My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.”
Multi-disciplinary Xicana artist and activist Alicia Smith is the featured winner of our open call, and it is with great satisfaction that we are featuring her in a weeklong Instagram takeover she’s spearheading this week (if you haven’t seen her videos you’re missing out!) and in this special interview with the artist. The artist holds her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and was featured at the art fair UNTITLED in San Francisco in Fall 2019.
Smith’s work spans video, performance, printmaking and sculpture to bring awareness to the existing, inaccurately romanticized tropes that deny indigenous women their individual complexity, simultaneously demonstrating their beauty and strength. We learned more from Smith’s perspective on the implications her practice has on the greater art world, as well as the lessons that she has learned from her ancestors and from the wider diaspora of indigenous nations that have informed her practice as an artist and activist.
(Featured Image: “Erendira”, image courtesy the artist.)
ANTE mag. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Alicia! We recently learned about an artwork that you donated to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter, can you tell us more about how this came about?
Alicia Smith. Thank you! That piece is “Molotov Hare,” and it was created really with Black and Brown solidarity in mind. A marriage of indigenous archetypes and anarchist imagery.
There are many indigenous traditions that involve the rabbit as a symbol of rights of passage for young warriors. The Aztecs had their Eagle Warriors walk through underground caves and emerge, ready to defend their tribe. There are jade sculptures depicting rabbits protecting men wearing eagle headdresses to illustrate this ceremony. Black Elk once said: “For the rabbit represents humility, because he is quiet and soft and not self asserting – a quality which we must all possess when we go to the center of the world.” The rabbit is also a trickster. The Anishinaabe’s Nanabozho in the North and Cherokee and Black communities in the South. Many stories of Br’er rabbit are in fact adaptions of West African tales of Anansi the spider. The trickster felt important in the piece because of his ceremonial role. He forces us to re-evaluate where we delineate societal rules and agreements. He does this through perpetually undermining them.
The image is about duty to your people, and that to change the rules you first have to break them. It felt extremely urgent: I cut the block in a day and started taking orders and I did use the piece to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter OKC and Millions for Prisoners New Mexico. I’m really proud of this work and [proud] that people have been using that image when they protest police brutality.
ANTE mag. As a Xicana artist and activist, your work embraces themes such as decolonization, the Americas’ native nations and knowledge of the natural world such as plant life and medicinal practices. Can you tell us more about the origin of this journey for you as an artist to research and integrate the crucial, yet still too often overlooked, history of indigenous peoples in your work?
Alicia Smith. I feel like I didn’t have a choice, haha… when the ancestors come knocking you better stand at attention and that is sort of what began this path for me. I had always been a pretty feral child, bringing wild animals inside of the house, and I always had a real lust for knowledge, especially in the way of ecology. I feel like re-examining those complex relationships through that cultural lens has taught me more than anything else. My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.” I know doing that kind of work might dissuade people from wanting to look at my art but I hope given the political climate at large that those same folks are at least taking a moment of pause as to why they don’t want to learn indigenous history of the land they are on. But above all else, if it isn’t for them – it’s not for them, and that’s fine too. I love encountering first-generation kids, folks who went through a diaspora, who immediately connect and resonate with the work. At the end of the day if all I did was preserve one inch of sacred knowledge in a piece, then I’ve done my job of being a good ancestor for those who come after me with questions.
ANTE mag. To expand on the above question, can you delve into the range of your practice – spanning video, installation, mixed-media – as relates to the themes such as native culture and traditions and decolonization in your work?
Alicia Smith. By foundation I am a printmaker. So all my work often starts as a relief print before it goes into the world of durational art. I like the idea of being a Tlacuilo: a scribe or codex painter, someone who is recording history, ceremony, etc. So I think my 2-dimensional work acts as a kind of codex and my performances and video are the ceremonies themselves.
I call my work “Secondhand Ceremonies,” inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer, because these are partial reconstructions and partial innovations. When you are descended from people who survived genocide it means necessarily reconstructing the old with new innovations: Adaptations.
ANTE mag. You reflect on the words of Anishinaabe cultural ecologist Melissa K. Nelson in your description of your work, “Teomama.” Nelson remarked, “the Native Woman’s body [in so] many stories acts as a kind of meeting place.” Can you expand on how this reflection impacted the development of your work?
Alicia Smith. It’s cosmogeneology. In science it’s just evolutionary biology. The most seemingly innocuous Ant has been on this earth for 120 million years. And in indigenous ways of knowing we don’t look at the ecosystem from this sort of colonial scientific gaze. These beings are our siblings. Plants, animals, insects, fungi, they’re our older brothers. And to explain that ethic of kinship, rather than talking about primordial soup, we do it through these eco-erotic stories, where women are often at the intersection. In the Popol Vuh a woman becomes pregnant eating fruit from a tree. There are stories of women marrying stars, bears, becoming pregnant by the wind and on and on. It establishes an ethic of kinship. When I do these performances with Hawks, Wolves, Deer, Horses, Rivers, and so on, its so important to me to convey the medicines of these beings and their teachings as well as the metaphors I imbue them with in the work.
ANTE mag. How has the uncertainty of 2020 impacted your practice, and what current body of work are you focused on?
Alicia Smith. I am very fortunate because I have a government job where we were put on admin leave. I’m also very fortunate that I have been given some room to do what I love to do and share stories from my home, for the museum that I work for. This time at home has been really beneficial for my practice. Unfortunately people who are privileged who dont have to work a 9 to 5 job are usually the ones who can devote more time to their practices and end up rising in their art careers. But this time has allowed me to be so much more productive and to do what I really want to do which is engage with my community and in social justice causes.
On view at Paradice Palase(1260 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY) through Saturday, August 29th, Courtney Dudley’s transcendent “Sudden Relics”makes manifest a new body of work reflecting the natural materials and flashing screens that define our confined yet simplified lifestyle during quarantine. Composed of new works made made with clay and pit-fired in the artist’s own Kingston, NY backyard, these works – and the resulting video “Dig” on display – present this primitive process-as-creatively re-imagined practice.
Works titled “Burial” (and numbered 4-11) on display present a vision of the world through the lens of the artist’s own personal loss during the time of CoVid-19 in addition to the general anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic. The works elevate circumstances of chance and resurrection, borrowing from the sophisticated yet ancient Japanese concept of “Kintsugi”: an elegant means of re-evaluating how broken and re-assembled sculpture can be elevated through the process of applying decorative adhesive to resurrect the final artwork. This theme of resurrection buoys the exhibition, echoing the quarantine optimist’s belief in a better world post-CoVid19 pandemic subsiding.
“Nest,” a sculpture created from dried and twisted vines that are an invasive species in the artist’s local ecosystem, further complicate the concept of what is actually natural. The video documenting the artist’s practice that is mounted on display, titled “Dig,” flanks the “Curios” (1-5) series which consists of shadowboxes containing shards of the pit-fired ceramics that have been gathered and presented as artifacts: relics of a contemporary body of work borrowing an ancient process. This re-imagining of the primitive in the contemporary moment demonstrates the power of Dudley’s vision: by elevating the material and re-contextualizing this practice for a new audience, the artist makes more immediate connections to an abstract, historic process.
The presentation of this dynamic show firmly establishes the connections between the visceral quality of the material and the labor-intensive practice the artist employed to create works for “Sudden Relics.” The homage to those artists who have spent time creating those enigmatic, elegant ceramics and clay artworks of eras past whose names are lost to the sands of time. The artist’s dedication and enthusiasm toward this body of work infuses the exhibition with a timeless spirit that elevates and soars toward a hopeful future.
