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INTERVIEW: Bonita Alice in preparation for Against Interpretation?

May 22, 2020

Q&A with Bonita Alice

We’re looking at your works which will be part of a group exhibition in London entitled Against Interpretation? Please tell us a bit about how these works came into being – what was the starting point?

What lies behind the Sorry Series is the idea that we are aware… that we know and see…. selectively. We select both consciously and unconsciously in order to protect ourselves from too much of that which challenges us or make us uncomfortable in some way.

The vehicle for these drawings is the notion of a decorative screen…the latticework that separates us from the sultan’s harem to protect them from our gaze, for instance, or the confessional screen that supposedly protects our identity even from the priest in attendance on the other side. This is nonsense of course. The barrier is merely ritualised or performed. The obscuring is only partial, which I find interesting.

So, in the end it is still about choosing whether or not to see or know, or to what extent. Conscious or unconscious, we can recognise this choosing is a mechanism that is necessary for our emotional survival - how much news are you reading about the Covid 19 crisis? - but it also enables certain abuses to persist in our name - against other people and other animals and also to the detriment of the natural environment - and allows us to continue as usual, feeling comfortable to take no responsibility.

The wool dust medium itself has a particular history. It came into being in a very conscious way, in the context of the exhibition Promised Land in 2005. That body of work was mostly sculptural with an emphasis on materials. There, the dust partnered ash in works about death and transience.

In her 1964 essay Sontag argues that reducing a work of art to its content and then interpreting that, tames the work of art. How do you feel about explaining, interpreting your work for others?

If I’m getting anywhere with my manipulations of the dust then hopefully some kind of transformation has happened, through the very different kinds of drawings I’ve made using the medium over the past 15 years.

The original associations of the dust are still important to me, and somehow also remain important in the work, but much has happened in my practice in the interim. And although viewers might find the details of that history and evolution interesting, I certainly don’t feel it is necessary that they know it before they can look at and enter the drawings.

When it comes to talking about my work I’ve learned that there are different kinds of conversations one can have around an artwork, and very few actually demand an explanation as such. A good conversation is an exchange, isn’t it? So there’s another side besides my own. For me to impose an interpretation, to insist on laying the work open on the table, when something else might already be happening in the conversation, between work, viewer and artist, seems to me counterproductive.

The material alone evokes varied responses. If I, as the artist, can’t acknowledge and engage with the impulses provoked in others by my work then it’s not clear to me why I’m sharing it.

I feel, ideally, that there’s a kind of empathy at work in such a conversation, again, between myself, a viewer and the work. Empathy (or the lack of it) is certainly something that occupies my thoughts and that I regard as having a central role in my concerns as an art-maker and more broadly,…particularly my interest in our emotional relationship with the realm of ‘other animals’.

Because I’m inclined to get carried away by these ideas, I’ve had to learn to sometimes let go of the strings. Viewers’ comments and readings of my work are, in any case, more often pleasantly surprising than not. It’s been a fruitful lesson for me to listen. There are comments I’ve remembered for years. Some I still find useful, even within the creative process. Other’s observations are often less direct than my own thinking, and that’s very useful.

How do you prepare your works? Do you make preparatory drawings beforehand? Do you work on one piece at a time or shift between multiple works at one time?

These particular works require quite careful planning …up to a point. The unmarked paper must be protected during the (often quite long) making process; and the laying down of the dust in tiny marks - a process that gets repeated up to 4 or 5 times - is very precise. A visual reference must be established as a starting point so that I don’t wander aimlessly; however,at some point I discard that reference. That’s very important. I can allow myself to wander, but only once I’ve set some things in place. You could say that my preparatory sketching takes the form of ‘framing’ a fragment of an existing

Some people listen to music or podcasts while they work others are absorbed in the relative silence of their studio. Please set the scene for us in your studio…

That depends on the day. I am very particular …quite obsessive… about the music I listen to. But sometimes, any music is just not right. I listen to a lot of podcasts and playback radio…most often serialised books or documentaries, but then the voice must be right. A good radio documentary is a wonderful thing. I return to favourites and re-listen from time to time. On some days it’s difficult to find the right fit. My partner and I attended a fantastic concert during the 2017 London proms, a tribute to Scott Walker, which was recorded by the BBC. I’ve listened to that many times.

What do you do when you reach an impasse; a work just isn’t coming together as you’d envisaged?

With the Sorry Series I’ve had to be quite disciplined about finishing a piece. As with anything in the studio, some seem to make themselves. Others are more difficult, but those are often also the most complex and surprising. So I need to either finish one work at a time, or go as far as possible with a single work before I hit a snag, and must pause, look away completely for a while, and move on to another work. The discipline is necessary because I’m easily distracted by the impulse to start a new work.

These drawings usually are quite helpful in letting me know when they’re finished. They simply gel when they’re finished, and not before then.

What are some of the emotions you experience when you finish an artwork?

There are a few works that are difficult to let go of, but usually I enjoy other’s enjoyment of my work and their wish to live with them. I also hate the clutter that comes with the accumulation of works, so it’s better that they don’t sit in my studio. I once read a story about an explorer at one of the poles, who got stuck in a snowstorm and took shelter in an igloo. It was so cold that his breath froze on the walls of the igloo and the space inside became smaller and smaller. I’m quite keen that my works don’t do that to me.

Download the full interview here

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