The Poetic Everyday: In Conversation with Natalie Hunter

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Natalie Hunter. Staring Into The Sun. Solo exhibition at Rodman Hall Arts Centre. Hansen Gallery. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Natalie Hunter’s work brings the everyday experience into a wondrous technicolour world, where the present moment meets that of memory. Bridging photography, sculpture, and installation, photos of interior domestic spaces are re-imagined through a kaleidoscope of colours, cyan meeting magenta, yellow and violet. She often produces experiential installations using photographs on transparent film, light, and other fragile materials that engage with the poetics of time, memory, perception, and the senses.

Natalie holds an MFA from the University of Waterloo, and a Bachelor of Art in Visual Art with a Concentration in Curatorial Studies from Brock University. She has shown her work in Canada and the United States in numerous exhibitions, including Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts, Art Gallery of Windsor, Hopkins Centre For the Arts at Dartmouth College, Museum London, University of Waterloo Art Gallery, and the Hamilton Supercrawl. She is the recipient of several awards including an Ontario Arts Council Creation Project Grant, and a Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation Grant.

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Natalie Hunter. The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight. 2017. Giclee prints on transparent film, poplar, light. installation dimensions variable. 12” x 72” each print. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

It seems like your work facilitates a looking closer” since it often uses colour and layering of translucent images until they are nearly rendered abstract. Can you speak more about the conceptual ideas in your work and your process? How does it relate to perception and memory?

Natalie Hunter: My practice is multidisciplinary and concerned with the transformation of materials, objects, and images in ways that evoke an emotive or psychological response in the viewer. I often make images and installations and think of myself as a sculptor who fell in love with images. I’m interested in process and materials just as much as concepts. The starting point for most of my work boils down to light and time, both of which can be experienced differently through image and sculpture. I’m interested in really ephemeral things like light, air, memory, the senses, motion, stillness, and time. Things we can feel the effects of, how they shape experience, and how these concepts can be articulated in material ways. I very much look at photographs as material fluid things that are tangible objects vulnerable to the elements. I find sculpture and photography related in some way. There is an element of stillness in sculpture and photography that speaks to the present moment, but also the past. The negative and positive aspects of photography mirror that of sculpture and casting—both are traces just in different ways.

I’m really interested in the exploratory, transformative power of materials to translate these experiences of the everyday.

For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been working with layering images both physically (layering transparent photographs to make new images and spaces), and inside of the camera (multiple exposures). I find this act of layering both inside and outside of the camera transcends logical ideas of time. For me, the act of layering images subverts expected notions of a perfect photographic image and notions of linear time. I use layering in an attempt to connect with the processes of human memory. Layering both accumulates and loses information, and this is what happens as we accumulate memories, sensory information, and thoughts over time. Detail is lost, while sensation is accentuated.

When making images, I use colour filters to bring attention to these layers. They help me slow down and separate different moments of time while leaving clues as to how the images were made. I choose combinations of colour filters emotively; choosing colours that naturally occur in the spaces I occupy to further accentuate them. Colour is sensorial in the visual sense. I believe that the addition of colour heightens awareness. When I think about the strongest earliest memory that I have, I can’t identify details, but I can describe the sensations, and for me adding colour through the use of filters is a way of exploring sensation or sensory information through photography. In this way, I hope to make a predominantly visual medium physical.

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Natalie Hunter. Helios (interior day view). Hand-applied dichroic film on window, light. variable dimensions. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

  You take photographs of what may seem ordinary or mundane, like the interior blinds and curtain shots in As the Light Touches and create something quite awe-inspiring and vibrant. Can you speak more about the transforming of everyday, familiar spaces?

NH: Artists should make work about their experience and how they perceive and understand the world. The mundane experiences we find ourselves in on a daily basis are often those in-between moments that we don’t really count as experiences. I’m really interested in the exploratory, transformative power of materials to translate these experiences of the everyday. Memory is just as important as breathing in our human experience and I’m interested in exploring how that manifests and transforms through time. I feel like we are all unconsciously shaped by the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis, and I know that my work is often influenced by the spaces I spend the most time in. Space is something psychological just as much as it is physical, and I want to explore both of these aspects of space in my work.

Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space is a text that I return to a lot. It has been influential in how I understand my work and its relationship to space, time, and memory. We participate daily in the creation of spaces we unconsciously make for ourselves. I don’t wish for my work to merely represent these spaces, but instead, act as experiences in and of themselves that become new spaces and encounters in their own right.

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Natalie Hunter. Helios (interior day view). Hand-applied dichroic film on window, light. variable dimensions. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

Your work seems to incorporate the surrounding architecture of the space it occupies. For example, your installation Helios at the Rodman Hall Art Centre, a site-responsive piece that addresses the ephemeral qualities of light and how it affects familiar spaces, the body, and our perception. I was wondering what your process is like in terms of creating work that is more site-specific?

NH: I don’t like to ignore the space my work exists in. I try to consider the space it exists in at the time of exhibition as an element of the work itself. Often, my work changes when it’s installed a second or third time, or from my studio to the gallery space. I need to do site visits when thinking about site-specific work, and I usually respond in an emotive way that speaks to a unique characteristic of a space in order to converse with it. Memory plays a big part in this. When responding to a space site-specifically, I hope to produce a kind of encounter between viewer and work that elicits memory or a sensorial response.   

