Nancys interview
Nancys interview
Location:ㄩNew York  Bryan*s Workshop
InterviewerㄩShen Ruijun
Recording:ㄩZhang Jieqian ,FanQin
Chinese ProofreadingㄩZhang Jieqian ,FanQin
English ProofreadingㄩZhang Jieqian ,FanQin
Shen Ruijunㄩ Could you tell us how you started making ※foto-projections§?
NancyㄩI think that perhaps the first essential point I need to make is that I don*t work according to a formula or plan. The term I have given my images (foto-projections) might make my approach seem process driven. But in fact my initial impulse derives from the desire to convey or conjure an image that originates in my mind, a visual notion that might have come from a dream or from an actual place. So I aim to bring those mental images to life without a preconceived notion of how to do it. And the process of making foto-projections unfolds in a different way each time 每and always as if it were necessary and inevitable. In this sense, there is no a priori technique.
But if I look back at the many series I have made over the last 35 years, it is clear that I always begin by drawing for a long time; for drawing is a way of seeing and understanding where I am.
To amplify the drawings, I take many photographs - more than I will need for projection purposes每 in order to fathom my relation to the world. It is probably important to know I always shoot analogue slides, not digital. I much prefer slide film because it renders a more profound space. Having drawn and made photographic studies, I begin to meld drawing and photography via projection to produce a series of images that I call foto-projections.
Shen RuijunㄩIt seems like the drawing serves as a structure in your work. Can you tell us more about the drawing?
NancyㄩThe drawing is really a kind of perceptual study in which I try to understand the space from various perspectives - to figure out where I am and what it feels like to be there. So I draw the same place over and over registering different qualities of light, devising other ways of rendering, to ※get at§ what the essence of representing space is or can be. In this way drawing provides a kind of architecture that manifests thought rather than description. And I later infuse the drawings with photographic evidence, giving the graphic architecture the illusion of substance.
Shen RuijunㄩSo usually you start drawing in the real world instead of just drawing in your studio?
NancyㄩGenerally, I prefer to draw from perceptual information, but I have to make at least eight (or more) drawings before I arrive at what feels like the right configuration. So many of the drawings are done in my studio. But often because I have drawn the place so many times I don*t have to look any more. It*s as if the place were inside of me 每 absorbed into my system, because I know it so intimately. But mine is not a new way of working, artists have been making studies in this way for hundreds of years, drawing from nature (plein aire) and then returning to the studio to rework their sketches. But because I draw steadily, it often feels as if I were reproducing a memory of drawing or recording only a memory of how I perceived the place.
Shen RuijunㄩSome of your drawings are really abstract. Can I understand it in this way, you draw a site for many times and then you begin to abstract the elements?
NancyㄩIt*s not actually a process of abstracting. It*s trying to find an ideal structure capable of sustaining my mental images. There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, ※So-and-So Reclining on her Couch,§ that I can*t quote, but it talks about hovering between the real thing and the idea of the thing and the constant moving back and forth between the two. I think my work is in that constant flux ※between.§ As a result I make representational renderings of real space but it looks perhaps as if the drawings were somewhat abstract or abstracted from something concrete. So the process is really one of expanding to allow for the constant flow of information, and of enhancing the space so it can contain the perceptions I have culled from experience.
Shen RuijunㄩWhen you draw, what do you want and what don*t you want?
NancyㄩMay I pose the question in this way?: why do you work the way you do? Every place seems to speak differently and I feel compelled to find the exact visual language with which to understand it. For example, on waking I sometimes transcribe traces of dreams, sketching the remnants I can retrieve before they disintegrate, asking: where I was in the dream, what did the dream place look like? And then I rework those sketches to convey how it felt to be there, devising new systems for the dream space because linear perspective proves inadequate to the task. I keep working till I feel it conjures or ※picturizes§ what I think I experienced, and the more my drawing corresponds to the dream locus the more ※real§ or convincing it will be.
