Taking up Space: In Discussion with Hanna Washburn

Hanna Washburn in the studio, 2023. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Artist Hanna Washburn’s work is undoubtedly playful and lively. Soft forms bulge, sag, and spill over, camouflaged in bold and delicate floral patterns stitched together. The sculptures are unapologetic, taking up space and asserting themselves, challenging the expectations put on feminine bodies. Washburn often incorporates nostalgic items from her childhood such as dollhouse furniture and her grandmother’s curtains, and other recycled fabrics from her everyday life. Embodying a range from the maternal to the sensual, Washburn’s work highlights the complicated experience of being in a body that is constantly transforming and changing.

Both an artist and a curator, Hanna Washburn is based in Beacon, New York, and holds a BA in Fine Art and English from Kenyon College, and an MFA in Fine Art from the School of Visual Arts. She has exhibited at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, among others. Hanna has been an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Colony, and the Textile Arts Center. Currently, she works in the Curatorial Department at Storm King Art Center.

Hanna Washburn. Small Step. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your textile sculptures are so animated and lively. Can you discuss how you’re inspired by the body to create your sculptures?

There is so much of the body in my sculptures, a body caught in the process of morphing and changing. Something that is in flux and not static. I think of my sculptures as representing different versions of the same body in different moods and phases. A body that is slipping between different things, that is many things at once. 

I am also interested in capturing certain moods and gestures with the work, without being too explicit about what exactly is happening. [I use] shapes and movement that make you think of your own body in relation. There are parts of my work that are more unsettling, but I also try to capture the joy of being in a body and the idea that all these different feelings can coexist.

Hanna Washburn. Pink Pivot. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Your sculptures assert themselves and take up space, challenging the associations and expectations put on women and femme bodies with forms that spill and sag over. Can you speak more about this concerning your work?

These things are all connected, what they look like and what they’re about—the body and expectations of femininity. They are layered in together. I construct my sculptures with this kind of patchworking as a visual tool, but it is also this thematic thing of these pieces of identity and body coming together, being stitched together.

I think especially with my freestanding sculptures, I am interested in creating something we have this almost one-to-one relationship with, like the way a viewer connects to it with their own body. This thing that’s standing, burdened but still upright—it’s struggling to stand, but it’s standing. And I think it becomes an exercise in empathy, to see something that is trying to maintain a certain balance. There is something of that I see in myself, and I believe others have that experience too. [Experiencing] how it feels to exist in a body, to feel certain expectations of your body, to feel the pressure of external definitions, so people can see and understand how to categorize you when we are really all un-categorizable. 

Our experiences in the home space are also a big factor in my work. I have a tendency to anthropomorphize things, especially in the home, like furniture. Something that is standing up has this bodily connotation for me, [like an] entity that has a certain stature. I have this irresistible urge to relate to it as a human or a living, bodily thing.

These things are all connected, what they look like and what they’re about—the body and expectations of femininity.

Hanna Washburn. Swell. Photo by Ally Schmaling. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You integrate certain childhood and nostalgic items in your work. Can you explain this inspiration further?

I am a big-time scavenger of things in the world but also of my own life, like clearing out my parent’s attic and pulling [items] that remain from my childhood as these kinds of fossils.

I incorporate things like my old doll beds, or toys or small little objects into my work. If I don’t still have the actual thing it often becomes about its memory. I try to recreate either something I had when I was a child, or an aesthetic that was formative for me. I think about childhood a lot, that identity-forming period. I was always really drawn to objects and creatures. 

I am also interested in the aesthetic of the suburban modesty of my upbringing. A lot of floral patterns, and a lot of muted domestic colors and textures. And again, sometimes I use literal curtains from my grandma’s house. But sometimes it’s about trying to recreate something that I remember or saw in pictures. I am interested in using that kind of modest aesthetic-to take its flatness and make it lumpy.

Hanna Washburn. Curiosities. Photo by Ally Schmaling. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I like how you use recycled fabrics and items from your life. It’s nice from an ecological perspective as well. Have you always been drawn to using textiles as a medium? Can you expand on your interest in using recycled materials and textiles?

Textiles are all around us. We wear them, we live with them in our homes, and we have so many attachments to them. It’s this intimate material we wear on our bodies and sleep in. I think a lot of people are drawn to textiles for reasons of comfort and familiarity. I’ve always really been interested in recycling things, both from an environmental standpoint, but also for the richness of something that has been around for a long time, that has changed hands and has its own memory. 

As far as sewing techniques, I’m a big fan of the whipstitch. It’s one of the first stitches you learn, this overhand, repetitive stitch. It also shows up in surgical stitches, so it has that bodily connotation. I love the visual of how it stitches things together; it’s just such an additive process. And my practice is very improvisational, so when I’m in the studio, I am making visual connections and directly responding and stitching. It feels like this extension of my brain in my hand.

I learned how to sew at home from my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. It’s a practice that I learned and inherited from outside of art school, outside the institution. It feels personal, as something that I learned from women in my family that I’m continuing as well as complicating. Having this practice connected to the personal and the familial makes a lot of sense to me.

Hanna Washburn. Rosy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Who are some artists (or other things) that inspire you and your practice?

I try to look at as many different things as I can, not just sculpture or fiber art. I like to engage with a lot of other forms of art, too. I love to go to the movies; I love to read fiction. I try to immerse myself in different kinds of storytelling because it adds richness to my practice, but also just as a person in the world, and the way I think about things.

I’m lucky to know so many artists, visual artists and other kinds [of artists] with all different practices. [We have] casual interactions talking about ideas, going to see things, having informal crits, creative exchanges, and collaborations. I think a lot of my daily inspiration comes from surrounding myself with people with that kind of energy. And I treasure it, because it is important to keep questioning and pushing not just your own stuff but looking at so many other things and learning about other people and their practices and their stories. It’s just so enriching. I have my list of visual artists that I turn to again and again, but that daily stuff is equally important to me because it feeds the [creativity].

Check out Hanna Washburn’s work in the upcoming exhibition Homespun, a survey of textile artists in the Hudson Valley at the Samuel Dorksy Museum – SUNY New Paltz, opening on February 4th, 2023. 

Washburn will also be part of the NYC group show, Paroxysm, curated by Alison Pirie, from February 8 – 23rd at Westbeth Gallery, NYC. 

Additionally, Washburn will have a solo show this fall at the Lake George Arts Project from September 23 -October 27th, 2023.

You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.

The Potentiality of the Returned Gaze

proximity, pleasure, plasticity: looking at performance at Dazibao

© Installation view of the exhibition proximity · pleasure · plasticity. looking at performance, Dazibao, 2022. Photo: Marilou Crispin.

By Maria Isabel Martinez

April 21 – June 23, 2022

Chukwudubem Ukaigwe, Deanna Peters/Mutable Subject,
demi-mesure (Clara Cousineau + Marion Paquette), Every Ocean Hughes, Francisco González-Rosas, Freya Björg Olafson, Hannah Wilke, Ivetta Sunyoung Kang, Lisa Smolkin, Manoushka Larouche, NIC Kay, and Wan Yi Leung

The three keywords framing the exhibition, proximity, pleasure, plasticity: looking at performance cause me to search for the words in the works rather than allowing the works to speak amongst themselves. It’s as if by this move to name, we are being instructed on how to look—perhaps this is a problem with titles more generally. proximity, pleasure, plasticity is a group show featuring twelve artists at Dazibao, an art center in Montréal, developed by Emma-Kate Guimond, the Exhibition and Special Projects Coordinator, ​​under the direction of France Choinière. As I move across the dimly lit space, one work offers a glimpse of a titular word only to have it dropped as I continue to another piece. The “looking at performance” part of the title can signal a few things: how someone appears; the act of viewing that an audience member participates in; the position of a camera towards artists and performers, a technology that captures a momentary happening within a permanent loop. But if, as written in Dazibao’s exhibition poster, we’re meant to consider the relationship between viewer and viewed, then the three P’s of the title disturb such a simple directive. Instead, we’re thrust into an exhibition of pluralisms that tries to fit within its titular constraints while begging to step outside them. The wordplay here is its own performance.

