Feb. 2009 - Melanie Schiff's photographs often have haunting atmospheres, where activities and people in the past have an oblique but powerful presence. Working mostly through allusion, Schiff uses a number of sources, from art history to legend to personal circumstance, to find moments seemingly caught between history and the beautiful fleeting moments of the present. A great example is her Water Birth, 2006. In the photo, the viewer finds a bathtub containing a large leafy plant stretching its arms towards a skylight. The plant is flooded with light, existing in a slight haze. Though it is not necessary to know that Schiff is working with a bathtub where a woman (according to legend) gave birth, the photo suggests this content of renewal, of release, and of the inherent beauty of growth. Most Schiff photographs contain such conjuring. Schiff recently moved to Los Angeles after living in Chicago for many years, after showing at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and after being included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. In the interview, we cover the content of her photographs, her technique and her approach to the history of photography with a special focus on the idea of "conjuring," what it may mean and how a photograph can be suggestive without being narrative, how a photograph can capture a fleeting moment while gesturing and coming to know the past.
Anna II, 2007, c-print mounted and framed, 50" x 40"; Courtesy Kavi Kupta Gallery
Ed Shad: After being in Chicago and New York for many years, you moved to L.A. in August. How has the transition been, what are the first impressions of L.A.?
Melanie Schiff: I moved here in late August, and for the first few months it felt as though it was the end of August forever. There is a strange monotony here, which makes you pay attention to smaller things. I’ve spent some time in Joshua Tree and regardless of how clichéd it seems, the utter harshness helped me understand the subtlety of how things change out here. It hadn’t really occurred to me until then, maybe because of the ocean, or the urbaness of Los Angeles, that I was living in a desert climate. L.A. feels like no where else I’ve been and, at first, felt very foreign to me. Lately I’ve just been really appreciating everything that makes it so different. I like things that are subtle and slow – the first inclination is to think of everything here as blunt, but there is actually softness to the brutality.
ES: This light must play into you technique?
MS: In many of the photographs, I’ll be conscious about the quality of the light at different times of the day. I become curious about it for each particular space, each space demands a different consideration of light. I’ll use a certain location or object that I am interested in as a starting point, and then it is about responding to the light and the surroundings, and working intuitively. There is a lot of not knowing in my process, not understanding what I am doing. I work through it. I only use natural light, I have a real connection to light as subject, in both it’s relationship to photography and it’s symbolism in a more spiritual context.
ES: Could you speak a little more about your reaction and response to a space? Your work sometimes seems so casual, I think the Whitney people said it had a “low fi quality.”
MS: There is a difference between reacting to a space and contextualizing it. It feels wrong to go into a space and think: I have this object to make and I am going to make this space into my object. For me, there is a difference between reaction and response, and I try to work within the distance between the two notions. For example, Reflecting Pool, 2007 is a photo of a swimming pool at my parent’s house. They were moving and I wanted to make photographs of the house the whole summer, but felt parazlyzed by the personal heaviness of the place. It wasn’t until the last day I was there that I felt as though I could make something of some consequence. I was going through things, my records, my mother’s records, and I just wanted to ruin everything. I wanted someone, or even just the idea of someone, to see the pool with the records floating at the bottom and just be confused at what had occurred. Or maybe I wanted them to never notice, or to barely care, and bury them in the ground forever. Either way, that’s what I wanted to happen in the photograph, and the great thing about photography, is that moment can last forever.
Cannon Falls (Cobain Room), 2007, c-print, 40" x 100"; Courtesy Kavi Kupta Gallery
ES: We talked about the idea of conjuring, the idea of conjuring an image that you’ve seen, that you’ve lived with, like the 19th century spiritualists conjured a spirit, when you set up your photos, could you talk about that idea a little bit?
MS: That image came out of months, of not specifically thinking or making anything that would even resemble the same image. In that sense there does seem to be a conjuring, or a pulling of images and experiences from both a past and present that works together best within a moment.
I think if I look at a photograph such as, Reflecting Pool, which for me is a symbolic gesture of sacrifice, abstracted from the personal stuff of my history, but still referencing sadness and things that most people recognize, it is as if you come upon this scene and find it baffling, like a party that is over. Why were these things there, how did this happen? It is personal and cultural, that is the context, it is in there, but the resonance does not depend on these details. I have to have a real connection to subject, the context is that transference, it doesn’t happen via magic, but is about photography’s ability to manifest those feelings.
ES: We talked about the influence of Carolee Schneeman and her often visceral reclaiming of the body. We then talked about how your work often places a body into a landscape, most of the time not in a violent way but in a seamless way. Could you speak more about that?