Shen RuijunㄩI think you are making a structure in your drawing and then take something from your photos and add that to the drawing. So my question is: when you make the drawing, how do you produce this container or structure and then other elements?
NancyㄩIt is a kind of magical process. Once I have determined that the drawing is ※finished§ I make a small relief replica or model of it using torn or cut paper. And this model becomes the screen onto which I project small fragments taken from my slides of the ※real world§. If I have looked very hard and well, somehow, miraculously, it all fits together. And that it fits is a measure of my ability to understand and accurately record my perceptions. Much has to do with chance: I put a scrap of paper in the wrong place or upsidedown or backwards 每and it looks good that way so I leave it. The work procedes with a sense of inevitability though can*t help incorporating accident into the process.
Fifteen years ago I did a piece based on a temple in India, Amaravati, destroyed in the 19th century. While researching I had discovered some early travelers* drawings and a few old photographs of the site. In the museum in Madras I had seen small sculptural representations of the temple originally used as decorative tondos on the façade of the now vanished building. Using all three sources, I contrived a drawing that I thought could suggest what the temple might have looked like. When I eventually projected onto my model, I was stunned to see that it all corresponded in plan and elevation. The projections are rarely perfect the first time and often require minor adjustments, rethinking and fiddling. But if I have come to understand the place in a profound way, then everything will correspond or match. The images exist at the intersection of the historical, the literary, and the visual.
Shen RuijunㄩSo usually, you make a lot of drawings after which you take photos and then you see which photographs with work with the relief drawings?
NancyㄩThat is the general idea but as I said previously, there is no formula, just a tendency to work in a certain way.
For the last 2 summers in a small Tuscan town, I drew for five weeks daily and constantly the same view from my studio window for more than a month. It was a very intense and beautiful experience. After a few weeks, I began taking slides, not to inform the drawings but instead to gather other kinds of visual material. Photographing a place is a different way of knowing it. So I just shot as I felt the impulse, when I got up, walking to the grocery store, etc. When I saw new details or an unexpected quality in the light, I would capture it. Back in New York using the drawings and photographs I developed the model, and then projected fragments of the slides I had taken onto it. But I am never sure which slides will work for the projection. It*s always a process of exploration and surprise.
Shen RuijunㄩYou like to travel. Can you tell us how travel has influenced your work?
NancyㄩI started traveling when I was fifteen. I was awarded an archaeological scholarship to Israel for a paper I wrote called ※All the women of the Bible§.  I went from St. Louis, Missouri to the Middle East - visited amazing archaeological digs throughout Israel. The most impressive at the time was the temple of Solomon 每or the mass of stones they said had been the temple. The site was wonderfully evocative, with striations of rubble revealing distinct cultures over many centuries. After that trip, I began to travel extensively. It never felt like a being a tourist -or simply traveling 每 but rather living wherever I was. I always work where I am, so in some ways it isn*t different for me to be making art in Sri Lanka where I spent 4 months or New York City where I have lived for most of my life. Even the most remote places don*t feel more foreign than New Jersey where I have been teaching for 39 years.
Shen RuijunㄩIn your foto-projections, you like to collage and in your drawing you like to gather different information until the images feels right. You said that you like to live outside of America and collect different memories. How does this desire to be elsewhere relate to your work?
NancyㄩI think the mechanism or procedure we devise for understanding the world is very complex. In part it involves what you have read, what you have seen, what you have experienced, how you process those experiences, and what you remember 每 or don*t.  You are never just in one place at any moment. I saw reproductions of paintings of Giotto for the first time when I was sixteen and loved them though I had never been to Italy. Subsequently, when I went to Padua, I understood why they had had such a profound effect on me. Similarly, when I traveled to study early Buddhist sculpture in Southeast Asia, I saw strange, awkward figures that appeared to be Greco-Roman but instead were recast in roles to convey a new Buddhist narrative. No means of expression is simple and clear; the sources and evolution of each cultural form are intricate, difficult to fathom. In my work, I try to disentangle the threads to grasp the sources of invention.
