in conversation with Becky Beasley
How can art introduce ambiguity into our experience of the everyday? Artist Becky Beasley talks to four by three about her practice, muteness as a form of resistance, the liminal space between photography and sculpture, and the place of death in the photographic image.
In Herman Melville’s short story, Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, a lawyer tells the story of a man who comes into his employment as a copier of legal documents. His name is Bartleby and, although he begins his work as an exemplary copyist, he is an enigma which comes to deeply unsettle the lawyer and the other employees. A copyist who refuses to check his work for mistakes and then refuses to copy at all, Bartleby disrupts our attempts to understand him through neat categorisations. He is a living man who is ‘cadaverous’, a cipher who responds to questions or commands with the mute statement that he would ‘prefer not to’ and a worker who is radically passive. In short, he is a paradox.
Literary references are often entwined in Becky Beasley’s work and the story of Bartleby is no exception. Working with text, sculpture, installation, photography and film, Beasley’s work has consistently problematized the limits of the media she employs. Photographs start to become objects and drawings, whilst objects become like images. So too does her work demand that we slow down from our everyday haste to capture experience in familiar ways. Doors are reversed, minimal objects take on human proportions and familiar objects like books and twigs are re-made in new materials. The result are works which productively undermine our ordinary experiences, forcing us to face up to the ambiguities and uncertainties hidden within them.
When we first arranged to do this interview, Becky proposed that we take an essay she wrote on Bartleby as our starting point. We talked about the political potential of muteness, the relationship between photography and death and the importance of dens for her practice.
Your photographic and sculptural work has often been described as mute and enigmatic. In an early essay, you suggested that Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the copyist who refuses to copy the texts he is given, offers a helpful metaphor for thinking about a critical form of photography. Why is Bartleby of interest to you? And how can muteness be critical?
Becky Beasley: Bartleby is a special figure from whom I have been able to think through questions I have concerning doubt and resistance, specifically in relation to objecthood and ambiguity. His preference ‘not to’, neither a yes or a no, is confusing to authority. Through my reading of Bartleby as a form of skepticism, a refraint from truth claims, I found ways of developing my own interests in ambiguity as a politically resistant and ethical position. For me it is not about copying or not copying – one can do both at different moments- but about asking questions and remaining vigilant. These things protect one from alienation. The other key aspect to Bartleby is the way in which it reveals how being silence, or mute, are acts of resistance, radically different from being silenced or muted. Felix Gonzalez-Torres would be a key example for me of an artist who uses forms of quietness to get inside power systems in this kind of way. For him the strongest political position was to get deep inside. It was for this reason he couldn’t be easily censored like someone like Robert Mapplethorpe.
The reproduction of everyday reality through photography has often been seen as a way of alienating us from it. In many of your works the ordinary and the autobiographical is often present, but always elliptically. Why is this focus on the ‘everyday’ important to you, and why is it never the subject of direct representation?
BB: The everyday does occasionally show up in direct representation in my practice, just not exclusively. Left Door (2004/5), would be one example, and German Soup (2009) another. I make each work as I need. Often it is very studio-based, but not always. The ways that I shoot, light and print affect the qualities of the final prints, so some feel very realistic and other are mistaken for drawings. When I push the limits of, for example, my medium format negatives by printing very large – always with my very average enlarger – the grain becomes very apparent and the image softens and becomes unrealistic ‘photographically’. This is one of the ways my interest in doubt manifests. The question of the prior physical existence of the photographic object becomes dubious, producing doubt as a subject for me. This is deepened by the fact I design objects and have them fabricated and often what these objects are is not certain. However, my interest in everyday relations to things and spaces is always a starting point. And so these qualities, familiarities, remain. This is what allows me to abstract quite far from things we know well without losing all familiarity. This is what I think of as the ‘open’ part of the works. I see these as doors, always ajar.
I am not essentially interested in documenting things in the world with photography. There are lots of great photographers working on that project. It’s just not for me to see something which someone else has made in the world and point it out. Walker Evans is one of my favourite photographers. I would say his point of view influences me and my response to his work is mainly sculptural. He pointed me back to life, to follow your line of thought.
Alongside drawing from your own life, literature and history also serve as source material in your practice including that of Thomas Bernhard. Often the narrators of his work are locked in a paradox between wanting to speak, write or play music, whilst also feeling that this is impossible and doomed to failure, given the heights achieved by the ‘masters’, such as Glenn Gould and Wittgenstein, that they admire. Do you think this is a productive paradox?
BB: Yes, it’s extremely productive, from a post-modernist position. It allows for an intimate proximity through which to learn, to fail better, to quote Beckett. However, the epigraph to Bernhard’s novel, Correction, reads: 'A body needs at least three points of support, not in a straight line, to fix its position.' Thomas J. Cousineau’s academic book, Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard,
finds in this simple geometrical axiom a surprisingly complex key to an understanding of Bernhard's major novels. He argues that each of them, although firmly anchored in Austrian history, emerges from an archetypal story involving a trio of figures: a protagonist who, having been deprived of a desired object by a more powerful adversary, displaces his frustration upon a scapegoat who suffers in his place. It further shows that Bernhard transforms this destructive ‘protagonist-adversary-scapegoat’ pattern into a creative trio formed by the author himself, the artistic precursors who serve as his models, and the readers who receive the finished work.
I’m always thinking about a third figure which complicates what I am thinking and making.
