Return to Witch Mountain: A Q&A with Arden Surdam on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies”

Last summer, when Sarah, Adrienne, and I got together with the vague idea of starting some kind of writing thing, pretty much everything was to-be-determined. All we really needed was accountability to each other—that is, the feeling of not being alone, you could say—and the rest would figure itself out. This approach was by design; we agreed on a name, a place, and a first assignment—to write our own bios. It was this that allowed us not to be beholden to a particular editorial vision, since each of our individual visions were clearly expressed, and could be applied independently. I’m proud of this approach, and expect that unpublished will stay this way; there is no great authority; we speak for ourselves; and we can own our own participation in whatever way we like.

Which brings me here, to Arden. My first to-be-determined post on unpublished was a writing on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” Arden Surdam and Stephanie Deumer’s two-person show at College of the Canyons Art Gallery this past fall. Since I had not yet written anything for unpublished, I didn’t really know what to expect; I didn’t have an “approach” in mind. In fact, I had not spoken to either artist about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” and had not seen any of the work in it before. I saw the show once; wrote about it the next day, from memory, with no images or notes; Sarah, as always, was my proofreader and editor; and it went live a day or two later.

Since that very first post, I have formed my own internal methods and structures for writing about art, and a lot of these methods and structures come from lessons learned in the process of writing about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies”—as well as the aftermath of posting that first writing in a public way. Now, I typically review one-person shows, because I realize group shows don’t allow for the kind of in-depth focus of single works of art that I am interested in; if I write about a group show, I might only write about one artwork; and, perhaps most relevant to this particular topic, when I write about two-person shows, I prioritize equity within that writing, and push myself to devote equal amounts of space and energy to both artists. That being said, it is clear to me, through conversations with Arden (many social/gallery-hopping chit-chats; several email exchanges; a studio visit!) that my writing on RSFMB did not give Arden’s work the kind of consideration it would have or should have gotten if it had been, say, anything except the first writing I posted—therefor, a re-visit to Arden’s contribution to RSFMB is in order.

This preamble brings me to the little piece of writing that took both Arden and myself a big piece of time, energy, listening, forthright-ness, and of course, a commitment to the subject. Rather than try to return to the headspace of RSFMB as it was at College of the Canyons, and rewrite the piece myself, I invited Arden to do a Q&A with me for unpublished, and give her (finally!) a chance to speak on the work’s behalf. “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” was a special show, and I’m delighted to add this Q&A to the dialogue it inspired.

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Installation image of “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies.” Paired Pomegranate by Arden Surdam (left) and Untitled by Stephanie Deumer (Arden Surdam)

G: When I first saw “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” (RSFMB), my initial reaction was that it was several contemporary-looking sculptures interspersed with very formal photographs. The scale of the sculptures was also much larger than the photos, except for Gladiolas for a Funeral, which is elongated by the curtain that hangs from it. Can you discuss the use of scale in this show, and the various visual juxtapositions you were considering when making your work?

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Gladiolas for a Funeral by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

A: The works for the exhibition were deliberately small. I used scale as a tool to signify to the viewer that I would like them to look in a specific way (up close, patiently, with sentimentality etc). When I was constructing sets for the images, the work had a much more intentional sensibility unlike the lovely haphazard moments that can occur in portraiture. Instead, my internal dialogue was closer to– “Should I place this object here, should there be even lighting or dramatic shadows?” etc. So I came to see scale functioning as a parallel or rather, in conversation with the preciseness of a still life. The scale also recalls the print size of the 1930s and 40s images I was looking at; mostly the work of the prolific couple Leslie Gil and Frances McLaughlin-Gil.

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Untititled #1 and Untitled #2 by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

And still lifes are unique in that every gesture becomes an opportunity to further convey a thought. In the exhibition’s case, this was a moment in the narrative of the myth or an element of an art historical trope that could be referenced in either the framing, installation, or image size. I ended up seeing the images themselves more as small objects rather than photographs. The aluminum framing, the colored mats, the silk curtain are all essential elements that formulate the work as a whole rather than independent entities. I should say that I don’t see the images as a retelling of the narrative but rather as deconstructing the myth.

G: When I was reviewing the images of RSFMB, it struck me that Gladiolas for a Funeral was mimicking the shape and scale of Stephanie’s Untitled works made of PVC and paper (the “vanities” if you will). So, while your artworks are mirrored in Stephanie’s sculptures (literally printed onto them), your artwork reciprocally mirrors Stephanie’s artwork. Can you discuss how ideas of mirroring play into this show, especially in light of the story of Echo and Narcissus?

