Interview with Alexander Caspari Encounter, 2020 Conversations on the archive
Alexander Caspari: You have been using a variety of inks on different papers for many years now. What is it about this medium that continues to engage you? I know working with ink carries complex cultural associations which span different histories of mark making from Eastern calligraphy, to automatist drawing, Art and Language works to Renaissance sketches to mention but a few! However, beyond this, I wondered if there is also something intrinsic in the properties of the material - its openness and malleability perhaps - that you find especially poignant?
Whitney McVeigh: The origins of ink are in the earth; it has a depth to it that reveals itself through collaboration with the material. Its life force, energy and spiritual components, have informed my work for over thirty years and in many ways have provided a language for the cultivation of an inner life.
My conceptual interests in the medium merged over the years with the various working methods learnt from extensive travel to Central Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa. Indian ink is formed by burning bones and other substances to create carbon black - in China, ink is traditionally made from pine and resin. In the 90’s, I was influenced by the monochrome work of artist’s such as Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner (Motherwell describes painting as mopping a ship’s deck under a black starry sky). Calligraphy involves a present state of ‘being’ and the brush, with its animal components, is instrumental to the outcome of the work. It takes years to simplify and understand a medium. The more you limit yourself to one material, the more you can adhere to certain principles and be open to its potential. There’s a belief that one is channeling history in a single brushstroke. John Berger said, through the process of drawing, we can ‘reconnect what has become separated’. The ink paintings seek to do this, the work is preoccupied with a sense of spirituality, the history of generations and of inner voyages. They are maps of a kind with origins in Eastern and Western philosophy. A single space or mark layered, drawn, becomes a veil between the physical and spiritual world. Ink’s lyrical nature has changed the way I see the world.
I’ve travelled as a way of expanding knowledge, of cultivating an inner language, to build a world through association of external sources. On these travels, I have sourced papers, responded intuitively to environment. I have often needed to work on different surfaces which alter the way ink is held or absorbed on the page. For instance, I first began working with Chinese rice paper in Beijing in 2004. This was complex as the ink is absorbed in completely different ways to European painting and papers - in a sense one is beginning again. In Ethiopia I discovered surfaces used for religious paintings and it took the work to a different place altogether.
AC: You went to work with the artist and poet Wei Ligang in China in 2017 and created an amazing body of paintings on rice paper in his studio. Could you talk a little about that experience?
WM: I arrived at Ligang’s studio in February 2017. There were so many interesting people passing through his space during the time including an opera singer who seemed to have lived for centuries. We shared a love of poetry, philosophy, painting and literature and a belief that its possible to channel knowledge and history through the brush; Ligang from an Eastern perspective and myself from the West. I was in his studio for five weeks. It was cold and when not working, we’d sit in his kitchen, preparing food and discussing the poetics of language. We’d been through similar periods of uncertainty. We discussed painting as a metaphor, its symbolism, the origins of language and the intricacies of the line in Chinese ink. I once spoke with a writer about inhabiting a medium, finding a place to live within the work, and working on this scale, you have the experience of being in the painting. Next year I’ll return to develop the work begun there. Ligang brought me back to the piano, I played when younger and his method, the immediacy of improvisation and the producing of sound, can be approached in the same way as painting. My work is about drawing from ‘nature’ (in the way John Berger writes about nature as the essence or inside of what is being represented) and it was there I developed an understanding of the true potential of movement of the brush. I’m interested in a kind of constant renegotiation of identity and that history is in the ordinary and can remind us of our universality.
AC: I believe you started exploring the idea of the ‘archeology of memory’ during a residency at the Nirox Foundation (South Africa) in the Cradle of Humankind and that it later became the title for a series of paintings. Could you talk a little about what this term means for you and how it relates to your work? I know you have previously mentioned thoughts about the body as a container for landscapes which I found particularly engaging as a way of thinking about haptic memory.
WM: Increasingly, there’s a sense that we return to land and it unconsciously forms a part of us. Through immersion in landscape, images seem to form themselves; there’s a kind of trust in what the landscape yields. Archaeology of Memory has become the foundation for all of my work. In the publication published by SMAC Gallery, Gus Casely-Hayford describes the work as ‘maps of our shared interior’ which I found particularly relevant.
