New York, June 2010 - Senior East Coast Art Editor Trong Gia Nguyen spoke with artist Raphaele Shirley about her current exhibits at the Chelsea Art Museum and Dorfman Projects, as well as her recent trip to the Arctic Circle to make pictures using flashlights and zodiac boats.
Raphaele Shirley, Shooting Stair , 2009, Mixed-media, water fog, laser ; Courtesy Dorfman Projects
Trong Nguyen: Tell us a little bit about the Arctic Circle Project.
Raphaele Shirley: It is a residency organized by the Farm Foundation called "The Arctic Circle". For the moment there are, I think, at least 3 more annual trips planned. I think this last trip was by invitation only. The trip in 2010 was an open call for submissions. We had 18 people on the boat excluding the crew (who were a total of 5) 3 scientists and 15 artists. The mission of the trip is to invite artists and scientists to work and think in this very unique environment, for artists to work alongside scientists and scientists alongside artists, this without any thematic pre-determination, from the point of view of the overall residency, of what our work and subjects would be about. We started off in Longyearbyen, Svalbard last October and sailed from the port and towards the north all the way up to the lattitude of 80 degrees north and back to Longyearbyen. We set anchor almost everyday for the residents to accomplish their projects. The allotment of time and crew support for each project was exceptionally well organized, and fairly complex. One of the artists for example, Heini Aho, brought a theatrical fire liquid and created these landscapes of fire on the ice, the right spots for her pieces needed to be found and also we had to make sure not to enter into the frames during her shots. In general the group, when on shore, had to stay very close together as the risk of polar bear attacks was constantly present, so we had to work around each other a lot. Although we needed to be always on the look out for them, the polar bears were quasi invisible throughout the trip, we did see tracks as well as came upon a set of 8 feasting on a whale carcass and one loner hunting for food in the middle of the snow and ice. Our guide and the ship's second mate would come ashore and guard our expeditions with always a firearm strapped on the shoulder. The use of the zodiac boat and extra Kayaks were also needed for Janet Biggs who was doing hair-raising shots at the base of some of the giant glaciers we visited. Everyone's projects needed to be scheduled. My favorite work time was at night where I was able to make compositions with my lights. At night it was impossible to go ashore due to poor visibility, so I devised the method of shooting photos from the sailboat of a moving zodiac equipped with my "light broom" or "light brush". The resulting works look like gestural paintings but also geometric sculptures and are reminiscent of earth works.
TN: What is a zodiac boat?
RS: It is an inflatable boat used for landing and also as an emergency boat in case of ship wreck. We were using the zodiac on a daily basis to go ashore. At night the zodiac was unused and raised on the sailboat. It was readily available then for my project. The first mate on the ship Sebastian would drive it and fellow resident Ian Burns also went in the zodiac carrying the light rig in diverse preset or improvised configurations. They both wore safety jackets and were driving in the dark on the water making circles, squares, zipping in straight lines, etc. I took the photographs from the ship's deck. Long exposures, my hands freezing!!
TN: What did the scientists garner from the artists' explorations, and how did they process it all, or did they have their own experiments to attend to?
Raphaele Shirley, Sunken City: Preludes (2007), Installation view at Power House Projects, New York; Courtesy of the artist
RS: Well it was certainly interesting to see the interaction between the artists and scientists. I think there was definitely some mutual influence. Artists are famously unsewn compared to those in other fields, and so some of the freedom of imagination and of action was either fascinating our three scientists or rubbing off on them and triggering their own spontaneous idiosyncratic actions, or at least this is how I perceived it. By the same token we were fascinated by their process which seemed quite esoteric. For example Dr. Chung was taking snow samples throughout the trip in every landing and on the ship deck. We were all a bit mystified by her process as well as how methodological and determined she was. Dr McCallister showed up with cases of intriguing devices and tools, she was taking glacial ice samples for the dirt trapped in them, equally captivating as a process, she also spent a lot of time writing, leaving us wondering what was she writing about? "Work" she said.. And finally Amy Witta, who was on the trip seeking to make a sociological study of artists in their process seemed to have us under her constant looking glass, so it was a bit strange and unusual, at least for me, to be under constant observation. But she ended up having the strangest behavior of all, spending most of her time tied up to the prow of the ship staring into the horizon, or floating in the freezing water on her back in a waterproof suit Janet Biggs lent her. So the roles inverted and suddenly I found myself observing her unique behavior during the day as I waited for my night/work time.
TN: Do you plan on going back to the Arctic? And what does it mean to you to be going back to a part of nature that is "foreign" and so few of us has seen? Do you feel like a Darwin of sorts in the Galapagos, with better technology?
