“Liz Zumin is an artist whose practice stems from an interest in contagion, suggestion and imitation. Through visual metaphor and physical experience she explores the duel between the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group, the forming of relations, and how affect is transmitted between bodies and becomes enacted at a neurological, chemical and anatomical level.”
Earlier this year Liz Zumin answered some questions for BHP, an edited version of her interview was featured in The Arsonist magazine, which was published by Burning House Press a few months ago. We now make the full transcript of the interview available for BHP online.
Firstly, why make art?
I find it difficult to define and delineate what is art, perhaps because what art expresses and evokes is in part ineffable. I suppose that for me there has always been a fascination with the way that artists have the capacity to transform and alter things, to reverse the meaning of a sign, an object or a cultural form. For my part, I find that I am constantly collecting things; texts, fragments, images, ideas from all around, so in that sense, going back to the question why make art? It’s about sharing the way I experience the world and a way that I have of trying to make sense of it all.
When did you first start making art?
I’ve made what I think of as art since I was a child but I started my formal art education late, I had always made art but somehow I did an Italian literature degree when I was younger and it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I went to Chelsea College of Art and I found that experience invaluable. Initially it was drawings, then photographs, paintings, videos, but after a while I was not so interested in making more stuff, and instead started to move into another direction with more emphasis on actions and performance than on objects. Now I have come full circle and I don’t really see myself as an artist as such, I mostly see myself as being an editor; I edit things, images, voices and ideas.
How would you describe your process (or processes) when creating?
I am a great user of notebooks which I use to write and develop ideas and often when I can’t yet articulate something it will be sketches, I find this way of working very organic looking at my notebooks, I realised there was a subtle but constant evolution from simple sketches accompanied by words, images, spare annotations to proper notes. If I look at all my notebooks to date, written notes constitute about two thirds of them and the remaining third, at most, is drawings. I think this has to do with a temporal economy: to register an idea or a found situation, it’s sometimes easier to say three words than to draw a sketch or a scene.
Your work intersects multiple disciplines – performance, sound, drawing, writing – is there a common intention or project that links them together, or do you seek different ends and results from the various mediums you are active in?
Both in performance and in my art practice my work is concerned with liveness and presence and I regard this as a major factor that links my work; be it a sound piece to be listened to in a public space like a library, or an action in a found space or the street, or reading a text in front of a live audience. Working in different disciplines allows me room to shift perspective and opens up new possibilities and new directions for the work to be approached, although, in terms of ideas, each piece of work tends to be embedded in the next.
On your website it states that your practice ‘stems from an interest in contagion, suggestion and imitation’ and ‘explores the duel between the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group, the forming of relations, and how affect is transmitted between bodies and becomes enacted at a neurological, chemical and anatomical level.’ In what ways does your work seek to interact with and explore these themes?
My interest is in bodied experience such as fear, depression or shame, and how this, sidestepping mental filters, is transmitted nonverbally. How the matter of ourselves spreads beyond the boundaries of our skin through the olfactory by way of pheromones and hormones, to entangle and entrain those around us, and how individual and collective states of being are influenced by, for example the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, by mobs and hysteria, by the continuities of language and information, by images, news and media and myth.
A large part of my research has been centred around Tarantism, an ancient dance ritual which evoked mass hysteria in southern Italy. This research took me to the southern Italian region of Puglia where I created a body of work concentrating on the limits of the self and body in relation to the other with a focus on somatic rebellion in escaping the paradigms of containment, and the emancipation from restriction and isolation. Likewise, the individual is not contained but already and always entrammelled beyond the self in bio-chemical, emotional and social ropes that bind us to our communities and our lives.
I read on your website that you are ‘currently developing a poetic dialogue of gesture considering states of absence and transformation and the subtle movements that take place between presence and non being.’ This sounds like such a wonderful project – could you tell us more about your use of poetic gesture as dialogue, and its usefulness when exploring themes of absence, transformation, presence and non being?
I am developing a series of actions and interactions, small human gestures, which I am calling poetic gestures, by this I am thinking more on the lines of a visual language or visual poetry. The focus of this piece is based on Derrida’s theories of the ‘trace’ or ‘detritus’ which is never fully absent or fully present in as much as movement never really disappears as each experience is always embedded in another, albeit not always in the same form. Again, this project came out of my period of research in Puglia, one of the pieces which forms part of this body of work is ‘The Spider’s Stratagem’ which looks at how past disavowed and blocked memories can be carried over into the present and future and function as residual culture and hauntological specters that are re-written and re-performed generationally, and how the past might itself be re-fictioned within the present.
Do you have any obsessions (motifs or deep concerns), are they evident in your work, and what are they?
Both my performative work and my video work are often durational so I’d say there is definitely a concern with time, also slowness is always somehow evident in my work, and I am often drawn to the interval or gaps that occur between images and words, between thought and movement; the time slip, the syncope, the stutter, the forgotten word, the fleeting image seen at the corner of the eye, that which has not yet happened but is on the cusp of becoming.
Of the mediums that you practice, which, if any, do you feel most comfortable in?
I have a very flexible approach with regards the different strands of my practice; I tend to regard them as different ways to have a conversation with things shifting from one form to another, so in some way all my work is connected. I find the different mediums complement one another and can be useful in accessing different ideas, I find video for example to be a very immediate way to sketch out an idea which I can then go back and work out more fully, a gesture seen in a social situation might then become a performative work, a poem or a piece of writing. This flexibility really suits me as my way of working is quite instinctive. It’s true that some media or forms lend themselves to particular things, for example I find performing in front of a live audience much more challenging, and this tension in me pushes the work in a different direction creating a different experience for both myself, and the audience.