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Untitled by Stephanie Deumer. (Arden Surdam)
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From left to right: Fixed Gaze by Arden Surdam; Untitled by Stephanie Deumer; Gladiolas for a Funeral by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

A: The concepts of the exhibition began with Stephanie’s video, so under the parameters of her fountain/video piece (which was from 2016) the curtain was meant to mimic the fluidity of the water. I think it was a bit later that Steph decided she wanted to use the vanities without objects, closer to a photography set. But regardless of the timeline, the works do mimic one another. This idea of twinning or mirrored reflections is integral to the communication of the myth and photography. Of course photography is associated with its own mythology, and so a lot of the tropes that I used to represent the myth of Narcissus also embody photographic traditions. This includes the glass lens heads from a darkroom enlarger, mirrors, reflections of my studio lights, etc. Objects more specific to the myth of Narcissus were flowers, which I was presenting as the ultimate symbol for beauty and narcissism. For images like Paired Pomegranate or Gladiolas for a Funeral, the pairing is meant to symbolize the relationship between Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus and himself, mythology, and art. There’s no clear delineation, but instead this gesture of an omnipresent coupling.

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Echo by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

G: During our meeting, we discussed the kinds of things we both like to read; I shared that personally, I feel more inspired by reading a Virginia Woolf novel than heavy art theory. Is there anything you would consider “required reading” for viewing your artwork?

A: Yes, absolutely! Fiction functions as a source of inspiration for me. At the time I was shooting, I was reading Elena Ferrante’s  Neapolitan romance novels. The texts are addictive and pleasurable in the sense that the narrator makes a series of choices that are not always in her best interest, but highly indulgent almost akin to Narcissus. Both the stories (Narcissus and the Ferrante series) function as tragedies filled with unrequited love and life lessons. In that way, the book felt like a contemporary fable much like Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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Fixed Gaze by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

More directly, I would say the catalog essay from Mathew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton’s 2009 exhibition “Blood of Two” influenced the work. It was a collaborative show on the island of Hydra at the Deste Foundation. I was studying in Greece at the same time on the Cycladic Island of Paros and was never able to see the exhibition so the show itself (which included performance and a resurrection of a series of drawings from the sea) had its own mythology constructed around it.  The catalog features a dialogue between Barney and Peyton discussing what mythology is, which has this wonderful act of perpetuating the “virality” of a myth by retelling it.

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Paired Pomegranate by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

G: In a similar vein, I have a question about audience. My personal stance on audience is that there is no “universal audience” for art, and therefore trying to construct art “for an audience” is almost an impossible task. (I always just picture my mom). Do you have an ideal audience for RSFMB, or for your work in general? What is your take on the relationship between audience and artwork?

A: I’ve only “constructed art for an audience” once and that was during my first year at CalArts in their Photo and Media MFA program. The work required viewership participation in order to be activated (I asked the audience to eat cake) and it verged on a vulgar spectacle. Now when I consider an audience, I think of a passive viewer.  I make two types of work; one that is more installation based (not present in RSFMB) that often involves decomposing materials and another which incorporates more formal elements of photography. Both overlap in their exploration of fetish, organic material, mythos, sexuality, etc., and rely on the audience to be present but not actively engaged. For the installations, passive participation includes scent and so I’ve become more invested in the concept of entering a viewer’s “space” without their consent beyond their choice to enter a room. The photographic work present in RSFMB hinges on observation, and so choices like scale or installation are integral to the work.

To return to your initial question, I agree there is no universal audience so the notion of an ideal audience is difficult to imagine. When creating work I’m focused on my ability to translate ideas to a viewer. However, if there was such a thing, I guess I would say the audience would be invested in concepts that trigger me. This would include major leaps between mediums, romance, magical realism, suspicion of photography.

“Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” was on view at College of the Canyons Art Gallery in Valencia, CA from September 5 to October 12, 2017. For more information on Arden Surdam, please visit her website: http://www.ardensurdam.com

For the original article on Real Shadows for Mere Bodies posted to unpublished, click here

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Stephanie Deumer and Arden Surdam. I’m not too familiar with Arden’s work, but from what I know about Stephanie, it sounds like she may have taken the lead on titling. All of Stephanie’s artworks have serious titles. By serious, I mean thoughtful, and also leading; while the content of the title of this show sets us up for what may be a kind of existential experience (in body, out of body, shadow body, etc. etc.), the poetics of its phrasing also claim an important stake on language and its place in art; namely, that it belongs, and will likely serve us as we approach this exhibition.

