Natasha Rosling¡¯s interview
Natasha Rosling¡¯s interview
Date: May 31, 2012
Location: FCAC Shanghai
Interviewer: Li Xiaofei
Type In & Translator: Natasha Rosling and Wang Ziwen
Chinese Proofreading: Wang Ziwen
English Proofreading: Natasha Rosling and Wang Ziwen
Li Xiaofei: I start this interview without knowing much about you - so it was interesting to have you work here and not to have an idea of what to expect. Usually I do a lot of research into the artist¡¯s work before I interview them, but with you I just saw your website and read a few texts.?
Natasha:Yes, but I think that can also be more interesting since you can come to things afresh. You can then form your own opinion.
Li Xiaofei: Can you start by telling me some of your life experiences, your background and family. How did you come to be an artist and how have your experiences influenced your work?
Natasha: I can remember feeling the desire to be an artist from a very young age. Although my close family are not particularly interested in art - my Father is a businessman and my Mother used to be translator, and now works as a psychotherapist. Yet, my Father had the most dominant voice, and so when I used to say I wanted to be an artist I was laughed at...¡¯no, no, no you can¡¯t do that, that¡¯s ridiculous, artists can¡¯t afford to feed themselves...¡¯
When we were kids my Dad had a belt factory in an old barn on the site of a big farm in a village. My sisters and I used to run around on our own to play - I was completely fascinated by all the machinery, the weird smells of leather and glue, forklifts and huge guillotines. Surrounding this in the old farm were a weird mix of used and abandoned spaces, giant dusty piles of grain in dark barns, huge stacks of musty hay bales, rusty lifting equipment, straps and pulleys. I also used to talk to the farmers or they would tell me off for my mischievous behaviour in dangerous places. One thing I always desperately wanted was to climb to the top of the giant mountains of grain, they were mesmerizing to me - but I was told stories to scare me - that other children had drowned in the grain, suffocated as they were sucked into the middle of the pile to slowly die. We had to be careful playing near the combine harvesters - many farmers had lost arms or legs getting caught in these machines, so children would easily get minced up too. My mum also used to tell me about one of my Dad¡¯s factory workers who sliced his finger off in the leather cutter...she had the job of searching for this finger amongst the remnants and put it in an ice-cream box full of ice to be sent with the man to hospital.As a child, I think these stories and situations resonated with me due to my own peculiar feelings towards physicality. It never felt natural for me to have a body, and I felt very restricted and frustrated by its limitations - its fragility and temporariness. A great, great aunt of ours had lost both her legs from gangrene - and her two stumps used to scare me. But then I used to convince my sister to sit in my Grampy¡¯s empty wheel chair with her lower legs tucked under her calves and a blanket wrapped tightly around. This way it also looked like she had no legs, and I then wheeled her around my grandparent¡¯s village... both of us with mournful faces. And so from early on my own weird sense of humour developed out of this strange bodily fear, which also became quite a strong undercurrent to my artistic practice in later years too.
Li Xiaofei: But as a child, how did you know about artists, in order to want to become one?
Natasha: It was at school that I first learned snippets about art - seeing pictures and doing creative workshops. Initially I wanted to be a painter and during my school years I was painting and drawing all the time. When I was sixteen, I used to earn money doing portrait paintings.
When I left school I went straight onto a foundation course at Camberwell College of Art. I found the balance in my brain shifting to one side. At school I also really loved physics and was very good at it, dealing with problem solving and the nuts and bolts of physicality. Physics also balanced the other side of my brain that liked painting. Yet when I stopped studying physics to only do painting at college, that part of my brain started getting a bit annoyed. I started wanting to do much more physical, hands on things - to figure out how objects, structures and different materials functioned.  Having good workshop facilities also excited me and I then started to make objects. Firstly, these were more assemblages and wall structures, which then gradually moved onto the floor. I have always been more interested in how to structure space - rather than just occupying it.
Li Xiaofei: So what kind of materials were you using at that time? And how did your ideas develop in relation to your working processes?
