Starting from the body: A video conversation with Vlatka Horvat
works across a wide range of forms, including sculpture, installation, drawing, performance, photography and writing. Often involving performance-based gestures characterized by repetition, testing, versions and variations, searches and (non)findings, her work creates a “catalogue of possibilities” centred around the complex dynamics between body and space – physical, social or psychological space.
On the occasion of the online exhibition , the artist connected with curator Tevž Logar over Zoom to talk about the performative nature of her practice, the ways in which it makes us travel through a space with our bodies or our eyes, and some of her recent projects born out of the restrictions imposed by the lockdown and the wish to be “tuned in to the ordinariness of everyday life”.
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Tevž Logar: Hello, everyone. My name is Tevž Logar and I’m the curator of the Resilience Test online exhibitions, presented by Gaep. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to this discussion with Vlatka Horvat. Her exhibition is on view through August 9.
Vlatka is one of the artists whose work I’ve been following for many, many years. Several times we’ve managed to work together on different projects. To introduce her, allow me to quote a short excerpt from her artist statement: “In my recent work, which spans a range of media – from sculpture, installation, collage and drawing to performance, photography and projects with text – I have been interested in the question of presence and in the possibilities and problematics of occupying space. Often involving gestures of rearranging and reconfiguring both the space itself and the spatial and social relations at play in it, the work tends to probe the precarious and often contentious relationship between bodies, objects, materials, the built environment and landscape.”
Vlatka, the online viewing room can be seen as one of the distribution channels that expanded in the contemporary art sector in recent months. A lot of museums, galleries and projects went online. And there have been various criticisms of these gestures, as well as strong advocacy of them. For instance, one of the criticisms was that the translation of works or exhibitions onto online platforms does not work because they are not based in the medium that they are addressing. How do you see this new online life?
Vlatka Horvat: The way most people see a work is often through documentation. There’s a relatively small percentage of the public who sees an exhibition. The objection that when you see it online, it’s not in the correct medium … of course that’s true. But I also think that’s how we’ve been experiencing a lot of work even before the lockdown – vicariously. I’m quite interested in documentation and how you conjure a sense of presence, a sense of a body or object in space, through not being there. When I’m installing or making work, I’m testing if there’s an image by walking around, testing different vantage points. And when I’m documenting work, I try to simulate that walk around or walk through the space, so that there is a sense of temporality, a sense of motion and movement.
As frustrating as this period has been for everyone, it has opened up interesting possibilities. From the beginning of the lockdown there have been some exciting projects in two ways – on the one hand, artists and galleries reconceiving or reimagining existing works for online space and, on the other hand, projects conceived specifically for the online medium that are taking on board the restrictions of this encounter. I think the question of how to get a sense of time and space through the screen is a big challenge, but there are also interesting possibilities on how to extend that limitation. I’m always interested in ways to adapt to restrictions or deal with attempts at circumventing what you can’t do.
Some of the projects since the beginning of lockdown have been so exciting because they only work in this way. Early on, David Horvitz, an artist friend based in L.A., did a beautiful thing. He was invited to do an artist talk at UC Santa Barbara. The invitation came way before the lockdown. On the day that it was supposed to happen, he drove from his home in Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, a two-hour drive, and filmed the entire journey with his phone positioned on the dashboard of the car. He used the journey in real time to structure his artist talk. When it was , the talk was basically his journey from his house to the venue, which was closed, and the narration of the work through all the things that came along the way. It was a beautiful example of how documentation of the work and the talking around the work become a work in its own right. Another great project is Lola Arias’ series for which she invited different artists to do performative lectures or screen-based performance lectures looking at their documents which, I think, is a really beautiful frame.
T.L.: In David’s work there’s also the question of ephemerality. I love where he’s thinking about a person for one minute. That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately – what happens when the physicality is gone.
I would like to refer to your , which I love because it’s a mixture of domestic moments and various situations from your studio or from nature. Sometimes they look staged, but knowing your work, I’m aware that you’re interested in finding these kinds of things. Actually, I see them as found sketches for your work.
V.H.: For a long time I’ve been photographing things out in the world, and it is a kind of ongoing notebook of research images or things that caught my attention. I’d say I often photograph things that look like they should be my work. [Laughing.] But they are actually things chanced upon in the world. And very often the things I photograph and put on Instagram – in addition to my cat, who features a bit too much, I think – have the gestures or strategies that I use in my work. For instance, I’m very much drawn to provisional, makeshift structures that you find in the world: discarded pieces of furniture, various broken chairs, things that are upside down or in a skewed spatial relation to other objects.
