Festina Lente

Interview with Josine Bokhoven and Bruce Gernand at Galerie Josine Bokhoven, Amsterdam, 2004

JB: The group of works based on the theme “Festina lente” which are now on show in the gallery were made during your stay in the Gastatelier Beeldenstorm /Daglicht in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in March and April 2004.

What was the use of working in those workshops instead of having a good session in your own studio in Garboldisham?

BG: Well, I’m very attached to my studio.

JB: Like the tortoise.

BG: However, to offset this rootedness, it’s also good to work in a different environment. Another kind of intensity. An artist residency really ought to provoke a reassessment of habits and attitudes. On a practical level, I don’t have foundry or printmaking facilities which B/D provide. Unexpectedly, the space of the studio had an effect. Although I had this particular theme I wanted to work with, how these objects evolved was partly in response to that space.

JB: I saw your end-presentation in Eindhoven. What differences do you see between that show and the exhibition here in the gallery.

BG: The end-presentation focused more on the relationship between the printmaking and the sculpture, almost in a didactic way. It was a studio exhibition and the space of the studio was a big factor — the place of the work being made, the staircase up to the mezzanine where I slept and worked at the computer. The glass wall to the outside made me think of the space like a tableaux which you could then enter. Here in your gallery, the situation is quite different. Three separate rooms. I began to think of three interrelated themes I had been working on: the works with architectural references, the Festina lente pieces, and downstairs another space for the sphinx.

JB: The extreme wedge shape of the front space seemed ideal for the distorted architectural works — to be placed in an unconventional space. You took this theme of distortion to the downstairs space as well.

BG: In thinking about the show I knew I wanted the sphinx down there.

JB: It’s a more mysterious space, underground.

BG: Yes, exactly. So, I made a “site specific” work to accompany the sphinx, a model of the space, like a material compression of the space. I made some digital distortions, tapering it upwards to accentuate its being seen from above.

JB: From the upper gallery floor. And perhaps as seen by the sphinx.

BG: Yes, and also sheared to the same angle as the front room upstairs, so you get that link.

JB: And because of that angle, it looks like a boat. For the canals which intersect outside and create this acute angle.

BG: Yes, but we did title it “Sarcophagus” to link it back to its relationship with the sphinx.

JB: In the downstairs space you also have a landscape relief, like a slice.

BG: In that context, the landform can be read as dunes.

JB: And the cast-iron relief, “Silence”, like an open mouth, relates to the sphinx’s oracular nature. But why did you want the sphinx itself on the wall?

BG: Well, the sphinx is a sculptural icon, an exemplar of four-square solidity, scale and the control of a space. So, I’m inverting these, an affectionate destabilising. Distorting its frontality so that it almost becomes a relief and this “almost relief” seemed to work best on the wall, where you would expect a relief to be, only this one is fully three dimensional, but deformed towards a flatness. It’s not solid, you can see its hollow glass fibre interior. It hardly commands the space as you might expect, but appears to be sliding off its shelf brackets.

JB: Every work in the show is made by computer. Yet you say you have a love/hate relationship with it.

BG: Well, every work originates with modelling on the computer, but they are all made by hand (apart from some of the prints). The hate part has to do with the general cultural and technological claims made for the computer, the presumed benefits it brings. More specifically, I don’t feel a natural aptitude with this technology and feel alienated, frustrated by my lack of expertise and by its disembodied functions. But this alienation can have a positive side.

What I like about it has to do with a fascination, an intrigue, the mystery of its functions, how it does what it does. I like working with geometry — that level of abstraction potentially on the verge of embodiment. So that’s the link, complex geometry visible three-dimensionally, albeit virtual. I experience a lot of digital modelling as design, but this distancing, detachment allows for other things to happen.

JB: But this seems so different from how your work could be seen as directly engaging with material.

BG: Well, working with material also has a kind of detachment, letting the material dictate certain procedures. Ideally, for me, the best moments are when you don’t feel “in control”, but that you are enabling something to happen, that you’re in relationship to something else, a process, a set of conditions. In consonance, but not in control.

JB: So you see a similarity between working out a shape in the virtual world and working out a shape through moulding and casting?

BG: No. It’s completely different. On the computer, there’s no gravity, no differentiation of material, even the construction lines are not really lines but numbers. For me it’s an illusory world. The one similarity might be the exploring of what a the computer does, trying to work with it the way one might work with material, how the stuff influences its handling.

JB: Why use the computer at all then?

BG: Good question. I ask it every morning. It’s not so much a decision as finding oneself in a domain and responding. Well, it has forced a marked change in the work, a move away from abstraction which, when I think about it, is quite paradoxical. I never imagined I would be making animals, but it’s the computer which has led me to it, them.

JB: Say more about how that happened.