© Installation view of the exhibition proximity · pleasure · plasticity. looking at performance, Dazibao, 2022. Photo: Marilou Crispin.

A gaze mediated through a lens can be oppressive or liberatory depending on who holds it and what sort of image is produced. proximity, pleasure, plasticity’s plurality gives space (literally and figuratively) to a diversity of experiences. Erected in the middle of the large room is a single wall; one side features Francisco González-Rosas’s Identity templates for a disordered body (2022) and Wan Yi Leung’s Alone with the cat in the room (2018) plays on the opposite side. As the title suggests, González-Rosas’s work addresses identity and the virtual self through a drag persona, while Leung’s work touches on the power dynamics of desire and a sexual economy. Curatorial decisions like these suggest that queer and feminist understandings of the three titular P’s are suffused throughout the space and the pieces form a type of coalition toward challenging an obtuse spectator. As many of the artists put their bodies on display, the boundary between subject and object collapses. As the artist addresses their audience, we become implicated in their projects and begin to feel like the artist is the one doing the looking after all.

In Ivetta Sunyoung Kang’s Proposition 1: Hands (2020), the viewer becomes a participant. A video plays directly across from the entrance, and below the projected image, a mat has been set up for gallery goers to sit and enact the gestures Kang performs on screen. The movements are based on a South Korean children’s game (“Make Electricity on Hands”) which Kang has transformed into a massage therapy. The project encourages the viewer to take a partner’s hand in theirs, sense its properties, and with friction and other movements, enhance its warmth and sensations. The video opens by declaring: “This video is a proposition on tolerance of the uncertainty ahead of your future” and it suggests that our anxieties could be endured through contact with the other. Kang offers proximity, pleasure, and yes, plasticity through this exercise, but it requires that the viewer accept their desire for these conditions. We must see ourselves the way Kang sees us.

© Installation view of the exhibition proximity · pleasure · plasticity. looking at performance, Dazibao, 2022. Photo: Marilou Crispin.

The role of the viewer as the subject in Chukwudubem Ukaigwe’s The Shivering (2020) collapses once more as the Black male participants in the video gaze back. The camera shivers and the participants appear blurred. The description of this work states that the blurred image “mirrors the fragility of their experience” and the camera’s shaking is indicative of the instability of viewing itself. Can we trust a camera as a technology of documentation? The piece prompts me to consider whether one could ever be an accurate observer. Moving image culture often portrays narrow depictions of Black masculinity as either violent and threatening or as targets of brutality. However, Ukaigwe puts this binary into disarray, as the subjects are still and the camera pans over them with a slight tremble. I find myself straining my eyes to get a more accurate look at the people on screen. The individuals looked into the camera, at times face-on and other times with their backs to the lens. It’s this mutual gazing that disrupts the neat binary between the viewer and the viewed: the participants appear to be as equally aware of us as we are of them. 

The exhibition raises questions about how the presence of the lens alters our proximity to each other and the reverberations that surface from that emergent closeness. At times, the works seem to be reaching in different directions—Wan Yi Leung’s Alone with the cat in the room and Demi-mesure’s (Clara Cousineau and Marion Paquette) aestheticized and choreographed video performance de nature intérieure for example. But this plurality serves as a gathering of different “pleasures,” splitting conventional definitions of the titular words into fractals. Proximity occurs explicitly in works such as Deanna Peters/Mutable Subject’s Something between my face and your face is always interesting (2021), a livestream examining virtual distance. 


Plasticity might be the hardest “P” to track across the exhibit, though the works serve as apt examples of engagements with the mutable quality of relations between the self/selves, technologies, and each other. The viewer/viewed dynamic takes on its own process of plasticity, through moments of closeness and delight at engaging with aesthetic experimentations. Ultimately, it is the camera and performativity that unite the pieces: how the artists exert themselves through the image, and raise questions, or taunt, the viewer about the fluid and sometimes disconcerting nature of spectatorship.

This review is featured in the second print issue of Femme Art Review on Queer and Feminist Collaboration.

Velvet Terrorism: A Story by Pussy Riot’s Russia

Punk Prayer, Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, 2012, courtesy of the artists.

November 24th to January 29th, 2023

Kling&Bang

By Irene Bernardi

Velvet Terrorism is the first exhibition by the Russian feminist performance art group Pussy Riot. The exhibition at Kling&Bang in Reykjavik, Iceland is curated by Dorothee Kirch, Ragnars Kjartanssonar, and Ingibjargar Sigurjónsdóttur. Velvet Terrorism narrates the history of Russian totalitarianism through the memories of Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, a founding member of the group since its first performance back in 2011. With their mix of music, art, and rebellion, Pussy Riot became an icon of the opposition against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oppressive policies from his second election in 2012 to the Ukraine War in 2022. 

Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia, Kling&Bang, Installation view, photo by Irene Bernardi.

The exhibition displays itself as a massive punk-rock journal, full of pictures, writings, colorful duct tape, and video installations. In a sparkling font, the exhibit’s title opens the door to the first video, an original work by Icelandic artist and curator Ragnars Kjartanssonar. The artist films a group member while she urinates over a blowup of Putin. Her face is hidden under the iconic ski mask, the eyes are focused on the camera with an unmoved and resolute look. This act of defiance ends with the performer kicking Putin’s picture, which falls on the ground surrounded by splashes of urine. 

Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia, Kling&Bang, Installation view, photo by Irene Bernardi.

Kjartanssonar’s work welcomes the audience, who gets thrown into a creative chaos of pictures and screens that saturates the room up to the ceiling. The art pieces chronologically tell the story of Pussy Riot. Not only does it show their actions and performances, but it reports the media’s lies about the arrest of Masha and Lucy Shtein – an activist and Masha’s partner – following the 2012 performance of the song Punk Prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Masha paid for this performance with a two-year sentence in a penal colony in the Ural Mountains, more than 1000 km away from Moscow. The performance also gives the exhibition its title, since “Velvet Terrorism” is the moniker that Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, considered to be Vladimir Putin’s spiritual confidant, used to address it. 

Policeman enters the Game, Moscow’s Final World Cup, 2018, courtesy of the artists.

Once Alyokhina and Shtein were released, protests and performances didn’t stop—on display the visitors can see the most iconic performances like Policemen Enters the Game, when activists demanded the stop of police abuses and the release of every political prisoner by invading the playing field during the World Cup final in 2018. Another one is the “homage” paid to President Putin for his sixty-eighth birthday when Pussy Riot placed rainbow flags over five government buildings in Moscow. Many other actions and demonstrations led Alyokhina to serve house arrest until April 2022. In protest of the declaration of war against Ukraine, Masha cut off her electronic wristband. This demonstration cost her a new sentence for having broken the terms of probation which started in to which she was obliged September 2021. 

Rainbow flags, Moscow’s Culture Ministry building, 2020, courtesy of the artists.

In the last room of the exhibition, two videos ironically show the ankle guards as if they were in the window of a jewelry store. The exhibition seems to end there, until a security guard tells the visitors they need to leave their belongings and proceed through a cramped little room where the Russian national anthem is played at full volume. 

Once the visitor leaves this temporary prison, they return to the exhibition’s entrance by going through a tunnel where pictures and videos of the latest Pussy Riot performances are shown all over the walls. At the entrance, the visitor learns about the presence of many surveillance cameras all over the exhibition, a clear allusion to the oppressive media encirclement in Putin’s regime. 

The exhibition, which launched on November 24th and will last until January 29th, 2023, originated from the collaboration between Ragnars Kjartanssonar and Maria Alyokhina. The artist helped the activist leave Russia after her latest sentence and Alyokhina started a European tour with the Pussy Riot members to promote her book Riot Days, published in 2017.

Velvet Terrorism is undoubtedly a complex retrospective. It aims to show the group’s strength and its desire to emerge and state the truth. The exhibition uses an irreverent punk attitude by turning the objects that characterize a violent dictatorship into artistic subjects. Whether it is a prison, a whip, a surveillance camera, or a Putin image, Pussy Riot can use it to mock the regime and regain power and freedom in their hands. 