Natasha:At the very beginning, I mainly used found or salvaged materials, but quickly I realised that I didn¡¯t like the heavy sense of nostalgia that was contained within them. Their sense of history and previous usage seemed to pull the work into an area that I wasn¡¯t interested in. I felt the work wasn¡¯t active enough in the present, although I was very active in the making. I had to ask myself how I could engage other human ¡¯bodies¡¯ or viewers more actively, and incorporate their bodies as subjects within the work. This was around the time I was about twenty, just as I started my BA in Sculpture at Chelsea College. I then started to experiment more with performance. I was trying to figure out what the body meant, as well as how a psychology could be contained or transmitted physically, and how actions and gestures feed back into mental processes. It is also probably relevant to mention that from a young age, I experienced many stomach problems and so often had to undergo many sorts of internal probes and examinations in different hospitals. I developed a kind of phobia around all this too. Looking back, I think my early work was beginning to explore this discomfort or this intense feeling of having a body, although perhaps it wasn¡¯t such a conscious decision at the time. To move to a more general perspective - what I feel is most significant is this idea of how the body negotiates the world and vice versa. My sisters and I travelled a huge amount later in childhood. My Dad moved into the button business and constantly travelled the world as a salesman for a big button company, and he would take us with him for six weeks every summer. We mainly travelled in Asia and Central America, but in our travels there were two main aims - to avoid tourist areas and to live on as little money as possible. This meant we came across some pretty interesting places and challenging situations. These experiences also spurred in me a fascination in how individuals negotiate and exchange with cultures outside their own. How are we, as separate human beings, confronted with of our embodiment through our experience of ¡¯difference¡¯? And how does this contrast then reflect back on our own sense of reality? Initially we are usually aware of the physical contrasts between our body and an unknown environment. Here, I mean general differences in bodily features, or the way people dress, as well as the physical impact that a surrounding natural landscape or urban style of architecture might provoke. But as soon as we begin to interact with a place and its inhabitants, contrasts in social attitudes, conventions and cultural heritage begin to surface too. The experience of ¡®otherness¡¯ has made me particularly aware of how we create our own comfort zones. What happens when we are taken out of our own comfort zones both physically and psychologically? How does this contribute to our awareness of our own thinking?
Li Xiaofei: These shifts in interest are very natural in your eyes, right? Your installations have always been very large scale ¨C have they always developed in proportion to the size of the space that you work in?
Natasha: Well yes I suppose so, seeing that I usually conceive each work in relation to the space that it will exist in. As I said earlier, I never liked the idea of making objects that just sat there inert - I was perhaps trying to be a bit more aggressive with spaces and pull them about in order to create a new kind of immediacy. Again, within this desire to make big things - I think I always wanted to test my physical capabilities as one body, how much I could cope with in terms of building, I always wanted to challenge my bodily capabilities.
I also found this weird situation where I wanted to create an environment in which I felt alienated - or to create installations that tested my understanding of a space or how we feel comfortable in it. But here there developed a very interesting paradox. I was trying to challenge myself both psychologically and physically - yet at the same time I was building another world around me like some form of protection, my own little world where things functioned differently.
Li Xiaofei: You always feel that the interior body is an unfamiliar condition for you; this kind of idea seems to be at the core of all your projects.
Natasha: Yes, but I am also interested in how to make exterior places feel unfamiliar. Perhaps I like to do this through making the exterior have some relationship to the inside of the body. I have always wondered what I would look like if I were turned inside out...(laughing).
Li Xiaofei: We are now inside your installation at FCAC. So you are saying it is as if we are in the protection of the wooden structures. The triangular structures are the most obvious - do these triangles have a special meaning and how do you decipher what these triangles signify?
Natasha: In my mind, the triangles are not something to be deciphered, it¡¯s not a case of them having a specific meaning either. Although I do see triangles everywhere, repeated in things like tents, mountains, pyramids. However, it has always been a shape that I have found really fascinating. It is a very dynamic form that seems to direct energy around a space. From another perspective, if you think about the triangle in architectural terms, it is just a really strong shape. It is a support structure. I always like to look at how to make things stand up and how different structures can be mutually supportive, so there are often triangles in my work due to this relationship of support.
