Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Conversation with El Anatsui right before installing Stitch in Time

In the past ten years, Anatsui has focused on large tapestry-like metal sculptures made up out of thousands of colourful liquor caps. Using found objects he reworks and rearranges materials and transforms them into something new without them losing their own history. His work could be described as a collage of discarded memories. Anatsui recombines them into his own, never fixed syntax, which the viewer is invited to adapt freely, bringing in his own history.

(extract from the Axel Vervoordt Gallery press release)

On May 10th El Anatsui’s solo exhibition Stitch In Time at Axel Vervoordt Gallery opens. While much has been said and written about the cultural influences that pervade El Anatsui’s work, it seemed a fortuitous occasion to have a brief interview regarding the artist’s working processes and their relationship to time.

El Anatsui: I work with so many assistants and the process is more exploratory than anything else. I don’t do drawing, or sketch, or anything. Although there are so many people working, the process is still very slow, so  slow that you can do all your thinking as it goes on. Earlier on, I worked with machines, like a chainsaw or circular saw, which are very fast. For that you have to have a fairly good idea of what you are doing. For this reason I used to draw, in order to have something to guide me. This process is so slow and organic that I don’t need the drawing: I let the materials lead me on. And eventually I decide to stop when I feel it is right.

Kate Mayne: You have spoken in other interviews of working with “many hands”,  with all your assistants, that this effort is almost symphonic, and that this gives the work a certain charge, and - even the installation crew is part of the process because I understand that you sometimes leave the choices to them when installing the work - would you say there is a social or almost ritualistic dimension to the making process?

EA: Ritualistic? Yes, I think there is something of a rite to it:  you are asking people to do this work, and every time, every day, it’s the same process. So you can describe it as a ritual. And when the works are done, you leave it, or else you take over and decide how it is hung… I think that is also another ritual. There are so many rituals that surround my work and my working process.

KM: When I see the nature of the recent work I see accumulations, a flocking together of elements, like a multitude, and in this accumulation, it reminds me of the repetitive dimension of storytelling, and the way in oral cultures, stories are related through the generations…

EA: And every generation adding something to it..

KM: Would you say that is also part of it?

EA: It could be.

Hesitant Rivers, 388 x 233 cm, aluminum and copper, 2012

KM: How do you relate to time?

EA: Well… I don’t think I make myself a slave to time. I do things when the right time comes for that. There are works that I start with and I find that I am unable to move in a way that I like. So I abandon it. There are a lot of abandoned works in my studio. If I feel that the right time hasn’t come for them to move on, I hold them until the right moment and the right idea comes and I can move them along. It is more difficult when I have things like a commission, or a project, and then they have timeframes…they have deadlines. They start asking you: can we have this? Those are the most difficult times for me.

KM: But do you find that stimulating in another way?

EA: Yes, they are stimulating in the wrong way. (laughter)

KM: But the piece you made for Artempo[1], I remember this magnificent façade piece…

EA: Yes, with that piece I don’t think I had problems with time, although I was working on two pieces at the same time, one for the Venice Biennale itself and then one for Artempo. But because I started in good time, it went well. I did a site visit a year before, and I was working with ideas, and tossing them round, and got the right idea that I thought I should work with, in good time. So a year moved on. And the same with the Venice Biennale. They told me that I have two walls facing each other and I decided to play with male and female elements  in the media I work with for each wall respectively.

Axel’s theme, the theme of the show, was ‘Artempo, when time becomes art’, and I was thinking of earlier art. I have always thought that time is the best shaper of things, so for Artempo I created a work which talks about memory. Fading and fresh memories. And my work goes on even at the time of mounting, if I can be there… During the mounting process, I saw that I needed to open the work up so that it would relate to the wall of the old building. Because my materials are also fairly new, aluminum and shiny, I decided to start tearing portions of the work and creating openings, so visually the top portion revealed the older portions of the old building. You could see the walls through the work. In that way you bring the two together, the old and the new, you are faced with time in two perspectives.

Stitch in Time II, 403 x 497 cm, aluminum and copper, 2012

KM: Could you say a little more about the technical aspect of making the pieces. I know you’ve tried different methods of knotting and weaving, how far can you anticipate how this will work when you start a piece?

EA: I cannot anticipate that. It goes as far as I can see for that day. And if I think for that day it’s enough, then I might change the format. You have different textures or formats that have developed over the years. You can for one night think about what format that could have, and compliment what is there, or if what is there is beginning to be tiring, then you ask yourself:  ‘what format can come in there in order to give it new life?’ It’s at a point like that, that you have a failure in communication. You might not be able to come up with a solution, the work is put on hold and a new one started.

KM: When I look at the pieces I have the feeling it is not only our seeing that is touched but our other senses as well. It’s very sensual; obviously there is movement suggested, and I think of sound, because of the material…

EA: Yes, the sound is coming. With Axel’s project in Venice, it was mounted in my absence. And when I went I saw the wind was moving it around… I heard the sounds and they were very interesting to me. Following that I did another piece in Berlin on a museum façade, and I played with that idea, by deliberately having loose pieces. They are attached in such a way that they could, at the smallest gust of wind, move, so I was exploring the idea of movement and sound as well. And it was mounted in such a way that wind could assail it from the back or the front; it was in the wind. It worked effectively with that: you saw a lot of movement - in certain portions of the work - and the rest remained silent. And then I did another work about the ozone layer, this idea that we have an ozone layer which is torn, and the sun’s rays are striking the earth directly without the filter of the ozone…

KM: That brings me to my next question. Form and beauty are so intensely present in the work; at the same time I have a feeling that meaning, the dimension of all the possible resonances, is equally present, triggering all kinds of additional associations in the same instant. Could you say a bit more about the political dimensions of the work?

EA: I don’t know, most of the time when I make a statement I might not intend it to be political… it’s just like playing around with words that you see around… people can start to put meanings into them. But it might not be that I intended to make a political statement.

KM:  Because of the all-over effect and the repetition, I can imagine that when you are standing in front of the work, it sort of visually wraps around you, and the middle is at the side and the other way round too…  and it seems as if there’s no up or down..

EA:  Yes, in some cases there’s no up and down.  It’s not like a painting, that you have to hang either horizontally or vertically. Neither does one get limited to the four cornered format because it can be altered to define its peculiar outline.

KM: We are really looking forward to see what is going to happen in the gallery space these next few days.

EA: Yes, I am curious too to see how the works will come out in that space.

Interview by  Kate Mayne

[1] ‘Artempo, where time becomes art’, Museo Fortuny, Venice, 2007, conceived by Axel Vervoordt and Tijs Visser.

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