In reflecting on translation and the roles that it can play within artists’ practices, I was reminded of a body works, Michelangelo’s place, seen a few years back at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) by Berlin-based artist, Shannon Bool. In subtle ways, Bool’s work felt fitting to reflect on the transient nature of translation as a material and cross-referential process. I reached out to her with a few thoughts: How does our mother tongue inform us? How do languages (of all forms) transform and shape us—newly acquired one(s) and unknown one(s)? How do you negotiate your process and the material histories within the sources themselves? What gets to be absent or revealed through this process? And our conversation carried on…here is an excerpt from it.
Daisy Desrosiers (Rail): One of the things that always strikes me about your work is its capacity to capture the counter-narratives inherent to your sources and challenge their reception; historical and fictional, from within and afar, tangible and yet, somewhat intangible.
Shannon Bool: You have a very fine tuned approach to what I make and I have to say it is rare because I work with so many layers and you are really present with multiple levels of the work. So, first of all I am just totally excited and thankful to get this kind of feedback. I wouldn’t say that people misread the work, but there is just so much potential for the viewer to go on multiple adventures.
Rail: It makes me think of your sculptures, “Michaelangelo’s Place (2013)” which have incredible material qualities, like repositories of a place and memory. Can you speak about this series?
Bool: This body of work references the benches in the Piazzale Michelangelo, in Florence. I went through it almost daily in the year that I was at the Villa Romana. I built a marble bench that references the marble benches there and replicated the graffiti that you can find on them. Giuseppe Poggi designed Piazzale Michelangelo in the late 19th century when Florence was ramping up its tourism and consumption of the Renaissance. The Piazzale has a panoramic view of the city with the great Duomo and everything surrounding it, and around 15 marble benches where you can view everything. The benches are totally full of carved graffiti and I just became obsessed with it. My work often begins by spending time with something or coming across something that niggles at me: I can’t get it out of my mind. Then I thought I would make a work based on this idea of sculptural mastery. The benches are probably Carrara marble, which was Michelangelo’s second favourite marble. And my perception of the graffiti was that the people were negating this Renaissance view and just taking the marble into their own hands, putting their name on it. It was so simple. I made an archive of the graffiti in the scale and I tried to replicate how it was made—there is this weird mimesis that is in a lot of my work. I continued in this vein with the series of “All Saints Benches” (2017), where my graffiti obsession led me to work with graffiti from churches, mostly Medieval and largely undeciphered. In both works, in replicating the graffiti, I limit my expression. The expression comes through the process of transferring the information, I guess. I try to negotiate these various systems that move and obsess me.
Rail: I love this process of transfer and re-inscription. An interlinear narrative almost becomes secondary to the material, right?
Bool: Exactly. There is an impulse or a projection. There is something very psychological about the effect the material acquires in your own hands as opposed to communicating the material’s history of mastery.
Rail: Do you consider your weaving practice emanating from the same obsession?
Bool: Yes. It is a bit different when I work with jacquard weaving and with traditional Anatolian weavers. I can begin with the last body of work that I made with Anatolian weavers, the “Madonna Extraction Carpet” series MEC I-V (2013-2015). The impulse for those carpets came from me discovering carpets in Northern Renaissance paintings when I was studying painting.
Rail: You were a painting student?
Bool: I studied painting, yes. And I am a painting professor. You can say it is my mother tongue… Before I worked with weavers I made large wall drawings of the carpets exactly how they appear in paintings of the Madonna. I was interested in the carpets because they did not fit into the iconography of the painting. Like jokers, misfits. You cannot trace the iconography of the carpet to the iconography of the setting of the room. Like the millions of threads in the carpets, you can trace subtle interchanges between the East and West back to the paintings. For example, paintings have become a record of carpets which don’t exist anymore. So if you go to Turkey and you speak to carpet scholars you will witness a sort of cultural cross pollination when they speak of classifications like “Memling medallions” or “Lotto borders.”
Rail: Which act as an entry point between making and telling?