I’ve been travelling to South Africa since 2010 to work with David Krut Projects (Johannesburg) and the Nirox Foundation (Gauteng). In the Cradle of Humankind, there are limestone caves that contain fossilised remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids belonging to our human ancestors. The landscape was formerly an inland sea and its geology is fascinating. The stones have etched surfaces that reflect their history. I made a series of heads like maps, imprints with a dense acrylic black paint and it was only in the final weeks I realised they carried the lines of the larger stones in the landscape. There is a great deal to be learned from the passage of time. The landscape in South Africa comes with its own complex history. The land installations I created there are about marking time with stones that date back thousands of years. Just up from the lakes, you are in wild bush land where leopard tortoises and stones are naturally layered in the land like graveyards, arrangements that seem to belong to ancient civilisations.
Haptic memory is memory that comes through touch and connection to tangible material. Even the drawn line itself becomes a vehicle for memory. We are storehouses for memories, we accumulate memory over time. Plato wrote about how in our lifetimes, we expand our knowledge through expanding the sensory imagination. We assimilate knowledge through association and we evolve - it adheres to his concept of the philosopher as ‘shadow maker’. One of the questions I raised in the talk at the Royal Academy on my film ‘Birth’: Origins at the end of Life is ‘Are we architects of our own memory?’. I’m attempting to see how we perceive and hold time and my work strives to understand this.
AC: Could you discuss the work ‘Divine Rules’ which you presented at your 2018 exhibition at Getty Villa, Plato in LA: Contemporary Artists' Visions? How did the project come about? I know it involved a curated collection of approximately 900 books you had been sourcing for over a decade. For me raised interesting questions about personal and collective knowledge….
WM: The library, formed over ten years, is a collection of books dedicated to ordinary subjects that connect us as humans. It began with a collection given to me by my mother where in the preface of each book, it talks of the wide spread of knowledge. This initial collection (c.1890) sat in my studio for years.
The library, mostly collected in the UK, comprises of books on engineering, mathematics, physics, ship-building, telegraphy, home-keeping, encyclopaedic reference books, books on nature, geology, time, language, domestic manuals. All subjects that in some way unify us as humans. They are arranged to read like a poem or to be in dialogue. The books are pre 1950, published before the internet and the prefaces are often very moving, the author aware of his or her limited print run. Years ago I was involved in publishing and understand how a book finds its way into the world. Books were written differently then, the prefaces are often speaking more widely about life and personal to the author. The idea formed through writing letters to a curator over five years and through a book called ‘The Thousand Best Poems in the World’ that has an opening page ’The Library of the Future’. It begins “I propose to start a cheap, comprehensive, and concise library, to be called the ‘Federation of the World Library’. It is to consist of the hundred best books in the world.” It goes on to list a range of books whose subjects are in the library.
Working with the Getty Museum was enlightening, the curators at the Villa are committed to conservation and history and I learnt a great deal from our discussions. Donatien Grau, the main curator of the project from Paris, had heard about the library and visited the studio a few years earlier. I’d been reading Plato’s work for some time and it occurred to me how relevant the project was in terms of the "philosopher as shadow-maker". Each book in the library conveyed a sense of history and its passage through time. I was shown around the museum and archive by Jeffrey Spier and Jens Daehner, antiquities’ curators and we discussed the nature of philosophy and history, the exhibition was contemporary artists’ response to Plato.
WM: The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (edited by Stephanie Terenzio 1992) taught me about a freedom that comes with painting. One can look at paintings and understand a great deal but a large part of my learning is from reading essays, interviews and letters by artists. When living in Edinburgh in my twenties I spent several days a week in The Fine Art Library reading. David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists (2001) taught me about process. Francis Bacon’s The Brutality of Fact (1975 it’s original title), showed me, unlike at art school, that the task is to step outside of what we know. Lorca, Borges, Mansfield, Rilke and other writers did too. When I discovered Bill Viola’s Reason’s for Knocking at an Empty House (1995) I’d known his work for some time. His writings and his interest in the Eastern Mystic tradition are aligned with my interests in Eastern philosophy. They are thought provoking extracts on the human condition. Another book is Twentieth Century Artists on Art (1986) edited by Dore Ashton that touches on the vitality of primitive art and through interview, shows the artists expressing powerful beliefs and fears through painting and sculpture. Hans Hartung says in one of the interview’s “Everything we feel deeply must be expressed.”