Check out Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling&Bang in Reykjavík, now extended until January 29th, 2023.

Original Sisters: In Conversation with Anita Kunz

Anita Kunz. Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage Installation shot. Photos courtesy of TAP Centre for Creativity.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Walking into Anita Kunz’s Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity at TAP Centre of Creativity on opening night, the gallery was transformed with 365 portraits—one for each day of the year—of remarkable women. Walking through the crowd, it’s clear there were hours of research put into the descriptions of the women depicted in the illustrated portraits. It felt easy to get emotional in response to seeing the spotlight reflected on these women because although some women are widely known, many of these women’s stories remain widely unknown by the larger public. The portraits’ gazes stare back at me with a sense of empowerment. Finally, their names are known, and they receive recognition after too long.

Anita Kunz is an established Canadian illustrator and artist with a wealth of accomplishments. Her socially and politically themed work has been printed in major publications such as Time magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, GQ, The New York Times, and Newsweek, along with many others. She has received an Honorary Doctorate from the Ontario College of Art and Design and a second from MassArt College of Art and Design. Additionally, Kunz has been appointed Officer of the Order of Canada and received Her Majesty the Queen’s Jubilee Medal of Honor. In the following interview, she speaks more about her exhibition Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity.

Anita Kunz. Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage Installation shot. Photos courtesy of TAP Centre for Creativity.

Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage spotlights 365 original illustrated portraits of inspiring women, spotlighting many stories that are too often unknown and excluded. One aspect that stands out in the exhibition is the range and diversity covered by the portraits. You include different faiths, backgrounds, and cultures from different time periods. I also love how you cover diverse fields such as science, math, art, literature, and activism. Can you expand on your process of researching these women?

The most important thing for me in this whole project was diversity. I wanted to celebrate all kinds of extraordinary women, many of whom have been overlooked, starting from the beginning of time and the cave paintings to the very recent ones.

I knew that I was going to do a lot of them, and I didn’t want to make them from Canada or the US only because there are so many more. I mean, there were just so many. I had a couple in mind when I started, and then I started asking people I knew. I asked somebody that I know who’s a scientist and [asked if he could] give me any names of women who have been overlooked. So, he gave me one.

There were a lot of good resources, a lot of blogs, historical blogs, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Google. Even the Google Doodle of the day sometimes I thought “Oh, I didn’t know who that was. Let’s research her.” The New York Times has recently started a new [column], an obituary section where it’s called Overlooked No More. That’s a good resource. But it was not hard to find subjects, that tells you it’s kind of a sad thing.

It was very easy once I started looking. Now, I’ve done 365 and I have at least 300 more than I could do. And I feel that that’s only scratching the surface, this is only the beginning. This is something I could probably do the rest of my life and probably easily do a thousand, but I’m getting ahead of myself!

Anita Kunz. Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage Installation shot. Photos courtesy of TAP Centre for Creativity.

It was fascinating to see. One that I remember standing out to me that I didn’t know was that the creator of Monopoly was a woman [Lizzie Magie].

Why would you know? It wasn’t taught to us and it wasn’t in the culture. For the whole project, I started with stories that nobody knew [until] later, especially in the book. [The publisher] also wanted me to add a few people who were a bit more well-known. 

I feel like I’ve barely begun [with] the sheer number of women who you wouldn’t have known. And even Roxane Gay, who wrote the book forward, she’s an incredibly brilliant feminist academic, and she said, “how come I’ve never heard of half these women?” So even she hadn’t heard of them, somebody who knows more about feminist history than almost anybody I know. Even she was startled by how many were missing from our [cultural narrative].

Since I’m an artist, I was shocked at realizing how limited my art history education was. I mean, there were women whose work, I thought, “How come I didn’t know these?” Incredible artists, poster artists, and painters. I have had an art education background and there are so many that I didn’t know who they were.

…They were out there; they just weren’t in the curriculum. We didn’t know who they were. They weren’t celebrated or even taught or anything like that.

I think it’s outrageous. Everybody talks about how the art world is so skewed in favour of white men, you know? A lot of people get lost in that narrative. I went to school for illustration, and I went to a workshop with all the best illustrators when I was young. They were all white men and they brought in one artist, Barbara Nessim. They brought her in for two hours and that’s the only interaction with a female illustrator that I had as part of my education. That’s really shocking because they were out there; they just weren’t in the curriculum. We didn’t know who they were. They weren’t celebrated or even taught or anything like that.

Anita Kunz. Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage Installation shot. Photos courtesy of TAP Centre for Creativity.

The concept of Original Sisters started during the pandemic. What first initiated the idea behind doing these portraits of remarkable women throughout history during this time?

I worked for a long time as an editorial illustrator back when editorial illustration was a thing. It used to be that you could make a decent living as a magazine illustrator, and I always wanted to do things that had something to do with society, a social issue, or a political issue like that was that interested me.

I wasn’t necessarily interested in the decorative arts. I wanted something with substance, something that could have meaning to it. I was able to make a living with magazines and that was great. I started out doing magazine work, but the trouble with magazine work is that you do maybe two or three a week, and you just do the next one, and then it seems shallow.

I wanted to do, at some point, something that was a deep dive into something. I’ve done so many portraits and it seemed like a logical thing to do portraits of women I admired and whose shoulders I stand on who paved the way.

I did an artist residency in Maine, and we went out on a boat ride, and the captain explained that this windswept island is where a woman lived there in the winter. And I was like, “Whoa, hold back. How could she live on a rock in the winter? She must have built a cabin. I thought, “What would she have eaten?” It was rugged. I had to find more out about this. Turns out she was a trans woman, and I think this was in the 18th century. And again, I could not find anything about her, I wanted to fill in the blanks, and I never could. Then, I thought that I wanted to find women whose stories need to be told.

Who do you have in mind to illustrate next?

I started already; I have done six more. I did one of the first female photographers today and another artist who did the most magnificent covers for Vogue Magazine. I have another one here on my desk–Helen Dryden. [She created] just beautifully designed, brilliant covers.

I’ve also painted Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi Architect. She was amazing. I mean, there are so many more. There are also areas that I’d like to discover more. I need to do far more Canadian and Indigenous women because I was born here, and I think I don’t have enough representation there yet. I’m always happy to hear if anybody has ideas or suggestions. I’m happy to hear them, so if you have any, let me know!

Anita Kunz. Original Sisters: 365 Portraits of Tenacity and Courage Installation shot. Photos courtesy of TAP Centre for Creativity.

I also really liked how you did the text. Was the style of text inspired by the women as well? 

Absolutely. With each of the portraits, I wanted them to be a celebration and I wanted even kids to like them. I deliberately made them colorful and kind of joyous. For each one, I tried to do something about the background that had to do with the person. I tried to [capture] the time that she was living or and the same thing with the typography and wherever possible I tried to find their actual signature. I thought that would just be more authentic. But where I couldn’t find their signatures, I used a font that would sort of indicate the time they lived in. 

For Zaha Hadid, I tried to make the type like her buildings, I had fun with them. For the first photographer, I tried to make it like a stamp, like how photographers used a stamp on the back of their prints. It’s fun for me, and I thought it would just give a little bit extra instead of just a face, you know? I wanted to give it a bit more depth.

Check out Anita Kunz’s Original Sisters at TAP Centre of Creativity until January 14th, 2022. Original Sisters: Portraits of Courage and Tenacity is also available as a book, published by Penguin Random House. You can also find Kunz’s work on her website, anitakunz.com, and Instagram at @anitakunz

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser’s Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, virtual reality still, 16mins, 2021. Courtesy of the artists.

Gallery TPW

September 9 to November 5, 2022

By Mitsuko Noguchi

When I first walked through the exhibition doors into Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, Gallery TPW’s front desk attendant followed me in, carrying a bulky headset. They directed me: “Sit anywhere you’d like.” Embroidered bean bags slumped on the floor and two uniform benches faced a wall-sized screen. The attendant handed me the headset, and when I successfully goggled up, a humanoid appeared stark in the center of my view–startlingly close and startlingly real. The humanoid gently swayed in turquoise pool water. They wouldn’t stop staring at me. This, I thought, must be Piña.