For each project there tends to be an initial construction, circumscribed by the things I want to inhabit, producing a space inside which to work. This is quite clearly described if I simply quote from the introduction to Georges Perec’s, Things: A Story of the Sixties:
Things, Perec said in a lecture at the University of Warwick, was written to fill the blank space created, so to speak, by the juxtaposition of four works of importance to him: Roland Barthes’ Mythologies; Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; Paul Nixan’s La Conspiration (The Conspiracy); and a striking account of life in the concentration camps, Robert Anteleme’s L’Espece humaine.
The quote concludes:
A Man Asleep (its title taken from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) is constructed more literally from its six progenitory models: Kafka, Melville, Lowry, Proust, Le Clézio, Joyce.
I’d forgotten about this concluding detail until today. It’s really nice to have rediscovered this through this interview. It’s very apt, personally.
What is the ‘third figure’? Could you say about about how this informs the production of your work?
BB: Well, for me this ‘third figure’ is a kind of wild card generally, something which seems unrelated but persists and so I keep it with me until I understand it. It’s about trust. Sometimes I don’t really understand it until much later, after the work has been completed. It’s often antagonistic. It can be anything from turning a work upside down and back to front, to an object found in a junk shop, to a song or a prayer sent to me from my mum. She sent me one today called ‘Cling to me’. It’s an incredible daily reflection which I’ve written into the back of my notebook. It’s to do with how to gather strength from adversity. The text turns common cultural connotations of ‘clinging’ upside down and shows weakness as the way to great strength. It follows from religious texts and books she’s sent me over the years; on waiting, the language of the Beatitudes, the desert brothers, death and dying…
Bernhard often connects the paradox just mentioned with death and mortality in a variety of ways, which is also a recurrent motif of photography: the image shows that which is no longer present. What interests you in this constant deferral within the photographic image? Do you think we neglect our finitude and how, if at all, can we make it visible to ourselves?
BB: My relation to photography as a deathbound medium was initially spatial, taking the form of dens as tombs. Over the last ten years this relation has changed with my life. Still deathbound, it became concerned with the future, the work finding its place as the point between the time of the image (its ‘now’) and my future absence. So, life.
The Portrait of Lewis Payne (1865) by Alexander Gardner in Roland Barthes’ late work, Camera Lucida, was the key here. It is a portrait of a young man in his cell awaiting execution by hanging. I remembered first reading it and seeing the photograph there in the mid-90’s. Payne looked so contemporary, very Brit-Pop. But for me then, as I said, it was a tomb. Returning to it a dozen years later, I experienced it differently. It felt like life rather than death. Barthes’ formulates its time as an anterior future: this will have been. For me it was all about the future; the life between the now of the photograph and the future absence (albeit Payne’s was imminent). As a depressive, this turn has also had a profound effect on my life and how I make choices.
In contrast to photography, we often think of sculpture as that which is always present to us, a part of this world. Throughout your practice, your work has consistently avoided this neat separation between photography and sculpture whilst also problematizing it. One of your first works to do this was Literary Green (2009). What first interested you in unsettling this neat distinction of sculpture and photography? How does one trouble the other?
BB: For me it begins on the one hand with everyday objects – biros, books, mugs –and den making, and on the other with still life painting. I discovered Georges Perec’s collection, Species of Spaces quite early on. I vividly remember first reading his brief essay, Notes Concerning the Objects That Are on My Work-Table. For me the abiding image from that time is how two objects can sit alongside each other on a surface, one which one might have used every day for a decade, the other, a day. Gabriel Orozco’s, Breath on Piano (1993), also comes to mind as something I saw around that time. For me that’s a very sculpturally conceived photograph.
At college I was photographing found objects- odd things I found in the streets and charity shops, domestic pot plants – but eventually I decided they were holding me back. There was a nostalgia about my choices I couldn’t avoid if I was working with found objects. I also really wanted to be making objects of my own. I was anxious as although, like everyone, I had a lifetime of experience with everyday objects, I had been writing and making two-dimensional works. So eventually I made Stumbling Block (2005), a floor-based, off-set lithoprint pile which one could walk all around. I sneaked into making sculpture this way! Realizing this work gave me the confidence to begin to start making my woodworks. I have come to understand my relation to making objects as being influenced specifically by this approach, that is, coming from writing and photography.
Literary Green (2009) was the result of wanting to make a work in which a photograph and an object were locked together. The cross-section view of the table-like object is a pale green acrylic glass sheet which is the shape of a template I made. The template was a cut out section of the photograph, where the angular front of the screen meet the lines where the skirting boards extending from the corner of the room. I had a slender steel frame made up to support the acrylic cut-out, producing something like a side-table. I was interested in making an object which was technically an obstruction to the image. Due to the slender lines and transparent acrylic, it’s only a partial obstruction. The template and table were about taking the impossible interior space of the image and creating an imaginary object, which, to my mind, could also, if push came to shove, could be used as a place to work. A table. (I’m always thinking about where to work if all else is lost!) Literary Green was in many ways a direct result of my relationship with Bartleby. A ‘high, green folding screen’ figures importantly in the novella. Clearly it’s not an illustration, but, in disclosing this- because in this instance the object in the photograph looks like ‘high, green folding screen’- I want to make that clear. Questions of translation are of great interest to me. It’s not about illustration.
Maurice Blanchot’s writing on cadavers (objects) and corners (spaces) would be the way I would, with hindsight, orient my journey most specifically. Merging these in my mind offered me a way to think about still-life as an inhabitable space. It’s still all about dens.
Becky Beasley's work is currently being exhibited at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, in 'In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy' until the 31st of October. Her forthcoming exhibitions include 'Flatland: Narrative Abstractions' in France and and Luxembourg and a solo exhibition at Towner Gallery in Eastbourne.