Interview: Dominic Paterson talks to Georgina Starr
Bubbles, brains and what led to I, Cave, a new solo show opening at mima on 7 April 2015.
Georgina Starr’s early works brought her to international attention in the 1990s, but her complex, layered and affecting recent projects make an even stronger argument that she is amongst the most compelling artists working today. Starr’s solo exhibition, I, Cave at mima in Middlesbrough (7 April to 28 May 2015) offers a chance to see a new presentation of the body of work which audiences in Scotland saw in development at Cooper Gallery, Dundee in 2013, and at The Uplawmoor Show during Glasgow International 2014.
Having worked with the artist on a short residency at the University of Glasgow in 2014, including a presentation of her 2007 film work THEDA with a new improvised soundtrack, I was keen to try to capture something of the energy and originality of her approach to art-making, and to invite her to expand on how her practice has developed over the past few years.
Dominic Paterson: Georgina, there are so many possible starting points for a discussion of your work that I must admit it's hard to know quite where to begin. I hope that this conversation might touch on your use of the vinyl record as a medium, your interest in ventriloquism, your engagement with psychic mediums, and with spiritualism and occultism more generally, and also, not least, the political and emotional resonances of the way the female body appears in your work. In short, there’s a lot to cover! Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to start out from something small and see where we get to, so why not bubblegum? You’ve been using bubble forms a lot in recent work, especially in your show Before Le Cerveau Affamé at Cooper Gallery in Dundee, and in the works on paper included in The Nakeds, a group show at The Drawing Room, London. What is at stake in these proliferating bubblegum bubbles in your work?
Georgina Starr: The bubble is birth, it is the beginning of everything. It’s the first breath, the first word and the first sculpture. The bubble is a world, an orb, a globe, a womb, a double, a moon, a sun and a crystal ball. It is also a voice—à haute voix—out loud. It's what is inside spoken OUT LOUD. The bubblegum material is feminine. Bubblegum is ‘the pink material', when I chew it becomes a potion or a spell which transports and transforms.
But before the Bubble came the Brain. The brain was the first thing I made with ‘the pink material’. The brain is heavy and oversized: a monstrous brain. The bubble is the opposite of the brain but is created from the same stuff and by using the mouth and the breath.
While making the brains I started to collect the bubbles and pin them to my wall. I began filming the breath entering the bubble, over and over and over like a ritual. I have always filmed myself making things, it’s integral. I have to capture myself bringing things to life. I don’t always show these films. From the very beginning the making, building and recording of things was important, for example the small paper figures in Static Steps constructing the bar in The Party, sculpting the clay sculpture of Georg Herold’s head in There's Something Going on in the Sculpture Studio, making ‘Junior’ in The Making of Junior and the artist sculpting ‘vanity’ in THEDA: all these actions were filmed. I only really started using video to capture myself making things or to prove that something very ephemeral had happened.
I see all of these things as sculpture and with the bubble it is the same. The bubble, like the spoken word, only exists for a very short time. The material has to be prepared in a particular way. You need 3 or 4 pieces in your mouth to make one bubble. These are broken down with teeth, tongue and saliva. The tongue pushes and presses the material into shape. As the hard material mixes and warms up it becomes soft and sugar oozes from it. Gradually the sugar seeps out (is swallowed) and after a few more minutes of chewing the material is ready to be used. The tongue forms the material into a spherical shape and then pushes into its middle. The material forms a thin membrane around the tongue and the tongue pushes a little out of the mouth. Then, simultaneously the tongue pulls back quickly and with an inhalation, and slow exhalation through pursed lips the bubble is created.
DP: So the bubbles are partly about a process of making—and about ‘inspiration’, breathing life into something—but in a specifically feminine register. Following up on that link to form-making, can I just ask you about The History of Sculpture, the artist's book you made to accompany the show at Cooper Gallery? What was its relation to the show, and how should that title be read? I rather hope that you meant it very seriously.
GS: I think I probably answered this already: the bubble, birth, breath, voice, sculpture, the female body, feminism... For me this is what makes The History of Sculpture.
DP: The bubble is, fittingly enough, a capacious form for you. It’s able to encompass a lot, including, but not limited to, the history of sculpture.