From September 9th to November 5th, Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser presented their popular immersive installation in Toronto. On the exhibition walls, black and white geometric fabric prints hung in irregularly shaped frames, reminding me of tribal art but made by an obviously non-human hand. I later learned that the delicate white fabric was made of pineapple, and the black plastic embroidery by a 3D printer. Shackled to a foreign virtual reality, the gallery walls and their abstract frames disappeared. 

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, virtual reality still, 16mins, 2021. Courtesy of the artists.

Throughout the 16-minute VR experience, Piña showed me life as an AI shaman in a futuristic world. Piña often dwelled in water, where they draped wet cloth on rock–informing me that these fabric slips are encoded with data and sent by “messengers.” Sometimes, the shaman stepped into a more familiar world, and I felt as if I were watching another teen beauty-vlogger as they promoted their favourite concealer. Piña also repeatedly held up their iPhone to show me videos of others speaking. The speakers were always muted; Piña and I would share silence. 

Behind the VR video, a half-hour documentary-style film played on repeat, waiting to be experienced separate from the VR story. The film followed three Amazonian “messengers” living in our near future, each of whom communicated through a radio broadcast. Real footage from the Philippines and Ecuador backdropped the fictional stories of women-led knowledge transmitters and community builders. The messengers spoke about their connection to the land, and Piña drifted in and out through voiceover, like a cloud. 

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, virtual reality still, 16mins, 2021. Courtesy of the artists.

“Piña” translates to “pineapple” from Spanish. In an interview, the artists explain the colonial commodification of pineapples, tracking from Ecuadorian land, into Filipino plantations, and finally to bourgeois European dining rooms[1]. In Piña, the recurring symbol of the pineapple epitomizes the grounding of culture onto physical earth and what it means for colonization to uproot this connection. 

Comilang and Speiser’s distinct cultural backgrounds are the cornerstones of the installation, and their styles merge with a bold elegance. Stephanie Comilang is a Filipina-Canadian artist who uses the lens of film to explore cultural heritage and futures. Co-creator Simon Speiser is an Ecuadorian artist based in Berlin, who works in a diverse range of media–from sculpture to writing to video. Together, these artists explore the enduring survival of Filipino and Ecuadorian ancestral knowledge and matriarchal lineages. For the project, Comilang and Speiser interviewed shamans about how they have held onto their ways of life amidst colonial violence[2]. The artists re-imagined these documented stories through sci-fi narrative, exploring the trajectory of tradition into our rapidly evolving, techno-laced future. 

Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser, Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?, virtual reality still, 16mins, 2021. Courtesy of the artists.

Piña traverses both the interconnected human experience and the deeply personal. Observing Piña’s solitary existence in the VR, I felt alone, too: the enclosed headset felt like a lonely, mysterious passageway. At the end of the passage, Piña both confronted me and comforted me at an eerily spiritual level. When I emerged from the VR, a single stranger and I watched the film together. Here, the air felt a little lighter, and the film’s knowledge flowed freely into this communal space.

Piña, Why is the Sky Blue? tells stories of how nature, technology, and humanity merge. Comilang and Speiser transform reality through layering past, present, and future into a multi-dimensional sphere. When I exited TPW and walked home, Piña faded in my memory the way a dream might, with the feeling that I was walking away from magic. I grasped a memory of Piña’s voice: “Now you’ve found me.” I wondered if I had, and if I might find little slips of Piña’s world again in my own.

—————

[1] Lillian O’Brien Davis, “PIÑA, WHY IS THE SKY BLUE? Stephanie Comilang & Simon Speiser,” MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2022, https://mackenzie.art/site-content/uploads/2022/03/PinaWhyIsTheSkyBlue_Essay_WebVersion.pdf.

[2] Lisa Long, “The Materiality of The Future Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser in Conversation with Lisa Long,” JSC Berlin, 2022, https://www.jsc.art/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/JSC_PINA_CATALOGUE_LOW_RES6313811.pdf.

kind renderings: Rendezvous With Madness Festival

October 27 – November 6, 2022

Workman Arts Offsite Gallery, Rendezvous With Madness Festival

kind renderings Exhibition Installation shot.2022. Photo by Henry Chan, courtesy of Workman Arts.

By Aysia Tse

kind renderings is the group exhibition for Workman Arts’ 2022 Rendezvous With Madness Festival with the theme being “More Than Rebellion.” Working towards generational change, better informed public discourse, and supporting representation surrounding mental health and addiction, Rendezvous With Madness Festival organizes screenings, exhibitions, workshops, panel talks, performances, and more.

kind renderings, located at the Workman Arts Offsite Gallery in Artscape Youngplace, considers kindness as an act of choice. Six artists share the space, creating work stemming from their own lived experiences with mental health and well-being. Processes of self-reflection, vulnerability, struggle, and healing are all present throughout each work in the exhibition. Together, they form a collection of work that addresses challenging experiences through diverse approaches and explore a range of emotional tones.

kind renderings. Twinkle Banerjee, The things we carry with us (2011). Photo by Henry Chan, courtesy of Workman Arts.

First entering the gallery space, Twinkle Banerjee’s installation The things we carry with us (2011) covers the wall with newsprints from floor to ceiling. Crumpled, burnt articles are scattered over blue patterned fabric, and two images are mounted on the wall; a photogram of hair mixed of the artist’s and her mother’s, and a collage made with cyanotype from a film negative of her grandmother. In an essay about the work, Banerjee speaks about the pain that comes from generational trauma and reflects on her interpersonal relationship with her grandmother. She opens up about the resentment that comes with family dysfunction and inherited trauma rooted in displacement arising from political policy. The partition of India caused her grandmother to be one of the millions who were displaced as children. Collaging multiple copies of the newsprints with alarming headlines that include reports of murder and arson, injuries and killing, and other acts of violence give more context to her grandmother’s lived experience and familial history.

kind renderings. Stéphane Alexis with his installation, Chains & Crowns (2022). Photo by Henry Chan.

Across from Banerjee’s installation is Chains & Crowns (2022) by Stéphane Alexis. A large black, white, and purple photo banner with 16 hairstyles arranged in a grid covers the opposing wall. In the accompanying statement, each hairstyle is numbered 1-16 with a description of the hairstyle, including the common name, historical background, social, and cultural significance. The Hi-Top, Senegalese Twist, Cornrows, Bantu Knots, Ghana Braids are some of the hairstyles featured. For Alexis, this socio-political project reflects on his interpersonal relationship with hair and self, speaking about familial influences and the community and family histories that grounds his work. In his artist talk, Alexis spoke about how history grounds us in who we are and contributes to a communal sense of understanding. In this photography project, he wanted to reflect on the hardships of Black history but also highlight a sense of resilience and boldness.

kind renderings. Jenny Chen with her animation, Multitude of Fish – Ascension Tales. 2022. Photo by Henry Chan.

Moving further into the space, an animation project by Jenny Chen titled Multitude of Fish – Ascension Tales (2022) is projected on a wall behind the gallery desk. Reflecting on energetic bodies and exploring spirituality, Chen uses fish as symbols and their journey to the heavens as a reflection of their own wellness journey and process of healing. In the adjacent room, artist Boozie’s work brings more personality to the space with Losing It, a series of framed digital illustrations. Portraits inspired by a continuing time in her life of confronting and documenting her inner self-talk, Boozie uses images of hamster wheels to illustrate the feeling of never-ending cyclical thoughts. In this series created as an outlet or coping strategy, she personifies these demons and draws them wearing white underwear – an image that she hopes brings some humour and silliness to disarm their constant presence.

kind renderings. Boozie pictured with her illustration series, Losing It. Photo by Henry Chan.
kind renderings. Paintings from Wen Tong’s series Cinnamon. 2022. Photo by Henry Chan.