Multi-disciplinary artist Sun Young Kang’s multitudinous, scholarly practice mines art historical precedent and a range of scales and materials. This 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (which is NEA-funded) has exhibited in multiple solo and group shows both in the US and abroad, and she is currently based in New York State. Her work has received multiple accolades and recognitions, and her practice manifests the conceptual across various sites and installations.
We chatted with Kang to gain insight into her practice, including aspects of art historical precedent that have informed her practice, her philosophical outlook and the trajectory in which her work is headed.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically in relationship to repetition and the Korean concept of Yeo-baek and the influence of the Dansaekhwa school on your work as referenced in your statement?
Sun Young Kang. My interest is in exploring the duality fundamental to human existence: different realities or worlds both in space and time and the tension between them, the co-existence of antithetical ideas. I reside in between two different cultures. My feeling of marginality makes me wonder about the concept of boundaries, the space or time in between, as well as the interrelation of, different ideas or entities. My focus on this also comes from my background—Korean Painting and its key aesthetic and philosophy of “Yeo-Baek.”
Yeo-Baek is the physical empty space in a painting that the brush hasn’t touched and remains as openness. This untouched part of painting is considered as important as the part filled with images. Visually, Yeo-Baek creates the balance of positive and negative space in a painting. Conceptually, this negative space stimulates the viewer’s imagination about what is not there and invites them into the artwork. This quiet blankness makes the artwork interactive by requiring the presence of the audience.
This contemplative yet interactive aspect of Yeo-Baek is also an important aesthetic of most of Dansaekhwa art. When I was in school majoring Korean Painting in mid to late 1990s, I don’t recall hearing the name “Dansaekhwa.” But many of the students were inspired by the aesthetic of several Korean artists who are now spoken of as the pioneers of the “Dansaekhwa movement.” It is obvious to me that my practice also reflects the influence of the aesthetic of Yeo-Baek and Dansaekhwa.
The most obvious connections to Yeo-Baek in my work are the physical empty space as a key element both conceptually and aesthetically and the audience’s presence in activating and completing the piece, whether it be as a reader of my book or as a physical part of the installation space. The minimal or limited amount of techniques and materials in each project and the repetition in the process of making and in the resulting texture and visuality evoke characteristics of Dansaekhwa art. Rather than specific images or colors, my practice focuses on the material itself: the lightness and delicacy of paper and other soft materials, such as thread, hair, and powder, and light and shadow effects. Each material has metaphoric meaning intrinsic to the theme or concept of my work. I routinely use simple but obsessively repetitive processes in the making, such as cutting out or burning paper or printing repetitively, casting objects, stitching or hanging hundreds or thousands of threads in a space. The meditative aspect of a repetitive working process is also present in the Dansaekhwa artists’ practice. The repetition in my work visualizes time-passing and symbolizes time made spatial, reflecting the passage in between or across boundaries, and the repetitive use of a technique and minimal materials creates a tactility, a visual obsessiveness, that brings the audience close to my work.
ANTE mag.Your practice moves between book art and installation to 2-D work and works on paper, can you walk us through the evolution of your practice as a multi-disciplinary artist working across multiple mediums?
SYK. In Korea, before I joined the Book Arts/ Printmaking program, I worked strictly on 2-dimensional paper canvas, but the transition from painting to book was not as radical is it sounds. The most common material for a book is paper, as it is for Korean painting. The intimacy and the quiet interaction that a book can offer its readers was for me very much like the interactivity of Yeo-baek. Also, in a book form, 2-dimensional paper turns to 3-dimensional space as the pages are stacked, folded or bound together, and that structure offers a sense of narrative and time passing. An intimate and portable book can contain the idea of space and time that through the viewer’s imagination is unlimited.
Some of my early artist books focused on visualizing the invisible space in the structure of the book. I used the repetitive processes of cutting, burning or printing to create tactility as well as to evoke meaning. This has been key to most of my installation projects as well. My interest in the physical, conceptual space of a “book” and its interaction with the viewer led me to create large spaces in which audiences could physically immerse themselves, contemplating time passing and dwelling in uncertainty, as they took part in creating a space that envisioned the boundary between antithetical ideas, ideas often visualized as light and shadows. Below is a description of an installation that I recreated several times, an example of how a sheet of paper became a large space and how an installation evolved from the philosophy of Korean Painting and the concept of the space of a book.
Sometimes I consider my 2-D works as books or my books as works on paper. That depends on each project, on my thoughts as to how an audience would interact with my work, how best to communicate my idea. Without thinking, I move between different mediums.
ANTE mag. Can you reflect on an exhibition, residency or fellowship you’ve had and how that has impacted your practice or provided a turning point?
SYK. Every experience of an exhibition, residency, and fellowship that I have had has been a turning point in some way. I cannot begin to list all the opportunities and support from institutions, organizations, and individuals that have impacted my practice. One particularly important experience was my first oversea residency in 2017.
I was invited to be a resident artist of the Soulangh Artist Village in Tainan, Taiwan, through COPE NYC International Artists in Residence Exchange Program. It required courage from the beginning, as I had to be away from my family and travel to a country I didn’t know. Also, at that time my mother in Korea started to develop Alzheimer’s, which had a powerful effect on me, making me reflect on my past, my home, and human connections encased in memories. The spirituality of the local culture in Tainan and its relation to contemporary life inspired me. There I created my first work without paper at all, using cotton thread and sugar powder.
This was a temporary site-specific installation for which I used locally found materials and which I shared with the local community, all strangers to me, not by any kind of direct communication, but simply through the emotional exchange made possible by the installation itself. I came back home without any physical work, but with incredible memories and friendships and inspiration. This residency led me to think about the temporality of the physical art work into which I put so much energy and time. I came to value more the process of interacting with my surrounding and creating works for a specific place and time than creating physical artifacts that lasted beyond that. I began to feel that the experience of the work, once it came to life, and the memory of that, were enough.
“The Endless Lines” consisted of 3-dimensional structures built by using strings of 1-dimensional thread, my attempt to visualize the invisibility of time passing (the continuous lines being my illusion of flow of time) and the spirituality and beliefs of a culture that could not be grasped by our concept of any dimension. This installation made me think of how we define the passage of time and how time creates memories that connect individuals and the past and future. I started to use in my work the 1-dimensional physicality of thread as a metaphor for connectivity or continuity and my shed hair (also a kind of thread) as a metaphor for the detached self, memory-loss, and disconnection.
Last year I again created a site-specific work, this time in Seoul, Korea, and again came home with empty hands. Traveling to a place far from where I reside limited my materials and techniques. I carried in my suitcase rolls of thread, needles, magnets, and some small pieces of paper and with those created 6973 miles of force in 1cm in Korea, my home country.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward? SYK. My present practice is a continuation of my recent work, but instead of temporary site-specific installations, I have gravitated toward work that I can do alone in my home studio, whether it be a small-scale work or an installation. My practice now involves more planning and designing than being inspired by something unexpected or a new setting.
Currently, I am preparing an upcoming exhibition. I have been invited by the University of Alabama at Huntsville to be the 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts) with a solo exhibition and public events. The visit has been postponed from this fall to early next spring due to the pandemic. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to look forward to during this isolation. For this exhibition, I am going to expand and develop my previous paper installation project In Between Presence and Absence. So, I am now back to the cast paper process which I did for many years. I want to accentuate the interactivity of the space given to me for the installation, a space that to me seems quieter than those of my previous installations.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work? SYK. Since I cannot travel for a residency or exhibition, I am looking more into myself. These days I think a lot about my home, which seems farther away than ever, and my mother—now in a nursing home and not allowed contact with anyone outside that home—slowly getting close to the end without understanding what is going on in the world around her. These painful thoughts have led me to revisit and rethink my previous work “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence”, which I began at the Vermont Studio Center during a residency a year ago and developed in my home studio at the end of last year.
