LAURA WHITE | LISA LE FEUVRE

11 September 2008

Published in Laura White: The Stuff of Images

Lisa Le Feuvre
Talking about artwork at any given moment involves not only thinking about what an artist is doing now, but also how this moment relates to a wider artistic practice – so where an artist has been before and where they might be thinking about going next. These kinds of conversations are always about taking stock, pausing for thought in a way that is both responsive and generative. If I attempt to describe about a general overview of your concerns in your practice, it seems that you keep on being bothered by the relationship between objects and images, paying attention to the tension that can be created by not quite following what makes sense.

Laura White
Until recently I have explored the relationship between image and object using primarily projected images on to objects and architecture. Now, though, my work has opened up to image of all sorts, and for that matter objectness of all sorts, which has allowed me to think more about the scope of both image and object. One of the ways I have experimented with this recently is by combining printed images with clay forms that operate as sculptural objects. I am actually doing the same thing as I did in the earlier projected works such as ‘Deck’ (2005) and ‘Fragile Brute’ (2005) but it’s now with a different scope in mind. In those works a projected image is layered on to an object, which can sometimes flatten the object and draw attention more to the image. I was dissatisfied by this and started thinking of other ways to work. And you know this new work has allowed me to handle matter again, I mean quite literally through using clay – it is something very physical. This physicality is important to me, whether I am stapling paper to a wall or arranging objects in a space my concerns are with arranging stuff – be in placing or manipulating material.

LLF
You present your work as both image and object at the same time – something that distracts attention by embracing tautology. How did you get to the point where you started using projections? I am not sure if something really can be an image and an object at the same time. If an image is defined as a representation of something, as a flat surface, how can it also be an object as that is a thing, a material form? This tension brings to mind all of those deferrals of the object, or indeed of sculpture, that Robert Morris writes about in the late 1960s, a time when artists challenged modernist dogma and form. Your projections don’t quite make sense, but in a useful way.

LW
The first time I experimented with this was at the Bonnington Gallery in Nottingham in 2000, in an exhibition titled ‘In-Side’. I was invited to collaborate with a dance company, RAIR Experimental, in the space, and worked with a dancer occupying the space through a projection. I projected the dancer on to architectural forms that I constructed in the gallery - these operated as interfaces to her movement. This piece was a collaboration experimenting with how objects could be melted into movement. We worked outside of this being a real-time event. I found this collision productive. Part of the work involved projecting images on to wallpaper, which had a reflective quality. I noticed that where light and image fell onto this surface something very strange happened, and the subjectivity of the image became lost to be replaced by the visual effect of colour and light meeting a surface. You entered the image through something that was neither retinal nor content driven, rather it was about form. It made the image confusing. Until this point I had not thought about images in this way, so this was all a revelation. I grew up looking at paintings and enjoying them, but at the same time being frustrated by the limits of the frame. So, leading on from this realisation at the Bonnington Gallery, I started to work with slide projections on to objects that perversely became very painterly.

LLF
So here pictures and architecture became temporal. It makes me think of a methodology of categorising art that the filmmaker Anthony McCall makes. He describes that artwork can be considered within what he terms as three broad bundles of discourse: the sculptural, the pictorial, and the cinematic. The ‘sculptural’ is concerned with issues of form in space. The ‘pictorial’ is related to the making of images. The ‘cinematic’ foregrounds time or movement – so this is not just film but also performance, as well as sound, and any projected image. He notes that the most interesting work sits in the porous boundaries between these definitions – a contesting position. I think his consideration of the languages of sculpture, image and projection is trying to think of works in relation to attitudes rather than formal properties. It is a proposal to make a shift from a dogmatic medium-specificity to an interrogation of the possibilities of perceiving the affect of artworks. You are bringing movement into an object, undermining both the image and object status.