Wen Tong’s painting series Cinnamon (2022) shows a shift in her perspective during the COVID-19 lockdown. Painted in a magical realist style, Tong depicts everyday imagery and speaks about finding magical moments in the mundane through painting a “poetic truth.” Opposite these bright, colourful, and painterly pieces, Jessica Field’s work My left-hand is talking and my right-had is nurturing at first glance, looks like charcoal drawings with handwritten text. As a new media artist, Field’s practice involves physical computing, coding, and fabricating “artificial agents.” The drawings on display are produced by an artificial intelligence computer she has worked on for over 10 years. As she feeds her art into the AI, it produces more work that is reflective of her drawings, writing, and experiences with her process of healing. Field’s work considers the reclamation of medical terms and the “treatment of injuries that feel unreconcilable.” Accompanying the drawings is a video of Field reading her poems in a walk-through of her book that documents a collection of drawings and poems. A print copy of the book is also on display for visitors to explore on their own. Looking forward, Field wonders if over time, as she heals, the AI drawings will slowly reflect her recovery and evolve with her.

kind renderings. Jessica Field with her work, My left-hand is talking and my right-had is nurturing.2022. Photo by Henry Chan.

The artists and their work consider the complexity of the human condition that involves trauma, healing, familial, political, and historical factors. They also explore intra and interpersonal relationships that affect our health and well-being in positive and negative ways. The title kind renderings support the space as a tender one – one where artists can make work about challenging topics, share them in a safe space, and approach these conversations together with the care and kindness they deserve.

Depression Cooking: In Conversation with Sonali Menezes

Sonali Menezes, Depression Cooking. Image courtesy of the artist.

By Rebecca Casalino

Sonali Menezes is a Hamilton-based artist who maintains an interdisciplinary practice deeply rooted in community. She works as an arts educator, facilitator, and knowledge gatherer throughout her artistic projects. This intersectional approach is highlighted in work like her 2015 project “Untitled (Lavender Harvest)” where she collected local lavender and made jellies and syrups as gifts for the workers who cultivated the garden. Her work as a knowledge gatherer is evident in her zine-making practice where digital copies of So Your Anxious As Fuck and Depression Cooking are available for download on Etsy for $1.00. Menezes’ body of work varies in medium with her politics acting as a connecting thread throughout her performance, video, sculpture, printmaking, and poetry.

Portrait of Sonali Menezes. Photo by Ariel Bader-Shamai.

Rebecca Casalino: Depression Cooking: easy recipes for when you’re depressed as fuck is so lovely and so personal, Sonali—it was a pleasure to read, and it was lovely to attend your Depression Cooking Virtual Dinner in February. I wanted to start this interview by speaking about the people you thank for supporting and inspiring you throughout the making of this zine. Can you speak to your Depression Cooking allies?

Sonali Menezes: It meant so much to me that you came to the virtual dinner, Rebecca! You also shared a wonderful idea for depression focaccia using store-bought pizza dough (total genius). I really want to emphasize how much this zine doesn’t belong to me; I don’t own the knowledge that’s shared. It’s very much collective, and I like to think of myself as a collector in this context.  So much of the inspiration for this zine came from really everyone I’ve ever lived with or eaten with in my life. Conversations with friends and family, and messages from complete strangers on social media. To narrow things down a bit, I want to focus on thanking four people. The first is Anna Bowen from artseverywhere.ca, who sent me a pitch invitation for her Complicating Care, series and helped me find a home for this project. The second is Abedar Kamgari who encouraged me to apply for special project funding through Hamilton Artists Inc. so that the first print-run of the zine could be shared entirely for free. Third is Jeffrey who is my number one supporter and always washes the dishes. Last is my maternal grandmother Elizabeth Francis who taught me that all you need to do to start cooking a meal is to fry up a chopped onion and garlic in a pan with oil.  But I do stress both in the zine and I also mentioned this at the virtual dinner: that cutting onions is not ideal for depression cooking. Mainly because when you induce crying in depressed humans, it’s hard to stop crying!

Your family’s support of this project is so wholesome. Can you speak a little bit about their roles in creating, and inspiring the zine? 

I’m very lucky and privileged that my family always supports my weird projects. Whether they understand them or not, they show up and I’m grateful. I learned how to cook from observing the adults around me growing up – and that was my parents and my grandmother. I have specific sections of the zine that are inspired by them. The ‘faster boiling method,’ which involves bringing water to the boil in an electric kettle and then pouring it into a pot on a hot element on the stove comes from my father. Open-faced sandwiches, or “Things on Toast,” as I call it in the zine, are inspired by my mother. I started relying on meal replacement drinks thanks to my sister. It’s impossible to divorce my relationship with food from my family.

The experience of writing Depression Cooking while depressed and trying to cook for yourself must have been very meta. You even describe being unemployed at the beginning of the pandemic and struggling. How do you handle professional struggles artists face like unemployment, rejection, and the constant juggling of deadlines? 

Initially, I had planned on releasing the zine in November of 2021. But then the days became colder and darker, and my seasonal depression kicked in on top of my regular depression, and honestly, I really struggled with completing the zine. After only recently moving into a new house with two roommates, we got evicted and needed to find new housing. I needed to flip the timeline on the project to reflect on what was happening in my life and to balance my own mental health. I had initially written the Depression Cooking Zine into a residency proposal for the AGO that was rejected. I find the key to handling constant rejection is to keep applying, despite the rejection because eventually, something will stick. And I was right with this project, it fits well into Anna Bowen’s Complicating Care Series. I think deadlines are so tricky. I’m a full-time arts administrator for my day job, and the only way I’m able to manage the projects I do are with deadlines. But when I’m off the clock working on my own personal projects, I find deadlines hard to meet outside of my 9 to 5 while balancing the rest of my life. Being an artist while also paying your bills is hard, and I haven’t quite figured out a balance yet.

Sonali Menezes, Depression Cooking Manifesto. Image courtesy of the artist.

Food is so political, personal, and vulnerable especially when it intersects with mental health. I loved the way you tackled diet culture calling out propaganda, white vegans, and neoliberal consumerism. Can you speak to writing The Depression Cooking Manifesto in the center of the zine?

I actually wrote the Depression Cooking Manifesto in one sitting at the Central Public library in Downtown Hamilton, and I feel very connected to the second floor for that reason. Writing the manifesto was very cathartic for me. Suzanne Carte asked me during the virtual dinner if there was anything that I learned from writing the manifesto. And my response is that I learned how to be just as kind to myself when it comes to food as I am with my intended zine audience. Sometimes it’s easy to dole out advice in my zines, it’s another thing to genuinely listen and apply what I’m writing to my own life. The manifesto was this moment where I was able to do that.

I loved that you mentioned chocolate Ensures in the “Grab-and-Go” section of the zine. How did your sister introduce you to the idea of meal replacements?

I was at my sister’s apartment during the pandemic. She’s a doctor and incredibly busy between work and a full-time master’s degree. We were unloading groceries and I was very hangry.  A six-pack of ensures were sitting on her counter and she suggested I try one so that I would be less hangry before we cooked lunch and I’ve relied on them ever since.

Sonali Menezes, Depression Cooking. Image courtesy of the artist.

You allude to this need for community knowledge when you write “I wanted to create something that I could have given my 18-year-old self when I moved out of my parents’ home.”[1] Do you see this project as adding to a conversation around resource sharing and the need for more community resources? 

Definitely. All the information I’ve shared already exists in the world; I don’t own it. I think this all especially exists in some form on the internet, but I find the internet to be an incredibly overwhelming place. I think that’s why zines have endured, despite the internet—because they’re focused. I don’t reach the same sense of overwhelm or exhaustion when reading a zine that I do trying to find a straight answer on the internet. So, Depression Cooking is me trying to fill that gap. My first zine that entered into the realm of resource sharing was So You’re Anxious As Fuck: tips and tricks and things, from 2016, I made the second edition in 2018, and that’s my most popular zine apart from Depression Cooking. That zine is a little more ‘self-help’ oriented and prescriptive, but I like to think of Depression Cooking as more of a love letter to my depressed kin.

You address the reader directly and personally – and I find you give them quite a bit of agency. In the introduction to the zine, you write: “you’re the expert on your own survival”[2]. How did you approach writing for a depressed audience?