The two primary materials with which I am working for “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence” are bricks and my shed hair. A brick, broken in half, represents a split self, two identities, the space between the past and the future. Shed hair symbolizes for me the detached self and memory loss, suggesting the weakened connection between my current self and my past self and between me and my home country.
I repeatedly hammer on the brick to create a crack and eventually split it into two pieces. After breaking the brick, I photograph it and, again, in a repetitive movement, embroider on the photograph, with my hair, lines between the two parts of the brick. Those repetitive actions visualize the concept of ourselves as the embodiments of time passing between the past and the future. One cannot connect two heavy objects such as bricks with delicate hair; that is only possible on a two-dimension rendering, a photograph, of the brick pieces. I see my line embroidering as reconnecting, symbolically and impossibly, the gap between past and future, between two identities, reconnecting the two parts of a split self. In reality, the present is continually shifting. The future becomes the past. Establishing an identity and settling into the space between past and future are profoundly difficult. Thus, I explore the concept of time and space through the 4-dimensional process of breaking the bricks and line-stitching the photographs, the 3-dimensional bricks and embroidered hair, and the 2-dimensional photographs.
For the past couple of months, besides working on my upcoming solo exhibition, I have been working on this project, which I have renamed “Impossibly Connected.” Although the theme and concept were established, I didn’t consider the piece complete. My idea was to recreate it by re-photographing the bricks to get more spatial depth in the photos to emphasize the exploration of different dimensions of time and space.
My feeling of being marginal, living between two cultural realities, trying to bridge two identities and wanting to explore themes of time and space and the conflict between past and future seem more pressing to me now than ever. And I sense that other people are feeling the same. My repetitive motion of impossibly connecting the broken bricks in the photo with my shed hair evokes and embodies my constant questioning: What is the reality that we believe is real now? How can we reconnect each other after this? Where can we find the lost time? Completing this project may not be important, but the symbolic movement of connecting the pieces allows me to question and think. I will work on this piece for as long as I feel I need to. I feel this process will take me to a new place, a new direction. What or where I don’t know.
Artist Gabriel J. Shuldiner demands much of his medium. An artist who creates works by building layers of paint and industrial materials in a meticulous manner, his paintings are comprised of sculptural layers constructed in careful relationship with the preceding layer, existing in a unique and original tension indigenous to the particular work itself. His attention to construction –and just as fittingly, deconstruction– becomes apparent in the singular surface of each of his finished artworks.
We touched base with Shuldiner to gain insights into his studio, and as an Open Call winner, to learn how he has perfected his practice.
ANTE Mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically within the context of layers upon layers as referenced in your conceptual artist statement?
Gabriel J. Shuldiner.While painting, I gradually build up a work… layers upon layers. It’s primarily all paint, along with some industrial construction materials. Each layer informs the next: how the materials work with and against each other. There is always a sense of surprise, of tension working with the matter, but intent remains, and as layers compound, remnants of previous layers are left over, hidden, revealed, and exposed, becoming layers upon layers of physical matter which mirror the conceptual layers I also attach to the work.
ANTE Mag. You specifically mention three terms, Brute Minimalism, Hybridsculptural painting and Post apocalyptic black – can you explain how each of these terms define your work?
G.J.S. I was looking for a quick way to explain my work in the most concise manner as possible. I like words and word play. I don’t like definitions; having to define things and describe things that should be seen and experienced is something I don’t like, but I understand the necessity. My work is influenced by so many visual genres, and musical genres. Traditionally my work is steeped in the history minimalism and abstraction and conceptualism. But my work is also brutal…brutal in a good sense. It’s delicate and playful, brutal and raw. The term I use is “bruteminimalism”: it just came to me and it sounded right. I’m a painter who creates Hybridsculptural paintings rather than a sculptor who creates painting-like sculptures. Given that my work fluctuates between painting and sculpture, the works I create are literally “hybrid sculptural paintings” As for “postapocalypticblack”, I felt the word appropriately described my own unique variant of black. It also aptly riffs on the age old falsity that “painting is dead”. I heard that term a lot in graduate [art] school and thought it the most ridiculous statement ever. It seems to come along every few years. Apparently painting has been dying ever since the first cave paintings appeared… this term perfectly played on that absurdity. You just can’t kill it. The physicality of the material, the blackness of the material… it is postapocalypticblack. You know it when you see it.
ANTE Mag. Recently you have shown at Monica King Contemporary, how has it been exhibiting your work during the pandemic and how has it been different for you showing work now than pre-COVID?
G.J.S. I had a piece in a benefit auction Monica King Contemporary set up to help raise money for the CoVid cause. I love her gallery and was grateful to be asked to be in it: I had been looking for ways to help during the pandemic. At the time I was offering limited-edition mini-paintings direct via my Instagram and donating 50% to the CoVid-related organization of the buyer’s choice. And then the gallery asked if I would take part in their benefit. A completely virtual online benefit. Of course I said yes.
Showing my work now, during CoVid, I feel I’ve adapted to the current virtual world quite well. I’ve done several Zoom artist talks, a few interviews and have had several group shows. I’ve also sold work! All virtually. Given the physicality of my work and the crucial importance of light as an actual material, a 2D screen doesn’t do my work justice. I think that’s true for all visual arts. But it’s extra true with my work. There is something magical, experiential and spiritual about standing before a painting and looking at it. It’s a personal experience between you and the work. This pause in showing work in the real world is definitely strange. But at the same time, there are so many new outlets to get the work seen, and seen by so many more. The reality is that most people will initially discover my work virtually. That was probably true pre-pandemic, but now and post-pandemic, it will be the primary way people will experience my work, so I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting the way I photograph [the work] and I’m pretty happy with the results.
I see the image as I see my aforementioned descriptive terms: as a quick way to show, explain and attract… with the goal of having that introduction lead to an in person studio visit – which is convenient because my studio is in Chelsea (Manhattan.)
I have several (studio visits) lined up, but I’m not yet ready for in person studio visits, no matter how well-enforced the social distancing and masking.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward?
G.J.S. Throughout CoVid, I’ve been lucky enough to really focus on creating a new body of work. I’m really tightening the work up, and I feel I’m actually making my best work now during the pandemic. Every painting I have ever created has gotten me to this point.
Working without having any deadlines or distractions has been very freeing, and creatively inspiring. But for the most part, my routine hasn’t really changed all that much during Covid. I still paint every single day. Right now I’m working on some larger pieces. That’s where my head is right now. I’m used to having complete control over my work. I like making work that I can handle physically, as I want to be able to move the piece around as it is created. The back becomes the front, and the top becomes the bottom. I want to be able to twist, cut, rip, tear, punch. The deconstruction is just as important as the construction.
The way I work is sorta manic. I work on multiple pieces at once, bouncing ideas off each work. Eventually certain works tighten up and reveal themselves and then I move in to complete them. The way I show my work is the opposite, super minimal: one piece surrounded by nothing. The majority of my current work has been relatively consistent in size and thus easily maneuverable. The direction I’m headed is larger, so I’m figuring out how to navigate the larger works in a similar manner. I want that intimacy to remain. I’ll figure it out.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work?
G.J.S. I have a complex equation in my mind that has to balance itself out in order for me to consider a work complete, and successful. It’s just a feeling I get. With “zTCTdyH<B\,H3h]_system” for example, I feel I have accomplished that. The way the different materials play off each other makes someone wonder: what is the surface? What is the support? Is it a painting or a sculpture? What is it made of, and how is it made? The interplay of light upon the varying shades of black, creating various areas of white and grey. I can stare off into work I consider successful for hours and it transports me.
Ultimately I am painting primarily just for myself… which is a crucial point. And that’s the test, really, to reach that space: that place [which means for] me, someplace calm amidst such concentrated chaos.