I can’t actually get past the title. What is a mere body? As a noun, mere means an expanse of standing water, like a lake or a pool; as an adjective, it means pure. It also means no more than, but it simultaneously means no less than. It’s a fascinating word. The formal poetics of the title work the magic, too; real/mere look very similar and are both monosyllabic; I consider them off-rhymes. Shadows/bodies are both polysyllabic, and are also arguably off-rhymes. And then, perhaps most beautifully, the mirroring of the title, accomplished with a preposition, which can be applied in several ways; for can be a “function word,” indicating a purpose, goal, perception, or desire; it can also have an autonomous, non-function word meaning: because of, in place of, in spite of.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. From left to right: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 76.7″x20″x20″; Arden Surdam’s Gladiolas for a Funeral, 2017. Archival inkjet print, 28″x24″; Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, paper, PVC, paper. 74″x43″x21. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.

Because Of, In Place Of, In Spite Of would also be a good title for this show; for it is predicated on the existence of another artist’s work (in this case Arden’s), and this predication is perhaps the most interesting, but also disconcerting, and even annoying, aspect of this show. (Here I will add that though it’s hard to tell from the documentation of the show, images of Arden’s work appear on, as in are printed directly on, Stephanie’s sculptures.) Is annoying a bad thing? I don’t really think so.  Something that is annoying is often something that must be tolerated, because it is essential. For example, waiting in line can be annoying, but its an essential aspect of life that must be managed; or, the sound of bees buzzing can be annoying, but this is fundamentally beautiful and vital; its buzz is characteristic to its being. So, the buzz characteristic to Stephanie’s being is this thing where she literally uses, typically through photo or video, things that are in the space already, or that will be there at the time of the exhibition. What’s annoying about this is that Arden’s work must go up first, which must be annoying for both of them. But it also raises the question of temporality that i’m not convinced is meaningless: Arden’s work must always come first. Stephanie’s must always come second. Stephanie must always come around and eventually use, steal, borrow, echo, shadow, Arden’s work. And in this sense, someone’s work must occupy the place of the mere body, and someone’s must occupy the real shadow. It may not be a fixed position.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie’s fountain piece is clearly the centerpiece of the show. As you make your way into the gallery (a small-ish room, albeit with unusual architectural characteristics, like a sloped ceiling, and, I think, skylights?) it is basically the first thing you see. It is placed diagonally toward what I believe is the most trafficked entrance to the gallery (an exterior door all the way to the left), so that as you enter the actual exhibition space, as opposed to the entryway, you’re squared up with the thing. The thing is a working fountain that looks a lot like a mantle; I don’t know anything about making fountains, but presumably there are pipes inside, and a hose, or another pipe, that cycles the water through. It looks kind of like a window with a planter box. I don’t know what it’s constructed out of, but the outside may be wood or plastic; either way, the pipes are housed inside of this window/mantle structure, which is itself covered in faux-marble contact paper, or something of the sort. Water flows down from the top of the window over a piece of plexi, I think, and it certainly makes a nice, relaxing sound. Overall it looks like Stephanie knows how to make a fountain, and the faux-marble contact paper (which is grimy, and not pristine, and not mis-recognizable) is the only thing that gives away that this structure is meant to represent something fake, something obviously fake; and that this fakeness may be more important than the fountain’s fountain-ness, which is to produce a jet of water in some form.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not the whole artwork, although it could be. In fact, there is a 10-minute video projected onto the “screen” of the fountain, but from the back. This may explain the location of the fountain in the gallery (it seems the most logical, and the only practical) but it may not. I don’t really want to describe the video. I think the most important things about it are that women are in it, and only women; that these women are either faceless, or simply tropes of women, putting on makeup, or swimming up at us seductively and ethereally from a very blue pool. There are fish swimming upstream, or dying out of water; it’s hard to tell, and its disturbing. Also, there are a lot of meta-screen things happening, like a tablet screen the size of the fountain screen, and then scrolling through the screen, and maybe screens popping up and becoming other screens. There is a voiceover that accompanies the piece; another poetic thing, a story about reflection and love and recognition, which implies the myth of Narcissus very clearly, but never uses his name. A transcript of this voiceover is offered on paper in the gallery, which seems unusual and maybe odd, made odder by the fact that it is formatted for, and then cut to, a smaller paper size. Or perhaps it is useful to those that are hard of hearing.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. In the foreground: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″32.5″x22″. In the background, from left to right: Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x”19.25″. Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.
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Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

I’m trying to understand if my reaction to the fountain video can be separated from my reaction the fountain, or from the other works in the show. The worst part of the video, which I  am really leaving many interesting and worthy details out of, is that it makes the fountain into a prop; a mechanism for screening. It is a really, really clever way to screen a video, and I can’t stop thinking about that. When I say worst part of the video, what I mean is that the video is having a weird effect on the fountain—it’s almost revealing too much about the fountain—its revealing this really direct relationship between the insinuated story of Narcissus told in the voiceover, and the fact that when you watch the video, you’re also staring into a stream of water. And yet you can rarely see your reflection when you watch; you can only see it in those two minutes between video loops, which I happened to ruin by crassly yelling to Stephanie, “hey, is this thing gonna loop again??”

