Jessica Warboys’s practice employs a variety of media, ranging from sculpture, film, and performance to large format canvases including “sea painting”. Her work often departs from personal or collective memories, be it historical, mythical or fictional. Revisits to these lost and twisted memories or legendary and unknown figures shed new light on their symbolic significance in our contemporary socio-political and psychological life.

For her sea paintings, Jessica submerges large canvases in the sea after applying pigments to the inner-folded surface, obtaining the traces of movements and forms:  wind, waves, sand and folds. For out-door cyanotypes, Jessica places objects on hand painted, light-sensitive canvas, which is simultaneously exposed to the sun. In the artist’s words, she’s recording transitory images which can serve as material for further “editing” or re-composition.

Selina Ting, March 2011

On Sea Paintings

Selina Ting: You told me that you used to wake up early when you work on the sea paintings.

Jessica Warboys: Yes, the sea painting in Credac was made early in the morning, when there are fewer people around. The beginning of the day is the best time. The intention is to be immediate. I try to work almost blindly, spontaneously response to previous gestures, without too much force.

ST: Not to think too much…

JW: I like to be surprised, to see something unexpected. If I work too slowly, it could become self-conscious.

ST: Because then you start analyzing.

JW: Yes, analyzing and knowing. Though, through the repetition of this process of sea painting, I am becoming more aware of the effects and variables, I try to stop before I feel I am composing them, so they are as immediate as possible.

ST: Time and time again critics highlight the performative aspect of your sea paintings. Do you see it as a performance? Have you ever filmed your working process of the sea painting?

JW: There is a performative aspect to the making, but it’s a process as well as a kind of performance. I am not concerned with how the tableau looks or appears as I make a sea painting, but with the result or record of the process. In a sense the performance is projected directly onto the canvas. As, I am also working on performance and films, I keep a separation. No, I haven’t filmed making a sea painting. 

Jessica Warboys, ‘Les Arènes de Lutèce’, 2010. Film: Super 8 transferred into digital, 5 min 30. See Painting, Dunwich, 2010. Pigments on Canvas, 380 x 210 cm. Banner banner, 20110. Canvas, wood, paint, 165 x 155 cm. Courtesy of the artist & Fondation Ricard. © galerie Gaudel de Stampa

ST: Where did the idea of sea painting come from? 

JW: I didn’t have a studio for a period of time and was moving between Suffolk, London and Cornwall. In Cornwall it was practical to use the beach as a studio.

ST: I imagine it’s not possible to work on your own with such huge canvas.

JW: I have one or two people to help me. It’s too heavy to pull it back from the sea, open and close it on my own. 

ST: Does it smell good? 

JW: [Laughs] not bad.

ST: When you show the sea paintings, you never frame them. Why?

JW: I want the installation to be as close to the canvas during the time of making, currently, as just a shift from the ground to the wall. Depending on the painting or space I may cut the sea painting, remove parts, under and overlap. With the sea paintings, I like the idea that something so large and consuming can be folded and transported or simply kept as a compact minimal work.

ST: Also, there is the repetitive action of folding and unfolding from the making to the exhibiting and to the conservation. 

JW: Yes, I think framing them would stop that and also claim them as paintings… 

ST: [Laughs] Are you feeling guilty for that? 

JW: Yes, that I am not a painter! [Laughs] No, I am not guilty as the title “Sea Painting” suggests. I am interested in their ambiguity, in the end they are what they are, regardless of what they claim to be.

ST: Do you think that once you frame it, you claim the authorship of the work?

JW: No, I think I just don’t like the idea of closing something or making something final. It’s important that they can be taken down and folded up again. They can move on and be reinstalled. There is always a possibility. The installations are momentary conclusions.

ST: Can they be hung upside down or change orientation?

JW: I would have to see the space first [Laughs]. The two sea paintings in Credac were previously shown in the South London Gallery, vertically. It was interesting because the title of the paintings La Cavea referred to the seating around an amphitheatre, which was the location for the film Les arènes de Lutèce (2010) also shown in the same space. In Credac the space dictated the installation of La Cavea, in a way the sea painting became like a band circling the space; closer physically and visually to the title: La Cavea in a literal sense.

Jessica Warboys, La Cavea, Sea Paintings, Dunwich, 2010. Installation view of Jessica Warboys, Land and Sea, Credac, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Credac – Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry. Photo : © André Morin / le Crédac

On Film-making

ST: Are your films as improvised as your paintings? 