Each work looks so simple. It’s a black painting. But the longer you gaze into it, the more the complexities gradually reveal themselves.
MaryKate Maher is one of those conceptual juggernauts whose work you discover and instantly wonder how you haven’t run across it sooner. Her awareness of the nuances of structure and the volume of forms create lyrical and compelling sculptures and installation work. A thoughtful artist with a strong record of exhibitions who also just so happens to be an alumna of both Skowhegan and MacDowell, Maher proves through her practice to create gradual crescendos, impressing her admirers with a criticality and subtlety that holds precious secrets for all who encounter her work.
We touched base with Maher to gain a more in-depth appreciation of her practice in light of her selection as an Open Call winner, learning about her background in painting, her ruminations on balance and the careful, tenuous relationships binding individual components to the whole.
ANTE.Thanks for chatting with us MaryKate. Can you tell us about your practice and specifically the tension between the organic and industrial latent in your work?
MaryKate Maher.I have a background in painting and drawing that has transitioned over time to include sculpture and elements of photography. They influence each other in ongoing conversation. This dynamic between structure and tonality, color and line serves as a useful aesthetic corollary to the organic/industrial duality. I find industrial landscapes beautiful and sad. In their pristine states, the industrial dominates the organic, cutting through it, confident and domineering. In its dilapidated state, one sees the organic reasserting itself, softening the borders. That juxtaposition interests me. I don’t go out looking specifically for it but it seems to find me, catching my attention when something seems “right”.
For example, one moment I keep trying to recreate occurred about two years ago when I was driving home from my studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was sunset and I was driving near Kingsland Avenue, which is a very industrial route. There is this large white holding tank (oil or fuel). On this particular evening the sunset was reflecting perfectly onto the tank so that both the tank and the sky had the same pink and purple gradients. The industrial was acting as a mirror for the organic. I didn’t have my camera with me and I kept trying to pull over in traffic to either take a picture with my phone or figure out what I wanted from that moment. It was rush hour-hectic and I missed my chance. I drive by there all the time trying to re-catch that experience, but I haven’t seen it again. I’m not sure what I expect from seeing it again but the gradients I saw from the light that day have found their way into my work.
ANTE.You specifically mention cairns as an influence in your practice. Can you speak to the impact that and other natural phenomena have on your work?
MaryKate Maher. Rocks and cairns have been a fixture in my work. With cairns, you have something very organic with a touch of the human added. The most basic human gesture. I think about how that gesture would feel to someone wandering alone through the wilderness. Is it reassuring? Is it spooky? There’s also a sort of game to making rocks, which do not on their own lend themselves to stacking, balance one on top of the other. In my work, it turns into manipulating weight and balance in ways that emphasize awkward and precarious arrangements. I’m not interested in picture-perfect compilations. I tend to stack and pile using chunks of concrete and other fabricated forms, wedging something into another form. There is a deliberateness to this action which is weird, imperfect, and provisional.
Nature isn’t pristine. It creates all sorts of bizarre conglomerations like “plastiglomerates’ which are a literal fusing of plastic pollution with organic debris to create a new form of rock – a direct result from human pollution. In my personal collection I have an oyster shell which has fused itself to styrofoam like a barnacle. Its a perfect riddle: what is overtaking what?
I also love the tradition of the Scholars’ Rock and Odin stones where natural formations are so thoroughly aesthetified that they come to read as sculpture. Other phenomena like Fata Morgana and mirages, light refracting on the horizon creating interesting effects: all of these influence my work in some way. When I can travel and explore I collect all these feelings and moments from different places and bring that back into the studio. I love geology and seeing famous collections, like that of Roger Caillois, and Standing Stones in Britain. There is a power to all of these objects and for centuries people have tapped into that.
ANTE.Recently you have shown at venues such as Triangle Arts Association and the Brooklyn Army Terminal. You’ve also shown at outdoor sculpture venues. Can you walk us through the positive aspects of both gallery and public/outdoor sculpture exhibitions?
MaryKate Maher. My studio is pretty messy most of the time and venues that are more of a traditional gallery space are ideal for seeing the work in that clean, open space. You can control the presentation, the lighting, all of those things. You can play with scale and formality. There aren’t many “unknowns” thrown into the mix. Outdoor sculpture is usually just one work and it has to stand up to other criteria like weather, scale, and durability in addition to it being a finished work. It’s a fun (and stressful) challenge. It’s like being a director: making sure everything is happening on schedule and organizing all of the components, renting equipment, hiring help, etc. Working outdoors can have perks that can’t really be created indoors, and it’s always a big learning experience. Last year, I was curated into a sculpture exhibition in the Poconos along a local hiking trail. All of the works that were included had to address the natural world and couldn’t interfere with the natural environment there. It took me a long time to figure out what to create. It had to stand out against the camouflage of the woods, but also meet my standards of refinement. I had been working on and off with large blocks of livestock salt but had only ever shown the salt works in an indoor setting. I ended up creating a totemic form that stood out against the earth-toned surroundings. Salt is elementally of the earth, so it’s soft and organic in its own way, but compressed in this form it becomes rigid and structured. I knew the rain would erode it and that animals might eat it, that it might kill the grass underneath. I envisioned it melting away in this beautiful spire-like form to create an entirely new sculpture (which didn’t happen). As the exhibition progressed over the twelve months of the show an evolution occured: morning dew ensured a permanent wet, sweaty gloss to the salt, rain eroded the edges making it eerie and otherworldly, and deer and racoons came in the night to lick the blocks thereby leaving divets and marks, but the sculpture never changed the way I thought it would. All of the moisture kept eroding my anchors and epoxies and those blocks are so damn dense they take forever to melt. The animals did create an impromptu performative aspect of the work. Eventually it just became a ruin. It was still a cool piece, but there are a lot more “what ifs” with outdoor work. I find that when I’m invited to make outdoor work, I try to go as large as the budget can go and when I’m invited to show in a gallery setting I can scale up or down as needed.
The show at Triangle Arts was a really beautifully curated exhibition by Annesofie Sandal who I had recently met while exhibiting work at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. It was a nice connection and both of those shows were great to be involved in.
ANTE.Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward?
MaryKate Maher. The pandemic has really thrown a wrench in things for me. In February/March 2020, I was in residency at the Wassaic Project. I was exploring all sorts of new ideas and thoughts, testing out new materials and processes. Within 5 days of returning to NYC, the city completely shut down. Many of those ideas that would have had the chance to possibly cultivate into something interesting suddenly seemed moot. So they’re all on the back burner for now. My brain – and body – just don’t have the energy at the moment to tackle them. Instead, I’ve been focusing on works on paper and collages. There were too many unknowns and a lingering lack of structure present in my day to day, so I created a project with set parameters. I printed a bunch of images and photographs that I had been working with and cut them all up. My task is to create new collages from the same cut papers by rearranging and reusing the pieces. Then I take a photograph of the ones I like and turn them into a print. There is a nice immediacy about working this way as well as permission to put it all away on the days when it feels frustrating. The completed works are turning out pretty well. The original images included lots of gradients and abstractions of light, and they create these interesting depths and spaces. They are very abstract and surreal, but I’m digging it for now and just rolling with it. There is a lot of repetition because the same forms show up throughout the work, but it’s helping to create this concise series. They’re also helping me think about ways to translate that into sculptural forms.
ANTE.What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work?
MaryKate Maher. The collages I’ve made during the quarantine. These branched out from work I was doing right before the pandemic but the previous work wasn’t really there yet and needed to be pushed further. Being stuck in my small apartment, with my family, all of us on top of each other, I would sneak away and sit in my window sill and stare out at the world below. Listening to the intense quiet, watching the sunsets, seeing the birds going about business as usual, spying on neighbors using their roofs for exercise. I thought a lot about light, space and bodies. The colors I was working with were magentas, pinks and reds and they felt bodily and intensely oversaturated. Color has been moving into my work in a way it wasn’t before. My neutral palette is evolving for sure from this recent work. As I start to get back to the studio, I see the work continuing in this direction as I figure out what it means: cut forms, saturated colors and finding new ways to create space through flat planes.