Helios was a site-responsive installation at Rodman Hall Art Centre exhibited in my solo exhibition Staring into the sun. When making Helios, I wanted to consider it a gesture, response, or conversation with Rodman Hall; a connecting work that bridges outside and inside and only exists for a short time in the space. I was really influenced by my memories and experiences of Rodman Hall as a student. I remember ascending the stairs and seeing the stained glass, which is located in various locations in Rodman Hall’s domestic spaces. I wanted to converse with these architectural elements while at the same time make something new. Something that made you more aware of time, your body, and the space you exist in a very present, albeit slow, way. Change and fluidity are important to this work. And the work took on its own life as winter stretched to spring and the light changed.

I think Helios points to the process of how I create images and think with materials. I spent about a little over a month playing with samples of dichroic film, doing material research, finding out what it does in different lighting conditions, bending, folding, layering, and draping it in various situations, and mixing it with different materials. A lot of my inquiries stem from testing materials to see what they will do. Helios is much about slow movement, the slowness of time, and how we perceive it through our human senses. I hope to continue exploring what I learned in making this work.

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Natalie Hunter. The Sun’s Rays Do Not Burn Until Brought To A Focus. Installation at Centre 3 For Print and Media Arts, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. 2018. Documentation courtesy of the artist. 

Q: Your installation The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus creates a temporal experience for the viewer since as the sun moves across the sky, each work is animated with their own ephemeral rhythm.” I was wondering if you could speak more about this work and the use of natural processes, light and time?

NH: I use light in the making of images, but also physically in how they are exhibited and exist within space. For me, light is quite kinetic or makes the work kinetic through the passage of time. There is both stillness and subtle motion in my installation The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus, achieved through different uses of artificial and natural light. I use light in this installation as a material that activates spaces.

Light is fundamental to photography, and I consider its manipulation as a material process in my work. Light is also fundamental to sculpture because it is how we are able to situate and perceive objects in space. Light is ephemeral, like time and memory. Natural sunlight is always changing, where as artificial light is static. In The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus, natural sunlight is used in a kinetic way, gallery lighting is used in a rather still way, which casts latent imagery on the surfaces of the exhibition space. A viewer’s experience of the work is not static but always changing. Elements move with the subtlety of the air movement in the space, and the installation seems different on a cloudy day, or between dawn and dusk.

It’s hard to discuss photography without discussing time because time is so essential to the medium. Photography is always seen as a frozen moment, but for me, photographs are fluid things. A lot of my transparent film works require active movement in the space that they occupy in order to experience them. The light activates them, but the viewer does through movement too. For example, in The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of pales sunlight, it appears different when standing at different points in the room. When standing directly in front of the piece, the physical images almost disappear, and you only see latent imagery on the walls. When standing at an angle, the images appear layered with themselves and the latent imagery on the walls. You aren’t sure what the true image is; the physical photograph or its latent reflection.

Q: Who are some artists that are influential to you and your practice?

NH: A lot of the artists I admire often explore quiet and overlooked elements of our being and how they shape experience. I look to artists like Tacita Dean, Uta Barth, James Welling, Sabine Hornig, and Sarah VanDerBeek for their consideration of materiality in lens-based image making. I feel a kinship to artists like Ann Hamilton, Roni Horn, Kimsooja, and Alison Wilding for their conceptual and material research, and multidisciplinary approaches to working. In 2012, I spent a summer internship working for sculptor and installation artist Soo Sunny Park. This was a priceless opportunity and an integral part of my artistic development and education in terms of understanding space and place. She encouraged me to think about my images in material ways and take my interest both in sculpture and images into installation territory. She taught me that sculptors have a unique understanding of space. I want to continue to develop and explore that in my work—subverting expectations of what images and installation can be.

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Natalie Hunter. Dappled (detail). 2018. Archival inkjet prints on backlight film draped over poplar and aluminum sculptures. Approximately 24″ x 60″ x 36″ each. Documentation courtesy of the artist.

Q: Can you speak more about the upcoming exhibition Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklarat at Latcham Art Centre? What work will you be displaying?

NH: Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar at Latcham Art Centre considers ideas of memory and time through a multimedia lens. Elisa Coish curated Shaping Time around the 40th anniversary of Latcham Art Centre. Part of her curatorial strategy involves inviting artists at different stages of their careers to create a larger dialogue surrounding these concepts and the different approaches and discussions that can arise from it. Both Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar are well recognized and established artists that have exhibited with Latcham Art Centre in the past. Elisa Coish invited me as the emerging artist to exhibit work in Shaping Time after my solo exhibition Staring into the sun closed at Rodman Hall in May. I will be exhibiting some of the work that was shown at Rodman Hall in Staring into the sun, but also some work that has never been exhibited that I made in 2018 with an Ontario Arts Council grant. The work going in Shaping Time is an overview of the many approaches and materials I use to consider light, time, and memory in both installation and photo-based ways. It will be interesting to see how I respond to the space during installation because Latcham Art Centre is essentially a white cube. Corners are often considered non-spaces, and I am fond of corners for their surreal shape and potential for activating a space. In this way, I’m hoping to converse with some of the architectural elements in the space during installation.

 You can view more of Natalie Hunter’s work from July 10 – August 24th in Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar at Latcham Art Centre, curated by Elisa Coish and on her website.

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