliar. I was uncomfortable with that piece. I’m not anymore, because I’ve become used to it.

LG: I think it illustrates rather clearly the connections between people, and the relationship or context between people and the world.

BW: This is the first time that you or I say something that actually explains what it is about. You can make the connections with the World Wide Web, and interpersonal relationships, and us that go on residencies.

LG: What I wanted to say about France, about Paris, was that I really think we are moving back towards Surrealism.

BW: Surrealism has always been there – Hieronymus Bosch.

LG: Yes, where the environment and the social structure are ready to embrace it. I think we are in a new era of Surrealism. All these things like space travelling, and additional dimensions, and new planets and all the other stuff. Ephemeral ideas versus rational thinking processes and the fact that these things are much more closely connected – now there is more scientific proof that starts to acknowledge this.

BW: Parascience!

LG: Yes. That’s a nice word. Does it exist?

BW: Yes, Masaru Emoto – the guy with the water crystals – came up with the term. People said: “What you are doing is pseudoscience” (because it hadn’t been tested according to certain empirical methods). And he said: “It’s not pseudoscience, it’s parascience” – because there are certain scientific things that we can’t explain.

LG: I reckon it’s a second phase of Surrealism: rationality is not the most important thing. Like you said when different minds get together and you don’t necessarily have a clear expectation of what the result will be.

BW: The three main themes of Surrealism were death, sex and violence.

LG: Aren’t those more or less the cornerstones of life anyhow? [laughs]

BW: My work is always dealing with death-

LG: And mine with sex and violence! [laughter] In the end, every show is just another dot on the route of processes. That’s actually a bad thing to realise. This is my eleventh solo.

BW: But you trust your intuition.

LG: And that show is just “that show” and it’s the best you can do at that point. It’s not the best that you can ever do, and hopefully you’ll do better in future, but at that point in your life you’re at that place. That is what I am enjoying about my career now, is the knowledge that “there’s no turning back”.