Since the lockdown started, Tim [Etchells], my partner, and I go on a walk in the morning. The same walk every single day. On the walk there’s this stream. And when I say stream, that’s already too much. It’s like a little line of water, so narrow that you can easily step over, but somebody has been making bridges over it. Almost every day there’s a different bridge over this pathetic little piece of water. I’ve been photographing them and they’ve become a catalogue of possibilities, which is how I describe my own work. There’s a sense of repeating the same gesture or attempting the same image or the same structure over and over again to create a catalogue of possibilities or propositions. Also these makeshift bridges use the kind of gestures I use in the studio: leaning, stacking, layering, piling, the mutual support that materials give to each other, a haphazard or making-do kind of architecture. They’re also extremely pleasing because they evoke different bridges from the world. One day it’s Golden Gate, the next day a simple pedestrian bridge, and the next day an elaborate baroque bridge.
I’m also interested in the question of spatial dysfunction. That’s mostly what I photograph in the world – objects and materials in an inverted spatial order, with the wrong thing on top, or in a spatial relation that has been messed with or reimagined. Very often I’m probably projecting intention on these.
You can see on my Instagram the moment when the pandemic started because the universe of where I go has shrunk. There are a lot more images of things that I see on the ground and of things on this meadow where we walk. Being tuned in the ordinariness of everyday life is something that I’m drawn into. I’m a big fan of Georges Perec. In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces he speaks about the “infraordinary”, the more ordinary than ordinary. I really like this – the vernacular gesture, the haphazard thing that happens in the world, the gesture of getting rid of things or throwing them away and the way things, when discarded, probably because they’re no longer functional, enter in another zone of relations.
T.L.: I’ve never asked you this during our conversations over the years, but I remember from our collaboration on the in Ljubljana that you were using elements you found in the space, rearranging them. Do you see these objects as ready-mades? Because I think of them as social sculptures also.
V.H.: The simple answer is that I think of them as both. I often work with found objects, found materials or objects that look like they might be found objects. What interests me with found objects is that however you might re-see them or re-imagine them as something other than functional objects, they retain to some degree a residual sense of what they were. Found objects come with baggage, with history, with echoes or traces of previous uses or previous situations that they might have been involved in. You can sort of read material, traces, on their surface. A found object doesn’t come to you in a neutral state. It will always resonate in new ways if you put it in new spatial and social relations, but it will retain some echo of the previous thing. I’m quite interested in what happens when those kinds of different uses or functions or readings enter into a dialogue.
You’re right about social sculptures. I’m thinking: ‘How does one, as a viewer, in the proximity of the sculptural object or installation that I make, position oneself in relation to it with their body and also how does one move through this?’ In anything I might do in a space, whether it’s a gallery space, a public space, a landscape or the space of the page, there’s the question of how you travel through that space, whether it’s with your body or your eye.
I’m interested in the objects themselves, in what resonances they bring and how you can modify these resonances or put them into a conversation with the political, historical and social context that you’re placing them into. At the same time, how you can use these remnants of material culture in the form of found objects to restructure or propose different ways of engaging in a physical space involving also the viewer.
T.L.: What about the lockdown? Did you feel a need to reflect on the situation in a different way? Relationships change within this kind of understanding of the physical and social space we normally share.
V.H.: When we first went into lockdown, I became really aware of the immense privilege of being able to stay at home and rely on people that aren’t stopping, who keep on delivering food and everything else to you. The biggest thing that happened immediately is that it amplified these social inequalities. For me, this was a sort of pause, an invitation to slow down and enter a different kind of space. But then you think of the people who didn’t have that luxury, for whom the whole situation accelerated their lives. Any sort of thinking about how it affected my own situation comes with this relation to others.
For a lot of us, not travelling was kind of a new thing. I feel two ways about it. On one hand, I miss it, I miss social contact. On the other hand, it makes you realize you don’t have to go to another country for a day just to have a meeting.
In the larger picture, any pause, any break with habitual normality is an opportunity to effect change. Hopefully, that sense of change and possibility for change will continue rather than the yearning for going back to what it was.
In terms of work, I found it a productive space, but also a frustrating space. As you know, I often work in relation to particular sites, so the work emerges from an encounter with a set of objects or images or spaces, and that’s much more truncated and limited. But I’ve been writing a lot more and rethinking some of the projects that I was already thinking about before this happened. I mentioned the walks Tim and I go on every day. We managed to turn them into a kind of ongoing work. At the beginning of April, we started tracking our walks with a GPS app. We each do it on our separate phones. For every walk we generate a drawing. Then we annotate it, we each take notes on the walk. So, now we have around 160 drawings x 2. They are like diptych drawings. It started as a record of the lockdown – you were allowed to go on one walk a day, so we recorded that one walk. And then we didn’t stop doing it. Now it’s a bit like we can’t skip a walk because we have to do a drawing. It became an ongoing practice project.
