Artthrob talks to Deborah Bell about her current exhibition ‘Dreams of Immortality’.
Artthrob: ‘Dreams of Immortality’ runs concurrently between the Everard Read spaces in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Are the two incarnations identical?
Deborah Bell: In Johannesburg it’s the full exhibition, consisting of paintings, prints, drawings as well as the sculptures. It’s quite strange for me to see the Cape Town version of the show, because the sculpture becomes the focus. I’ve never seen my work as just sculpture. So it’s really interesting to come down to Cape Town and be a sculptor.
AT: But you have worked in sculpture before?
DB: Sculpture is something which I came to quite late in life. I was always a painter, the kind that would trip over the sculpture while trying to look at the paintings [laughs]. So it’s quite wonderful to see that ‘Yes, I have become a sculptor.’
AT: Your sculptures are quite angelic. In fact ‘angels’ are very prominent in this new exhibition.
DB: The use of angels is one of the key themes throughout it. You can see them in some of the sculptures here but they are more apparent in the paintings. They are based very loosely on Velázquez’s Las Meninas and the cloaked figure in the doorway. It came from a quick sketch which I had done of Picasso’s reworking of Velázquez’s painting. That cloak became wings and I started thinking, ‘Oh, an angel in the doorway. What happens with that?’ And that then became a whole theme for me in those paintings; the notion of the angel in the doorway.
AT: Is there a religious subtext to your angels?
DB: The angels are not angels in a Christian sense. The angel to me is an aspect of that state which you get to in meditation where you realise that you are connected to everything. I’m not coming from a Christian perspective or any particular religion for that matter. I’m anti religion as an organised thing. So I don’t want people to look at the work and go, ‘Oh, it’s very Christian.’
I’m someone who meditates fairly regularly and one of my meditations is a candle focus. And since I’ve started making those paintings – with a little white doorway in the background and a dark silhouette of an angel –I realised that the image of a wick in the candle flame is so imprinted in my brain that that is what all of those are. When you meditate you get to a point where you are absolutely still and then you are in absolute spaciousness. It’s quite a complicated thing to explain about the paintings, but that is very much what they are about.
AT: It’s interesting that you would latch onto that shadowy figure in the doorway as a guide into spaciousness. A lot of the scholarship surrounding Las Meninas suggests that that figure is the queen’s attendant, coming to remove the royal family from Velázquez’s studio to take them somewhere else.
DB: It’s amazing how just doing a quick sketch where I scribbled the cloak suddenly became wings. I love the little things in the creative process that lead you into a whole new area of exploration. And then of course from the Las Meninas came the Annunciation works. A friend of my sister was at the Smithsonian last year and sent me an image of an Annunciation which I had completely forgotten I had ever done in the 90s. So also that recycling of symbols and imagery that you don’t consciously remember having done and how that returns and comes through at different times in your life.
AT: The Annunciation works seem to link back to your paintings and prints which looked at museums.
DB: For years I’ve been working with the idea of the museum and the idea of the museum as symbolic of the brain. The notion of accumulation of history, of past etc, etc. So when I was doing drawings based on Las Meninas, I started thinking that for me the museum is still that darkened space with things happening, still the brain, but it’s no longer just a museum of the past, it’s a studio as well.
The paintings in the Johannesburg exhibition show a women, naked, obviously me – all of the figures are me, even the men [laughs] – standing in front of a blank canvas. And then I started to see the blank canvas as the tabula rasa, the alchemist with prima material. So I suddenly saw the brain not just as a repository of memory, but the brain as the ability to be a creator. And over the years I’ve become aware that the art that I am interested in is art that came from cultures that understood the power of art. Cultures which viewed art as a power object not necessarily restricted to political commentary, satire or description. Cultures which believed in art’s ability to somehow –even if ever so slightly– change the world.
AT: The installation upstairs certainly has a powerful presence. In a sense, the viewer actually becomes that figure in the doorway when entering your installation. I don’t know what it looks like in the Johannesburg incarnation but here, after walking up that winding staircase and suddenly finding yourself in this darkened space…
DB: It’s like being in the brain yet again.
AT: Exactly. It’s interesting because your artworks have always resembled artefacts and these kind of ‘power objects’ as you referred to them. But even if you look at the museum prints which are up in this exhibition, there is a lot of animation and movement within them, like a strong sense of restlessness. Or at least that’s the sense I get when looking at them. So it’s quite interesting to go up into this space which has this feeling of these large figures coming to life or being awoken.
DB: Activated by movement.
AT: And the viewer. What inspired you to make an installation which responds to the viewer and incorporates them as part of the work?
DB: I hadn’t thought of it from that way around. But of course that is what has happened. I finished the clays nearly a year ago and my painting studio looks onto the outside area where I make the sculptures and they are still standing there. So I was looking at them and they were looking at me for that whole time. I have this belief that we each have our own frequency-specific signature and that if we could hear each other, we would each have a different sound. And I can imagine how glorious we would sound as a harmony together. I was looking at the sculptures and kept thinking, ‘They need to have their own sound/ frequency signature.’
AT: How did you end up collaborating with Philip Miller for this sound component?
