#WHM Sara VanDerBeek
We’ll be tapping our incredible archives in support of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and posting interviews from our Women issue throughout the month of March.
Sara Vanderbeek translation and transformation
The Guggenheim exhibit, Photo-Poetics: An Anthology, was organized by Photography Senior Curator, Jennifer Blessing, and predominantly showcases the creative vision of female photographers. What does it mean to you to be displayed among other females utilizing the same medium and exploring similar themes?
I am honored to be included amongst this group of artists. I respect their practices greatly.
Guggenheim’s press release for Photo-Poetics marks images in this anthology as having a “poetic and evocative personal significance—a sort of displaced self-portraiture.” Do you feel this description is accurate of your work exhibited? How does your work function as a facet of “displaced self-portraiture”?
I think the act of charting history via a handmade mobile construction in a work like From the Means of Reproduction does in some ways become a form of self-portraiture, but I did not think that at the time of its creation. It is not my intention to create self-portraits via still lifes, but I feel like in trying to grasp an understanding of this moment it can at times becomes a reflection of a sense of myself within this moment. Less so with Crepuscule. The simple primary shapes and repeating semicircular form that rises and recedes within the images is meant to be more about the moon, perception, and temporality-larger more shared concerns that expand outside of the personal.
Additionally, the press release states the works “reward close and prolonged regard; they ask for a mode of looking that is closer to reading than the cursory scanning.” How do you think an audience would “read” your art featured in this exhibit?
I think my work is interesting in the way I use light to push the legibility of an image. The images I have created are like the moon during daybreak. The form is still visible, but at the edge of disappearance. So I think the slowness of the read is coming about in a different way. The details are simple, and few within each image. It’s more about oscillating between presence and absence.
How do you feel your body of work presented in this exhibit echoes the show’s title?
I have created a new multi-part work titled Crepuscule, which is directly inspired by a poem by E.E. Cummings of the same name. The images are subtly layered at two different depths within the frame mirroring the staggering of the words of the poem on the page.
What is the dialogue between your work and poetry?
I admire the acute observation employed in most poetry I have read. I am qualifying this because I have not read a great deal of poetry but I have read certain poets such as Walt Whitman and E.E Cummings in depth. With the simple forms and compositions as well as the sequencing of my images along the wall, I try to emulate the focus rigor and compelling structures of modern writers such as Cummings, or to bring it to the present with references to contemporary writers such as Anne Carson.
Some have classified your body of work as part of the Pictures Generation. How do you feel about this? Is there a more fitting label or genre you would give to your body of work?
I have never thought of myself or my work in connection to any movement. I think because I am in the midst of still fully realizing what my work and practice is, it seems weird to classify myself or it. I appreciate the connection to the Pictures Generation though because there are many artists that are considered a part of that group, such as Sarah Charlesworth, who was a good friend and whose work I deeply respect and am continually inspired by.
You have been known to create still-life assemblages within your studio space, photograph these sculptures and then proceed to dismantle the work. It’s interesting how you create an object, capture it, and destroy the initial object. How would you describe what governs this relationship between creation and destruction?
Photography and sculpture are often about the fixing of something but I am interested in the lack of fixity in these mediums. Our continual re-definition of the medium of photography and the elastic nature of its boundaries is of great interest to me. I am less interested in the polarities of creation and destruction as I am in translation or transformation.
I am interested in my images resting somewhere between the metaphoric, the metamorphic and the photographic. Color, contrast, and composition translate my experiences of the physical world into an amalgamation of the actual and imagined. In this the images or objects are also intended to be both fixed and unfixed implying as sense of transference or movement caught at a moment of stasis. The still image is intended to feel as though it will continue to shift and re-form anew. The installations although quite choreographed are intended to feel ephemeral and fleeting.
You’ve talked about your application of the “feedback loop” in your art, saying you were “encouraged to further consider the photograph as an object… how prints themselves fluctuate between image and object… sculptures generate images and images generate sculptures… [A] metaphor for the continually evolving process of thinking, making and interpretation that is any artist’s or individual’s experience in life.”
How has this “feedback loop” shaped your recent approach to photography and sculptural installations?
Working with and against notions of documentation both inside and outside of my studio compel me often to push the printing and presentation of the final images into a new meeting point of two and three dimensional approaches. An image often begins as something found in the world or as a still life taken in my studio but more and more it is transformed or transposed to another state of being that is far from where the original image began. And throughout this I am thinking of how each aspect of my practice impacts the other. By bringing a sense of the original site via their texture scale and placement throughout the room, the sculptural forms can be the basis for the images or when arranged in a space in which the images also rest they can expand the reading of the images. It’s a processing of experience on many different levels, with each aspect impacting the other.
You seem fascinated with the way photography can draw attention to subtler aspects of reality that may go unnoticed. In a 2013 Aperture interview you spoke of your interest in “creating an experience that in some way translated [your] original experience.” Does this statement resonate solely with that installation, or is it characteristic of your approach to art generally?
I think this is something I consider with most of the work I create. I am more interested in the mediation of experience and, again, in translation rather than hewing to some sense of the original.
Your father, Stan, is an experimental filmmaker and fellow-alum of Cooper Union, and your brother, Johannes, is a sculptor. The Saatchi Gallery has described your past work as having a “sense of suspended animation and randomness [that] echo the films of [your] father.” Do you feel the works of your father and brother, albeit in different mediums, impact your art?
My brother Johannes and I worked with Ian Berry, current Director of the Tang Museum, on an exhibition “Amazement Park Stan, Sara, Johannes VanDerBeek” in 2008-2009, in which each month we explored a different topic amongst our works. I have always been inspired by all of my family members and their various creative pursuits’ and especially my brother and father – I find Johannes an incredibly dynamic sculptor whose use of materials is so innovative and inspiring. I find my father’s consideration of images as a universal language continually impactful to the way I think about making images.
You once said, “We all recognize that the present is imbued with the past.” How does your personal past make its imprints on your present work? How does the collective past of society and culture—inspiration garnered from raw, found material—make a mark on your work?
I think we are in a fragmented and challenging time yet it also a very significant and compelling moment because we seem to be in the midst of a great transition and we are witnessing in real time a movement from one way of living and working to another. Most every generation can say that but I think the merging of technology into almost every aspect of our lives seems particularly significant to me. This sense of movement and this shift in our consciousness is something I am interested in exploring within my current work.
I enjoy that with the ever presence of technology and the collective expanding and elastic archive of the Internet, certain ways of learning or communication have changed–breaking down disruptive hierarchies. Figures lost on the fringes are remerging to create a more complex understanding of our history. It also seems that there are more platforms for engagement and expression via the Internet and other outlets like Instagram and SnapChat and for that matter smartphones that make it a dynamic time because we are both progressing towards some new form of communication via quick, often disposable, images that seems like a radical break from the past yet, in other ways, feels like a return to an ancient state of symbols, signs, and pictographs.