GS: The more I thought about ‘the bubble’ the more connections I made. I couldn’t sleep. Between 3am and 6am I am awake, somewhere in-between dreaming and waking, and I started writing and making plans. Is this the heavy brain, or maybe the heavy brain is the daytime brain? The bubble became alchemical, something that had carried me into another place. I called this place ‘Le Cerveau Affamé’. I called it this because it reminded of a place I visited eighteen years ago in a work called Hypnodreamdruff. This place was called ‘The Hungry Brain’ and began as a dream recounted by a woman in great detail to her friend/analyst and the friend attempts to decipher it and give every detail a meaning. This dream eventually became ‘real’, as I filmed elements of it to create the Hynodreamdruff work.
After making the bubble myself I began to imagine groups of people using them to communicate. I imagined a kind of physical education facility where women would be educated in movement and gesture incorporating the bubble. These were first described in a series of large watercolour paintings and photographic works in 2011/12. In the paintings there were processions of performers taking part in a kind of religious ritual of ‘the bubble’, called The Annunciations. The bubble appeared both as a large sculptural form and also as the swollen bellies of pregnant performers. In the photographic works I was placing the actual blown bubbles onto the image, usually on the mouth or the genital area of the performer.
DP: Anyone who has encountered Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘spherological’ work Bubbles won’t be surprised that the chain of associations that can be drawn out of this humble form is so rich and far-reaching. I know you’ve read Bubbles—what did you make of it?
I really enjoy reading the Sloterdijk book, especially for all those multifarious connections he makes between wombs, caves, eggs, doubles and spheres. I found so many crossovers in the Bubbles book with the research I was doing especially in relation to the imagery in ‘the cards’ and ideas around spirits, rebirth and doubles. My favourite chapter is the one where he connects the idea of the ‘placental twin’ with Orpheus and Eurydice, Hildegard von Bingen’s Scivias and Magritte’s La Voix du Sang. In relation to the placental twin, did I tell you that I took some photos of amazing drawings of placentas in the Glasgow library on my last visit?
It was also through this book that I first saw an image of the ‘mouth of hell’ in the Monster Park in Bomarzo, which I’ve since visited. I had been thinking about and drawing caves, openings and tunnels for a while and making connections with the body and the curtained ‘layered’ entrance in theatres, churches and the TV game show ‘reveal’. At the same time as reading Bubbles I was totally immersed in Goethe’s Faust and was especially focused on the second part where he encounters ‘The Mothers’ and also the Homunculus. The Homunculus in Faust is really interesting to me in relation to ‘bringing things to life’. Faust’s assistant (Wagner) ‘creates’ the Homunculus in the alchemy studio and so this small being becomes to life and starts to speak and have opinions. I hadn’t read Faust when I made ‘Junior’ back in 1994 but now I enjoy the similarities that occur in these narratives. Also the fact that the Homunculus was in this glass bubble/sphere, I suppose it was some sort of ‘retort’ vessel that was used in alchemy, the idea of breath entering the bubble and then a voice being inside the bubble, I get very excited about these connections, just like Wagner in Faust:
Wagner: (turning to the kiln)
... It’s rising, flashing, swelling more and more:
Another moment and it will be done
At first a major project seems insane
But chance one day will be eliminated
I see a future when a powerful brain
By some great intellect will be created
The glass rings loudly with a pleasant tone
Again it’s growing cloudy—but it clears
It's worked at last! A tiny shape has grown
What higher aspiration can there be?
The mystery is there for all to see
And if we listen to the sound, we hear
It turn into a voice that speaks out clear
DP: Your take on the bubble seems to relate, as your answer suggests, to literary or philosophical sources, but it also resonates with concerns that have run through your practice pretty much from the start. Maybe we could tease out some of those threads a little? The Faust quote is great way of bringing the conversation round to another important and consistent dimension of your work—an attention to the voice. When you say that you ‘have to capture yourself bringing things to life’ and relate the bubble to breath and voice, I wonder about the use you make of the recorded voice—notably in the many vinyl records you’ve produced, from the nineties to now. Could you say something about ventriloquism and the throwing of the voice in your work? I’m thinking of how in voicing your alter ego Junior, in using your parents’ voices recorded on your answer-phone, or in recording séances, and more recently in podcasts, you are bringing forth and capturing uncanny, estranged voices. Here bringing things to life is magical and inspired for sure, but also intimates death, or the undead...