You are never just here or there, you take with you the vast storehouse of who you are. I don*t travel to a place just to have a particular experience and to record it as if I were a visitor passing through. Everything I*ve seen affects the way I perceive a place and the way I imagine it to have been before I arrived.
In 2005, I had a large commission for Parma, Italy, to produce work that examined their city monuments. That was my assignment. It was an intensely challenging project because the town was relatively new to me. I spent five weeks there photographing all day everyday, observing, documenting, and making notes, etc. I got to know many people, working with them, sitting in caf谷s, so my time there became part of ※real life.§ Of course the work I produced was profoundly conditioned by having spent many years in Italy. To answer: It*s not as if I need to ※travel§ to make new work but it seems to happen as an essential aspect of my work.
Shen RuijunㄩI remember that Morandi stayed in his studio for most of his life. What do you think of this way of working? When you do your work, you need all kinds of different information. But Morandi just sat in his studio, enjoying the objects he found there. What do you think about this in relation to your work?
NancyㄩI think there is no bad subject in art. I do think that Morandi is a relatively limited artist. Let*s take Cezanne who painted many of the same subjects repeatedly and had insights and made discoveries as he struggled to find new modes of representation. Though Cezanne is not my favorite artist, I am using him as an example because he painted a few themes obsessively (Mt.Sant Victoire, his wife, etc.) and these subjects became vehicles for his explorations. In a sense, then, it*s not a question of the choice of a subject but what one does with it.
I have an endless curiosity to know things. I really like looking and I find it an enriching process in life and art. I think this impulse is not about spectacle at all, or the need to see new and different things as entertainment, it*s more like a need to know things from the inside and to understand them as profoundly as I can or to come as close as I can to understanding 每 (while cognizant that this is an impossible endeavor.)
Shen RuijunㄩYou did projects in China, the Middle East, and Europe. When you do these projects in different places, do they have different meanings for you and were you simply trying to broaden your thinking?
NancyㄩThat*s difficult to answer because it*s the same and it*s different. It*s the same because wherever I am my own history affects how I see and what I do as an artist. But my process of looking and thinking and working is all connected. Sri Lanka would seem a remote place for me to work, and yet when I walked into my studio overlooking the rice paddies for the first time it felt as if I had been there always. I had a profound affinity for the place, though I couldn*t speak Singhalese or Tamil, and was communicating in English with most of the people. And the obvious language gap was compounded by a profoundly cultural one.  But in my 4 months there I felt I came to comprehend a great deal, particularly about the way complex historical factors affect cultural forms. So the answer is really both. Of course where you are conditions what you do, but because I chose where I go, I feel perhaps the reason I have elected to go to a particular place is the most significant factor.
Shen RuijunㄩSo you like to use dreams and memories in your work. What do you want to take from them to give the real world?
NancyㄩI think a story will be the best way to respond. A curator came into my studio many years ago. She was organizing an exihibition called Sequence/Consequence, that examined the use of multiple imagery in photography. She chose my work because it consists primarily of sequences or series and the one she selected is entitled The Traveler Remembers. In this polyptich you see in a small room in the upper right area where a woman in profil perdu is looking at a drawing of a view out a window. This sectional view is contained within a huge, modern building in which there a milling crowd seen from above. On the left in the foreground appears a group of figures, different ones in each panel. The background consists of a gigantic window looking onto a vague landscape that also shifts in each image. The curator looked at the piece and said,§ Where is that? I know I have been there before.§  I think the space seemed hauntingly familiar because it succeeded in conveying what the dream was like. In a way she could see my dream or at least saw what it felt like to be in that dream. And that seemed exciting to me.
We have like dream experiences and I hope to share mine through my work in hopes of finding a sense of commonality. Dreams can feel as real to me as the view out the window.  To make them seem real might be ※giving something§ to the world.
Shen RuijunㄩWhat you do think about conceptual art?  As I understand it, most conceptual artists have an idea and then try to do something with it. What do you think about this process in relation to your work? 