(Lead Image: Prussian Blue (head), 2019, resin, concrete, brass, gold leaf, prussian blue flashe, 16 x 12 x 8.5in)
“We live in a globalized world now, and I believe this perspective is crucial for career development.”
Mixed-media artist and architectural designer Tianlan Deng goes above and beyond when approaching new projects, in both scale and concept. Fearless in probing existing boundaries, Deng draws from his multitudinous skill set, educational background and knowledge of world cultures to bring award-winning concepts to the table for his design projects. Deng has experience working internationally as an architectural designer, professor, and thought leader in design. We became aware of Deng’s most recent proposal, which also caught the eye of the Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability-Beach Channel Educational Campus. Deng’s vision for a bright, revitalized campus blighted by insufficient budgeting and oversight has generally enthused both the educational community benefiting from the project and our team here at ANTE.
Deng himself is thrilled for the positive impact this project will enact on the wider NYC community at large, and the potential it has to serve as a role model for other campuses seeking to engage students at a visceral level. We sat down with Deng to dive into his background and to gain some perspective on what this exciting project means for his career and for the community at Rockaway Park High School.
(Lead image concept, “Live Learning” by Tianlan Deng for Rockaway Park High School Beach Channel Educational Campus Auditorium re-visioning)
ANTE. Thanks for chatting with us Tianlan! Can you start by giving us insight into how you envision your architectural project with Rockaway Park High School will optimize and revitalize this educational community and enhance students’ learning experience?
Tianlan Deng. Thanks for having me here. As you probably know, in New York City, many public schools situated in low-income neighborhoods often face challenges of low funding support and safety concerns. Consequently, these schools feel like a prison, and they often fall into a financial down cycle: poor learning environment, lower graduation rate, dwindling student population, limited finances — leading to the school eventually being shut down. My project “Live Learning” aims to ease the prison-like atmosphere in the school, improving the students’ educational experience and overall quality of life. This will boost the school’s future prospects for securing funding and recruitment.
The struggle of these underfunded public schools is a long-term result of educational inequality in the United States. To remedy this situation, we cannot depend solely upon systemic policy reform, which often falls prey to cumbersome approval processes as well as broader political interests. However, as a discipline, architecture and interior design can be a highly effective alternative tool, because it offers technical & creative solutions without the politics. By adopting a temporary art installation and projected (digital) media, I believe this project can foster a comfortable and uplifting environment, inciting curiosity, passion, and hope in the student body.
ANTE. You approached this project as your thesis for your Master’s degree at Pratt Institute. Can you discuss the program you recently completed at Pratt and what specifically this project addressed with regard to your aims for that educational program?
TD.It encourages the students to develop a sense of social responsibility. Before entering school, my artwork mostly dealt with the issues in the education realm. Enhanced by Pratt’s ideology, I became more involved in these conversations. Meanwhile, Pratt’s open and skillful platform helped me expand my artistic practice into the realm of architectural and interior design. Consistently, the thesis program at Pratt strongly emphasizes social and environmental issues. Since education always factors into larger socio-economic issues, I discovered an opportunity to develop a long term design project in my new discipline.
The parallel of being a designer for a Public High School and a student at Pratt provides a great reference point for my research and development. Although the differences between a college and a high school are substantial, I still can gather plenty of information by comparison. At Pratt, we have free access to most of the high profile museums in NYC, while the students of underfunded schools may never visit museums during their lifetimes. We use advanced digital fabrication equipment at Pratt, while some public schools use textbooks that are in shambles. From that angle, I witness the vast disparity between the two poles of America’s education system. These vivid contrasts shape and grow my design intention and responsibility.
ANTE. Your career goals seem to intersect both progressive education and experimental architectural/spatial design: what about these dual concerns draw you to working on projects such as this upcoming project with the high school?
TD. My belief in progressive education is rooted in my personal experience. For 20 years, I was suffering from studying under a Chinese education dominated by tests and mechanical learning. In those monotonous Chinese classrooms, teachers force-feed students information while students learn by rote memorization. (The monotonous process along with endless pressure from exams shaped the Chinese school into a symbol of anguish and torture.) After studying in the USA, I was lucky enough to experience progressive learning, which emphasizes growth from real life experience. This is what allowed me to develop my personality, philosophies, and systems of knowledge.
However, I realized that Rockaway Park High School and other underfunded NYC public schools follow the same pattern as the Chinese one. I understand it as a result of limited funding and resources, but in the long term, mechanical learning reduces the quality of the educational experience, which doesn’t benefit the school system or lower-income students. I believe with a modest budget, Experimental Design with technology can shape the public school teaching into a more progressive education system. Creating temporal and flexible structures with projected media can alter perceptions about the educational experience, prompting closer associations with experimental learning rather than behavior-based models. Structured to achieve an open, airy feel, the installation aims to excite and re-energize students, opening up their minds to new possibilities. The flexibility it provides will dissolve the traditional learning model and enhance the public education experience. Like Governor Andrew Cuomo mentioned in one of his coronavirus daily briefings: “When we’re reopening schools, let’s open a better school, and let’s open a smarter education system.” I hope my project “Live Learning” for Rockaway Park High School will create an opportunity for underfunded public schools to re-imagine education.
ANTE. Talk to me about site-specific aspects of this environmental and architectural design project at Rockaway Park HS; how did meeting with the community inform your process as you finalized this proposal?
TD. Before the pandemic, I visited the school and spoke with the administrative staff and students several times. Rockaway Park High School is located at the Beach Channel Educational Campus, which is shared by several other schools. Like many underfunded public schools, Beach Channel Campus has a prison-like atmosphere, defined primarily by the dense security technology and numerous security officers. During our conversations, students told stories of the long security check process. The administrative staff mentioned that conflicts between officers and students were a regular occurrence. I factored these considerations into my design for the entrance of the Beach Channel Educational Campus. I conceptualized new stanchions with increased mobility, and they serve as both partitions to curb the traffic flow, and projection screens for multimedia displays. This will channel a better circulation during the security check, while presenting pleasant visual distractions to ease the atmosphere, and offering more privacy for students during the checking process.
After several visits to the campus, I found many empty spaces in this massive building, including a wide corridor and an extra auditorium with a low usage level. These spaces are wasted resources due to the lack of funding and inefficient spatial recognition. I proposed creating additional temporary installations with digital projections to activate these spaces, converting them into new common areas for students and/or alternative learning spaces. These installations can also become an open platform for the administration to stage temporary events for community-building and school wide activities.
ANTE. You yourself have worked as an educator, as you were a professor at the University of Kentucky. How did your own role as an educator working with college students inform your design process as relates to education?
TD.My personal experience of switching between student and instructor has a significant influence on my design process. It helped me develop strong empathy during the design process. I have a deeper understanding of both the learning and educational process, and am acutely aware of the challenges, struggles, and problems facing schools today. For example as a student, I remember my own struggle of enduring monotonous lessons in a lifeless classroom. On the other hand as a teacher, I know the difficulties of motivating students and maintaining their focus. This insight inspired my decision to use projected media, which has great flexibility, or presentation format. With various projected media content and forms to interact with students, the installation can enhance the environment while offering additional ways for teachers to communicate and keep students stimulated.
ANTE. You have studied in China, Japan, Denmark, and the United States. Can you elaborate on how these international experiences have shaped your career?