I thought about myself as a depressed human and what I would like to hear and wrote with that in mind. Mind you, we’re all depressed in very different ways, and I know this zine might not be ideal for everyone.

To wrap up I wanted readers to know the context of this zine within your wider artistic practice. Knowing your work and background, the concept of The Holy Trinity of Depression Cooking [3] (Mac and Cheese, Instant Ramen and Toast) really made me chuckle. The body and shame are so tied up in Catholic ideology and I appreciate your different approaches to these subjects. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your recent video work that you made during your residency at Factory Media in 2020, and how it relates back to mental health and community support.

I think moving through zines, video work, and performance work really demonstrates why I call myself an interdisciplinary artist! While I would no longer call myself a Catholic, the lessons I learned being raised as a Catholic are constantly informing my practice. The video work I made specifically during my residency at Factory Media was about rejecting my jealousy of white, blonde women through rituals informed by my Catholic upbringing. I wanted to explore the notion of jealousy being a ‘sin,’ that could be cleansed or forgiven. But then I also wanted to complicate this notion of jealousy being a bad thing within the context of being raised under white supremacy. In 2019 and 2020 I was healing from exiting a bad relationship with a racialized man who had been cheating on me with white, blonde women. My mental health was at a low point, and I relied on a lot of support from my friends and family at that time. Sometimes the best way to heal is to make bad art about your feelings.

Check out Sonali Menezes’ Etsy shop for print copies or digital downloads of Depression Cooking.

You can find this interview in the second print issue of Femme Art Review on Queer and Feminist Collaboration.

Notes

  1. Menezes, Sonali. “Preface,” Depression Cooking: easy recipes for when you are depressed as fuck. Publication Studio Guelph, Artseverywhere.ca and Hamilton Artists INC. 2022. 2.
  2. Menezes, “Introduction.” Depression Cooking: easy recipes for when you are depressed as fuck. Publication Studio Guelph, Artseverywhere.ca and Hamilton Artists INC. 2022. 4.
  3. Ibid, 5.

The Bed: In Discussion with Maayan Sophia Weisstub


Maayan Sophia Weisstub. The Bed. The Museum of the Home. Images Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

CW: Discussion of domestic abuse

Displayed at the Museum of the Home as part of the Festival of Sleep from June to September 2022, The Bed by Maayan Sophia Weisstub is a powerful installation that takes the visuals of bruises and injury and pairs them with the comfort of a bed. Although the bed is often associated with solace and security, for domestic abuse survivors, a bed can hold complex and negative associations. As Weisstub explainsThe Bed explores the physical, mental, and emotional toll of domestic abuse, addressing how even after the bruises fade, the emotional scars still linger. The installation sparks difficult but essential conversations about domestic abuse to ultimately create awareness and healing. 

Currently based in London, UK, Maayan Sophia Weisstub is an interdisciplinary artist working with a range of media from drawing, animation, collage, and sculpture and installation. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Weisstub has shown at the Saatchi Gallery, Christie’s, and Pavlov’s Dog Gallery. Her work has also been featured in White Hot MagazineKaltblut, and Design Taxi, among others. The following conversation discusses The Bed and her broader practice. 

Maayan Sophia Weisstub. The Bed. The Museum of the Home. Images Courtesy of the artist.

Can you speak more about your installation The Bed at the Museum of the Home which aims to raise awareness and reflect upon domestic violence against primarily women and children?

Raising awareness is regarding everyone. It’s commonly towards women and children but also towards men, I don’t want to take that part away. It’s a topic that always concerned me, like many other social topics. I also did a project with a graphic design office in Munich last year to raise awareness about violence against women. It’s not the first project where I’m dealing with this topic. I wanted to do a bit more because a lot of my work is naturally [based on] the things I deal with. It’s important for me also to touch on other topics and make a little change or protest. It’s not always easy for me to go outside and protest so I can raise awareness in a way that I can or know how to. This is my way to contribute to it as a start [to a conversation about] this topic. 

I didn’t want this to be about me or my experience, but it touches me in personal areas. I wanted it to be in the entire spectrum of domestic abuse. I think it touches most people in some places. Whether it’s been sexual abuse or verbal abuse that I think many people have experienced in some sense from parents or siblings, or a partner a lot of times. Sometimes we don’t necessarily think of it as scarring or domestic abuse, but they are all on the spectrum. And then, of course, the more severe ones—I don’t know if more severe, cause it all depends on the effect—but the physical violence and abuse that we hear about in the news.

We don’t hear about it [often], but during COVID, we heard about it more because cases were rising since more people were at home. I think [people] felt frustrated with their conditions, and many were out of work and didn’t make the money they needed, or they took their aggression on their partners or children. I think it’s something that should be [discussed] more because I feel like there’s not enough attention [paid to] it. Then I decided I wanted to do a piece about it, and I had this idea, like a metaphor.

Maayan Sophia Weisstub. The Bed. The Museum of the Home. Images Courtesy of the artist.

The Bed evocatively bridges the personal and the public and juxtaposes the softness and respite of a bed with the pain of physical violence. Can you elaborate on your approach to using these opposites and how The Bed addresses trauma and survival?

I see the bed as a shelter where you can rest at the end of the day or even cry when you need to be with yourself. Also, intimate relationships and physical contact happen in bed. So, the bed is a very personal, private, or intimate symbol. On the one hand, it’s supposed to be the safe place where you could be vulnerable. Then, on the other hand, it’s also like it can be a door to nightmares or for dark things that may happen in situations in bedrooms, behind closed doors as well. 

There’s bruised skin [depicted] in different stages of healing. I researched bruises and looked at photos of domestic views of survivors. I wanted it to [reflect] different stages, but still, there are some scars there. Some heal, some don’t, and some stay forever. 

The bed is a very personal, private, or intimate symbol.

Then I approached and was in contact with Refuge, a charity that helps children and women who are survivors of domestic abuse. They sent me some materials and I researched from people around me and my own experiences. [I was in] contact with them regarding the text I wrote that accompanies the artwork, to ensure that it’s not offensive. I wrote victims at the beginning, and later they told me that it’s correct to say survivors, not victims in this case of domestic abuse. That was the only thing, but it’s a big thing to change. I think it’s important.

Then I reached out to a Museum of the Home, it was very fortunate that they did the sleeping exhibition [Festival of Sleep]. It fit well with their program. I reached out to other places, but this was the place I wanted the most because I feel like they’re very involved with the community and social topics. I was very intrigued by The Museum of the Home. It’s a beautiful building that was built in the 1700s. The head of the Ironmonger Society built it for retired ironmongers and widows of ironmongers. And later it was bought and turned into a Museum of the Home in the fifties where it showed different sets of interiors in Britain to teach people about the history.

They do a lot of community workshops and stuff with different communities, such as Turkish, Jewish, Indian, or African, they have a very diverse community coming to the museum. I felt that it would be the best place to show The Bed. Of course, I want it to be shown in galleries and museums as well, but it’s also important for me to show it to audiences that aren’t necessarily the same audiences who would go to the Tate. It’s also free so there are a lot of different audiences that would come and see it. It’s not necessarily [just] artsy people. Once they said that it fits, I [thought that] this is the best match.

I co-hosted a workshop about The Bed on September 28th with a friend who is a designer. It was a therapeutic workshop quilting scars, so attendees added their scars to this communal blanket. It was informative and provided a safe space to do craft work together. I think it added to the experience of The Bed shown there.

Maayan Sophia Weisstub. The Bed. The Museum of the Home. Images Courtesy of the artist.

It might be hard to gauge, but what has the response been like, do people often share their stories with you?

I went there with friends, [a couple of] art curators and a journalist to show them the work. I mainly got responses from people I went with because museum visitors didn’t know that I made it. I like that because then I can see their response from the side.

There was one woman who went there, I saw her staying there and taking a photo, and then she told me and my friend that it was “very powerful.” That was very nice to hear. Also, I saw a couple come in, and one woman said to the other, “The bed is very small,” and then she walked out. The work is not easy to digest. I know from my friends that they had different responses.  