GS: The recorded voice has been a constant throughout all my work. One of the first ‘voice’ recordings (The Voices) was very much connected to the idea of voices coming from ‘the other side’ in that they were disembodied voices I wasn’t able to explain or even locate (were they from inside my own brain?). I was never particularly interested in ventriloquism until I made ‘Junior’. I made this small version of myself so I would be able to have a conversation with myself, and especially the part of myself I felt unable to vocalise at the time. I never really thought about what kind of voice I was going to give to her until it actually came out. I was filming myself making ‘Junior’, and when she was finished it felt natural that we should converse with one another. I was surprised when her voice arrived as it sounded very ‘Yorkshire’, a lot like my own voice would have done when I was child. It was as if the voice of 'Junior' was channeled through from the past. Many years later when I began visiting the spiritualist mediums I saw parallels with ventriloquism as the mediums were like puppets speaking the words and thoughts of the dead. But the question I asked was, if they were ventriloquists were they actually controlling the voices rather than ‘channeling’ them as they had promised? This is what is fascinating to me, especially with the trance mediums. It is very much connected to religious belief and in my case to Catholicism. Giving a voice to inanimate objects and religious icons feels quite natural to the Catholic.
Getting back to the recorded voice—the early voices I recorded were originally done out of instinct. I asked my mother to sing ‘Hello’ down the telephone in 1993 because I wanted to hear her sing the song. I liked the idea of having her voice singing on my answer machine tape. The first recording became part of The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum but I didn’t have an idea that this recording would end up being so important to me and being transformed into a new sound work, Mum Sings Hello, sixteen years later. The voices and sounds I gather often get reworked and appear in different forms much later. When putting together all the tape-to-tape recordings of my mother singing ‘Hello’ onto one vinyl record I started to hear a disintegration and a reincarnation of the mother’s voice. The mother had become another. My interest in the Realm of The Mothers in Faust really came from thinking about what ‘mother’ meant, the actual nature of ‘mother’.
Faust is forced to enter the Realm of the Mothers on his journey in search of beauty and perfection. As Mephisto says “it’s the strangest sphere you have encountered yet... they are The Mothers!” Faust replies that yes ‘The Mothers’ does sound very strange. “These goddesses exist beyond the range of mortals: even we avoid their name. To find them you must fathom the abyss.” When I read this it was like a key suddenly fitting a lock in my brain. The abyss or ‘death’ was also a kind of ‘mother’, motherhood raised to the universal and cosmic, of the birth, sending forth, death and the return to all things—the eternal circle—‘birth and the grave, an infinite sea’.
DP: I’m pleased you mentioned Mum Sings Hello here. It’s a truly haunting work I think, which is a serious piece of alchemy considering that its basic material is a Lionel Richie song! I know it had a big effect on the audience when you played the record during your talk in Glasgow last year. Despite the connotations of the song, the disintegration of the maternal voice seems to open onto a confusion of longing and loss, of Eros and Thanatos. As your mother’s voice decays and distorts with the loss of fidelity in the repeated recordings, it becomes more and more plaintive, more ghostly, but at a certain point if we hear this gathering distortion as the very grain of the maternal voice it starts to sound an overwhelming, endless demand. It’s as if death itself is saying—as perhaps is often the case when technology records or relays voices—‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ This seems like a good example of how darker themes often seep through in your work, even when it seems comic or pop at first glance. Is this maybe especially true of more recent projects?
GS: After the year of the twelve sittings with different psychic mediums (for I am the Medium, 2010), I suddenly felt very lost, like I had been given a glimpse into a series of strange futures. Listening to the 'spirit' communications I had recorded it was as if I had been taken on journeys into dark unknown worlds (Hades?). I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen, but the two worlds (both real and unreal) became blurred and I fell into a sort of an abyss. Like Faust I knew I had to claw my way through this (via ‘The Mothers’) so a type of rebirth or reentry could take place. With the idea of reentry came the cave, the tunnel, the curtain opening, the lights, the hand, the mothers, the first breath, and the bubble.