RS: I am going on the next trip. I applied and got accepted. At the end of the trip last October I felt like I had only just touched on what I could do there, the last work session ( about 8 nights total) where I shot the "Crossing Circle" photos is where I would like to start off next October. Encountering that landscape and attempting to make art in it ended up becoming a bit of an existential experience. At first I could not see what could be created in such perfection and then as the days grew I slowly found resolution and meaning for my own perception and action within. It was a bit of an epiphany when it happened as the conclusion of the questioning was a hard nut to crack, leaving me stumped for the first half of the trip. Also the sensorial experience was overwhelming, the air, the light, the towering landscapes, and the incredible warmth and confinement of the rocking ship in the midst of all that, so for the first week that experience, taking it all in took precedence over the possibility of "doing" something. I think we all had to deal with a sense of guilt somehow for being there. With the issue of global warming so prevalent and somehow the inevitability of the loss of this perfection, being there seemed almost like an intrusion, the very fact that we were there proving it had become already too accessible and hence soon to be altered, crossed, chartered, gridified, plowed etc.. So the sense of "adventurism" and "exploration" was replaced by that of questioning about civilization and its value. People have asked me why I would want to make work there as opposed to the same process on some warm lake in temperate zones, and my answer is that working in that environment encompasses and provokes the questioning above mentioned and in the end, for me, these questions need to be answered before proceeding with making art in general. The Arctic is an absolute and I would best prefer making work with that notion as the benchmark and norm by which all is measured. Spending more time there will help with that, to solidify some of the answers already found.
TN: Your show at the Chelsea Art Museum is a continuation of this exploration of light, but in the form of beams. Is there any particular pattern or logic to the colors and lines, or is it completely sensorial?
RS: Well my first piece of the Light Shot series was Shooting Stair for Dorfman projects, I went to the Arctic only two weeks after previewing that work for a one night event. I continued then in the Arctic the exploration there with temporary works. Coming back to New York, my curiosity then for the Chelsea Art Museum was to make another site specific work, the next in line. I decided to work with green and blue for several reasons, the color spectrum being vast, my thought was the place to start is with the primary colors Red, Green, and Blue and then later to congugate from there into combined colors such as pink, orange yellow etc.. So I was curious first about the relation between green and blue as opposed to red and green for example. Green and Blue are so close but far away, so to speak so I was interested in observing the tension between these two similars. My thought was that if I could make simple shapes such as two crossing stationary squares, as part of the study of geometry in the overall series, then the room , geometry, space, light and color could be all left to "sing" maybe, each one given enough space to exist and to be under our observation. It seems with everything's moving so fast in our society, its good to create circumstances where we can stop and look at simple things such as light, color etc. I'll probably need more time with those two colors, in different shapes before I am finished observing how they interact so I'll be making more configurations such as floor borne squares, cylinders maybe some stretched rectangles etc.
Raphaele Shirley, Sunken City: Episodes II (2008), Installation view at the Emily Harvey Foundation; Courtesy of the artist
TN: Are you still working with Perpetual Art Machine, and how has it evolved since you first started it?
RS: Perpetual Art Machine (PAM) as its names suggests has a perpetual nature to itself, it seems to self propel through the website that the team set up. Artists are still getting contacted for shows and recently Lee Wells was adjudicator for a BabbleGum competition from which two PAM artists got chosen and received awards, with a screening in Times Square on a jumbo screen. The most active founding member on PAM today is Lee Wells. I went last fall to St Petersburg for the Cyland Festival/ Hermitage Museum where we showed PAM the installation and gave a lecture. There are also long term goals that we are still considering as a group for the project. I am working on some contacts in Norway where the project might be included into schools there or in public interactive settings. PAM has so many potnetial ramifications and aspects to it that I am always on the look out for new avenues and collaborations for it. The initial set up of the project, the first 2 years, were all-consuming and is where most of the energy was put in to get it all up and running, creating the networks and getting the project known, showing at the fairs and in exhibitions. Now that the project is established it is entering a more mature phase where it seems to advance at a steady pace through the web and through special projects. There is a big job now archiving PAM from its inception to today, with hopefully a placement in a museum in their permanent collection. This effort is an ongoing trajectory waiting for the right home and circumstance. And finally we are still exhibiting artists works. Lee Wells again will be curating works from PAM artists at the Scope art fair in Basel this coming June, so the story continues...
ArtSlant would like to thank Raphaele Shirley for her assistance in making this interview possible.
--Trong Gia Nguyen