MS: When you talk about reclaiming, why would you have to reclaim the body, what would you reclaim it from? There’s the symbol of the artist, using the female body in an art historical context, and then there’s the artist’s relationship to their muse. In works about the body’s connection to space, it’s really about understanding physicalness and a formalness within the space, finding connectivity with it.
ES: Could you talk about physicalness a bit more?
MS: For instance in Valle Export’s photographs, she worked with the assumption that urban architecture is masculine, and by placing a female in the space, she claimed the space for herself and revealed the gender that was written into it. In my photo Skatepark (2009), I’m working with an inherently masculine space where literally guys skateboard, but the curves and edges of the park itself allude to the feminine. My subject lays down, conforming her body to the curving space. Her body draws attention to the feminine qualities of this place, it creates a split between the function of the skate park and the symbol of how the skate park is constructed.
Anna V, 2008, archival inkjet print, 49" x 40"; Courtesy Kavi Kupta Gallery
ES: You talked about three photos that were made for a 12 x 12 show at the MCA Chicago - Cannon Falls (Cobain Room), 2006, Water Birth, 2006 and Studio, 2006. Where were these photos taken?
MS: The photographs work together to think about the spaces where things are made and the resonance those spaces have. Cannon Falls (Cobain Room), 2007 was at a place called Pachyderm Studio’s in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Nirvana recorded In Utero there. Studio was an artist’s in Chicago, which is more about the represented romantic notion of both the artist and studio. Water Birth was taken in a house in Chicago where some friends of mine lived, all guys, and it was rumored that the original owner had given birth in the bathtub, there was also something about the placenta, but I think that may be just urban legend.
ES: Could you talk how these maybe relate to the contextualizing that we’ve been discussing?
MS: There is also a sense of absence in these images, almost like a ghosting, something between the image and its relationship to what’s not being represented in the space. For instance, in Cannon Falls (Cobain Room), a bit of the woman’s presence is still left in the right panel. She has left the scene but is still present in a way, a bit of sadness maybe. Maybe it’s a myth, but I try to allude to the event but not strictly talk about it, there’s not a strict narrative here. In Studio, the rainbow is the allusion. In Cannon Falls (Cobain Room), it is the woman. In Water Birth, it is the plant. These things stand in for the myths, they are ghosts.
ES: In terms of the myth of the artist, how do you view the creation of art, how do you view yourself as an artist in a society that is still so overwhelmed by the romantic myths about being an artist?
MS: In terms of the romanticism, I had a really hard time identifying myself as an artist. There was an alienating quality to it, that felt as though you are on the inside looking out. The notion of being on the inside has never been very appealing to me. I think that’s one of the things that specifically drew me to photography, its inherent nature of being able to look and watch. That sense of alienation is the modern condition in a way and making work for me is not about illuminating problems. An artwork doesn’t give an answer, but when you understand something about the problem in the process of making, you have a moment of calm, of clarity. In seeing those ideas coming to fruition, there is a comfort, of knowing that things are shared.
Sarah, 2007, archival digital c-print, 50" x 40"; Courtesy Kavi Kupta Gallery
ES: You mentioned that it is not a bad thing to make an unapologetically beautiful image. What about contemporary art makes some artists want to apologize and why shouldn’t we?
MS: I think that I used to be afraid that making something beautiful was not a meaningful gesture. That beauty was frivolous and that frivolity was passé and bourgeois. But I think I both underestimated and misunderstood the importance of beauty in terms of experience. I also feel that for a while, at least where I was, that conceptualism was confused with one liners and didacticism. Beauty can be both an idea and experience. To dismiss it as unnecessary seems flawed to me.
ES: Finally, you went to UIC. So many great artists went to UIC. What is it about that UIC?
MS: Well I can only speak to my own experience. For me, it was almost a re-education in terms of how I had previously thought photography could function. UIC fosters a strong sense of community and I had opportunities to work with an amazing faculty and maybe even more importantly I really valued the work of my peers who all seemed to have some connection to the place. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I feel as though we operated under a certain guise of naivety, which really allowed for people to make just weird stuff and argue about art all the time. Hamza Walker, who curates at the Renaissance Society, once described UIC critiques as “gladiator style” which I think is pretty accurate. It was you in front of your work, facing at least 40 people, which I think is both daunting and ridiculous. Either way it was definitely an experience. Also, Chicago is really a city that allows students to lay claim into the art community. Which I guess in hindsight is something that is maybe a blessing and a curse, either way you can’t stay in that mindspace forever.
ArtSlant would like to thank Melanie Schiff for her assistance in making this interview possible.