LW
With ‘In-Side’ we projected the dancer life-size in the space – there is a momentary illusion. I am very interested in small instances of confusion between what could be called the real and the non-real. Its something that Tim Head dealt with in those wonderful early pieces where he would project an image of objects into a space and also place the same real objects in that space. The reality and the fiction informed each other. When I did my first Masters at Nottingham Trent University in 1997 I did a lot of research around Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum, thinking about the idea of the replica. I wanted to produce something that you could walk around – so it was really there in the space - yet it was ephemeral, a fake. In a recent exhibition, ‘Project at Christ Church’ (2005) in Spitalfields I projected elephants life-size onto the surrounding architecture of the crypt and also on to objects I had found in the locality. Of course we know these are only images, they are not real, but there is a fleeting moment when they could be ‘really there’. In a more extended way of course this happens when you go to the cinema. You become a part of what you are seeing, you believe it, and you lose yourself in imagery. It is something I enjoy doing. An object, though, just is what it is, existing in the here and now. I like the combination of the two. With all of my work I am very interested in space – sculpture is always about spatial arrangement. It’s about relationships between people and things, being aware of your own body. I am interested in some of the ideas which were presented at The Showroom 2007 conference ‘Props, Events, Encounters: the performance of new sculpture’ where the idea of sculpture as prop was discussed. I like objects being something other than sculptures; it’s about being uncomfortable again.

LLF
Cinema might be about losing yourself, but when it comes to the gallery perhaps it’s more about suspending your disbelief in order to try to makes sense of what is being proposed to you. Non-representational art demands a leap of faith in order to grapple with the fact that art is not there to save, educate, or even entertain you. And certainly it is not there to give you any answers. It’s all about questions. I am really obsessed by Flann O’Brien’s novel ‘The Third Policeman’ that is a tale of policemen that are half-bicycle and silent music. I was introduced to it by David Wilson who is Director of the Museum of Jurassic of Technology, an institution whose collection includes sculptures that sit on the head of a pin and bats that can fly through walls. With both this novel and Wilson’s museum you have to engage your thinking in a way that is unfamiliar. The debate between fiction and reality that you are talking about is about creating a paradoxical space where you have to suspend disbelief, but always know that you are doing it.

LW
Yes – and part of this is my desire to expose how something is made – I have never wanted to disguise the mechanisms. Again I go back to Tim Head – you always know what he is doing, the work is magical even though you can see there is a slide projector on the floor. This is where it gets really interesting for me. Tricks are not interesting to me. This is where Anthony McCall’s work is less appealing and less challenging for me, as I think it slips every so often into an offer of something I don’t understand, like a mechanical illusion, which hinders my engagement with the work.

LLF
So it’s losing yourself that you think gets in the way?

LW
Yes. James Ireland’s work I think succeeds in the same way for me as Tim Head’s. He might put a piece of crumpled paper in a plastic bin with a light and a romantic mountainscape appears, yet there is no illusion. Its like those small moments of enjoyment when you look out of the window and you see something that makes you think differently – these are understated moments, that can be quite profound, quite unlike sitting on a perfect beach in Bali that inevitably falls short of its expectation. For the last ten years my work has always paid attention to those kinds of moments, the real if you like, or the everyday, or stuff that is around. I want to find the magic in those things.

LLF
You are using the everyday in your materials, but a term like every day is always bound in time. In ‘Yellow B, Blue B, Orange B’ (2004) for example you are projecting budgies – when we both were children everyone had a budgie. Its not that common any more, so the everyday-ness of this has passed. The everyday, though, is a myth – it’s always of a moment, it’s not enduring. In the corner of your studio over there I can see you have been buying those cheap brightly coloured Clean-It sponges as potential material. They are everywhere now.

LW
I often think with my work how quickly things become dated because textures and colours used commercially change with fashion and date quickly. Even in this work ‘Bring Home the Bacon’ that I made under a year ago where I use adverts, the raw material is out of date now. In this piece there is also a projection on to the object. I am using the physical material of adverts to make an object and then the projections are also sampled from advertising. Once they are combined you lose the ability to read either in terms of what it is – you end up with a mush of colours even though advertising is generally all about trying to communicate something. Having said that, though, there are adverts that do not really indicate what it is advertising but nonetheless you remember it.