TD.Studying and living in both East and Western countries increased my sensitivity toward social issues, including education. The chance to observe and compare people, systems and cultural norms revealed the differences and difficulties of each society. Being an artist and designer, my career goals, choices, and expectations have become increasingly interrelated with societal issues. Studying and living between China and the United States made me aware of the differences and similarities between the two educational systems. It informs my intention to produce artwork that communicates my wishes and concerns. Traveling to Japan and Northern Europe broadened my spectrum of global education and expanded my knowledge of design’s power. My project “Life Learning” at Rockaway Park High School is a choice shaped by all my international experience. We live in a globalized world now, and I believe this perspective is crucial for career development.
ANTE. Walk us through the career highlights that have marked your exceptional rise as an architectural designer – including your award winning commissions for the Gatton College of Business and Economics in KY (2016) and more recently the Best Team of Wanted Design Competition (2019.) What about your practice, do you feel, leads to your continued success and recognition in the field?
TD.When I primarily focused on painting, my paintings were collected by several well-known hotels in China, such as Fairmont Pace Hotel in Shanghai and Tianjin Crowne Plaza. After coming to the states, I became more involved with installation art. I completed small commissions for site-specific installations, such as the ‘Fence’ I created for the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center — a translucent photo wall that cyclically sculpts sunlight and shadow to create a sensory experience. Winning the glass design competition of Gatton College of Business and Economics was important to me. The project ‘Tally Mark’ is not only an award-winning achievement, but a successful example of how fine art and spatial architectural design can be combined. Tally Mark is an art installation that introduces the ancient Asian counting system into a western financial college. It establishes a diverse cultural atmosphere while serving as a spatial partition to maintain the independence of both private and communal spaces.
Tally Mark inspired me to continue exploring projects that combine fine art and architectural design. Three years later, I participated in the Wanted Design competition following a similar trajectory. Five designers from different countries spent five days creating a community engagement project. My project ‘This is Not Stair’ is a site-specific installation that alters the walk route to bring enjoyment and engagement to the monotonous pavement walking experience. This project won the competition and was featured in Core77 Magazine.
I wouldn’t say there is one specific aspect of my artistic practice that leads to success or recognition. But maintaining a sense of connection to the world and society is fundamental to my creative process.
ANTE – Thanks, Paul, for speaking with us today! Your practice spans Architecture, Design and Art; yet, you’ve noted in past interviews that you work across different disciplines in order to best translate a “concept” into reality. Can you explain more about this philosophy of working to adapt concepts into the real world, and how that has manifested both in artistic projects and commercial projects with clients?
Paul Mok – There are two tricky terms here: concept and disciplines. “Concept” is tricky because it usually means a “clear idea”, and that is precisely what I have gradually walked away from in the past few years as a designer. I was trained to derive iterations of design from a clear concept very early on in my career. However, the more I worked in the design field, the more I have come to realize that concepts are too often just alibis to rhetorically justify certain irrational, personal design decisions. I find the irrationality productive and even necessary, but not the alibis.
To unlearn anything would be a years-long process. I started rejecting my acquired design method, subconsciously at first, then consciously, gradually replacing the void that used to be the “concept” with collections of seemingly unrelated elements – short writings, aimless strokes on paper, gestural forms made of clay and a few other projects – some art installations, some small commercial projects, and some academic works – have been delivered through this process. So, in a way, the concept I am adopting now is precisely the lack of it [the lack of any defined concept]. It is not about bringing a concept into reality. It is about letting reality – a specific set of circumstances – be translated into and – more importantly – addressed through the design process. And because of that, I am skeptical of the confinements implied by the notion of “disciplines”. Architecture, design and art are different only in a practical, circumstantial sense, I think, not in the essence.
ANTE – The value of the projects you’ve worked on is not only respected by clients and your peers, it is also shown by the awards they have received. In 2014, you worked on a project that won the AIA’s Honor Award for Interior – just as you entered Harvard for your Master’s degree in Architecture. Can you tell us about this project? Can you also discuss how this experience informed the beginning of your studies at Harvard?
PM – That [project] was a dining hall renovation that I worked on during my two years as a designer at Index Architecture Ltd.: a small architectural office in Hong Kong led by an AIA architect. We were given an existing space with lots of pipes and ducts that were to remain along the walls, and we proposed to conceal them with some curved panels made of weaved synthetic rattan. We also embedded lighting fixtures and storage spaces within those panels. The project won the AIA International Regional Award, I think, because we managed to resolve almost all the given site conditions and programing requirements with a minimal, singular design gesture. That was one of the last projects I worked on in the office before moving on to grad-school.
In those 2 years of practicing in Hong Kong, I was working full-time in the architecture office and, on the side, working on a house renovation as a personal project, along with a monastery renovation and an idea competition (with Dennis Chau and Florence Lam, which we won third place) all at the same time. My “normal” work day would begin at 9am and end at around 3-4am. I thought the more I worked, the clearer my vision as a designer would be. I recently saw an interview with [recently deceased artist] Ulay in which he described how he tattooed and cut his own skin off as an art project but after all that effort, he said, “it still didn’t deliver the answer”. That was how I felt by the end of the second year practicing in Hong Kong.
Entering grad school gave me the time and space that I didn’t know I needed to explore the more abstract, essential, and fundamental side of design. Instead of what and how to design, I needed to know why I design.
ANTE -Your professionalism and dedication to your studies has earned you multiple scholarships and Dean’s List mentions, both during your architecture studies at the University of Hong Kong, which honored you with a prestigious study abroad exchange semester at Princeton University, and during your Master’s in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Can you talk to us a bit about your dedication to your academic development: what were some of your favorite classes and how have they translated to success as a professional architectural designer?
PM – I was drawn to both the theoretical and the making aspects of design education very early on. At the Harvard GSD, I took an option studio with Ken Smith, a New York-based landscape architect. It was one of the first studios in which I explored a design process driven primarily by the making process. I rhetorically titled the project “Project Noctambulism”, hinting on the idea of taking actions subconsciously. In the same semester, I worked on the Komorebi Pavilion with Professor Mark Mulligan, Japanese engineer Jun Sato, and a team of schoolmates at the GSD. It was a plexiglass pavilion that was weaved together in a somewhat ad-hoc manner.
Both experiences had a significant impact in reinforcing my confidence in the essence of making, which later became a method to address abstract issues, and gradually becoming a core design philosophy.
ANTE – Can you walk us through your Harvard Graduate thesis project and the concept of “play” both as it relates to your studies and your professional projects?
PM – I titled the thesis “To Play”. In developmental psychology, “playing” could mean negotiating the perception of reality through the act of creating.
I began the thesis by asking “how is reality perceived?” I soon came across a demolished social housing, and I found it a perfect architectural anchor point – social housing is the most objective architectural typology, but its demolition made it a highly subjective event.
Through a series of drawings, architecture models and conversations, I reacted to a found Youtube video of the housing recorded by a former tenant of the housing who went back to record it before its eventual demolition. The final outcome was an absurd speculative proposal for a student-housing in LA based on the idiosyncratic personality I deduced from the 12-minute video. Looking back, it wasn’t a thesis that set out to resolve a specific problem, but it demonstrates a crucial self-awareness as a designer that opened up the design process to intuition, personal realities, subconsciousness, and the notion of craftsmanship. And it was from a very similar process that I have designed the installations <A Fountain Head> and <You Killed A Kiwi – A Situation Comedy For Those With Wounded Egoes>, and the two displays – <Gross Grows> and <Out Of Thick Air> – that I made for lifestyle brand WORM NY.
ANTE – Since graduating Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018, you have worked as a designer at nARCHITECTS PLLC in New York: this experience comes after you have worked at both Michael Maltzan Architecture in LA, and PARA Project in New York. Can you walk us through some of the key projects you have contributed to during each of these roles in your career?
