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Updating the logic of the monument: in conversation with Susanna Jablonski

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

 

Susanna Jablonski is a Stockholm-based artist working with sculpture, moving image, sound and music to test the boundaries of materials, time, and human experience. She considers the tensions of interpersonal relationships in the collective, as mediated through objects, nature, historical consequences, and human-built systems. 

 

Jablonski is a frequent collaborator of artist and filmmaker Santiago Mostyn. And together with performance artist Cara Tolmie, she organizes an ongoing series of Listening Sets as part of their joint research project “Gender of Sound,” which hosts work by artists that supports a practice of close listening with the participation of an audience (encouraging those with all levels of experience or enthusiasm for music). The project gathers these voices in a collaborative effort to find a language for articulating the myriad ways we listen, hear, and process all dimensions of sound and music, the collective impacts, as well as political and cultural associations. 

 

We discussed some of the bodies of work she has produced since completing her MFA in 2017 at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. In this conversation, we weaved through themes of liminality, death and renewal, nature, futurity, individual and collective grief, and how to construct monuments. 

 

Jablonski’s most recent show, “DINKINESH,” which recently opened at OBRA in Malmö, continues to reflect on the logics of the contemporary and future monument, the sensory and bodily aspects of sculptural and architectural forms in relation to bodies, and how we perceive the fluidity of meaning in time and place.

 

 

 

 

 

"i'd like to think of the passing forward of knowledge through generations as a form of monument-making, a way of keeping the history it represents breathing."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 I read the text you wrote for your thesis show, “Most Ghosts Hold Grudges,” which I felt illuminated a lot of the access points for the work you’ve been making over the past couple of years, so I wanted to start there. You talk about liminality, in terms of the feeling of ambiguity in states of transition, and you wrote: “One stands at the threshold between previous ways of structuring identity, time, or community, and the unknown that’s yet to come.” I’m really interested in this idea of liminal space as disorienting, could you elaborate on what it means to you?

 

When I was writing about liminality I realized that even though I don’t actively think about it in a conceptual way, it is as if liminality is a point where many of my thoughts intersect and surface in my work in different ways.

 

The other day I was having a conversation with my twelve-year-old niece and as we were talking, I could literally see and hear how her entire body and spirit was shifting back and forth between different ways of constructing herself, I guess in between what we read as child and teenager. It was something both completely disorienting and liberating being with her in this process. I asked her if she had words to define herself at the moment; whether she, for example, considered herself a child or an adolescent or something else. She said that it was really nice to get the question because she felt that she was exactly in between and none of the words seemed to describe what she was just then. She was all and none of those things at once and at different moments. I told her that there’s no need to rush the becoming. 

 

Structures of language and society play such a big part in how liminal spaces are formed around our bodies, and how long one can be in them before one gets pushed out, or kept in longer than one might want. 

 

At the same time that societies get more and more disorienting, there also seems to be less and less space for dwelling in in-betweenness, even for a minute. The world gets more and more polarized and people seem to want to put themselves, and others, and everything else in very closed boxes, leaving no room for finding oneself lost. 

 

One part of me feels that different experiences of in-betweenness and disorientation are the most important points of departure for being able to create new forms or images. I often try to preserve different threshold conditions when I’m making new work. 

 

I don’t want to come off as romanticizing every form of disorientation, though. I know that it’s a privilege to find myself fighting for the right of not knowing, to even be able to have that perspective. A lot of people today find themselves disoriented in the mechanisms of power structures that force certain bodies into liminal spaces, between life and death. Refugees who are kept in detention centres are in a threshold situation much like social death. Those experiences of the liminal live on in bodies and environments for generations. 

 

I like the way you seem to keep coming back to this idea of society as something that is disorienting, and the inadequacy of language to really describe complex feelings and relations, which is where art steps in. This is something I have always thought a lot about too, that the way people have tried to organize human society (particularly in the Western world) rejects the real complexities of nature, that we try to ward off the darkness and uncertainty inherent in the natural world by preoccupying ourselves with things like beauty and politics. This is how so many problems arise, because our categories do not really allow for in-betweenness, ambivalence, or contradiction.  

Right. I mean, in Sweden in the 1700s, some guys even organized nature, collecting all the plants and naming them. And then those same people decided to “organize” humans too, into race categories, and those “scientific facts” eventually influenced the ideologies of the Third Reich.

 

Now we are living through an era that almost feels as though it is being accelerated and compressed, more and more all the time, like what Mark Fisher called “the disappearance of the future.” We think in very short temporalities and our collective actions are more often taken with only a concern for their immediate effects. I wonder if this mindset and this feeling is related to how we have increasingly disconnected ourselves from history and its monuments, and therefore from how our present will be perceived as history in the future. What do you think?

Totally. The disconnect with history is scary. It really is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

 

You mentioned [in your thesis text] the Shinto Ise Shrine to the sun goddess Amaterasu in Japan and how it is dismantled and remade every 20 years in a spirit of death, rebirth, and the ephemerality of all things. There’s a simultaneous action of preserving and eradicating, like the liminality in cultural rituals that establish change.