LLF
These elusive ones are just using a different strategy seeking the same results by dint of standing out from other adverts, In fact it’s a technique that is now so common that the ones that stand out are the really brash ones. All adverts are trying to get under your skin and even as you fragment them in your work they still slip out. In 'Bring Home the Bacon’ I can just about see that it’s Vodafone because it’s so familiar. Or if you can’t recognise the brand you can usually guess the genre.

LW
Yes, and once the projection is added it is hard to decipher what is the projection and what is the object – it’s that slippage between image and object or the real and the unreal, the substance and the surface. You just know it is something to do with advertising but you don’t know what it is about. You have a physical relationship to the images, a haptic experience, it gets behind the retinal. These small works in that corner, ‘Horse’ (2007) and ‘Zebra’ (2007) are made from loads and loads of images from encyclopaedias that I have cut out. It’s just an imagery mess. You might have an image of Hitler, which I have cut out from the history section, next to a bicycle or a piece of fruit. These encyclopaedias we had as kids at home, I know them backwards, but I never read them much, I was really only interested in the pictures. At school I loved drawing diagrams, like the cross-section of a volcano, or pie chart in maths, but I didn’t really want to engage with the information they were illustrating. My interest is with images.

LLF
Does the immediacy also come from the material you use? So you live in London, a metropolitan centre and are surrounded by £1 shops selling this brightly coloured material, things like that piece over there ‘Flog’ (2007) that is made up of cardboard fluorescent stars announcing a bargain. This is where your art is actually tied to somewhere, to a place, to a time.

LW
I like to grab stuff with not too much consideration – cheap material allows me to do this. Things like these – self-defence cards, illustrating 50 ways to defend yourself if attacked on the street, that I am intending to use in a new piece of work. Its totally about now, responding to a certain time and place. I want to respond to the way we think about the world now. Being in a city is all about this; it makes you more aware of the present than you would outside of a city. The countryside however is just as fake and constructed as the city because the farmer manipulates the landscape depending on economics. I come from Worcestershire, which has beautiful picturesque landscapes, but maybe it’s as artificial as Piccadilly Circus. I want people to think about this.

LLF
Part of your critical position alludes to information overload. You mentioned those debates around Baudrillard in the 1980s but its quite different today. Now information overload is just normal and has to be negotiated in order to try and take a position. Adverts too though have to deal with this, so designers try to make them space, pare them down.

LW
I think though images call to be understood – representational ones anyhow. I like manipulating these images that constantly surround us to make them not make sense. This is not to step aside from what the image means, to disregard it, to write it off, rather I want to see if the image can be engaged with outside of the way it supposedly is trying to do. It is primarily a struggle to deal with these images in terms of just colour and form. I do want it to be difficult, I want to test things and I am happy when someone is pissed off because they can’t make sense of it.

LLF
That is happening too in ‘Yea and Nay’ (2008) - it is a large object made up of images but somehow when I first saw I couldn’t help but read this as an animal. It’s not of course, but to try and make sense of it one needs to latch on to something familiar. However, as soon as you read it as a form that can be named it breaks down as you are then capable of paying attention to the fact that it is made up of many images. Its not a stegosaurus, it’s a series of images sculpted into a form – here is a cheetah, here is some blue sky. You seem to be intent in constantly deferring satisfaction.

LW
I am really aware of that. As soon as something begins to fit I feel the need to change it, as it becomes too easy. I want to keep on opening up more questions. I know that can be difficult to encounter, but as soon as my work makes sense I want to break it up. In the same way I want to avoid my work becoming permanent – in these new works, the ‘Pin-up’ series, I could varnish them or fire the clay. Instead I rework them and do the opposite. The work by other artists who refuse to pin down their practice is the work that excites me. Phillida Barlow for instance, she doesn’t make work that can be fixed permanently, her sculptures are constantly evolving, and with that can be difficult to deal with. I love that. My work shifts and changes because otherwise I get bored if I am not challenging it and challenged by it. There is this book ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969 – 1996’ from the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego that I remember reading when I was at college. It is about installation art, and describes the competent painter creating modestly sized pictures and making a living from their art, while the environmental sculptor makes history and needs a day job. I want to make history not a living. To be a commercial artist is about making sense. I don’t want to do that. Another artist I really admire is Isa Genzken. Whenever I feel anxious about doing something that is uneasy I look to her work, and am reminded of how important that is. One needs to be brave, not just for its own sake but to make the works look as if they literally just happened. Often I end up returning to early versions of works and rejecting the ones that become more resolved, as they are more uncomfortable on the eye and more challenging.

