Wednesday, 2 January 2013

On kitsch - An interview

This is an interview I did with the artist/academic Dr. Chloe Dechery that was published in the French magazine Théâtre / Public, n°202, "Kitsch et néo-baroque sur les scènes contemporaines" (ed. I. Barbéris and K. Vanhaesebrouck), Dec. 2011. The title of the interview was: «Je ne cesse de dire que je vais faire une performance avec moins d’objet, mais je n’y arrive pas », an interview with Sheila Ghelani by Chloé Déchery.

This (of course) is the english translation...

Fridge Magnets - Photo credit: Sheila Ghelani (2003)

I keep saying I’ll make a piece with less objects in it but I can’t.”
An interview with Sheila Ghelani

C: How would you describe yourself and what you do?

S: I’m an artist. I make solo work and I also work collaboratively. Usually I interrogate particular ideas that stem from the notions of mixing and mixity. My outputs can be performance, video or object based, but there’s always a live or interactive element with the audience.

C: How do the concepts of mixity and mixing inform and influence the making of your work?

S: I think my work is quite playful, but at the base of it, there’s always this interest (so far) in interrogating ideas around mixity – and they stem from my personal heritage – which is Indian and English. For some reason, I’ve chosen my practice as a means to take every opportunity to deal with that. I am interested in how you can pull different concepts together, and place different materials next to each other.

C: So, your work is coming from your personal background and is then multi-layered with possibly more abstract concepts. What is then your relationship originally with your autobiography?

S: It’s weird; it’s still totally there. I keep thinking I’ll make work that won’t be autobiographical, but even Rat Rose Bird, which I’ve just finished making, has ended up being autobiographical. In Rat Rose Bird, the text is very autobiographical, but I’ve been really careful to rewrite the story, because I am not really interested in a confessional tone.

C: In that piece, you’ve been playing with the figure of the hostess or the magician, which makes me think about some of your other works, like Nurse Knows Best where you were playing a nurse or Covet Me, Care for Me where you embody the image of the provider, the nurturer or the carer. To me, these figures play very gently with the ideas of care, tenderness, support, but also with some archetypal female representations.

S: Gender is really important to me and I do stage these archetypes and then mess around with them. I guess I am not trying to play characters, so I am borrowing all the kind of attire from these symbols (like the nurses uniform), but really I am just being myself. It’s about trying to occupy this slippery place in-between all these different things. It’s quite a simple strategy, but it draws people in, this idea of a provider or a carer. It’s about teasing them, the audience, to come in to be part of the work and to engage with the work.

C: But around these archetypal figures that you play with, there is also a real genuine naivety or a search for what is truthful within it, something quite heartfelt…

S: Definitely. Because all the work I make is about me finding out something I wanted to unpick or tackle in the first place. So I am learning as much as the audience is learning. I am not knowing. I am not trying to trick the audience; it’s more like inviting them to be part of this thing that I am interested in interrogating I suppose.

C: Romance, sentimentality and love play a major role in your work. Do you think that the objects you use on stage can work as mediums for desire, and that their manipulation, their appeal and their destruction has some sort of sensual or erotic (even if not sexual) element?

S: Absolutely. I think it's absolutely right to flag eroticism and sex – because both areas are as important in my work as cuteness or kitsch or beauty or humour. They are unavoidable when you are playing around with semiotics and are a woman I think. I use them less, because the way we 'look' at people/objects in relation to both areas is well-inscribed, but it's still possible to flip familiar images. Or destabilise them. Or smash them up. Or break them apart.

C: And how much does domesticity (the kitchen, food, the home life, private spaces, the precise attention to daily objects) come into your work?

S: As far as I'm concerned everything is useful in terms of my work. And in fact those things that are domestic/private are doubly useful as they are easy to access. Plus, because I'm interested in clashes and mixing up 'wrong' things together I don't see why that which is domestic/private shouldn't sit alongside that which isn't. In fact I actively encourage it. Also, Most people have a relationship with everyday objects, which means that they immediately are able to bring a set of associations into play when looking at whatever I'm showing them. I can then play with those associations. Perhaps by showing something in a place/space that is different to the one it is usually seen in, I am allowing people to 'see' it in a different light. To review their previous relationship with it. To re-make their associations. Or to read it in it's familiar old way and simply enjoy the clashes/joke of what I'm placing it next to.

C: You carry out a lot of physical activities, like slicing, cutting open or trashing things on stage…I was wondering how important is for you this activity of using your hands and doing and undoing?

S: I think it’s really important and really key to my work. I keep saying I’ll make a piece with less objects in it but I can’t. I love the immediate associations that are made when I place something in front of anyone. And then to manipulate the objects, to make them do things; that’s also really exciting. I often talk about what I do as a choreography of objects - possibly unsurprising as I trained in dance. Nowadays I am arranging my body amongst these objects and that becomes performance. So the making and undoing of them, the stories they can tell, that’s definitely part of it.

C: And within this interest for objects, there is also this idea of displaying things. You do work a lot with the idea of series and collections.

S: I am definitely interested in multiples and repetitions. I find that to repeat a thing is very pleasing. I’ve inherited these bits and bobs from both grandparents; my English grandmother who had the classic China collection – her house was always just full of objects. And my Indian grandma who had a mini temple crammed full of stuff, baby icons, gods. One of the first things I’d do when I was dropped off in my Indian grandmother’s house, was pray with her and put this little god figure to bed; we’d have to wash him, feed him, sing for him and tuck him into sleep, and that’s how my day started. And I think that this relationship to objects that I learnt back then is still playing itself out. As an adult I'm still handling objects in the same way– dressing them, bathing them, experimenting with them, arranging them. It’s kind of weird when you sort of realise it!

C: What is the purpose of rituals in your work, if there's any?

S: If there are rituals in my work (and some say there are), they've merely come about because I order/choreograph the action that myself or a participant has to undertake very carefully and because I really enjoy repetition. I am not actively trying to interrogate or explore ritual in my work. It's just a thing that seems to manifest. I have no doubt however that I've been heavily influenced by both the Christian and Hindu rituals which I have had to participate in quite regularly throughout my life (despite not being religious). In a way they offer another way to contemplate an idea. These things that are considered kitsch, I actually have a great love of them, because I’ve grown up with them all around me. A lot of things that are considered kitsch, they are really not considered kitsch within certain cultures, if that makes sense? There’s always this clash between what is valued and what is not. But also, in terms of my practice, I find it really easy to work with cheap items, because I work with so much stuff, and part of my practice is shopping, looking for objects, and that’s a little bit to do with what I can afford as an artist as well. There is something there to do with money. What you can afford, what is considered bad taste and good taste. I like to work with cheap things, but cheap doesn't usually mean tacky or ugly for me. I'm very careful about the clashes I engineer. Because in a way I'm trying to seduce people to come closer to my work, to me, to my ideas. So I do think I have to be resourceful – because I don't have unlimited budgets – but I also think if I had a huge budget I would make the same decisions in terms of decor/material/objects. Just perhaps on a larger or different scale. It's about delighting people – to draw them in – as much as anything. It is sort of strategic the way I use kitsch. To draw people in to then show them something below the play/beauty/seduction.

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