Saturday, 15 October 2011

While at Frieze, I took a break from the rampant cash splashing to grab a cup of tea and a chat with artist Vanessa Hodgkinson as she was gearing up for her new show, Economies of Language, launching tonight at The Hardy Tree Gallery...

The Spectacle of Threat, 2011

So how’s all the preparation going?

Overall I feel good about it.Things have started to fuse together. There are three main elements to the show: the √©criture, the fake writing, the QR codes and then the collage work, which is mostly based on images of women.

In what way do you see this show as a continuation of what you were doing before?

 It's a continuation of mark making using my hands, which I’ve been doing for a couple of years now, where I use my fingers to paint words. Having done so much work with paintbrushes and reed pens and really delicate implements, it’s been nice to use my body much more which i think is part of moving into a more performative approach.

Untitled Pair, 2011

That very raw, material engagement seems to contrast with the work you've done using QR codes

That’s what interests me. How we can bring something emotional into something so mediated? The QR codes are essentially pieces of work where there’s an unknown message.You know there’s something locked into the image because the code leads somewhere but it depends whether or not it can be accessed.

The Origin of the World, 2011

Of course it still 'works' if you’re not accessing it with your iPhone

It works visually but there’s this itch that you need to scratch. There’s something behind it, something else that the artist has considered, but it’s whether or not the artist chooses to give the key away. QR codes also have an aesthetic kinship to squared Kufic calligraphy, a form of Arabic writing. And there’s a really interesting relationship between new media art and Islamic art to do with algorhithms and digitization, the idea of patterns that underlie everything.

Tell me a bit about the √©criture. It looks like writing but isn't, right? 

I studied Arabic language at Kuwait University a few years ago. I never advanced passed the toddler stage but can read the letters. I enjoyed the experience of being on the outside of language. The language we use everyday is so intrinsic to us we don’t think about it. When you learn a language you strain to get into it. These texts are forms that don’t actually say anything. If you were to go to a mosque and read the script on a monumental frieze, you could appreciate it from a purely aesthetic standpoint without knowing what it said.  

The Answer Is On My Teeth, 2011

It's kind of like a child's finger painting

Exactly. Very naive. But I can’t pretend to be at another stage of knowledge than I am. I’m not a calligrapher and don’t ever want to be seen as someone who is trying to emulate something.

Are there many experimental calligraphers or is it always about following tradition?

The word in Islam is the word of God so calligraphy is the most important form of visual art in the Islamic world. People who do do calligraphy tend to stick to the traditional forms because you don’t fuck with what’s sacred. One of the pieces I’ve made is called ‘the more incomprehensible the text the more scared it seems’. When I used to write about sacred art I often misspelt the word sacred as scared. I love the idea that if something is incomprehensible, if you’re stopping something from coming through, it’s something you’re uncomfortable with.

No God Present, 2011

How did your interest in Islamic art arise? 

My first experience of the middle east was the Gulf. I was in Saudi when I was about 8, seeing family, and I’ve been going back every two years since. Then I lived in Kuwait  but prior to that I had studied Ottoman art and architecture at Cambridge, where I became interested in Orientalism and the politics of imagery between the Islamic world and Europe.

In Sophia al-Maria’s essay in the booklet which accompanies your show, she says this is something you've struggled with

I think so but this show is probably the most comfortable I’ve felt with my work. It’s also the most humorous. It’s very tongue in cheek. I think Sophia puts it well when she says it’s ‘bawdy’. I can’t imagine doing a show five years ago where the word bawdy would be used to describe it because all my work then was be very, very conservative and to do with serious Islamic art. If you choose to use a religious art as a visual formal language, you get caught up in the implications of that and that was a real struggle but this show I really own. 

Allowed East, 2011

What changed?

A lot of the collage pieces are based on the odalisque and look at the position of the female within the Orientalist painting tradition. I realised I was never going to be a Muslim although I struggled with it for a bit. Doing more performance work meant I was relating more to the model. The odalisque is actually a white woman dressed as an Arab and, having done a lot of life modelling, I had a link to that. Another influential thing was seeing PJ Harvey on Valentine’s Day in Paris. I saw her do what I’ve been trying to do for years - being not of the subaltern voice but able to make statements about it, to show a concern and an interest and a desire to engage.

You've started to work more with video but there’s no video in this show

I’ve been working through film ideas in collage. If you look, there’s a close relationship between those two images (below). In a way, I consider the work in this show to be studies towards film. I want it to be my last show of work on paper before I make a real departure into film. 

Major Harem Break, 2011

This is not a Sales Pitch, 2011

Economies of Language runs until 30 October at The Hardy Tree Gallery, 119 Pancras Road, London NW1 1UN. 


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