LLF
Genzken is daring those who encounter her work, tripping up expectations of what she might do. There is an inherent admonishment to not be lazy as just when you think you can articulate her work she will make an unexpected turn. It’s a call for an engaged, thinking experience. You are constantly shifting out of comfort zones. In fact, instability in your work is intrinsic to its material form – it’s not built to last, it’s a conservationist’s nightmare. Impermanence seems important. I am interested to know – when do you decide a work is done?

LW
‘Yea and Nay’ has been reconstructed so many times. I took it apart again about a week ago. The work changes depending on where it is shown and how the materials behave at that moment, developing from the projection pieces where I would use existing furniture and architecture in a space, so when it is taken away it will never be the same. I think that is happening here too with the clay works. At the moment they might sit on a plinth, but I am just as interested in placing them on the floor sitting on top of a laid-out poster – the works keep changing. Whenever one of my works begins to become pigeonholed it needs to shift. I enjoy the making process; I am in my element when I am engrossed. At Fieldgate Gallery in 2006 I worked on the piece ‘Occupation’ actually in the space for six weeks, surrounded by office furniture and rubbish, building and changing all the time. I like that physical interaction. I am always thinking that if I do it again I might discover something new as the images become manipulated, or in the case of ‘Yea and Nay’, the position and amount of pegs and images change. Things happen that then alter the feel of the work and the way that the piece itself appears to be stretching or reaching down. It changes in the same way as when you squash clay in your hand. You don’t know exactly what will happen. One of the reasons why I enjoyed doing the projected pieces on to the sculptures is that as much as you can plan the sculptural object and the projected image, it is only when you bring the two together that something happens. You can’t predict it, you can’t imagine it as it’s about light hitting the object, and it’s exciting. Its about the work making itself, I can’t control it. I want the work to have an element that makes itself; sometimes I want it to be in control of me. With these pieces I roll out the clay and I am sticking these posters on them and literally folding and hanging the clay over my shoulder, supporting it, putting it in a bucket to shape it. It does its own thing.

LLF
But of course you do control the work – it only happens because you set it in motion through processes. This one here ‘Pin-up 2’ (2008) – it makes me think of those Franz West works that you handle, wrap around your body, put on your head. With these pieces you seem to stop just at the moment when the material gives up resistance.

LW
West is great, his work has all the characteristics of familiar and somewhat traditional metal sculpture, but the forms are strangely awkward and hard to place. I want in a way to mess up images, to work with them in another way. In this ‘Pin-up 1’ (2008) there is a poster of some kittens on the work – occasionally you see an eye, or a kitteney thing. It’s a crappy poster that young girls might have on their bedroom wall. It’s fluffy and pink but it’s none of those things now. With the animal images I use I distort them to make them awkward or wretched. With the earlier work ‘Powwow’ (2007) where I worked with animal imagery, I used children’s colouring books of animals and cut them out and then projected onto them other animal images that I lifted from Google searches of ones that had been starved or damaged. I was interested in a range of images representing animals in order to explore, on the one hand, the surface and superficiality of an image while, on the other, revealing distortion and manipulation of the subject matter within the image, which I then re-enforced through the physicality of the work.

LLF
So here you seem to be working with the ever-present failures of the image to communicate. It takes something that is dirty and rude and raggedy and rough to communicate a sense of something. With these animalistic forms you are undermining anthropomorphisations that we all have a tendency to do, you are breaking assumed or usual methods of perception.