PM – At Michael Maltzan Architecture, I worked on the schematic design of a student dormitory for Art Center College of Design. At PARA Project, I worked on the schematic design of an artist studio extension in New York.
I have been working as a designer at nARCHITECTS for almost 2 years now. The first project I worked on was a 5-story warehouse renovation project commissioned by the EDC. We were tasked to convert the 200,000-square-feet existing building into a new Made-In-NY campus for the garment industry in New York. I worked through the Schematic Design phase, the Design Development phase, as well as producing the final construction documents. Currently, I am working on the renovation of Ciszek Hall – a dormitory for the Jesuit men-in-formation in the Bronx.
ANTE – Can you walk us through a few recent projects that have demonstrated your achievement and engagement as a leading architect/designer in your field?
PM – Aside from all the professional and conceptual projects I previously mentioned, I have been working on a school design with Joe Qiu, my former classmate at the GSD, since 2015. It is a primary school design that pioneers small-class-teaching in rural China.
The decades-long implementation of one-child policy and rigorous rural-urban migration have led to a significant reduction of students in rural China. Small-class-teaching, as an alternative model of child education, implies a reduction in teacher-student ratio and increasing opportunity of group activities among students.
In terms of layout, we proposed to break down the typical teacher office into smaller “satellite” offices, and pair one with every two classrooms to form the primary module for space planning. We further proposed to reduce classroom sizes from 45 students per class (typical in the city, as recommended by the codes) to 36. The additional floor areas are given to the semi-outdoor “pocket” spaces, distributed along the corridors, where inter-class activities could take place.
The project is near completion and was scheduled to open in September 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the opening date will very likely be delayed.
ANTE – How has building your architectural career in the US contributed to growth in your professional practice?
PM – It’s been almost six years since I moved to the States. So far I find the US – and particularly New York City – a productive context for both my professional and conceptual practice.
I have worked with quite a few collaborators and designers here. When I first moved to the city, for example, I met Isabella Bhoan, the founder of ILF Landscape. Coming from similar professional backgrounds, we saw how each of our specific interests could lead to meaningful collaboration. We worked together on the project Outside In – a speculative design proposal for Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers – before she relocated her practice to London in the end of 2019.
It is also a city where I could find the audience to have productive conversations about my conceptual interests. I have exhibited my works periodically in various venues. The most recent exhibition – The Study on Mundane – is currently on display at Gallery GAIA.
Federico Guarascio is a talented producer of short films and documentaries, whose film “The Fourth Kingdom” stopped us in our tracks. A haunting survey of the communities comprised by various recycling scavengers, diving into the worlds they inhabit and how their lives intersect, the film won the top prize at the Brooklyn Film Festival. This insured it would be sent on for consideration at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony.
Guarascio’s dedication to the film directly impacted its success, as with his work on previous films such as 2014 Sundance selection, “Godka Cirka”, and the ambitious, imaginative “Only Solomon Lee.” We were entranced by the blend of projects Guarascio selects to work on, and his superior track record as a film producer, so we sat down for a taste of his process and for an insider’s perspective on working on the cutting-edge of contemporary film.
ANTE Mag – Federico, thanks for taking time to speak with us. It’s so exciting to see “The Fourth Kingdom” win the Brooklyn Film Festival! That must have felt amazing. Can you tell us some of the rewards and a few challenges of working on this most recent award-winning film you produced?
Federico Guarascio: “The Fourth Kingdom” portrays the lives of the inhabitants of ‘Sure We Can”, a recycling center where society’s outcasts can redeem cans for money.
A documentary of this kind deals with delicate issues, and it was therefore necessary to approach the characters and the reality of these lives, investigating the characters with sensitivity. It is very rewarding to see that from this contemplative and observational approach, these characters just open up: revealing their stories and their lives. Our goal was to capture that poetic, emotional, and cinematic essence of this special place and its inhabitants. In that sense I can say that we are very proud of it.
By filming some video pieces to show all the great work that ‘Sure We Can’ is doing and their impact in so many peoples’ lives, we started to get more curious about this special place, our ‘Fourth Kingdom.’ We spent so many hours there that we became invisible to the people working there. At this point, we felt we were able to create a documentary film in the way we like to tell stories so we put together the short film while we keep working on the feature. The response has been awesome.
AM – It’s such an exciting film that sheds light on these important subjects, tackling a range of delicate issues as you mention – such as homelessness, poverty and immigration. As a documentary, the film portrays an incredible cast of real-life characters in their familiar environments. There are so many topics being discussed, can you walk us through how editing played a role in this film to portray such a wide range of people involved in the recycling community?
FG – We intended to show the human part of our subjects, not their misfortunes or their misery. We were interested in delving into the emotional side and learning about their dreams and goals.
Another rule we applied to our concept was not to leave the space while filming. We didn’t want to see these can collectors out on the street, but in their daily life inside this ‘Fourth Kingdom.’
With this film, we also wanted to address another point of view engaging with what we can call progress on our modern society. Plastics have forever changed our lives and our world. Waste, pollution, and recycling are new realities, and this kingdom portrays side effects of that evolution: the other side of the dream of progress.
Editing as always in documentaries is one of the most crucial parts. It’s not just about delivering a sequence of scenes already decided at the start: rather, it concerns creating a singular language and defining poetic choices. As a producer,I had the honor of supervising post production and therefore helped to define the final form of the film.
AM – This is not your first time working with Alex Lora. You also served as producer on the films “Godka Cirka” and “Only Solomon Lee”: the former was a Sundance selection which also showed at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Are there common themes or similarities in how you encountered the subject of each film? Did your role evolve from these first two films with Lora to your work as a producer on “The Fourth Kingdom?”
FG – Totally, my personal path is defined by thematic recurrences that have evolved over the years in a manner consistent with my dual professional and human growth. And I must say that I was lucky to have ever found such a prolific partner as Alex, with whom I share most of the thematic and moral choices – this underlies the work we have done together.
AM – “Godka Cirka” centered around the daily life of Alfa, a young woman based in windswept Somaliland. What were some of the challenges working on this set in a foreign country miles from home? What were some of the rewards for working on this project?
FG – “Godka Circa” is definitely one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my career.
It started with many logistical and financial difficulties and ended with a work of high poetic and human value which I am immensely proud of.
Certainly filming in Somaliland was another great challenge from a production point of view, because the permits were difficult to find and because of the topic we addressed. The women in the film live in a country where women’s rights are almost nonexistent; therefore, we had political impediments from the local government. But in the end we brought home an excellent result.
AM – So many of your films have seen success on the festival circuit, from “Godka Cirka” to “The Fourth Kingdom”. Have you found some plan for success that you follow? Do you have tips for other film producers seeking similar success?
FG – I like to define myself as man with his feet resting firmly on the clouds. Meaning that I can work only on projects that I really like and I consider appropriate to my spirit: projects that sync with my moral outlook. Once I have ascertained this aspect, I try to understand the economic potential that the project can have and how I can raise the funds necessary to produce it.
In general I would say, after you refine your craft, go for what you like. Do not accept any compromise. Be brave and unscrupulous too: all or nothing. As went the British Air Force motto of the Second World War: “Who dares, wins”.
AM – Can you give us 2 or 3 highlights from your nearly 10-year career as a producer working on films in partnership with crews based in the United States?
FG – One of the best experiences I have had here has been working with Academy Award-winner Ellen Goosenberg Kent for her latest documentary now on HBO, “Torn Apart,” which was a real gem, and gave me a concrete example of the efficiency of high-level American productions. I was lucky enough to work from Italy in partnership with US-based crews, then relocated to the US from late 2018, joining my colleagues in the US that Fall to work hands-on on this and similar projects. Being in step with the US film crews opened my eyes to how incredible working in film in the United States could be professionally.