BG: Perhaps it’s a circuitous path. What intrigued me about digital modelling was the capacity to distort a form. “Distorting precisely” has a kind of perverse, contradictory attraction. Distorting an abstract form merely makes another abstract form. There is no reference point to see the distortion. I was also interested in the connections between architecture and sculpture, sculpture giving architectural experience, like enclosure for example, and sculpture representing architectural features, images. Making objects of architectural representations (“Dome” 2002, “Mighty Mite 1 and 2”, 2002) could reveal digital distortion, and be read in real space as a kind of perspectival distortion. So, the objects themselves possess a “perspective” which is a contradiction because optical perspective is totally contingent on context and point of view. For me, the curious thing is that this digital distortion reaffirms the object nature of the sculpture. Anyway, the issue of representation came in through the back door.

JB: So, we are finally getting around to my first question.

BG: What was that?

JB: The Festina lente work, how did it come about?

BG: Well, its never just one path. I was getting more skilled at digital modelling, so the process of working could include more complexity such as animal forms. In conjunction with this I began to see the possibility of bringing other interests I’ve had with sculptural and philosophical traditions. For some years I’d been interested in the renaissance ideas of the motto, the epigram, and its translation into form, the emblem, allegory, narrative. Ficinio and his Neo-platonist circle had an enthusiasm for this structure, the integration of paradox. So. For a long time my favourite motto has been Festina lente — make haste slowly. Although Aesop’s fable itself wasn’t used, I felt the tortoise and hare motif could be adapted, the possibility for both emblem and narrative.

JB: The hare passing through the wall and its tortoise are like an emblem, and the tortoise and hare in the “Cripple Creek” version are more like a narrative.

BG: Yes, the former is much more a condensed image, while the latter has layers of references — the alchemical, the split hares evoke questions of identity. Having said that, though, the hare on the wall is directional, moving somewhere, elsewhere. In “Cripple Creek”, the hare appears to be forever circling the tortoise shape. In both works, though, the hare represents the digital, and the tortoise the material realm.

JB: This reminds me of the Surimono print. Where does it come from?

BG: The derivation? As I understand it, surimono was a form developed in Japan in the 17th c. Poets commissioned artists to illustrate their poems. Often the prints were folded in particular ways in relation to image and text. So opening them up could introduce an element of narrative. For a long time I’ve been struck by Hokusai’s print of the courtesans on the veranda which unfolds — I was interested in this possibility of handling an image. You re-see or see again images in a different context as the print opens out. Not like a story board, though.

JB: You seem to have a physical relationship to the other prints as well, like suspending the hare etching on threads rather than framing it and printing the tortoise screenprint directly onto the mount card and folding it into a box-like form.

BG: I also worked with collaged prints and crumpling up digital images. Yes, giving the digital images a more physical presence.

JB: The surimono print contains a kind of report of the creative process from beginning to end, the working process of making moulds, casting. What is the fascination for this earthly labour of the making process?

BG: Well, first of all I thought of the print as a document of the residency, to commemorate or celebrate being and working there. So, I used work-in-progress snap shots, photos one normally takes to record the process of the work, some sketches and digital images. As to the earthy or earthly labour, connection with the tradition of sculpture? It’s to do with process embedded in the work. Objects possess the history of their making — though this is often masked in functional objects. I think this a another point of contact available for the viewer, a further level of involvement. The tortoise and hare were a perfect device to continue to evolve these themes in the relation of the digital and the material.

JB: In the surimono you also show a kind of continuous conversation between the hare and the tortoise.

BG: Taking animism towards an extreme.

JB: How did this come about?

BG: Well in the fable, their relationship isn’t that communicative. But in my sphere, their race is overtaken by other events in cyberspace and in the material world. They’re thrown together, a little antagonism evident, but at least they’re talking. But there is another connection here. Earlier this year I showed some work with a colleague, Anderson Inge ( “Work and Play” , RBS Gallery, London). We made a couple of collaborative works but also showed a number of our own sculptures placed, paired as though in conversation, according to certain resonances they had. It brought up the notion, not only of conversing with objects (which we all do) but objects conversing amongst themselves (as they do when we’re not around). So, when I began making the tortoise and the hare, you can imagine what happened.

JB: You mentioned animism, what is the interest there?

BG: I don’t know. Return of the repressed. We are also animal.

JB: You wrote in some notes “if sculpture is concerned with animate form, it is expressed through a tension between its stillness and gesture”. Does this relate to animism?

BG: Well, I was thinking more about the absurdity of the enterprise (of sculpture), how paradoxical it is to attempt making stuff active in some way. That active involvement producing a residue which is transferred to the viewer who, hopefully re-animates it. This transition is embodied in a physically static form. But yes, the gesture becomes more concrete and literal in the tortoise and hare, and narrative possibilities are an extension of this.

JB: Back to narrative and the surimono: what is their conversation about, and is it concluded?

BG: I guess they’re speculating. They are unsure of their situation. They wonder about their origins, their journey, their fate. They undergo transformations, sometimes very quickly, both digitally and materially: metal pours and solidifies quickly. Sometimes slowly. And finally, you can’t get slower than stillness. In a way, their conversation has come to an end. They were much more talkative whilst being made.

JB: And are you the tortoise or the hare?

BG: Clearly the tortoise. But an aspiring hare. Happily, since I made them, I can be both.