Li Xiaofei: Do the costumes in this space express the strange feelings you have towards your body?
Natasha:I wouldn¡¯t say they ¡¯express¡¯ it - they are more theatrical than that. Even if they are not worn directly, they invite the idea or possibility of inhabiting this space in an absurd way, or suggest an activity or ritual that could take place here.
Li Xiaofei: Some of your performances seem like religious ceremonies set within the installation.
Natasha:Yes, and of course I am quite interested in the theatricality inherent to the ¡¯ceremony¡¯. Churches, for example, are their own kind of theatre. It is the same for hospitals, circuses, museums and so on. They are the spaces where you walk through the door and reality functions differently. You are suddenly lifted into a different way of thinking, way of looking, moving, behaving, due to the big shift in context. I like to think of how I can combine a mixture of many references to all these places. Generally, an audience find comfort in entering a space where they know how they are expected to behave. Yet, I find this a problematic when this leads to normalised behaviour or to fears of being abnormal, out of line or misunderstood. This kind of homogeneity of action, I feel, negates the most interesting aspects of being human. Conventional museums and art galleries are particular victims to this. They can be incredibly prescribed spaces in terms of what an audience might expect to see or the codes of behaviour that are expected of them - assumptions which are then further instilled by the watchful invigilator. In this case, the activity of looking at art becomes ¡¯squidged¡¯ down. So, what does it mean to actually look at something? Or to involve ourselves within an artwork? These are all problems I struggle to resolve. I like to ask myself the question - how can we create environments, a place or a space that people don¡¯t know how to negotiate? How can they then use their own intuition and integrity to behave in ways that remain particular to them, rather than to the norm? To achieve this, we need to provoke a level of friction and confusion for the viewer - but then we also need to create a situation of intimacy. In some ways, this type of friction or confusion is most easily achieved when working in transitory areas of the public space, due to the blurring of context and layering of information. Yet, at the same time this type of public space is the most challenging environment to create works in, precisely because it too often lacks intimacy. And so here, the work must then generate that for itself.
Li Xiaofei: So in essence, you want to provoke in your viewer¡¯s minds a similar process of thought to that which you experience in the very making of your work?
Natasha: In some ways I do, but that would also be too much to expect, and would be too restrictive. There are also often contradictions between thinking and making. It is important for me to be able to engage wholeheartedly in the process of making. This is also an important time for me to discover and to surprise myself. However then I have to step back and question - what methods do I assume or re-establish each time I make something and how do these function in line with my ideologies? I feel like I am trying to both immerse myself and alienate myself in order to initiate further questions of my own.
Li Xiaofei: But have you ever succeeded alienating your own body from yourself?
Natasha: Yes I succeed in that most of the time! But when I say I like to create situations to alienate myself or my audience - I can¡¯t say this would always have the same or right effect on other people - not that there is a right effect. From a different perspective, I can see how the act of making can be used as a form of escape or a distraction from the critical questioning of this analytical voice. This splitting, or this rift, can sometimes become a restrictive trap. However, I am aware that my challenge is to find ways to reconnect with my body and to see it as an integral part of me, rather than just this thing sitting here. To do that, I need to feel that it is useful and to make it do things - so that thinking and the body can activate each other. Again, the more I am bemused by my surroundings, the more I have to consciously connect with my body to lead the way. Perhaps it is a bit like being lost in a city. You just have to listen to what forces you feel are acting on you, and try to locate an internal compass. So in this very process of alienation and friction, the most important thing is how we then come back and reconnect with ourselves in other ways. So in talking about separation, I am really talking about a process of connection.
Li Xiaofei: Your project has puzzled me for days. I think your work is much more diverse and flexible than other exhibitions I have seen. But do you think this exhibition is successful?