AM – Through your career working on over 20 films, what are a few films you have worked on that have really stood out to you in forming your career and your mindset as a producer?
FG – “Odysseus Gambit” was certainly the first job that made me understand the rules of the game and showed me my potential as a film producer. We had started the project without a budget and arrived at Sundance. A great success that I still remember with pride!
AM – What projects do you have in the works now, and what do you hope to work on in the near future?
FG – With Alex we are thinking of transforming “The Fourth Kingdom” into a narrative work. I am already seeking funding for this next step in Italy; stay tuned..!
Hysteria is a dirty word, and those who use it may not be aware of its context as a means of subjugating women to prejudice for.. millennia. As long ago as Ancient Greece, philosopher Hippocrates applied a related Greek term to women as a means of classifying them as incapable of rational thought. Vogue notes, “The womb, thought Plato (and Hippocrates), was believed to lurch up and down the body, upsetting a woman’s delicate constitution. This illness was called hysterike pnix, or “the suffocation of the womb,” and was believed to cause erratic and unreliable behavior.” The exhibition “Female Trouble” opens January 10, 2020 at Western Exhibitions, co-produced by the women-led Elijah Wheat Showroom, features artists Amanda Joy Calobrisi, Lilli Carré,Qinza Najm, Kathryn Refi and Frances Waite in dialogue with the legacy of misogyny pervading modern and contemporary culture, directly challenging this long-held belief through a conceptual, interdisciplinary lens.
The topic of women’s bodies is addressed with particular fervor in “Female Trouble.” Works by the artists depict the implied body, or the power of the presence (or absence) of the female body in their works. The pervasive power balance delineating gender is at play in these works, on view at Western Exhibitions through Feb 22, 2020.
Frances Waite approaches the body as it relates to the larger environment, inhabiting both the corporeal and the Anthropocene in equal measure. The artist presents drawings that inhabit both reality and the hyper-real, envisioning humans as mammals inhabiting their larger realm. Kathryn Refi inhabits the realm between information and interpretation, where data meets translation into results. Her work, while abstract, presents images that create an abstracted visual of our everyday lives.
Amanda Joy Calobrisi explores erotica and female empowerment- a means of embracing women’s genitals as a means of impressing power forward onto the viewers’ psyche. Lille Carré similarly implies women’s’ bodies in her interdisciplinary practice. Her clay works especially embrace both the abstract and the implications of gender simultaneously.
Artist Qinza Najm approaches the misogynist roots of hysteria with a lens as a woman with roots in a culture historical marginalized over centuries of colonialism. She notes of her approach to the body as primary mode of interpretation in her interdisciplinary works, “I often use motifs of bodies stretched, deconstructed, distorted, and pushed beyond their limits. A manipulated body is a reflection of how power is exerted upon our being.” Perhaps there is no more appropriate encapsulation of the necessity of claiming female bodily autonomy and agency in an era in which women’s rights to claim their body as they wish are constantly being eroded by privileged men in positions of power.
Y. R. Egon (Ruchira Amare) cuts a stylish, erudite figure.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, the artist arrived on the New York scene from her native Mumbai with an artistic and creative practice balancing influences from Europe and her native India. Her creative leanings are underpinned by a formidable education background in Engineering and Fashion Design. Learning under established Mumbai-based artists while concurrently pursuing a degree in Engineering from the University of Mumbai, Egon distills a wide range of influences into her impressionist, yet geometrically balanced, paintings. The artist holds a Fashion Design degree from the Parsons School of Design.
The artist sat down with ANTE. to discuss themes running through her work and what’s upcoming for her on the heels of exhibitions at Dacia Gallery, Six Summit Gallery, Rochester Contemporary Art Center and The Greenpoint Gallery.
ANTE.: Your work shows formal qualities linking to modernist greats such as Piet Mondrian. Do you see your practice as continuing a dialogue with modern abstract artists from the mid-20th century?
Y.R.: I agree – yes. I have always followed Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Wassily Kandinsky. As Mondrian once said, “Abstract art is not the creation of another reality but the true vision of reality.” I try to have my own language and to express my emotions through my paintings.
ANTE.: Color and shape are important aspects in your paintings. How has your approach in forming connections between color and shape evolved from your studies to the present moment?
Y.R.: I have always cherished the emotion that comes out of nostalgia and longing for the past. I attempt to capture and preserve these emotions through my paintings. Over time I realized that there is a word for this behaviour in Finnish; that word is ‘kaiho,’ meaning a hopeless longing in which one feels incomplete and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain. I use colour and shape and geometric-like patterns which are not truly geometric: these (patterns) have evolved over time and show some traces of reality.
ANTE.: Your formative education in art occurred when you were learning from painters based in India. How do you see your work forming a bridge between the Indian art canon and the Western art canon?
Y.R.: I did not have a formal art education but I studied under great and successful artists in India. I learnt many techniques from them that helped me translate and formulate my ideas using the medium of painting. I try to use my knowledge, my ideas, my inspirations and life experiences to formulate my thoughts. In the process, unintentionally I end up using different techniques and practices that span both the Indian and the Western art canon.
ANTE.: As a full-time artist, you are dedicated to painting and making art constantly; what are some of your goals in terms of exhibiting your paintings? Do you have a dream gallery you’d like to show with and/or museum or similar venue to show your work?
Y.R.: Being an ambitious artist, my goal is to better my art practice and art technique, evolve as a person through enriched life experience and to then translate that into my art and paintings. I fell in love with Gallery Perrotin the first time I went there to check out a show. The space is beautiful and dreamy. My artworks have a lot of colour but come out of the concept of dreams and it would be a dream to be able to exhibit at this space.
ANTE.: You are a poet and have trained as an engineer, alongside your work as an artist and fashion designer. How do you unite all of these disparate elements in your painting? Has it shaped how you approach art-making?
Y.R.: Yes, I studied Engineering and graduated from the University of Mumbai. I write poems but only to express my ideas through another medium. I studied Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design. I am in process of launching some garments/apparel that are inspired from my paintings from the ‘kaiho’ collection. Hence, I feel that even though they all are separate fields, it all boils down to an expression of ideas as they come together in a product or in works of art. I try to carry the same romantic feeling and emotion in all my works including my fashion illustrations. I specifically use watercolours for these, and in my next series of paintings, I plan to experiment more with watercolour in order to capture the haziness of the lost memories.
ANTE.: How has working in fashion impacted your work as a painter? Do you work with a variety of materials as a result?
Y.R.: As a fashion designer, I stand by the principles of creative construction and sustainability. I use only natural fabrics and natural dyeing on them. I also use fabric as a medium to paint and specifically natural dyed fabric which is dyed with the colours made from plants such as logwood, madder and flowers such as marigold and berries as well. I also plan to make my own natural pigments from these plants and flowers and natural materials to paint on stretched fabrics such as cotton and silk.
ANTE.: More specifically, does your work as a painter shift in scale due to your background in the fashion industry?
Y.R.: I actually am not that experimental or easily accepting to change. Hence, I try to usually paint in a certain style and on a certain size as well. But again, the scale changes a bit when it is translated on apparel or fabric paintings.
ANTE.: You’re now based in Brooklyn, NY, and have exhibited with The Greenpoint Gallery and Dacia Gallery. How does living in NYC impact your practice as an artist?
Y.R.: NYC is very dynamic and inspirational, Brooklyn specifically is the epicentre for the modern, contemporary and experimental art that is not commercial. I recently exhibited at the ‘Space 776’ as a part of their Bushwick open studios which was covered by Hyperallergic magazine! I find Brooklyn as a very important factor of my stay in the city and is very inspirational and also motivational to see and meet other artists and their work. I have exhibited at various galleries in Manhattan and Brooklyn and that serves as a booster for myself and my art practice.