Bool: Exactly. I got really intensely invested in learning about carpets and realized that the more you learn the less you know. The more you learn about the Western perspective of carpets the more you understand the complexity and inaccessibility of the Eastern cultural content of the carpets. For example, we have information on what visual information in carpets can represent on an iconographical level, but not so much in the way weavers construct and communicate this information. The mysteries of this knowledge somehow converge with the mystery of the painting itself.
Rail: This notion of pending information is interesting. It challenges a capacity to properly read these surfaces in between material and verbal specificities.
Bool: Absolutely. For me, at some point, I wanted to find a way to produce the carpets from the paintings using their original production system but I didn’t think it would be possible. I was lucky to find a traditional workshop that was open to experimentation. I ended up drawing weaving plans where the carpets are simply extracted from the paintings with their skewed, Western perspective. The extracted carpets are then floating in grey and white checkers, from photoshop. You know, they appear when you erase things?
Rail: Your version of Anatolian weaving is informed by Photoshop?
Bool: I like that you see a trace of the digital, the thing of free floating. To me a really important level of these works is that I rip the Madonna out of the carpet. It is no coincidence that the carpets all come from sacred paintings. There is a charge in making an object out of or about absence.
Rail: Or the manifestation of a very symbolic presence for which Madonna is the sacred signifier. There’s a subtlety in the way you construct, it feels that it is part of a longing process; however, it takes form.
Bool: You hit the nail on the head. I’m drawn to these energies and reconfigure them to shift things. I think, for me, to look at the Madonna paintings and the charge of them, the carpet form is the most dissociated format in the iconography. I always want to go deeper into these dissociative forms, probably because they haven’t been thoroughly dissected by the western art canon and definitely because I think there is a potential to reveal different kinds of relationships between layers of meaning.
Rail: It makes so much sense. It also points out to confluences of connections to be made—maybe you could guide me through another set of negotiations?
Bool: I think this aspect of my work is a form of translation, a kind of obsessive search for undiscovered meaning. For example, let’s take the Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834) by Delacroix…another seriously long term preoccupation in my practice is with the idea of harem in the Western canon. I have made many works that attempt to reenter or renegotiate this impenetrable space over the years, or look at the lineage that stems from Delacroix’s first “representation” of a harem, which set the stage for multiple fantasies and projections that continue today. A good recent example is the jacquard tapestry Women in their Apartment (2018). This work stems from a moment when I realized that the infamous photo of Kim Kardashian’s bottom from Paper magazine fits exactly on the central figure of Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” (1955), it clicked like a puzzle piece. From that, I superimposed a harem setting in the open bathroom of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye with elements of Picasso’s sketches and Kim Kardashian’s bottom. This seems like maybe a cheeky gesture, but there are so many subtextual links between Picasso, Le Corbusier, and the phenomenon of butt implanted internet culture: the question of the field of projection, the contortion of the subject but also the viewer in a sense.
Rail:Those moments of discovery, through your intuitive and associative process, entice new legibility. The space of transfer for these liminal space narratives expose something that is even more troublesome. It exposes an appetite for an otherness, an exotic feature that is perpetually present in history and, perniciously, in visual culture?
Bool: Exactly. For me, it’s a very long process; how do I approach this? How do I make it work? How do I make this apparent? When I am building a bridge, a framework, I have to allow it to take different forms for the meanings and to be their own things. Which goes beyond my cognitive ability and beyond my control. It does something. It clicks, but it does not make me comfortable.
Rail: It also seems to address duration as part of the layering process for you and the viewer, no?
Bool: Yes. I think this also links well to the idea of translation, it is not really within the realm of gesture. If you work in a really involved way with materials, you inhabit this realm of translation, in a sense, because the preoccupation with material systems stays within these specific languages. Like this interview, Daisy, you didn’t pick a broad topic that you could put things into. You picked one that has to become a process. It’s timely during an unprecedented time like now. Everyone is currently in a very dissociative state. Translation is a state of suspension while grasping at something, suspending it and then grounding it. Very fitting to our collective state of mind.
Rail: Thank you. Hopefully, on the other side of things, we’ll be able to grapple with the complexities of languages—however they come to be.