One odd thing I just realised is that when Faust is in the Realm of Mothers (or is it the Realm of Persephone?), the reader is taken to another scene involving the Homunculus. The Homunculus wishes to live truly as an embodied being without his glass sphere. He is not happy to exist just as a voice inside the bubble. He throws the glass vessel against the throne of Galatea and escapes into the womb of the sea below. He is reborn in an embodied form. I have to think of ‘Junior’ calling out for the suitcase to be reopened after eighteen years (in Junior’s Big Comeback)... “What we call birth is but a beginning to be other than what one was before; and death is but cessation of a former state” (Ovid's Metamorphoses).
I think this brings us back to my first answers about the bubble and the beginnings of ‘Le Cerveau Affamé’. Have I come full circle? Talking of ‘spherology’....
DP: Seeing as we’re back with the bubble again, I want also to ask about the feminine (or feminist?) aspect of this imagery. Roland Barthes wrote about the way Georges Bataille interchanges ‘chains of metaphor’ in Story of the Eye, so that all manner of objects get drawn into the association of eyes with eggs and with testicles. Your description of how the bubble as a form has metamorphosed as its passed through your work recalls this to some extent, but whereas Bataille’s metaphors seem to be predicated on the male body, yours are much more markedly a matter of femininity. Is it right to say that rethinking and reworking the representation of the female body has been a consistent concern for you?
GS: After I made ‘Junior’ and took photos of myself holding her for The Nine Collections of the 7th Museum work, I knew there was an awkward association with the ‘Madonna and child’ image. I was slightly uncomfortable with this but also drawn to the strangeness of it. The Virgin Mary and her body had been a preoccupation of mine while growing up. In fact my whole childhood experience was very female dominated. My dad was a workaholic, so there was mainly my mother, my sister, an all-girls convent school, and the Virgin Mary. I remember seeing that John Waters film a few years ago, was it Pecker, where one of the characters talks to a ventriloquist dummy of the Virgin Mary. Everyone in the cinema was laughing, but I was thinking, I spoke seriously to her image on a little prayer card and her statue in church for many, many years!
I am instinctively drawn to looking at and re-imagining female imagery, ideology and identity. As a child I didn’t really question the grounds for Mary’s elevation to idol status. In fact they were all very much out of her control: being visited by a spirit, being a virgin and becoming a mother. I was a teenager before I started to question this... and then later the questions came out in the work as I began working with notions of female identity and rewriting them for myself. The characters and roles I created in many of the early videos were attempts to de/reconstructed identities, for example: Crying, Liz in The Party, The Marys (a group of female magicians) in Hypnodreamdruff and the multiple roles of all the female stereotypes in the Frenchy video.
DP: When you were in Glasgow you had a chance to look at 15th century alchemical texts from the University’s Special Collections. I know that the extraordinary illustrations to those texts have been a particular interest to you and you’ve been developing your own iconography out of that, and other occult sources. Could you maybe say something about Tarot imagery and why it appeals to you as a vehicle for work? How is this manifested in what you are doing now?
GS: The idea of prediction or magical transformation has always been at the centre of my work. I first touched on it in early works like Visit to a Small Planet and Getting to Know You where I attempted to get to know a stranger by experimenting with various psychic phenomenon like palm reading, dream analysis and numerology, and in more recent works like THEDA and I am the Medium.
The ideas for ‘Le Cerveau Affamé’ imagery developed directly from the recordings I had made during the twelve séances for I am the Medium. The tarot had figured heavily in these ‘sittings’ and I liked the idea that the images would take you on a journey into the future. The mediums I visited had started to take on a Mephistophelian quality as they drew me into their various predictions of possible futures. When I started gathering imagery for the watercolour paintings I got very involved with the bodies I was drawing and the paintings eventually started to look like they could be symbols or guides that might possibly lead me somewhere. The poems were an important development as they were what I was writing in the middle of the night. The paintings were a daytime activity and the writing was night time, so ‘the cards’ brought these two zones together. The insomnia state I connect very much to the ‘the voices’ which is something that I encountered when I was a child. As a child I turned these into fear and anxiety, this time I’m trying to turn them into something else.