Rosalind Krauss uses this phrase, “the logic of the monument,” as being inseparable from sculpture, as sculpture is first and foremost a language that speaks for the use and meaning of the particular space it occupies. Both sculpture and monument share in a discourse of marking and representation. But she also mentions that this logic of the monument has faded since the 19th century, as a condition of modernism, where sculpture started to take on a nomadic character, becoming more (self-)referential and focused on experimental materials and modes of making. As such, modernist sculpture became “the negative condition of the monument.” In the time since that essay was written in 1979, attitudes towards both sculpture and monument have perhaps changed only slightly. I wonder what your thoughts are on this.  

 

I’d like to think of the passing forward of knowledge through generations as a form of monument-making, a way of keeping the history it represents breathing. The ritual re-building of the Ise Shrine creates bodily understanding of how nothing material can be permanent. The memories of the shrine will be changed over time and with everyone who takes part in it. The deconstruction is what actually keeps the monument alive. 

 

After Nature installation view, After Nature, installation view Galleri Mejan, 2017. Photo: Santiago Mostyn

 

 

After Nature, 2017

 

The final line [in “Most Ghost Hold Grudges”] about the monuments of the future, memorializing events we’re witnessing now, you frame it almost as eternal return, that similar events have already happened and will likely continue to happen. How does the monument of the future figure into your own practice? Do you think of “the monument” as a concept as being inherently traumatic?

 

I used to feel a sadness about how certain events seemed like they couldn’t be represented through sculptural or architectural form. Like, how can I make a monument for the minute that just passed, or more obviously, what form can comprehend all the buildings, bodies, forests, and ancient monuments destroyed all over the world in recent years? 

 

Reading about the Ise Shrine unlocked feelings for me about what it can mean to carry history as something that changes with us, rather than staying fixed. By interacting with the shrine and recreating the memory of it, you participate in its present and future… for me I think this is what sculpture can do at its best.  

 

I don’t think I can exactly answer how monuments of the future figure into my practice… but I can say that I find being part of creating new images and forms a responsibility. It’s important for me to not recreate any dated ideas or images of which, how, and whose bodies and objects exist in the world. I think monuments should be the opposite of traumatic; acknowledging painful histories is a necessary act of healing.  

 

Actually, one work I made in 2017 called “After Nature” could, I think, be read as a monument for the future. It’s a video that visualizes the imperceptible movement of a willow tree, how the tree trunk twists over time. The title is a reference to the [W.G.] Sebald book, “After Nature,” which could mean something that mimics nature; or something that exists as a memory or monument to an experience that’s no longer available to us. 

 

For me the process of making the work, photographing the willow tree from many angles, building a 3D skeleton for it, rendering and re-layering the bark onto its form gave me a new kind of understanding of the tree as a body. A new way of listening to the nature of this body which has been othered to me, simply because of our society’s relationship to nature. 

 

Krauss also quotes Donald Judd on certain conventions of Minimalist sculpture: “All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic that is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world’s like.” When you say that you want to “preserve different threshold conditions” in your work, is this the kind of thing you are responding to, like an approach to imagining new ways of perceiving the world?

I notice that I struggle a bit answering questions regarding my work in relation to art history because art has never been my entry point to thinking about things, even though I guess it has become my medium. But that sounds right to me. I like to consider established systems, values or narratives as a way to forge new ones. 

 

I definitely think art is one of the practices with the strongest potential for creating new knowledge. But it’s tricky when art and art-making are so closely bound to museums and institutions, because the structure of the museum is born out of those same ideas about organizing objects and humans.

 

 

 

 

"the notion of collective grief seems to find its way into what I make, not necessarily by choice. I’m a descendant of Holocaust survivors, and I grew up trying to find my place in that ongoing, hidden, intergenerational mourning process and paranoia"

 

 

 

 

After looking through several bodies of work you’ve created, there is very little in the way of actual anthropomorphism, rather it seems to be like artifacts of civilization where humanness—or human impact—is implied, and in this way they are monumental, if we change our thinking about the scale of monuments. There is a sense of the anthropological in this, and your new show “DINKINESH” really invoked this for me. Looking at the documentation from, I was particularly struck by the piece “Le Grande Cirque.” Could you discuss that work? 


The title “Le Grande Cirque” comes from one of Chagall’s most famous circus paintings. When I was growing up, we had a framed poster of the painting at home. It was an image that I took for granted, but later realized that I could understand some of my own feelings and dreams via this image. The scattered, fragmented, monstrous bodies of the circus performers affected me a lot. Last year I started looking at Chagall’s paintings again, reading his biography and his thoughts on the spectacle of the circus. Part of the reason for the bodies being fragmented in his paintings seems to be religious, which is pretty fascinating. Representations of the human form aren’t really allowed in Judaism, so if there is a full human body in Chagall’s painting, they will have four fingers or four toes, or be fragmented in some other way. His fragmented bodies braided with my thinking about who owns the right to make monsters, fictional or real.

In my interpretation of “Le Grande Cirque,” I made sculptural fragments from specific images in the painting and hung them in the space. The whole installation was inspired by the painting, really: the idea of the circus as a space for bodies, Chagall’s use of the colour blue to represent dreams… I used the painting as a guide, let’s say, to install the works in the show. 

