As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Today’s interview is with Josephine Baker-Heaslip, our Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture.
Cause, effect and chance are recurring themes in your work. Could you discuss the relevance of this triad. Has its meaning to you changed at all since being in Rome?
I am interested in the relevance of duality, distinction and causality, and comparing the ways they manifest in human and earthly events. In physics, causes and effects [causality] are thought of as many transient and temporal processes which always need a broader context to get just a vague picture of them, but in another sense cause and effect has become a cliché of simple distinction. I see it representing the human propensity to categorise things as being the opposite of one other, basically this supposed need to make binary distinctions. This is a huge problem since we know that the world is much more complicated than this, and differences suffer from this simplification. The relation of cause and effect is also predicated on their separation, which has to occur for ideologies to become institutionalised belief-systems.
In terms of chance, I guess I’m often thinking about catastrophism, the theory that the world has in fact been shaped by a series of rare but global events, kinds of ‘accidents’. I think a lot about the inevitability of the impact of human climate change, and to what extent this can be considered one of these catastrophes. I guess the pressing difference in the way I’ve been thinking about these themes here in Rome, a city of ruins, is the lull of this question in my mind: what will our ruins look like? Perhaps a linearity of trash, expenditure, wastefulness — cause and effect separated from one another, the result of linearity in place of cyclicity. The reality is that these oppositions could not be more interrelated. For example, figuring out the cause of acid rain would now involve studying the emissions of nearby factories and the atmosphere, not just noticing when a volcano erupts. There has been no other time in human history that certain natural disasters cannot be distinguished from man-made catastrophe.
I was talking to an academic here at the BSR recently about what we are calling an ecological turn, or environmental turn, of certain focuses of research in his field and art practices in mine, and that they are quite emotional reactions to the current state of the natural ecosystem. He suggested that partly what humans need right now is a new structure of myth, to collectively persuade ourselves to change our habits, to prevent further ecological separations. I have been thinking about this recently, how this is possible in a century still devastated by the memory of recent history of acts of totalisation, of course as well as those that still exist — those myths that justify inequality amongst human beings as well as towards animals and natural resources.
How do these ideas manifest themselves in your work?
I like this word ‘matter’, which has a double-meaning. If something ‘matters’, something is important. But it can also refer to physical matter. I love this linguistic crossover and its implications. It’s a sort of proposition: what ‘mattering’ can actually mean.
I’m interested in structures of myth and ideology — their place in architecture or politics or religion for example – and the way they operate throughout history in iconographic imagery and composition. I feel the potential and the complexity of ideas when they become physical: imaginable. They are real when they become vulnerable, malleable, open to change. Being an artist, and not an architect, politician or theologian, I work with the materialisation of these structures, and process how these ideas appear physically in the world, or the way they become quasi-explainable in diagrammatic, almost illustrative form. I think of my practice as a process of interrogation, of constantly questioning the status of a certain materiality of value, or belief, or meaning.
These ideas matter and are particularly at stake in these themes of causality. For example in the saying ‘there is no smoke without fire’ – essentially, there is no effect without a cause.
In many of my drawings there is this motif of fire and smoke overlapping, crossing one another out. It represents to me a world where they have been disentangled, and re-placed in an arbitrary relation, one that is visual and legible; a stamp or a logo — commodified and simplified. For me this image is also incredibly emotional, as a reference to the Grenfell fire tragedy last year: the slow gradual excuses for separation, the manipulation and erasing of actual causes, negligences, by people in positions of power.
There is this strange little line by the French surrealist poet René Char, which goes, ‘a cage went in search of a bird’. I think about this a lot, what happens when you reverse the common metaphor — to put a bird in a cage — taking the thing that is considered ‘free’ and constricting it. It makes you think to what extent the idea of freedom is defined, where and how it is constructed. Is it defined by an authority or is it defined by invisibilities or unknowns, or (the worst kind!) invisible authority, and if so what does this incarceration look like, how can it become more tangible? Kafka was the best at this: making physical-emotional-tangible relations of power.
I often use architectural structures in my work to define space as both sheltering and imprisoning. To force the image of an environment onto a pre-existing one, in order to ask a question to it, maybe ask how permanent actually are the stabilities we rely on. The status of the representation of nature through history, as permanent or not, and the relevance of images of landscape as reminders of temporality… these are all things I set out to construct and question in my work.
Following the December Mostra what have you been working on this term?
I found this mass-produced terracotta ‘brick’ tile in Leroy Merlin, a hardware chain in Rome. This is how I often start a body of work: looking for a material that is standardized, easily accessible and identifiable — it offers me a framework for ideas to take place. From the tiles it is possible to construct a basic grid, both a space of possibility and a space of limitation at the same time. From there you can create images with them, stagger them, create situations with them… I discovered this material in December and I have started to use it in baby-steps. It will take me some time to understand where I want to go with it, but I can imagine in the future constructing a language with them which problematises the relationship between physicality and symbolism.
For the upcoming show, I have been creating wall works and structures, drawing onto the brick tiles with chalks, reusing the tiles by wiping off the chalk, as well as reusing the broken ones to make puddles of earth on the floor. Sometimes it seems like I’m trying to create my own kind of microclimate in the studio.
I have been drawing repeated motifs on the tiles, starting to emulate this non-distinction between being identical and being different: the pattern is the same, but every time I draw it, it is different, and each tile occupies and demarks different literal space.
I have recently started thinking about musical scores and notation. I want to make an environment of works about composition and music, sinking notes into landscape to address the place of abstraction, both of nature and of sign. This has already begun to happen in the studio and I can anticipate it making up the next body of work after the March Mostra.
Joesphine’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.
Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Josephine Baker-Heaslip.