Another project, again in collaboration with Tim, is a book we produced [Seen from Here: Writing in the Lockdown], an edited collection of new writing by 30 different artists and writers. We had the idea at the beginning of April, when we started thinking about these social inequalities piling up on top of ten years of austerity in the UK, for example. We wanted to do something that felt concrete, so we decided on a book with going to food banks. So far, I think we’ve raised around £3,000 for the food bank charity the Trussell Trust. The book is published as a PDF. For us it was possible to do it at home and have low overhead costs. We volunteered our time, the writers and artists did the same, nobody got paid, and basically we were able to produce it so that 100% of the money from sales goes to this charity. That was one of the things we wanted to put energy into and think how artistic or creative labour can help a wider, social context in however small way.
T.L.: In relation to the works in the gallery’s viewing room, I’d like us to talk about their performative aspect, which is the most fragile, the most ephemeral. The history of performances has different approaches, of course. How do you approach the performative gesture? You include it in your sculptural work, but you also have direct performative actions.
V.H.: Performance is at the heart of everything I do. Sometimes, as you say, it’s manifested as performance per se or performative action. Other times, it is used as a set of gestures that come into play in the making or in the envisioning of the meeting between the viewer and the work. My early work was figurative and dealt with the question of the represented body, whether it was in actual performance, performance-based photography and video or in collage. And then there was a moment when I started working sculpturally. That was an important moment for me because the questions around performance – which for me are linked to questions of presence and absence, of encounter and exchange – shifted from the body represented in the work to the body of the viewer experiencing or encountering the work. It was in 2009, I think, and it was a big opening for me in how, going forward, I have been thinking about these things.
As you said, I do make performances using myself as performer. Sometimes they are in a more theatrical frame, in the sense that they are happening in a space with an audience watching them. Very often they are durational. Other times, I’m creating frameworks for actions that other people can join. Almost like a propositional frame that other people can inhabit. One example is a performance [Who Come to Stand] that you took part in. Was it two years ago, in 2018?
T.L.: Yes. This time of the year, at the end of July, wasn’t it?
V.H.: Exactly. It was in Rijeka, in Istria, on the Croatian coast. that involved an invitation to other artists and residents of Rijeka to join me at the base of a 1965 socialist sculpture, a monument of a man holding a ship in his hands, which stands in front of the shipyard. During socialism, the shipyard was one of the biggest industrial complexes in the country. It has since been destroyed, squandered, and the workforce laid off. The invitation was for us to stand in vigil for 8 hours, in solidarity with this sculpture of a man holding a ship, and to hold something that has personal or social value, honoring the history and legacy of the shipyard, which was so important for the city, and at the same time mourning it. I’m mentioning this project as an example of performative framework that other people can come in or out of.
Unhinged, the piece we have in the , is from 2010. It had several incarnations and again it is a durational piece, created in response to an invitation from two artists, Simone Aughterlony and Jorge Leon, who did a project related to the work of maids. I proposed this piece in which for 6 hours I was holding an unhinged door, “merged” with it. It became a coupling of a body and an object to create another entity which is half-woman, half-door, or door-woman. The project was always staged in grandiose historical mansions, in these really large ballrooms or drawing rooms of mansions in different cities around Europe. I would spend time in the houses as this thing, a door-woman, and find opportunities in very small, clandestine ways to do things and to interact socially with visitors. In a lot of my works with objects I play games of mirroring or repeating what’s already there. So, this door-woman would try to blend in with the environment of the house by mirroring some aspect of the architecture or trying to be a proper door or, when people were chatting, getting in between them as if it wasn’t there. Besides playing this game of blending in with the environment or passing as a door, I was doing an investigation of both the body and its mobility because when I’m holding the door for hours, which is a heavy, exhausting thing to do, the mobility of my body is severely impeded. The function of the door is impeded as well because it’s no longer doing its door-job. I’m interested in how both the body and the door become disrupted in what they can do and how they’re seen. The body – the female body especially, in the context of these grandiose houses which are associated with a lot of maintenance and service – is echoing in the piece. So is the idea of door as regulator of entrances and exits, as a thing that’s in between inside and outside, an actual liminal point of opening or closing of a space, of ability to have access. All these things come into play, as well as the destruction of the whole idea of the domestic space as an interior, closed off space, because you close the door and what happens in there is private, but when you take the door off …
T.L.: … it becomes public.
V.H.: It becomes public and it becomes porous. I was trying to mess with ideas around the body, around femininity, around house-ness, and with the idea of the edges of space – where one thing ends and another one begins, where a body ends and an object begins, where the exterior of the house becomes the interior. I’m interested in all these meeting points between bodies, objects and spaces, how we negotiate and navigate them.
Conversation recorded on July 30, 2020
Resilience Test is a series of three online presentations of Marilena Preda Sânc (29 June – 19 July), Vlatka Horvat (20 July – 9 August) and Ištvan Išt Huzjan (10 – 30 August), artists of different generations whose practices are connected by their shared interest in re-examining the limits of the body.
Project financed by: Ministerul Culturii