JW: Yes, what takes place in the filming is quite improvised as there is no story-board. I have an idea, some props and a location. After that I allow things to happen as well as directing/carrying out a simple narrative.

Jessica Warboys, La Fôret de Fontainbleau, 2010, Film still, Film: 16mm transfer to digital 4:00min, colour, silent, camera: Ville Piippo. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gaudel de Stampa.

ST: For example, La forêt de Fontainebleau is less than 4 minutes. How important is the editing? 

JW: There is a lot of shifting of orientation, reversing etc. I wanted to make a film which feels like you are climbing, and then finally the effect is the space of the place and the duration of the event becomes simultaneously twisted and expanded. The way for me to arrive at that was through less material, fewer shots and more editing.

ST: Is the second film Marie de France more structured compared to La forêt de Fontainebleau?

JW: There aren’t any repeated or reversed scenes or gestures, the narrative leads from one point to another. So, yes it’s more structured and linear when compared to the first film. The third film Victory Park (2011) simply moves from the middle of the park to one end of the park. 

ST: You presented the three films in Credac as a trilogy. What are the elements that link up your three films?

JW: The characters established in the first film are not so present in the third film, where we just the see the form their joined hands make, which is between a square a circle and a knot. This final scene refers back to the beginning of the trilogy. Despite the same characters passing through the three films, their attributes shift as they adapt to the scenario. Each time the characters are slightly redefined, like characters going through costume changes between my films.

Jessica Warboys, Land and Sea, Credac, 2011. Installation view of the trilogy: (from left) La forêt de Fontainebleau, Marie de France (Courtesy of Gaudel de Stampa) and Victory Park (Courtesy of Gaudel de Stampa and Credac) Photo : © André Morin / le Crédac

ST: Was the trilogy format intended from the very beginning? 

JW: When we (Morten Norbye Halvorsen, Ieva Kabasinskaite and Ville Piippo) made the first film, I wasn’t anticipating it would be the first of three interconnecting films. But, then towards the end of the second film, I realized it was becoming the centre of three parts. The third film was made when I knew that I would have the space in Credac to show them simultaneously. So as much as it is an autonomous film it is a response to the first two parts as well as a conclusion to the trilogy. 

ST: The way you present the three films makes them look like one single film installation piece, whilst creating a kind of emptiness in the gallery space. 

JW: I have shown the first two films independently so they weren’t constructed to create a film installation. I had the space in Credac to show the three films simultaneously, side by side and in parallel; it was interesting for me to show them side by side as this is referring to the media itself – film, the length of the canvas in the sea painting installation and also to the length of the lai (poem) by Marie de France which was cited in the second film. It has been great seeing the rhythms and patterns between the three films, as there is a constant movement between landscape, objects and gesture, and the films are in different lengths, there are innumerable variations.

ST: When we look at A l’étage (2011), we see the four films share the same cinematographic language of fragmentation, circular movements of images and sequences. Do you think it’s becoming your style? 

JW: I don’t really set out to define a style, I don’t want to repeat things, but I think a certain movement can come naturally after a previous one, especially if you are working intuitively. A l’étage comes after the trilogy, and I guess after working with the same media for eight months, you start to unconsciously develop something typically yours. But with A l’étage, I think I really wanted to document the place, to understand the space and to explore the history of the place. In a way it’s also to prepare the space, pre-empting the performance to come.

ST: Without being sentimental… 

JW: Yes, to avoid being overly sentimental or nostalgic, it is a seductive space and it is tempting to indulge in its chaotic beauty. I tried to keep a neutral approach, towards the paintings and books etc, to avoid fetishism. The film has an overall even tone and rhythm, and then at intervals is punctuated with image and sound.

Jessica Warboys, A l’étage, 2010, Film still,Film: 16mm transfer to digital 4:00min, colour, sound : Morten Norbye Halvorsen, camera: Ville Piippo. © Jessica Warboys. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gaudel de Stampa.

On Phantom Archaeology

ST: You seem to have different attitudes towards the spaces that you work with. I want to link this to your sea paintings. I suppose the geographical subtitles are taken directly from the place where you made them. Take Dunwich as an example. It was a very prosperous medieval town in the 13th Century but most of the town has since disappeared due to sea surges. Te Motutapu a Taikehu is taken from a Pacific Island with a dislocated history. If we associate the history of the places with your working process, we wonder if these locations are simply “chance-encounter”.

