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 I’m proud of this approach, and expect that unpublished will stay this way; there is no great authority; we speak for ourselves; and we can own our own participation in whatever way we like.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 My first to-be-determined post on unpublished was a writing on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” Arden Surdam and Stephanie Deumer’s two-person show at College of the Canyons Art Gallery this past fall. Since I had not yet written anything for unpublished, I didn’t really know what to expect; I didn’t have an “approach” in mind.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