When I was invited to do the show in Dundee I decided to present some of the first stages of this place I called ‘Le Cerveau Affamé’. Even in those early, early stages it was already quite complex as I had devised a set of predictive cards with the main 4 symbols of the ‘the bubble’, ‘the brain’, ‘the hand’ and ‘the cat’. I had the idea that the cards could be like a game or instructional device to allow people to enter the work. For the opening I scripted a ceremony where ten of the cards would be ‘turned’ and a series of instructions would be read by a voice on a vinyl record. The voice was authoritative and very precise, like a radio announcer from another era. I was also thinking of course of the Radio Rorschach voice in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. The voice I used was a French-speaking female and as she read out ‘instructions’, which were actually short poems I had written, certain actions took place in the space. The texture of the voice was very important. It was also important that it was on a vinyl record. I wanted the voice to feel as if it was coming from another place, almost like a spirit communication. In the performance I placed the needle on the record so it gave the impression that the voice was somehow coming through me, as if I was the medium.
When the 4th card was turned a group of female performers (The Mothers) appeared and began communicating through acrobatic gesture and the bubble. The bubble was at first comic and then strange and finally sinister as it appeared and disappeared, ‘bubble, breath, breath, bubble, bubble, breath, breath, bubble...’ It was repeated over and over and became like a lesson as it connected with the instructional voice on the record. The bubble revealed a darker side then and spoke of loss and collapse and death.
DP: Rather than end with loss, collapse and death—which would burst the bubble rather abruptly—could I ask you to say something about how you are selecting work for mima? And what direction has ‘Le Cerveau Affamé’ taken since Cooper Gallery? What have you been making?
GS: During the installation of the Cooper Gallery show (Before Le Cerveau Affamé), I used the exhibition setting, specifically the large curtained room, to film with a group of female performers. The filming process was about trying to focus on this spherical object as it was conjured by the women and held in front of them as a miraculous sculptural form. I have now finished a short film using this footage. It took me a long time to edit together something I was happy with and which conveyed the power of these magically abject shapes made from breath. It also took me directly back into the Realm of The Mothers and Mephistopheles’s description of it:
Some sit, some stand, some wander to and fro,
As it may chance. Formation, transformation,
Eternal mind’s eternal recreation.
Girt round by images of all things that be,
They do not see you, forms is all they see.
While editing I began thinking about the two tiny orange paper figures I made back in 1992, in Static Steps, and realised that although visually this was quite different I was still preoccupied with capturing the almost impossible: breath, static, shadows, memories, voices, gestures, momentary fleeting moments of magic and loss. I got out the these paper figures, which like ‘Junior’ I had kept in a little box, and now have them hanging from invisible thread in my studio. They dance and glide around a small, mirrored dance floor controlled by the air currents in the studio and by my own body moving to and fro. The simplicity of their magic totally mesmorises me, watching them I can feel myself disintegrate. In a kind of pareidolic ecstasy I suddenly started to see paintings on caves that I traced over many years ago in Africa.
It’s a long story but back in 1991 I had been reading a book by the archaeologist Mary Leakey about her discovery and recording of 2000 year-old paintings in caves and on rocks in Tanzania. In the book she mentions that one of the paintings had gone unrecorded due to lack of time and funds and that it was vanishing. Through various strange coincidences I ended up meeting Leakey and she drew a map of how to find the paintings, deep in the Tanzania bush. Along with her granddaughter I led a small expedition with the local chief of antiquities and rock painting and we spent 2 weeks tracing scenes of fading orange pigment figures on cave walls.
My paper figures have led me back to this (mother?) cave and to revisit these tracings that are strangely connected to the recent drawings I’ve been making on tracing paper and also to the bubble form. For the mima show I will attempt to weave some of these connections together. The title of the exhibition is I, Cave.
DP: It seems we’ve come full circle again, back to the various figures of the bubble. Thanks so much for sharing your thinking around this work Georgina.
Dr Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow
MAP is a publisher and producer based in Glasgow and co-run by Alice Bain and Laura Edbrook