I would say most of my learning has come from travel and engaging with people. Intuition and following the map of one’s life has been valuable and taken me to unexpected places. In 2012, I developed a concept on oral histories inviting people to say a line about memory along the silk route in Kyrgyzstan. What it did was connect me to the people there, I realised how every step is a process that leads us to the next.
AC: I am particularly interested in ideas surrounding trace and human imprint that your works on found papers and photographs evoke. Each of the objects you select have quite particular energies and identities. They carry embodied histories of touch sometimes visible yet often inscrutable. For me these works often occupy an engaging space somewhere between vision and knowledge, accumulation and erasure. I wondered if you could speak a little about the process by which you choose an object to work on and how you decide what form of intervention to make?
WM: In Freud's Civilisations and Discontents, there’s a section on the ‘conservation of the mind’ where he says ‘everything survives in some way or another, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again’. Sometimes a photograph or an object belonging to a person speaks deeply of time and of my own experience. There’s a sense of waiting to be shown what the material brings. Jung believed images exist in us before we are born, and I believe the task in this lifetime is to draw these out, this is also what I meant by archaic memory and future history. I work with space and time and preexisting matter. Like all of life, everything passes, has an end and we are left with traces.
In the found photographs which we plan to exhibit at Photo London, the drawings form in collaboration, as if led by the existing image. I only see what’s drawn later, there’s a profound trust in receiving the image, if that makes sense. I’ve talked about this with reference to painting before, I’m attempting to access an invisible space in the same way a poet uses words, the material is a way of channeling or intuitively finding truth.
AC: You have often worked on site specific archival installations. For instance, your work at St Peter’s Church at Kettles Yard, Cambridge or most recently at Mount Stuart Visual Arts in Scotland. Could you talk about the importance of the archive in your practice? Do you view these site-specific works as a form of institutional critique and why are these histories of places and people so vital to draw out?
WM: As I said, I work with spaces and with what the space yields. I bring my own experience to the space and collaborate with history. In some ways it’s a critique by working with the belief that what took place in the space remains. At Mount Stuart, I read through hundreds of letters, to and from the women in the house. In the end, I created a brass plate positioned on the lawn, in line with the icon of the Madonna and Child which adorns the eastern elevation of Mount Stuart facing the Firth of Clyde. The letter evokes landscape and memory reflecting my own concerns for the world, as well as answering the question raised by Augusta Crichton-Stuart "What is Worthwhile Doing in this World". It was intentionally ambiguous as to whom the voices belong. In this way, between writer, subject and viewer the work speaks to universal history.
I’m currently creating a studio that relates to the notion that objects are receptacles for memory and their tangibility has an ontological significance, that their inherent histories can transfer a sense of universality to the viewer. We walk into a world where the viewer takes on new meaning through history. The isolating, elevating and expanding of materials entrusts the work to reflect and spur philosophical understandings of history, time and memory.
AC: In many ways as well as an artist you are also a collector. What are some of your favourite objects?
WM: Increasingly I see collections as part of the work and woven between the objects are drawings that trace my own existence. In Brazil last year and in South Africa, I formed work based on collections from nature. I met an archaeologist at Serra da Capivara who was in his late 60’s. His work is all about uncovering history, his excavating a similar approach of letting the landscape yield. We discussed landscape and its holding of memory over thousands of years. There was an almost mythological energy to these places, both are ancient civilisations with human traces scattered over 250 miles.
The other is a book in my studio found in a secondhand shop in South Africa. Around the room were various plastic objects and piles of old newspapers and up on a shelf a small blue hard-backed book. Inside was a note from a man to a woman about the spiritual qualities of nature alongside photographs of trees. The woman had gone out and found the same branches of a small tree and placed it inside. The preface of the book reads“It is possible to gather gold, where it may be had, with moonlight”. It is a window into a woman’s life. The book was published in the UK in 1938 and yet made the journey to South Africa. It speaks of the ordinary intimate spaces that we create in order to remember.
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