Natasha:I think components of it might be, but I don¡¯t feel that it knows what it wants to be... In my wider practice there are so many layers of thought going on, so many complexities, which I feel are impossible to contain within a separate physical thing or installation. And it would be silly for me to say that my work communicates all these things. So I often get really frustrated or deflated by this idea about something as being ¡¯finished¡¯ and find the work very difficult to summarise. It¡¯s more thinking that I am interested in, particularly the relationship between thinking and imagining something. How that can or cannot be materialised or experienced in the physical world - and so at the core is always this problem of making these two things come together.
Li Xiaofei: So do you believe that art can function in society?
Natasha: In the world, in Asia, in the UK, in the Western world?
Li Xiaofei: In the world.
Natasha:I think it does, but on a wider scale usually only in retrospect. Of all the artworks being produced across the world here and now, most of these never seem to function in society to the degree that most people would like them to. The consequences or effects of a work are always much clearer after it has taken place, and been documented or remembered, after people have been given the chance to reflect and consider the work as a whole. And this process takes time - it can take years. I think where the here and now of art making does function and flourish in the present, is through more localised, personal human relationships, conversations and situations - those invisible forces and connections that give rise to and arise from the creative process - rather than the products or events themselves.
Li Xiaofei:In one of Per¡¯s [H¨¹ttner]videos he has the line, ¡°Today¡¯s creativity is the future¡¯s knowledge¡±, do you agree with this line?
Natasha: Yes I do, and today¡¯s knowledge is also the justification of yesterday¡¯s ideas. In the same way I also think the work that is considered successful in today¡¯s contemporary art scene is the product of yesterday¡¯s ideas or creativity. So it¡¯s like we are always behind. What will be successful in the future, isn¡¯t successful now ¨C since people haven¡¯t ¡¯digested¡¯ it yet. I suppose this is the same as what Per was saying but the other way around - Per¡¯s initial quote is a more progressive though.
Li Xiaofei: Many artists are poor, you are still young and can change your career - do you regret doing art?
Natasha:I don¡¯t regret it at all. And I know it¡¯s difficult. I always ask myself how I can contribute with the work I make, and can often experience a lot of doubt in this. But as uncomfortable as this may feel, at the core, I do feel a deep trust in my own intentions. I think I¡¯m trying to figure out how to be the most effective human being. And in that way it¡¯s not about conventional ideas of success. I always ask myself the question whether my art making is a purely selfish practice. Do I really care about how many people look at what I do, and if they appreciate it? Or am I making and exhibiting just to solve the problems in my own mind in order to connect and develop with those around me in more rewarding ways? Even so, I hope that if a body of work can show a degree of inquiry and self-reflection, then others can also find inspiration in that.
Li Xiaofei: Maybe I have sacrificed more than you.
Natasha:What exactly have you sacrificed?
Li Xiaofei:We are both artists, but you don¡¯t run an art space too.
Natasha:We all have to make sacrifices in one way or another, but those are also choices we have made which can bring other benefits even if they complicate life and time. As artists we constantly have to find other ways of supporting ourselves financially, and having paid work that still is flexible enough to allow the freedom to travel and do intensive projects in different places. Although I am not a director, I am also part of a cooperative in London with an art gallery and education programme. The organisation is run voluntarily between its members - so this can suck up a lot of my time and take me away from my own studio. But this is my choice, and I know that in the long run it offers some incredible experiences - it feels wonderful to be part of a diverse community and this brings me a lot of happiness. Somehow I think you feel the same with what you are doing yourself. I really feel that all these compromises and restrictions are opportunities in themselves - sometimes I feel they pull me off track, but then I have to step back and re-establish my priorities again. I am very aware of the importance of using this situation to strengthen my attitude, to keep evaluating my position in order to be as honest as I can be with the work I make - and this includes allowing experiments to flop. At the moment, I am trying to unpick many of my ideas and assumptions, to reconstitute things in a relevant way and see how I can keep moving.
© Copyright FCAC 2007