“Who let you into the building?!”
Artist and designer Biljana Popovic and curator Elle Loui August in conversation about process, practice and the urban environment.
In recent years, artist, designer and spatial designer Biljana Popovic has trailed an ebullient string of solo exhibitions and collaborative projects through the public galleries and artist-run initiatives of Aotearoa. In the hiatus between their collaboration on Beauty is in the street for Objectspace in 2016, and a second iteration at Ramp Gallery in Hamilton in May – which will be closely followed by Popovic’s inclusion in the 2017 Chartwell Exhibition Shout, Whisper, Wail at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki – we find curator Elle Loui August in conversation with the artist reflecting on Popovic’s process and themes.
Elle Loui August: As an artist who has trained across a number of visual-art mediums and design cultures, I am curious about the way in which you see and experience the lived environment, and about the processes through which this becomes apparent in your practice?
Biljana Popovic: There’s a detachment in the way I view the urban environment, and in this detachment everything looks a bit peculiar. It’s a kind of architectural disassociation, where elements do not come together to form a whole but remain fragmented and suspended forever. There is an almost superstitious attitude to the way I look at objects–like an archeologist or a spy. Aesthetic is not to be trusted, things are rarely what they appear to be.
The word chaste comes to mind. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a family member about white wedding dresses. “Why are we pretending to be virgins?” I asked.
The built environment really rattles me. I mean, I really get quite upset about it sometimes. For example, when I’m sitting on the front porch of my Kingsland flat, I’ll look at all the Edwardian villas on my street and feel quite baffled by their presence. I can’t help the feeling that this style of architecture, with its Victorian fretwork, pitched roofs and white painted facades, has absolutely nothing to do with me. The word chaste comes to mind. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a family member about white wedding dresses. “Why are we pretending to be virgins?” I asked.
My family is not from here. I have no direct lineage to Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage. It bothers me that there’s nothing added or changed to suggest an overturning of the colonial patriarchal culture that built this suburb for the privileged, through the exploitation of the underprivileged. Why is the historic style of these buildings protected? There's a nausea and anger and detachment, and I feel provoked by these feelings to turn things upside down and hijack these symbols. I think the art term for that is detournement.
ELA: Yes, an acid-vanilla imperative has certainly dug its heels in across the city, and this seems particularly true of the inner-city suburbs. Though to stay with the term detournement a little longer, does this, as a working sensibility, manifest itself consistently across the different aspects of your practice? You traverse object making, installation and sculptural environments–in which these modalities appear inseparable–yet, there also appears a clear consideration of the exhibition context itself, and a sensitivity to the physical experience of the audience. How does your thinking and process play out across these different forms?
BP: I tend not to work so much with found objects, but with interpretations of found objects. Often they will be employed in a way in which they undo themselves, philosophically. One example is I Don’t Have To Sell My Soul / You’re Already In Me, which was a project from 2014 Spring 1883, Melbourne.
To read bus/tram poles in their original context, you could say that they are about a particular point in time (now) when design aesthetics are largely dictated by the manufacturing industry and what it can produce cheaply. Due to such processes, things that have nothing to do with each other symbolically, come to share a similar language aesthetically. There is a tension here between a feeling of collectivity and alienation. And one encounters these same feelings of collectivity and alienation when sitting in public transport. By going through the highly laborious process of recreating a recognizable and mass produced public interior, but then remixing it so that it can stand up on its own, the work is saying that you can never make decisions just based on practical concerns. They always grow leg’s; they always mean something.
I am exploring what I see as a modernist hang-up in gallery architecture, while at the same time seeking its ideological opposite, which is iconic architecture and iconography.
The artist Alex Da Corte says that his own installations are like “film’s’ that you get to be in, but you can only watch it when someone is in front of you”. That back of the head perspective. What this indicates to me is that people are a key part of the art culture that we are making our work in. Not just their eyes and their minds, but their bodies and their emotions and their sexualities and their whole persons. I definitely make installations with this kind of understanding of the viewer – it seems ludicrous to me otherwise.
I also can’t get away from an obsession with gallery architecture. I always think about how terrible these interiors are, and how they mustn’t be left alone. Since I read the book Chromophobia (by David Batchelor) I am more aware of a generalised whiteness whenever I see white walls. I am exploring what I see as a modernist hang-up in gallery architecture, while at the same time seeking its ideological opposite, which is iconic architecture and iconography. Highly recognizable things.
ELA: You make mention of “the manufacturing industry” in a general sense, although you have an impressive mental inventory of a wide range of commercial production methods, products and their applications -which are often exceptionally specific- and you manipulate this knowledge to great effect in your practice. As an observer, and at times, interlocutor, this ongoing accumulation seems to be driven by a restless and rigorous curiosity. Humor too, of course, but even more distinctively, there is an infectious sense of exuberance to your practice.
Being able to differentiate different kinds of designed objects from each other helps you understand language, and how the language of architecture speaks to the language of art.
BP: Learning all the specific systems of manufactured objects is a skill I have picked up from trying to directly copy things that I see in the world. In order to trace objects back to their manufacturer, a vocabulary is required. For example, it’s not a “steel tube fixture”, it’s a “mild steel stanchion foot with a 25NB opening”. Other than making you feel like a total design nerd, knowing the names of things can really help you read the world around you.
I remember when I was a student at Elam, after an opening at George Fraser Gallery I found myself in a conversation about sculpture and the role of the ‘base’. There was an art history student there, and he was quizzing my peers and I about how many classical plinth styles we could name, and whether we knew the difference between several key types. I remember thinking “are you kidding me? Why is this important? What a fuckin nerd…” But now I totally get his angle. Being able to differentiate different kinds of designed objects from each other helps you understand language, and how the language of architecture speaks to the language of art.
When I started learning about construction technology in architecture, I gained this extraordinary power to see buildings. I even started to be able to see them a little bit in x-ray view. Where I used to see a row of buildings as more of a large lumpy mass, I now saw specific entities with their own personalities, stories, and cultural backgrounds.
Often when you go looking for one thing, you find it links back to an overarching idea that groups different objects together. You might go looking for a particular park bench manufacturer and you find yourself lost in a catalogue of playground matting products, which is right next to a catalogue of swimming pool products…
ELA: While your work can be seen to take a critical stance, it is one charged with physicality and imaginative force. In my observations, I perceive that this emerges through the way in which you attend to sensuality. I think it would be good to speak on this further, as these qualities seem key to moving into a deeper reading and understanding of your work.
BP: I’m often inclined to use work titles as a way to bring out the physicality of the audience, almost like dance cues. An example of this is Kissing Ramona Flowers which was part of the exhibition Campaign Furniture curated by Henry Davidson at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 2014. Kissing Ramona Flowers is a floor to ceiling pvc strip curtain, like the kind you would walk through to go into the butcher’s. The curtain frame is shaped in a semi-circle, and all the strips are clear except for two, at either end, which are translucent electric blue. I was thinking about this gesture of pushing somebody’s hair off their face with your hand, echoing the kind of motion your body makes as you move through the curtain.
There is a lot of sensuality in objects, and you’re right to say that I’m not just driven by intellectual passion. I think I find a lot of pleasure in discovering and interacting with objects. Often I’ll see something really fantastic and feel so drawn to it, the same way we find ourselves drawn to an enchanting person. Like I want to say “who are you”, but I’m almost too nervous to say hello. It can feel quite electrifying.