JW: For Dunwich, it’s partly for practical reasons because it is very close to where I often am, in Suffolk, but then there is another layer which is the history. As sea paintings are like traces or prints, it’s interesting to know that there is something beneath the surface. Still, I don’t search for the history. I would make a sea painting there regardless.

ST: Are these places innocent? 

JW: Dunwich is more of a practical reason but of course the history interests me, Motutapu is phonetically of interest amongst other things but it’s also an island with a history that shifts from the sacred to the profane, the library has its own history, Victoria Park is an old park which is going to be re-landscaped… They all have a long, lost, shifting history, or are on the cusp of change.

ST: I like the story of Dunwich and those frenetic divers and politicians who want to use high-tech cameras to take pictures of the immersed village and to re-construct the lost village. When I looked at your sea-paintings, I feel like they are almost archaeological traces. 

JW: I have thought about it, but it’s not something that I would state explicitly. There is always something behind everything, but a lot of these points are incidental to the being of the work. But, back to the paintings, they are very much about a moment, they are defined by the present, there is a very direct rapport between the sand, the wind, the wave, etc.

ST: Are we going back to the circular movement of time again? 

JW: [Laughs] What I mean is that there are two facets to the work: one is the history to which the imagination can attach itself; another is the current moment in the present of which the work is a direct record.

ST: Does the theory apply to the historical heroines in your work, such as Hélène Vanel?

JW: I am interested in Hélène Vanel who was on periphery of the surrealist circle in the late 1930s, then left to do her own thing, now she has re-emerged, in the frame of this show A l´étage, with a real power and intensity. It was fascinating to discover her character, to include her in the performance which will take place in the garden at Nogent, then later to discover that she had actually danced in the same garden, I think there is definitely a kind of rhythm and repetition here, as much connected to her history as to dance.

ST: What about Jeanne d’Arc in your performance The Lark, in South London Gallery last year? 

JW: The Lark is play by Jean Anouilh (1952) accounting the life and trial of Jeanne d’Arc. The book I found of this play was torn so the characterisation and the structure of the play was very difficult to read, this made it clear that as things were already confused things could be changed. Around the same, I found a quantity of stage money which by co-incidence was the same amount as Jeanne d’Arc’s ransom. This found money assumed the status of Jeanne d’Arc’s ransom so she would not be burnt. So, the final part of the performance is the payment of the ransom – when money was rolling down. It is beyond optimistic, it is fantasy, a fictional ending. The performance made in collaboration with Morten Norbye Halvorsen will be re-enacted in Nogent [30 April, Maison d’art Bernard Anthonioz].

ST: Why do you want to include the performance of Jeanne d’Arc in Nogent? 

JW: When I researched into the library, I discovered the husband of Madeleine Smith (one of the two sisters who built the library 1913-1916), Pierre Champion, was an authority on Jeanne d’Arc and published a book Jeanne d’Arc in 1933. 

ST: Is it by chance that all these characters are women? 

JW: I have been thinking about this, it’s not by chance, as a woman, these characters resonate. Art making can take you outside yourself and being curious about somebody else. I don’t mean that I am acting these characters but they provide an image to work (some of the works are portraits) from where I am the mediator.

ST: Telling the story of someone else…

JW: Yes, in an abstract way with just their names as titles, Marie de France, Gabriella, etc. 

ST: Thank you!

Click to watch the video interview of Jessica Warboys on the exhibition A l’Etage:

Land and Sea
Credac – Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry 
8 April – 12 June 2011

A l’étage
Maison d’Art Bernard Anthonioz, Nogent-sur-Marne
Jeu de Paume – Hors les murs
Curator: Raimundas Malašauska
24 March – 15 May 2011

About the artist

Born in 1977, UK. Lives and works London and Paris

Jessica Warboys graduated with a Master of Fine Art (Sculpture) from Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2004. Past Exhibitions include Ballad of the Green Hoop, 2010, curated by Anne-Sophie Dinant, South London Gallery, London; Parasol, 2009 Gaudel de Stampa, Paris; Ne pas jouer avec des choses mortes, 2008, curated by Marie de Brugerolle and Eric Mangion, La Villa Arson, Nice; Up-coming(solo) exhibitions include Sutton Lane, London (June) and Cell Project Space, curated by Milika Muritu, London (September) 2011, (group) Tableaux, curated by Yves Aupetitallot and Vincent Honoré, Le Magasin, Grenoble.

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