Cultivator asks five questions of each exhibiting artist in order to provide a deeper understanding of their art.
I remember when you first told me about how the twine was sagging and tightening during the day and night and how that echoed what happened both with the plants in the field and your own bodies working in the sun and resting in the cool air of the house, and how happy it made me to know that the installation was inviting that kind of insight and reflection. I have made three site-specific installations in the houses/yards of friends and every time I have tried to make pieces that were mindful of my friends and their lives. After all, you and Brian had to live with this installation in your yard. I'm glad that it was a gentle and meaningful addition to the landscape.
But on to your question about experiences and research shaping my process and materials. I feel like art-making and living are completely intertwined and therefore inevitably my experiences influence what I make and what I make my work with, though it's not always easy for me to articulate exactly how this intertwining manifests. We spent the first seven months of this year in a small Zapotec village. Though we've been spending time in Oaxaca for more than a decade, this was our first time living outside of Oaxaca City. Teotitlan del Valle is a small village in the Tlacolula Valley whose residents are committed to maintaining their Zapotec language, foodways, and other expressions of their culture. We met many people in Teo and in the next village over where Sonny works, Macuilxochitl, who continue to farm the milpa system, an incredibly resilient method of farming that has been used for thousands of years in south-central Mexico. We've been interested in the questions around resilience and food for years, so when we first talked to you about the farm and your commitment to sustainable agriculture, we were immediately interested. I've loved reading the weekly newsletters you and Brian send out to CSA subscribers and your lovely descriptions of the changing of the seasons and the cycles of life, decay, and death that are visible on the farm. We lived around the corner from the village cemetery in Teotitlan, so on any given day there were funeral processions on our road or the sounds of wedding processions n the streets above us. There were constant reminders of mortality in this intermingling and overlapping of comings and goings. It became a kind of loud and boisterous meditation on transitions.
Like all makers, I have to respond to how the materials react to my interventions, disruptions, and additions. I have all of my photographs printed on the same paper (Hammemuhle Photo Rag) with the same inks on the same printer, yet sometimes the ink is so embedded in the paper that no matter how hard I scratch at the surface with sewing needles, the marks I leave are slight, while other times the ink sits right on the surface of the paper and the slightest scratch causes the ink to completely disappear, leaving the snow white color of the torn paper underneath. The same uncertainty comes into play with the textiles and threads I work with, including the twine and 24K gold thread I used for the farm installation. I didn't know how the twine would react to being outside and tied between two trees, and even after I installed it, I was uncertain about whether or not it would last more than a day or two. I was beyond pleased that the sculpture responded to the environment as it did, and thanks to the clever knot-tying of my husband, we were able to salvage the sculpture for the opening (which was held a week after installation) by tightening the twine and thread and repairing the strands that had been eaten by neighborhood rabbits.
2. For your solo exhibition "the relatively brief preponderance of moments," at Cultivator's Chicago space, your “Damaged Goods_Small Repairs” series included images you photographed of “broken” pieces – taxidermied museum dioramas and fragmented statues, mannequins, and other items that you then scratched circular patterns across. Is there an intentional meditative process as you make precise delicate slow circular target-like marks?
In the introduction to the two-volume collection of poet and painter Etel Adnan's work published by Nightboat, editor Ammiel Alcalay says that "poetry's only ideology is attention," and I think the same could be said for visual art. I want my work to be about attention and patience, invisibility and exposure, hiding and obscuring, and a disruption to the easy read that photography can offer. We are so used to seeing a constant barrage of images that we learn to "read" them incredibly quickly. Most of us can identify a brand by the outline of the brand's logo, or even the color of the logo, but we have a hard time placing ourselves in this very moment because our thoughts are elsewhere, in part, I think, because we spend most of our lives desperately trying to turn our attention away from advertising. What art gives us, in my opinion, is an opportunity to stop and pay close attention to what we are looking at, to look deeply at it and engage with it, even if we don't understand it completely. Like other contemplative practices, this engagement, this attention, gives us a chance to connect with our place in the universe and to become comfortable with quietness and vastness.
I've had a number of people ask why I don't use some sort of machine or special tool to make the marks rather than freehand. I tell them that I don't feel burdened by how much time and patience this work requires. I think about how I can waste hours scrolling through Facebook (not even reading anything really, and does "liking" something really count as socializing?) or how three or four hours in front of the television can disappear in a fog of commercials and crappy programming. I find it worthwhile to spend hours scratching circles into photographs or sewing simple straight stitches into worn-out cloth. I have to focus and commit to giving my attention and time completely to my work, otherwise I either damage the piece (I've scratched photographs in ways that I didn't intend!) or myself, as my calloused and well-pricked fingers can attest. I have a very active, distracted mind and any opportunity to settle it (whether in sitting meditation or making art) is attractive to me.