Some people said it’s meaningful and powerful. With these kinds of abuses, you tend to feel a sort of loyalty to the person who has done that to you, whether it’s a family member or a partner. You don’t want to make them look bad. I don’t feel people necessarily have to share their experience if they don’t want to. If they brought it up, I would ask and talk, but I wouldn’t force anyone into an inconvenient or uncomfortable spot. I hope one day we will be able to talk more openly about the pain that we go through and not be ashamed of it, or scared to share, or worried about making someone else look bad if they’ve done something wrong.

With friends, it takes time to gain trust and feel safe enough to share traumas. It takes a certain degree of knowing each other to share these vulnerable experiences. 

Maayan Sophia Weisstub. Mnēmē, A Breathing Object. 2021.

Your work commonly connects inanimate objects to emotional feeling (such as a table and chair, with the kinetic sculpture Mnēmē, A Breathing Object), giving it human qualities. Can you speak more about this connection and your inspiration of how people connect to objects?

Mnēmē is a word that describes the effect of the past on the present. That work was my graduation project from the Royal College of Art, where I graduated last summer. This piece was dedicated to my father who passed away almost eight years ago. It was about how we project sensations, memories and experiences onto inanimate objects and bring them to life doing that.

A lot of it was also inspired by reading In Search of Lost Time by [Marcel Proust], there’s a part that [clearly] describes this experience. I always feel like I get attached to objects quite easily. If someone brings me [something], I can’t throw it away easily. I keep it and associate it with memories of that person. It breathes life into the object, becoming a sort of monument forever. In the book, there’s a part where the main character eats a Madeleine. Suddenly, he goes into a stream of memories from his childhood triggered by the smell, touch, and taste of that cookie. I think that you can get that when you find an old shirt, for example, that belonged to someone you cared for, suddenly it brings a lot back to you.

The objects in that installation are all objects that I [used to] create an imagined scene of my father’s room when he was younger. It’s all furniture from the fifties, including the book. 

Everything is finely [selected] and symbolizes something. The article the book is opened on is an article about life and death, different theories by different philosophers about how to conceive death in regards to time. We may not know what happens next, but I believe it doesn’t just end when someone passes away. 

How do you choose your medium with the work that you do? 

I usually think of an idea and then I think of what would be the best medium to share it with the world and communicate it. A lot of times, I see my drawings and collages as sketches for future installations, sculptures, or films. I do them at home on paper or Photoshop, just because these are my immediate resources. I would like to produce more large-scale installations and video works. I like things that immerse you in an experience.

You can view Maayan Sophia Weisstub’s work on her website and Instagram. Check out her upcoming installation at Room25 in Tel Aviv in May 2023.

(Un)familiar Resemblances: Circularity of (un)knowing

Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces

Mayten’s Projects

Claire Heidinger, First Time Homebuyer 2022, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 30″

By Dana Snow

Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces ran from July 30th to August 16th at Mayten’s Projects, a tight gallery space in the bustling Niagara and King intersection of downtown Toronto. Opening weekend gallery goers mingled with Caribana attendees, a kaleidoscope of colour decorating the sidewalks of otherwise nondescript gray buildings. The exhibition faced an unexpected early close, leaving the particular heartbreak of losing precarious space in an expensive city that impacts emerging artists.

In Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces artists Claire Heidinger, mihyun maria kim, Natia Lemay, Par Nair, and Hau Pham refigure absence, cropping and abstracting women’s figures to relay an intimate sense of recognition. Featuring IBPOC women artists, the exhibition avoids the pitfalls of homogenizing “otherness.” Self-curated by participating artists, the exhibition acts as a call-in. What strength does refusal hold in an age of hypervisibility? I don’t have the answers to this question, but I keep revisiting the works to see if I can catch a glimpse of them between the obfuscations of the artists’ hands.

Claire Heidinger’s Pomelo is the first work to invite me into the gallery. Hanging directly beside the didactic text, the work appears as an offering into the gallery space. Waxy green leaves and bright yellow reds glimmer through the oil paint, settling into an ambiguous space between consumable and ornament. This becomes a familiar theme throughout the displayed works, echoing throughout Jade Celadon Peanuts, and Ginger with Red Patterning.

 Jade Celadon Peanuts commemorates a casual moment of the artists’ grandfather snacking and monumentalizes a shared experience of ancestral migration. A ceramic ginger root, adorned with delicate floral stippling calms the senses in the same way a ginger tea might in Ginger with Red Patterning. A more insidious connection emerges in Miss Chinese Toronto Pageant. A large-scale oil painting commemorating “Miss Silken Hair,” the work renders the winner in a celebrity glow. Her smile is a dazzling white; her freshly manicured nails atop long slender fingers posed around a bouquet and glass award. The unforgiving crop of the painting right below the subject’s eyes leads me to a clumsy first reading: she too, is to be consumed. And this is the strength of the curation and the work itself. Heidinger works on the assumptions of a colonial gaze and holds back from a one-dimensional reading. Flora, the subject, displays a “hybridized connection to ‘homeland’ in North America” in her bilingual sash, golden dress, and winner’s stance.

In her essay Inscriptions of Truth to Size, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks to the impulse for anonymity when staging one’s ‘origins’: “You can’t have a true fit, just the approximate size, a hand me down for others who must stage the same collective origin as yourself.”¹ By rendering her subjects as complicated aesthetic symbols, Heidinger pushes the discomfort of the objectifying gaze, both daring and denying viewers to replace any of her works’ subjects with their sign.

Hau Pham, It’s hard work being the Best. Image courtesy of the artist.

Hau Pham’s and Heidinger’s works speak to one another in their conceptual approach to aesthetic veneer, placed in opposition to one another in the gallery space. In a conversation with the artist, I learn that her approach to painting is informed by her approach to makeup. “The most successful thing oil paint and makeup do is to make something beautiful.” In It’s hard work being the Best, Pham captures the opulence of Buddha in a golden statue lusciously rendered in veneered brushstrokes and surrounded by orchids. Unbeknownst to the viewer, the statue has been likely spray-painted to convey this opulence. Pham begins a painting from candid shots, “they’re not always good photos,” she laughs. Using paint as a beautifying substance, the artist opens a conversation around the value of beauty standards, and the joy, labour, and entrapping of femmes to imbue that value in themselves.

Compelled by her own experience and friendships with South East Asian and East Asian women, she documents items that offer a “false liberation” to the treatment of an individual. Online as a tween, Pham felt the influence of beauty vloggers like Bubzbeauty, and felt the trappings of choice feminism. She captures this viscerally in Trapping a younger version of Myself, a found object sculpture consisting of hundred-dollar bills, a loaded vape, and a set of thick false eyelashes. Each object stands in for an element of the Buddhist philosophy: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Lashes weigh down lids, vapes keep mouths busy, and cash makes it easier to ignore weighty issues. In Fall of the French (manicure) Pham tediously renders the classic French mani in its tongue-in-cheek decay. Pham’s work places the gloss of beauty as a point of interest while denying the viewer a visible entry to the works’ true underbellies. Pham’s practice uses elements of beauty to draw the viewer in and then has them sit with feelings of what they may wish to cover up.

miyhun maria kim’s works use casting as a method of translation and obfuscation. Through the gallery entrance, one meets with your tongue goes your memory. These are hydrocal casts of faces with peacefully closed eyes, set atop hand-stitched cushions, mimicking traditional Korean headdresses. kim creates distance from the values of “duty, honour and performance” by rendering the faces in low contrast. The laborious process of creating the cushions points to the time spent processing these values.

Casting is a material method that echoes throughout many of kim’s works, from The Language of Man, a bronze cast of a bare foot pressed against a bare shoulder, installed with an Onngi and scratch paper, to 달과 말 the moon and words, a quiet and commanding installation near the gallery’s exit consisting of thirteen beeswax casts of German versions of the Korean moon jar, set atop hanji (traditional Korean mulberry paper). The artist took inspiration from their various situations in multiple geographic regions for this work, drawing from “perpetual outsider experience as a Korean diaspora.” Using a translated recognition of the moon jar in a Liepzig flea market, kim cast the form in Canadian beeswax, locating their work in three regions simultaneously. Ink and hanji amplify the experience of translation, using abstractions of texts in Chinese characters, further muddying questions of formation. By using cast as translation, the artist creates new material connections to a sense of place. 화병 Squeezed hearts features wrenching ceramics seated on bamboo cushions. The viewer can see the impact of the artist’s hands constricting the clay in the process of making. The works read as the same size as human hearts. Hwa-Byung (anger disease) is an illness that affects the heart as a result of “suppress[ing] anger resulting from family conflict, so as not to jeopardize harmonious family or social relationships.” By exemplifying this internal anger in an object, kim cements the language of translation in their work.