That only women appear in this video in various forms seems to be besides the point. That a video about, say, in a superficial sense, the narcissism of our culture should be directed at or performed through only female bodied people seems tragically unfair. Why Stephanie, why? I know a little bit about the myth of Narcissus. Its most important and most misunderstood attribute is that Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with himself; he falls in love with an untouchable, unknowable creature that has no materiality at all. It is a fundamental misrecognition; he doesn’t know it’s him. The tragedy here isn’t that he’s fallen in love with himself: it’s that he doesn’t recognize himself. Is that our problem? Is it that as women, we don’t recognize ourselves, since we’ve become immaterial, digital versions of ourselves? I don’t know. I mean, it is possible that Narcissus, in this artwork, represents a kind of male gaze, but it would be hard for me to argue that at this point. I struggle with the dualities represented in this artwork; the tropes of women in opposition to, I guess, the tropes of humankind? In the artwork, is Narcissus a man or a myth? A man, or a metaphor? A metaphor for man? For the male-bodied?

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″x”43″21″. Image courtesy of the artist.

When we step away from the video, we encounter several other sculptures and images. Stephanie has built what I think of as very, very weird structures out of PVC; she mentioned to me that they are like “vanities,” which are, essentially, dressing tables. Sometimes they have mirrors affixed to them, or just sitting on them (like what I have at home, an antique desk that my grandmother used for letter-writing, that my mom used as a vanity, and that I gave to my wife as a dressing-table, which is what I call it). Stephanie’s vanities, made of PVC and paper, mimic the kind with the attached mirror; the outline is similar to her fountain, but with a much taller base. There is a photograph attached between what would be the “top” of the mirror (though again, this is made of PVC) and the front edge of the desk part (also made of PVC). This has the effect of looking somewhat crude, but also like a photographers sweep; the kind of thing you rig up to take photos of soft goods, or of anything, I guess. The images on these sweeps come from the gallery space itself; they are literally photos of different angles of the gallery, which include Arden’s prints; in this way, her work subsumes Arden’s by reproducing it; another kind of gesture towards Narcissus.

But of course, the myth is only partially complete. In fact, it is the myth of Echo and Narcissus, who were never meant to be, but seem perfectly at ease in Real Shadows For Mere Bodies. Echo was the beautiful nymph cursed by Zeus’s wife, Hera (because she was flirtatious, and talked too much, and covered for her slutty nymph-friends). Hera’s curse was simple; instead of initiating her own sentences, she could only speak when spoken to, and could only repeat back what was said to her. She fell in love with Narcissus but was rejected by him; soon after, he saw his reflection, and fell in love. Echo, with her curse, was unable to tell Narcissus that the love he sought was his own, and soon she wasted away. The only trace left of her was the sound of her voice, scattered among the mountains and caves of the countryside.

The idea of such a curse is a clever one; being confined to speak only what is spoken to you is so twisted. And yet this is what Stephanie’s work performs. It is not Narcissus that Real Shadows For Mere Bodies represents, but Echo; the manifestation of the work is confined to the space of the gallery, and as an artist, Stephanie is cursed only to repeat that space, back into her work; into her images; into her representations.

At this point I start to get it a little more, but its very complicated. Stephanie’s work, in this show and in general, proposes that as artists, we are stuck inside of some kind of self-centered (narcissistic?) repetition when it comes to art-making. And this show in particular is proposing that part of that loop is our woman-ness; it is the state that is reflected back to us, and that we reflect back, in turn.

It’s hard to know how to wrap this up—I like Arden’s prints; this show renders them banal while quietly allowing them to be exquisite. I think this is what they do best—reminding us of tradition, of composition, of semiotics, and other intriguing, pretty, docile things. They ground the show, and whisper, ever so faintly, that not all manifestations of art are clever, and not all of them are masquerading as something else. They represent one version of a way out of Echo’s curse.

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Arden Surdam’s Fixed Gaze, 2017. Archival inkjet print. 28″x24″. Image courtesy of the artist.

It is very, very difficult to see this show as nine separate artworks, so I have answered my own question. I think it’s a perplexing show, with so many different materials and layers of ideas. It’s interesting that some things are so obvious, like a fountain and Narcissus, and some things are so obscure, like skeleton vanities made of PVC with photographer’s sweeps on them. It’s a sensory overload, if you’ll let it be, but also, these are structures you can see right through. I think these artworks should always be shown together, and I hope that when they are separated, they lose all meaning entirely. Like Echo and Narcissus.

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is on view at College of the Canyons in Valencia, CA through October 12, 2017. For more information on these artists, please visit their websites: http://stephaniedeumer.com/ and http://www.ardensurdam.com.