3. Knowing your awareness of international news, does the act of physically scarring the surface of the photograph serve as a way of dealing with the damages of the world?
That is a beautiful idea and observation. I have always thought of my work as being about damage and repair. There is beauty in the imperfect and scarred, and the effort to repair is worthwhile, no matter how futile the effort might prove to be. What does it mean to bring the sacred back to the broken? To face hardship and despair with tenderness and compassion? I am also interested in pushing back against the desire to dispose of, throw away, or push out of sight that which makes us uncomfortable or emotionally vulnerable. The language around suffering and difficulty is interesting, which is one of the reasons I chose "Damaged Goods/Small Repairs" as the name for this series. "Damaged goods" is really loaded with judgement and layered meanings and I'm interested in looking into all of that with this new work.
4. The mourning quilt, “the relatively brief preponderance of moments,” consists of an antique handmade piece that you found and methodically stitched over with metallic threads. We imagine the months you spend mending over the thread-bare fabric, thinking of the origins of the quilt, not only the maker and recipient, but where it traveled afterwards. Can you share the relationship of the poem you wrote which shares the same title, to your artwork?
The title of my Cultivator show is actually not the title of a poem, but rather a line from one of the poems in a series called "The Ruins of Modernity," written a couple of years ago. I wrote the poems after reading Shannon Dawdy's essay, "Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity," which addresses the place of modern ruins in the practices of archaeology and cultural anthropology and asks for a fully engaged discussion of "the social life of ruins." (That's a horribly inadequate summary of her essay, I assure you, but since I am an artist and poet and not an anthropologist, I get some slack on that one, right?) I found the language in her essay beautiful and decided to cut it up to make poems of the remnants. The essay addresses the modern-day ruins of catastrophe, specifically New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a city where my husband and I had lived off and on from 2002-2009. You could say that the essay is made of the ruins of disaster. The mourning quilt is also made of the ruins of disaster, of course. While we talk about ruins in a communal way (their place in the landscape, what they do to a community's vision of itself, etc.), they are domestic and personal at their core, and just like the mourning quilt, are the remnants of loss. The "Ruins of Modernity" poems are essentially sewn together from cut-up pieces of the essay just as the quilt was sewn together from cut-up pieces of fabric, then embellished with discarded platinum thread (so-called "old-new stock" that was made to be used in kimono and obi, but since those industries are waning, the stocks are being sold to artists like me). In this way, the poems and the quilt are directly related by process and material, as they are made from the remnants of ruin.
Many mourning quilts were made of black and gray calico fabrics and replaced the colorful quilts that the family used before the death of their loved one. But some were like this one, made of the clothing of the deceased. During the Victorian era when the 'cult of mourning' was flourishing, it was common to memorialize a death through sewing and photography, either by making a quilt or an embroidery of a romantic funerary scene (urn, tomb, lament), or having a photograph made of the dead person that would hang prominently in the family's home or bedroom. Queen Victoria wore black for forty years after Albert's death and kept a photograph of his wreathed corpse above the right-side pillow of her bed, regardless of where she slept.
What interested me in making "the relatively brief preponderance of moments" was that this quilt, which had been hand sewn and embellished with embroidery by its maker, had over time lost all sentimentality and had ended up sold on eBay by a dealer. Certainly the quilt has retained some meaning because of the presumed swelling of grief that made it (the story I tell myself is that it was made by a man's widow, but I can't say that for sure since I know nothing of the quilt's provenance), but it also has been turned into a commodity, not unlike all of the incredibly mundane objects for sale on eBay. In my thinking, the quilt was first made as a gift, a gift from the maker to herself and to the deceased, but over time it lost its power and became just another object to be discarded, traded, or sold. Lewis Hyde in his seminal book, "The Gift," talks about how a gift has to keep moving (which means never "stopped" by commodification) or it dies. My intention was to take this 'dead' gift and revitalize it through my careful sewing, an attention-demanding act of embellishment and repair. Of course, a textile conservator would say that I didn't repair the quilt but rather destroyed it when I embroidered concentric circles into it. Then again, destruction and reparation are two sides of the same coin, right?
5. Because this is Cultivator, we must ask – what’s your favorite vegetable and why?
If I have to choose, I'd say mustard greens. I love their spiciness and their strength. I buy them at the farmers' market from a farm that bundles a few different varieties together -- red, smooth, curly, wild. Add some onion, garlic, chile and okra, and you've got one of my favorite meals ever, especially with some black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes on the side and a splash of spicy apple cider vinegar. With a nice loaf of bread, you've got a hearty, delicious meal. Okay, I'm getting hungry…:)