LW
I made a work recently called ‘Prize’ (2007) made up of loads of imagery I associate with aspiration and reward, such as fast cars and wealthy country retreats, and took it all apart – I am interested in experience rather than accumulation of stuff. We exist in a society where we aspire to the image rather than the real – people want to be the image rather than the real thing.

LLF
Consumption over experience?

LW
Yes, we have a second-hand culture of experience leaving us with a yearning for the real. In the 2003 work ‘Motion by Movement’ I filmed trees moving in the wind and I put a fan in front of it, so it looked like the fan was moving the image. It’s an image it’s not real. I remember also gathering many images of national parks in North America where highways running through the landscape had been built, to create a view from the car window that gave the impression of passing a painting or billboard poster. A book that was very important to me at the time was ‘Future Natural’, where there is this observant essay by Kate Soper called ‘Nature/nature’. She looks at these national parks, and describes how they are built for the motorist; a perceptive encounter that is visual and rules out smell and touch. She writes something on the line that June is Rhododendron Time, autumn Fall Foliage Time, winter is Wonderland. She is saying that actually seasons are defined by what we have been given rather than what they are. We are seeing it from a particular and somewhat blinkered viewpoint. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolphe talks about a ‘Techno Sublime’ in the book ‘Sticky Sublime’ describing how experience is more sticky than its representation – we don’t go into the landscape and touch the sap of a tree. It’s less effort and more comfortable to view the landscape through a flat screen, like on our TVs at home. Its like camping, it’s not warm and it’s not dry, maybe its nicer being at home. We live in a world with a mediated distance to nature and the things in the real but there is this yearning to be sticky, to touch the sap. We struggle where to be.

LLF
You are proposing discomfort over comfort, saying that comfort is a myth, a fiction, something unsatisfactory because it can’t do the job it is alluding towards?

LW
Totally. A beautiful picture of a landscape is not like being there, its something different. It’s a beautiful image not beautiful subject matter. We can get confused with this – it is not a representation of reality. Celebrity culture confuses in just the same way – it’s not real, it’s an image. To strive towards it is to strive towards a fake. I want us to think of the real as being a different experience.

LLF
There is though yet another paradox in this. You are talking here about an image that is easy to believe in. With celebrity culture, it’s a shock when you actually meet someone who circulates in images as they don’t look the same, not how you think they look, it seems wrong. You are saying that we need to lift the scales from our eyes and look at these images as fictions and stop suspending our disbelief. At the same time, though, you are calling for the very suspension of disbelief but in a different way. It’s a contradictory in-between space, its slippery.

LW
I like that, not knowing which way to go with it. We are a product of our surroundings; we can’t be separated from them, however much you address it. I am the biggest wildlife documentary watcher imaginable, I learn so much from these programmes, but they will not translate the experience of being there. I want to access stuff through the image but I want to be aware of what I am doing. The image is a fantastic way of communicating something. Images pack so much information in order to communicate, and to do that they simplify things down.

LLF
Right, so it’s trying to take a non-dogmatic position where the question is what is to be done with these images rather than passing judgement. The context that you bring these images into, reworked as they are, is a gallery – its somewhere where the prescriptive behaviour is about looking and thinking.

LW
And it comes back to moving from a position where you say a painting is this, or a sculpture is that. It’s all more complex. I don’t want to do what is expected of me in all aspects – I want to make things how I want them to be. It’s the case with this book too. I want to try to not fit even though I knew from the outside I do fit into things, but its something I strive for, to break and bend rules even though I am of course repeating history.

LLF
And replacing rules with new ones. Which perhaps is why you are constantly shifting the rules of engagement within your own work which had lead you to end up working with clay in this new work as you attempt to avoid dogma.

LW
The work that I admire most often I enjoy when I think about it rather than at the time of perceiving it. In truth, I am most interested in the dialogues that surround artwork and how artwork operates within a field of discourse. I guess that is why I like teaching. Other than artwork, everything else in the world has a very neat definition that seems to be predicated on answers. Being an artist is about not doing that. I don’t want to give an answer. I want to ask questions.