For you, what is the most difficult aspect of making art?
I don’t like work in which the sense of direction is too clear, I like to keep an unbalanced open meaning about it, in a way I want to make art as if I am playing a piano by ear; not as if I am reading a manual on how the play the piano, that’s when the work is most successful. So, it is a process of cutting, to edit it down to something that minimal and not too rich or overstated. Also, my practice has a theory driven approach, and although I see this as being the base line over which the work has to somehow hover, I find that there is often an ambivalence between rigorous and conceptually aimed work and more chance based work. For me the challenge is how far can I step away from my practice with projects that are ancillary to it, and if so, how can they coexist. In the end, I suppose, the work takes it’s own direction.
What, if anything, has making art taught you?
To trust in my instincts and to do this you have to be quite fearless. Making work that is quite understated, sometimes it is hard to see where the work actually is, especially when working in a medium that I’m not so comfortable with, so I trying not to let the other’s expectations influence my decisions, it is easy to take advice and this is something I try not to do as ultimately, I think you can only find a certain ‘truth’ in a piece of work, and this applies to any medium, if you are prepared to take a leap of faith and not be afraid of failing.
Do you have a favourite artist/writer, who would that be, and why?
I like artists who work is minimal and poetic regardless of their field; Francis Alÿs for example has this quality, where he often makes quiet yet political work from practically nothing, like running a stick along a fence or starting a rumor. I really enjoyed his show Fabiola at National Portrait Gallery, where he filled a room with reproductions of the painting Fabiola, all copies of a lost original painting by the French nineteenth-century painter, Jean-Jacques Henner. It was quite amazing in fact, all the same image but you know, all different. It was quite an intense feeling being in that space. For me it’s this paired down stillness that really works.
What was the last piece of art or writing you saw that left an impression on you? (include link to piece if possible)
I get very lost in video or film and watching Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was an incredible experience, watching Jeanne Dielmans’ repetitive ritual of her daily chores affected me at a physical level, to the extent that I felt myself jolt when she drops the shoe that she’s shining, and seeing her loosing the fragile grip she has on the world on the third day when her client takes too long and the potatoes boil over and spoil is almost too much to bear. Also the experience of time, because of the film’s length, I felt as if I was living every minute of her claustrophobic day, in all its minute detail day with her in real time, all the devalued actions such as peeling potatoes, making beds, doing dishes, obviously it this is not the case, but it has this effect. I am working my way through all Akerman’s oeuvre, especially her more recent work. Again, her passing is a great loss of such a creative talent.
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In what ways has the Internet been of help or use to you in your art-making?
Of course it has had a huge impact on the way art is viewed and distributed, personal websites and social media have changed the way we view everything as well as changing the ways of opening contact with people, and it has taken the hierarchy out of the art world, with a 14 year old being able to upload a Wikipedia page or make a video and post it on YouTube or Vimeo. There is a whole generation of artists born in the 1980s that have become recognised for the way they involve social media, online communication and Skype in their work. I am myself working on a project that explores identity in the online world in which I sample still images taken from Google maps. For this project I chose a country, a city or town and literally visit it digitally, using Google maps to make my way through each location until I find a face which hasn’t been obscured and re-appropriate these images.
Also, the Internet has made making connections with other artists or writers anywhere in the world possible, this is especially significant for women, who in the past might have become isolated by the ‘pushchair in the hall’ or meant an end to their career.
What one thing would you pass on to someone who wanted to begin making art?
Just make work, and don’t isolate yourself, it’s a cliché and I’m repeating myself, but I think that the dialogue with other artists is really necessary at whatever level you are at. Also, going back to the Internet, I think it is important to have a good online presence, if I were starting out I would definitely learn basic website design!
It would be so great to see your works in print. Do you have any intentions to make a book?
I am actually working on an artist book at the moment. For years I have always been fascinated with the world or psychic mediums, with their claim to be able to communicate with the spirit world through clairvoyance, psychometry or telepathy, in this work I wanted to investigates the intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or transmitted, partly exploring my need, to make a connection and reinvent the eliminated memories of a specific moment. This project came about by a chance find of a photograph at a car boot sale. I always think that there is a general sadness about abandoned photographs, and these images particularly resonated with me, they are definitely imbued with somewhat of a seductive charge. The work pivots around a man standing in snow in what seems to be an eastern country, he is wearing a heavy overcoat and hat and stares intensely into the camera, there is another image of the same man this time with a dog and the third is of a woman with a headscarf. From these images I formed the basis of a narrative, what Walter Benjamin might have termed a ‘spark of contingency’ shining the aura of a past life in to the present.
If the house was burning and you could only take one book with you, which book would you take?
I am currently reading Kafka’s Diaries, an amazing book that I would not want to leave behind. Also, I have a great fondness of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, which I read as a teenager and is something I like to go back to, and then there are many Italian authors I love such as Luigi Pirandello and Italo Svevo’s La Coscenza di Zeno. But, if I could take just one book, I would chose Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, as it is a book of wandering whose pages seem to change and rearrange every time I open it.
What’s next for Liz Zumin?
Well, I am currently editing the artist book that I mentioned and there is a pamphlet of poems that will be coming out towards the end of this year. As always time and inspiration will dictate!
Thank you, Liz!
Liz Zumin is an artist whose practice stems from an interest in contagion, suggestion and imitation. Through visual metaphor and physical experience she explores the duel between the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group, the forming of relations, and how affect is transmitted between bodies and becomes enacted at a neurological, chemical and anatomical level.