NancyㄩI think there is a lot of confusion about conceptual art 每 what it was originally in the Sixties and what it has become. Good art of any sort is transformative, capable of changing your life. And any meaningful engagement requires thought. Personally, I am not interested visual art that elimates images. Surely, I love music, I love dance and I love theatre, etc. But I cherish images. That*s what I am interested in making. Art used to illustrate an idea, whether politcal or philosophical doesn*t work to transform. Illustration is trivializing because it depends on clich谷 -  a lazy form with generic thinking.
Shen RuijunㄩYou say you don*t want to illustrate an idea, so I would like to know what it is you are trying to do in your art?
NancyㄩThat is a very difficult question, and I will try to answer simply. I hope that people will engage with the work and their encounter will encourage them to ask questions about who they are and how they think. Ultimately, I would hope that a person becomes more capable of change as a result of seeing the work.
There is a poem by Rilke that I have read in English translation, because my command of German is insufficient for the subtleties of his poetry. It*s called The Greek Torso. In the poem he describes his experience of looking at a fragment of a classiscal male sculpture: In the poem the torso comes to life and the breasts become eyes peering out at you. The last line reads. ※You must change your life.§ When you comprehend that an encounter with art has the capacity for such a profound re-shaping, you sense its potential. You must change your life.
Shen RuijunㄩIn the 1980s, minimalist artists repeated forms many times.  How does this differ from your process?
NancyㄩI think a very different system is operating in Minimalist work. The repetition of  modular units and repetition become the subject. Mine is a more traditional way of working. I need many versions to get it right. There are multiple images in a series because I can*t find a way to convey the complexity of my perceptions in a single one. Together the series suggests the many possible ways of seeing the world.
Shen RuijunㄩDo you think there is a difference between Eastern and Western painting in this sense? For example, my farther is a painter in Chinese traditional painting. He always draws a flower thousands of times and continues drawing the same flower until he thinks that*s right. Is this how Western painting works?
NancyㄩPerhaps there is one basic difference: I think you have a profound cultural tradition and it would be difficult to find a similar consistency and evolution in the West. We can talk about Italy in the 1600s. We can talk about New York in the 1950s. In each case we see entirely distinct approaches to art making. For example in abstract expressionism the artist didn*t plan, and s/he would just sit, mark and splash allowing the painting to emerge spontaneously. Whatever happened happened. Significantlly, the painting became a kind of record of the moment in which it was made and could never be precisely repeated. That is a non-traditional notion. So in a certain sense the way art is made in the West is more about invention. And working as a Western artist I contrived a technique that requires constant invention.
Even when photographing, I try to find shots that reveal a new thoughts or perceptions. For example, when I was working in Parma, I took a shot of the Farnese Theatre. When I revisited the site with the critic who had written the catalog essay for my exhibition, David Levi Strauss, we couldn*t locate the spot from which I had taken the picture. It had disappeared. That notion 每 a phantom photo - seems really exciting to me - and certainly not ※traditional.§ Also, there are byproducts that accrue as I work -  the drawings, models, and foto-projections 每and they all qualify as part of the ※art§.  The lack of a single end result also is not a traditional notion.
Shen RuijunㄩFrom what I remember, you also do installations. You project you slides into an architectural space?
NancyㄩYes, that is the general idea, but each has a different form, each is unique. For example, for my exhibition, Distillations, I produced the piece entitled Tunnel Visions. I had shown this piece first in New York, then the Southeast Museum of Photography, in Florida, and finally at the Houston Center for Photography. I enlarged the small bas relief model of the tunnel to be room size 每 a long darkened tunnel in forced perspective, a huge, life-size structure with slide projectors hidden above the entrance. There were twenty-five different images in the series set on a dissolve unit. The images appearing at of the far end of the tunnel melted one into another, offering shifting views in the distance at the far end of the tunnel..
I improvised an audio element to muffle the clicking sound emitted by the projectors. When I was in Sri Lanka I had made live recordings: the noise in the train stations, the radio blasting from a passing vespa, the sounds of chanting in the temples. From these fragments I made a single sequence that replicated the collaging system of the images.
