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Interview with Rowena Harris

Here is our interview with Rowena Harris, whose artwork is currently on display at Bluecoat. Left Hand to Back of Head … runs until Mon 28 Mar.

Four of your works in the exhibition were produced using a cyanotype printing method. It’s a technique that was historically used for making architectural blueprints, and often produces very flat images. Your cyanotypes seem to be much more three-dimensional and are treated more like objects than flat images. Can you tell us about the process of making cyanotypes and your treatment of these works as objects?

It’s true, Cyanotype is well known for architectural blue prints, but it is also one of the earliest and rudimentary photographic techniques. I have always thought that casting (a method I am quite invested in) and photography were very strongly linked, and where I think of casting as capturing a trace of an object from the world in real space and time, and I consider photography in a very similar way (if it isn’t photoshopped later of course).

I wanted to find a way to produce an honest ‘photograph’ of a bodily or gestural trace in someway as opposed to an image or documentation of this. I was trying present this gesture - something that perhaps could be tangibly understood by the viewer - a trace of the gesture or process that made it. This is rather than say representing it as a direct image or documentation. Thinking about it now, perhaps I was bringing my approach to casting into a photographic process.

I hit upon inverting the standard use of Cyanotype to make a kind of alternate photograph. Instead of using a negative to make the familiar flat blue print, I compressed the Cyanotypes either in my hand (as with the paper versions) or with my whole body (fabric version). When the UV rays from the sun reacted with the Cyanotype paper or fabric in this crumpled state shadows were left (white areas) from the folds as well as under my fingers, arms and body. When the reacted paper or fabric is opened afterwards a trace of this gesture is revealed, and one from a specific moment in time. Thinking about it more perhaps they are half photograph and half cast.   

Follow on question:

These works follow on from a series produced in Rome, where you lived and worked for a year between 2014 and 2015. Did you always intend to continue this strand of work in a different context, under conditions that would shift the levels of exposure to daylight?

Yes, this is true; I developed this process first on a residency at the British School at Rome, where I showed them in a solo exhibition in the city at The Gallery Apart. The Rome sun was vivid, intense, exciting and novel to me, and this sun was certainly one of the elements that drove this work forward. As well as capturing a bodily gesture, this Cyanotype series also captured a unique moment in time - almost a personal documentation. I already knew then that this was something I wanted to pursue when I returned to the UK, as well as any further countries/climates I would find myself in.

Light conditions between May/June in Rome and December in the UK made marked visual differences in the work. The works from Rome are of a deep, vibrant and blue with clear delineations between shadows and light. In contrast the new series I am showing at Bluecoat were developed under cold grey British skies, and they are much subtler, gentler and calm.

Continuing this process in different countries/climate was not simply an act of highlighting aesthetic differences, but also a kind of personal exercise or interaction with the environment. In Rome I worked, fast, hastily, fighting with burning sun, burning my eyes and heating my pale skin. The Cyanotypes needed just seconds. Everything was on the cusp of collapse under the intensity of the sun (and I often felt like this in Rome too). In the UK it was the reverse. Exposure needed as long as I could endure. As long as I could stand stock-still, with muscles shaking by the end - each would take a minimum of 30 minutes of utter stillness (no phone, no music, no computer, just quiet). It became an odd type of meditation and perhaps a reconciling with my return to the UK. It is defiantly something I will pursue in other places I find myself in - an on going series.

For Left Hand to Back of Head… one component of Accreted Part 1, a series of sculptures produced by encasing shirts in emulsion, has been displayed using Natalie Finnemore’s Untitled sculpture as a plinth. Have you worked in this way in the past?

I don’t think I have collaborated so directly with an artist in this way. I have discussed ideas, rearranged shows, edited shows to pullout interesting concepts or threads, or even made joint work with an artist group, but I don’t think I have taken the step of placing my own work on the work of another artist.

Working together in the space it became very clear, very quickly that this was the right thing to do, and I think Natalie is very happy with this solution too. It allowed all our work in the room to overlap and have a conversation, not only directly here with the work on top, but this gesture provided the other work to be considered in a closer dialogue, which is both complelling and pleasing. Responding to the features of an exhibition, including other artists work in someway, is something is a definite continued approach. I often work very directly with the space - responding to the subtle corners or particular features, or installing in a such a way that acknowledges the interior architecture, it was a nice moment to find Natalie also open to working in this responsive way.

You acknowledge the impact of digital technology on perception with your work. At a time when many artists are focused on the flatness of the screen and degraded images, you are working in a very sculptural way that relates strongly to our bodies. What impact has digital technology had on your work, and particularly to your sculptural work?

Well, I think this might be difficult for me to answer succinctly; it’s a great, yet quite difficult question - probing at a complex issue that I am still dealing with (which is very fruitful for making work). In terms of perception, or the role of digital interaction upon perception is something I’ve been interested in for a while. Within this area it is the subtle changes that might go unnoticed that I focus on – perhaps they are brief moments in a shift of perception brought about by a kind of digital training.

Of course we all know about phantom phone vibrations and meeting that person you think you know but you’ve only seen them on Facebook, but what I am more interested in is how digital experience could be affecting a very fundamental idea of our bodies and senses. I have been thinking about ‘Instagram selfies’ as a kind of digital perceptual training (a bit like phantom limb therapy), that might be altering the perception of our bodies to be a body captured, split apart and spread through time and space, alongside the familiar tangible body of course. It’s a funny idea but I quite like it.

In terms of a continued investigation into sculpture and materiality, I have always been interested in the relationship with the digital and tangible world - or perhaps the closeness between the material and immaterial. I think there is a far, far longer history of relationship between the material and immaterial then the last 20 years brought about by readily available digital technology, perhaps even as far back as the earliest objects (or iconography?) and man.

I guess my response to dealing with digital technology as an artist, is to recognize that there is always a human interaction or response at some stage, at whatever level (if not, then if a tree falls in an uninhabited forest, does it make a sound?). It is not something other from our material world, but an addition to it, and a very interesting addition to the complex relationship between material and immaterial. It is this relationship that I pursue including, but perhaps not limited to the digital debate. I think this is why I am not particularly interested in working within the flatness of the screen, or narrowing this area to the digital circulation of images (although I do find it fascinating in the work of other artists). I am more intrigued by a human response and involvement with technology, what goes on in the mind.

Whilst of course having a drive toward a presentational approach to making work, rather than representational which is found through images and screens, as I mentioned before. Working with materiality and sculpture, for me at least, allows my work to entre into tangible reality, or ‘real space and time’ where it can affect and create dialogue on a physical level, and rather through a screen, which is a portal to another time and space. This ‘portal’ idea for me is also true of painting (to an extent) as well as photography - these are things that I also generally navigate away from. I mean this not as avoidance, but for me issues arise in negotiating the space of sculpture and the space of screen in the same work, body of work or idea. However, I should say to anyone who knows my work well, I do occasionally make video (ha! Slightly undermining myself here!), but I tend to treat them as full projects in their own right, where I find video formats provide a much more direct approach to presenting or articulating research. Often these video projects are the beginning of big idea, quite directly expressed and through this spurn a new body of more open and playful sculptural work. 

See Rowena Harris's work at Bluecoat until Mon 28 Mar


Image credit: Rowena Harris, 12th December (2015) – Left Hand to Back of Head, Object Held Against Right Thigh, Bluecoat, 2016


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