Par Nair, a mother series, oil on wood panel, series of 12 pieces 6” x 8” each

Par Nair’s Letters of Haunting consists of two sarees whispering to one another in the slight breeze, separated by a mound of turmeric. The works are hand embroidered, a meditation on homesickness at the height of the pandemic. Embroidery, Nair told me in a previous conversation, is an inherited skill. The work puts us in touch with the maternal labour that came before us. The artists’ mother feels present in the gallery – whether it be her smeared, reworked face and translated face in her passport photos in a mother series, or her sarees, longing for her body and hanging at a monumental scale. At the show, Par let me know exactly how precarious the installation was. One fan was blowing the wrong way and the gorgeous golden spice would leave marks on the sarees. I am left with an insight on grief from a dear friend: “Sometimes, it’s not that the person is out of your life. Sometimes it’s that you know they are there, and you can’t hold them.”

Always but never dreaming exits the viewer from the gallery with the first real presence of a full figure. Swathed in creamy brushstrokes of black, the work unveils the figure of the artist through a half-eclipsed face, forearms, and foot lounging outside the covers of an overstuffed chesterfield. As one shifts around the work, the details of dream catchers, hanging coats, and weave of the blanket make themselves apparent. Lemay begins each artwork as a surface, feeling for a moment in her life where she felt constrained in the same way the surface is. The colour field works act as a literal positionality – the artist describes later to me that each work speaks to feeling confined in a space at a developmental moment in her life. As a child, she couldn’t speak to why intersections such as Blackness, Indigeneity, and girlhood had an impact on the way she was seen, but she could feel why. Blackness functions as a language of ambivalence in the works.

Natia Lemay, Always but Never Dreaming 2022, oil on canvas, 62″ x 42″

In Visibly Invisible, a little girl looks toward the edge of the circular panel, body language tense and alert, with the beads in her hair gleaming out a fire engine red. Lemay iterates to me: “Beads and braids are a Black thing, but they’re also an Indigenous thing. Why do we read them in one way, versus the other? If you are looking at the painting and seeing it as a Black person, you’re not really seeing it.” In her seminal essay Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity Lorraine O’Grady suggests a “both: and” ism to approaching critical subjectivity in European-Western theory – meaning that a subject can step away from the essentializing binds of defining what subjecthood can be, take what works for them, and expand.² Lemay’s paintings “poke the bear” in experiential storytelling, demanding the viewer describe what they see, and let them sit with the assumptions they make on gender, race, and life experience.

Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces is a necessary unveiling. The works demand patience, challenging viewers’ preconceived notions of beauty, consumption, presence, and visibility. Acts of obscuring figures become porous markers for recognition. Those who are looking may find themselves in the spaces left unknown.

Notes

¹Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Inscriptions of Truth to Size. Catalogue essay, Dunlop Art Gallery, 1990.

²Lorraine O’Grady. Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity. AfterImage 20. No. 1 (Summer 1992).

Sweet Decay: in and as an ecosystem by Shannon Taylor-Jones

Shannon Taylor-Jones, in and as an ecosystem exhibition installation. Photos by Shannon Taylor-Jones, courtesy of the artist.

Shannon Taylor-Jones

Good Sport Gallery

September 23 – October 22, 2022

By Reilly Knowles

Shannon Taylor-Jones has transformed the gallery into a tender, ghostly woodland.

Crossing the threshold of Good Sport Art Gallery & Studio in London, Ontario, I’m beckoned inside the space by mossy nets of knitting. At first, the woolen sculptures hanging from the ceiling evoke decaying flora, but as I draw close, figures reveal themselves: plush blobs like decomposing faces with stretched sockets, then intestinal snakes of bubble-gum pink. Their bodies are reclaimed by the forest, pleading for careful touches – indeed, gentle interaction is encouraged by the artist. Each sculpture feels painstakingly placed and distinct, disallowing the installation from truly feeling ‘wild,’ yet each one flows in and out of the other, like one lyric leading to the next.

Shannon Taylor-Jones, in and as an ecosystem exhibition installation. Photos by Shannon Taylor-Jones, courtesy of the artist.

Tucked inside and hanging from the textiles are specimens of crusted fungi and crispy leaves, chosen as carefully as jewels for their unique colours and shapes. Amidst the textiles are also oil paintings on panel, which appear like beetroot and rotted spinach smeared across lumber. The paintings are far stronger when intermixed with the textiles, and the span of wall dedicated to three panels feels quiet in proximity to its richer surroundings. Beneath the central corner of the installation is a blanket with three knitted pillows for visitors to rest and contemplate.

Taylor-Jones is an emerging interdisciplinary artist working in Toronto and London and has been a member of Good Sport (a collective as well as a gallery and studio space) since 2018.1 She explores decay and mycology as a way of thinking through the human body’s place in its ecosystem and its relationship to mortality. Her work is a way of affirming every organism’s tethers to the whole of nature, and every organism’s experience of the eternal tides of making and unmaking.2 As she writes in the exhibition’s accompanying text: “Corporeality is haunted by intimate kinship. That which is ‘human’ is not separate from ‘nature,’ but is deeply, intrinsically embedded within it. Art making is not an individual act, but a fertile collaboration of life, death, and the inbetween.”3

Shannon Taylor-Jones, in and as an ecosystem exhibition installation. Photos by Shannon Taylor-Jones, courtesy of the artist.

Taylor-Jones especially sees an affinity between the messiness of nature and the messiness of being disabled. That is to say, the messiness of being a body that is idiosyncratic beyond social acceptance, of being a body that feels both intense joy and intense pain. As she writes: “The intersection of disability/neurodivergence/madness is a liminal place of being, an ecosystem of simultaneous, disparate truths, where growth and decay both thrive.”3 She views the planet itself as disabled, its systems disjointed by climate change. In the face of surviving on this disabled globe, she contends: “people who live in disabled bodies are the people to look to for how to live and build on a disabled planet… To live on this planet, we need to think differently, and I think we need to think about the interconnection of all life (and death), and we need to recognize non-human beings as important, as equal, as intelligent.”5

Shannon Taylor-Jones, in and as an ecosystem detail. Photos by Shannon Taylor-Jones, courtesy of the artist.

The softness and slowness of the installation feels poignant at a point in the pandemic when people have long since been ordered to throw down their joyful, soft pursuits and return to their jobs per usual, to once more submit to the oppressive capitalist grind. As a person with severe chronic fatigue, Taylor-Jones critiques the notion that people must always be productive, as well as hypocritical discourse within disability activist spaces that often shames people for ‘not doing enough.’6

Amidst this onslaught, her exhibition beckons: ‘Come, rest awhile. Rest inside the coming and the going. Everything is not well, but it’s beautiful in any case. Sit inside my uneasy loveliness.’

in and as an ecosystem continues until October 22nd, 2022 at Good Sport Art Gallery & Studio (402.5 Richmond St., London, Ontario). The gallery is open Saturdays 12 – 4 pm, or by appointment. This exhibition review was written for Ruth Skinner’s course The Greatest Shows on Earth at Western University.

1 “Shannon Taylor-Jones,” Good Sport, Good Sport Art Gallery & Studio. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://www.good-sport.ca/shannon-taylor-jones.

2 Correspondence with the artist.

3 Shannon Taylor-Jones, “in and as an ecosystem,” Good Sport, Good Sport Art Gallery & Studio. Accessed September 26, 2022. https://www.good-sport.ca/current.

4 Ibid.

5 Correspondence with the artist.

6 Ibid.