 

I thought a lot about the architecture and representation of bodies – who makes these representations, and what information we’ve learnt to extract from them. A wasp’s nest is an architectural form built collectively using wood, pulp and saliva. It looks grey from a distance, but up close it’s many different shades of green and yellow. 


This reminds me of your show “Good Mourning” from 2018, in which you were using materials very specifically to think through their power to extend the physical body and effect interpersonal relationships, as though objects were to become mediators in lived experience. This show included your piece “Rebecka,” which was cast in glass from a cobblestone you took from the street of your grandmother’s hometown in Poland. The title of the show refers directly to the emotional processes and rituals of mourning as a cultural practice.


Also, the sound pieces for [your previous shows] “Good Mourning” and “Most Ghosts Hold Grudges” both struck me as very analogous to the experience of grief, the way it goes into remission with those periods of quiet, then sneaks up again at points when you don’t really expect it. Sometimes long, slow, and clouded, sometimes quick and distended. How do you conceive of collective grief and mourning in your work? What does that mean for you?

 

Music, sound and silence are important materials for me to create both a holistic and unstable experience of the rooms where I show my work. 

 

The notion of collective grief seems to find its way into what I make, not necessarily by choice. I’m a descendant of Holocaust survivors, and I grew up trying to find my place in that ongoing, hidden, intergenerational mourning process and paranoia. My experience of it is shaped by growing up in Sweden in the 90s, when Nazis were parading the streets and now some of those people have seats in government. It’s a grieving process and a wound which is constant and gets reactivated with every new experience or deeper knowledge of political violence. When I’m making work, I’m trying to find ways of communicating with the emotional states of mourning bodies, both past and present. It has a lot to do with listening.

 

 Good Mourning, 2018 Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger

 

I have heard other artist friends say this before, that grief and mourning has found its way into their work organically and without them consciously choosing it. One friend said that the body of work they made during their MFA was very informed by grief and trauma, but once they had finished, it felt “resolved” in their work, even if they had not necessarily resolved it for themselves. Do you think you will ever come a point like this, or is it necessarily interminable?

 

I can definitely relate to the feeling of having resolved thoughts through making. But I wouldn’t say that my work is really informed by grief and trauma or that it’s an ongoing theme. I also wouldn’t describe the grief and mourning after a Holocaust as, by default, interminable, because its impact on an individual level can vary, I guess. But it’s there. It’s a fact, it’s in the DNA, and it’s part of the collective memory.

 

The sort of recurring form of what looks to me like an animal ribcage in the pieces “Chiron” and “Shagal” is interesting, as well as the image on “Listening Curtain” [from wool sewn onto a velvet background]. Was this intentional, or does it represent something else? What does this form signify for you?

I’ve been working with the form and sensation of the ribcage/chest for a few years. It started when someone close to me had to go through open-heart surgery for the second time. I began to understand the body as a container that could be opened and resealed. 

 

For one, I’ve been thinking about the display of bones and bodies, especially in natural history museums or the circus, and the ribcage in “Listening Curtain” (a collaboration with Cara Tolmie, and part of our “Gender of Sound” research project) mimics the layout of the collection of bones known in the west as Lucy – the earliest known upright hominid, or early human. The archeologists who named her were listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when they found the bones, but the local name for the collection is Dinkinesh, which means “you are marvelous” in Amharic. 

 

In all of these works, I use my hands, sewing, basket-making and building with clay, to consider these forms with my own body. “Chiron” is made in paper clay with a breastbone in blue glass. Chiron is the centaur: half-man, half-horse and the archetype of the “wounded healer,” an immortal who was wounded by an arrow from Heracles’ bow, and who could not die but instead roamed the earth in excruciating pain, healing others. 


The “Listening Curtain” will continue to be part of the Listening Sets that I arrange with Cara Tolmie, and one thing I’ve learnt with our research project is how empathy and listening are so deeply connected. That notion has been important for making the works in “DINKINESH”. Learning about these shapes and stories that structure bodies that have been othered, arranged and named by colonizers, by listening to them in new ways. 

 

Shagal, paper clay, reeds, 2019 Photo: Santiago Mostyn

 

I like what Santiago Mostyn writes in his text for “DINKINESH”: “Where do we situate this renewed logic of the monument? How – after Brâncuși, after post-modernism, after the Internet – do we ascribe meaning to the places and times we inhabit?” This seems like the logical thread that follows from when Krauss wrote “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” in 1979. Would you say that your approach to thinking of sculpture, architecture, objects, as sensory and resonating bodies is your way of answering this?

Yes, in a way, but I wouldn’t actively situate myself within art history like that, so I don’t think I make work that “answers” or “responds” to any movement that came before. I just know that it’s key for me to create a language which is as full and true as it can be—coming from me—and to create affect between bodies and space. 

 

 

The above conversation was conducted by Angel Callander. Callander is a writer based out of Toronto.

Frontis image: “Rebecka,” solid pink glass, 2017 Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger. All images courtesy of the artist.

 

 

 

 

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