DB: I had worked with Philip before on the early animations in the 90s with William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins like Hotel. And he always said to me, ‘Let’s do some work some time.’ So I kept thinking that I must ask Philip. Then about eight weeks ago I suddenly thought, ‘I promised myself that I would give each of these a sound.’ I also have a belief that if you plan to do something and you don’t, then you leave this black hole that you almost have to come back to at some point. So I bit the bullet and phoned Phillip and it was very fortunate that I did it then, because if I had been a month earlier then he would have been too busy.
AT: The experience changes dramatically depending on whether you are up there by yourself or with others. When you’re by yourself only the sculptures in proximity to you react. When it’s a group you have all of them activating at once.
DB: Exactly! I mean, I’m just blown away by it, and the ease in which all of that happened. I always used to say that I don’t know if I summoned these figures or if they summoned me to make them. I’m beginning to think that they summoned me and Phillip and Carlo [Gamberini] to make them! It all happened so seamlessly once it was all in place.
AT: In terms of how you described the sounds to Philip, did you give him specific ideas or references for how you would like the audio components to sound?
DB: I left it up to Phillip and it was a full collaboration in that sense. And he surpassed what I expected. We’d spoken about music of the spheres and then he went and researched the notion of the single violin strings. The woman sculpture in the front, her sound is the vibration of a single violin string. There’s the shofar ram’s horn and the Hebraic singing about the Nephilim. I want people to realise that this is not new age stuff. This is ancient knowledge which we’ve dismissed.
AT: Is that what the installation’s title ‘Return of the Gods’ relates to?
DB: Initially I was debating whether to use the title ‘Return of the gods,’ or ‘The Ancient Ones’ and I ended up linking the two together. The sculptures just grew in stature and presence and absolutely surprised me. And I thought, ‘What are you guys? Who are you?’ They just developed this enormous presence and I started thinking about the notion of the gods in Western society and how we view them as being either myth or fantasy or new age.
AT: In a sense it’s entirely appropriate that you mention this idea of not being certain of who they are. Due to their sheer size and the way they are displayed in darkness with spot lighting, even once you’ve seen them, you never get a sense of what the smaller figures emerging from the heads actually look like. You can see them as silhouettes from a distance, but as soon as you’re close, they are too high to be seen properly and the lighting obscures them. There’s still a mystique about them.
DB: I’ve been working with the image of little figures coming from the crown of heads for about 15 years, but this is the first time that they have fully emerged. Beforehand it has been a head and shoulders. Years ago I saw a wooden carved figure from Mozambique in the Johannesburg Art Gallery –I can’t remember the exact name of the group– with a simple head and shoulders coming out of a larger head and I think that must have impacted me as a student, because I have a particularly strong memory of that. Then my figures started to have smaller heads emerging from them.
AT: Do they have a particular meaning for you?
DB: I’ve begun to realise that for me they represent the revealing of the spiritual self. So the fact that these sculptures have fully-realised figures with whole bodies shows that they are spiritually evolved beings. The men have female figures on their heads and the women have male figures on their heads. So they also represent a marriage of the masculine and feminine and an owning of the full self, the complete self.
AT: Besides representing a fusion of masculine and feminine, the figures themselves seem to be quite culturally heterogeneous. Where you looking at specific references for them?
DB: A lot of people ask me that and some people say that they all look Nubian. So I ask them “Well how do you know that? What do Nubians look like?” and of course nobody knows. But the idea that they are Nubian keeps coming up in questions. And then some people say that it’s interesting that the lower part of the faces seem more African while the top part of the face seems more Asian. I’m just responding in a very intuitive, personal way, I will do a face again and again until suddenly it’s ‘Aha!’ I don’t set out to intentionally do these specific features.
That’s why I talk about the notion of summoning. I believe that being an artist in any way is a form of magic. You create something in the world which wasn’t there before. Or you take material and transform it to stand for something else. It’s its own form of magic. I mean William Kentridge deals with illusion and I deal with summoning. I’m calling something and I don’t know what it’s going to be.
AT: It sounds a bit harrowing! Are your ‘ancient ones’ benevolent entities or are there elements of something more inherently malevolent like the ‘Great Old Ones’ in the work of writers like HP Lovecraft ?
DB: For me they are absolutely benevolent. I view them almost as forefathers. Whilst I say that I started them unaware of what they were going to turn into, when I started working on them I became aware that they would be related quite closely to a series of five drawings that I had done the previous year of tall, robed figures titled Humanity Unbound. I believe that we are all gods, we have just forgotten and we’re stuck down here repeating old patterns and habitual addictions. So again, that’s what the angel in the doorway is, a memory of what we were.
It took me years to realise that I was interested in art that can change the world. That intent and creation can alter one’s reality. And I believe that that is what art was used for in many cultures. We just don’t see it that way anymore in contemporary Western culture. For me every single artwork is more of a spiritual discipline about inner transformation. So when you asked me about whether they could be malevolent entities, I won’t work with malevolence. My work is about spiritual transformation. I like to believe that other people will feel that as well. I can’t force it, but if it happens for me then I like to believe that it can happen for others too.
Interview conducted May 20, 2015 at Everard Read, Cape Town