Shen RuijunㄩSo it seems you want to make the viewer feel transported in your work?
NancyㄩExactly, though it is a virtual experience.  Of course none of the views depicts a ※real§ landscape in Sri Lanka, because the images are fabricated composites. They suggest a sense of history 每 specifically I included some of the monuments from the third century A.D. to create the feeling that you were in an early buddhist cave. While simultaneously and within the ancient sites you can see a man walking along a train track.  The images carry the presence of the past.
Shen RuijunㄩYour work always concerns time. In what special way do you conceive of time and convey it in your work?
NancyㄩWell, we live with the past unless we obliterate it, as I suggest in Urban Amnesia a recent piece. For this work I documented the destruction of a 19th century print factory across from my studio window - the movement of the demolition balls, the collapse of the structure itself. Similarly, I observed and photographed the progress of an extravagant new high-rise building constructed in its place. I have used the view out my window for many series and for Urban Amnesia I used some of the slides I had taken in 1978. Without those early images, it would be difficult even to remember what the original view had been. Whether obsolete or fresh, the slides contain a sense of the history that would otherwise fade into a vague memory or total oblivion.
Once when I was in Cambodia I met some young people who hadn*t experienced the terrible massacres that had occurred in that country. As orphans, they only knew about it through the stories of lost families. It was hard for them to fathom the full force of the national tragedy that had taken place. And this is what happens when you lose history. So in Urban Amnesia I wanted to convey the obliteration of memory without nostaligia , with a clear-eyed look into the effects of this process.
Shen RuijunㄩYou mean If you know the past, you can have a better understanding of the present and future?
NancyㄩYou can imagine what might happen, which will be terrifying 每 or perhaps - wonderful.
Shen RuijunㄩYou like to make many versions of your photos by projecting different slides onto one model to make a series. So does this process feel like meditation for you? For example, I like to sit in the caf谷 and then watch people walking. I remember you have a window piece on which many different images appear. 
NancyㄩYes, mine is a slow process, but perhaps contemplative would be a more accurate description. Many years ago when the work was just beginning to evolve, I was making very careful drawings of a view out my studio window. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to compare a photo of the view with my drawing. So I took a black and white photograph of my drawing and one of the view. I then sandwiched the negatives in the darkroom to make a single photograph. The resulting series of prints I called ※double drawings§ and this work constituted my first exhibition.
Some months later while trying to project a slide of one of the double drawings, the image mistakenly landed on the blinds blocking the light. It was a incredible vision - as if I could see the (drawn/photographed) view through the blind. I then tried many variations 每 opening the blinds part way, etc. and somehow with no photographic expertise, managed to photograph the projected images. The resulting photographs developed into my first New York show.
In a way the window becomes an access to the world, becomes a kind of membrane through which you perceive the world, or the meditative mechanism for recording subjective perceptions over time. I have done probably five series, beginning in 1985, from this very window. The notion of looking through and at the window becomes an act of contemplation allowing my thoughts to expand.
In some cases, I mounted the models so that you can see the transparency of certain materials with interior lighting, and I have shown them together with the foto-projections, and sometimes when people collect my work, they like to collect these models and show it with the series of photographs.
Shen RuijunㄩSo you have photographs for this model?
NancyㄩI have a whole series, it*s called Rebuilding, it means ※to reconstruct§, it also means ※about building§,an intentional play on words.
Shen RuijunㄩI really like the light behind the model.
NancyㄩThat*s what it looks like when I*m projecting, you see in this image (Sky Shadow) the sky, the blue clouds, were made by rear projection.
Shen RuijunㄩWhat*s the difference when you project from behind and when you project in the front at the same time? Why don*t you just make two and project them on the front?
NancyㄩPerhaps this will be not so interesting for someone who is not actually making the projections! Techinically It*s very hard to isolate different sections, but by projecting bits from behind I can isolate and control the separate parts of the image.
© Copyright FCAC 2007