Uprising Art is media partner of the first edition of the BIAC, Biennale Internationale d’Art Contemporain de Martinique, that takes place between November 22, 2013 and January 15, 2014 and which theme is « On the Resonance of the Literary Outcry in the Visual Arts ». For this need, Uprising travels to the Martinique from November 19 to 26 to report on the event and conduct a series of interviews of the organizing team, the invited curators, the artists in residency and the artists from the International and Martinican Pavilions.
Follow us to know more on the backstage of the event and its main outcomes.
Exclusively an interview of
Charles Campbell, Jamaican artist
This is the first edition of the BIAC in Martinique, FWI. What is the importance of such an event?
I firstly look at it in the larger context of Caribbean art. I know how important it is for artists working within the region to get to know each other and each other works. So it’s great that this effort is being made here now. Indeed, often it seems like Caribbean artists get together in New York or Washington DC whereas the BIAC puts an emphasis on the soil in a way that those exhibitions can’t, and that creates an interesting dialogue to see what things change when the work is exhibited here versus elsewhere.
Within that context, what do you think of the selection of Martinique particularly, due to the history and political situation of the island?
Martinique has a unique context because it is a department of France. It makes it a bit odd in terms of ‘Caribbean’. When I think of Jamaica, for instance, the beginning of the art movement is kind of identified with the movement towards independence. It shows us that although we have a lot of the same issues we don’t all have the same story. I am hopeful that more events like this will happen throughout the Caribbean.
It is a really special moment in and for the Caribbean.
I think so. There is a lot happening right now and certain key people are making the effort to make those connections and draw them together which is really important (Christopher Cozier at Alice Yard, Annalee Davis at Fresh Milk…). One of the things that excites me as an artist with roots in the Caribbean is that there is a sense we are actively building something and we are reaching a critical mass that sustains itself more effectively. We’re creating space that didn’t exist before and new ways of imagining our relationship with each other and the world. There is both more interest stemming from the outside and an interior ability to develop the complexity of our situation instead of trying to reduce it to a kind of overview of what is Caribbean art. We bring out its complexity and enrich our networks by meeting more people and this always gets more and more interesting. I am hesitant to describe it in concrete terms because it is in the process of becoming, we don’t know what it will be; and that is what is exciting about it. However ill-defined there is the sense of a project.
BIAC exists for me within that framework; an opportunity to look at what we are doing, make connections, tear down and build.
As an artist and a curator, living abroad, how important is it to be able to create those connections between the Caribbean and its diaspora?
It has always been extremely important to me. In the last five years, in particular it has fed my work. This link between both has been crucial to where my practice is currently.
For me, there is a quite sharp contrast with the art I see in a lot of other places and what’s being done by Caribbean artists, whatever that means. Elsewhere I often feel that there is a sense of ‘death’ in terms of shows you usually get to see; they might draw on interesting ideas but you get the sense that the boundaries have already been pushed to their limit. Many artists work within a language rather than attempting to expand it; the possibilities seem to have been exhausted in a way that art becomes a constant quotation and a ‘real’ experience or affect is placed outside those quotation marks. Everything is already circumscribed and it’s impossible to create something new… Whereas, in the Caribbean, I have the feeling there is that sense of creating something new. We are still using a similar language and quotations, but there is a real experience inside those quotations. It might be new just in our context but it is exciting that we are pushing up against our own culture. The idea that Caribbean artists get along with the Caribbean is bullshit, we have a very tense relationship with the environment and the societies we live in. In our context, the space has not been fully made especially for contemporary art: we are creating it, from the inside and from the diaspora.
You are presenting two geodesic spheres from your Transporter Series in the International Pavilion of the BIAC. What is the genesis of this series?
I’m presenting two geodesic spheres surfaced with tessellated images that relate to histories of violence and migration in the region.
This series began a couple of years ago, 2011, with several different steps and roots that led to it. The most immediate thing was the request for me to exhibit some work in a conference on human trafficking at Duke University. I thought of presenting my Actor Boy performance, but there was no space for the work to exist within that conference, and I ended up starting the Transporter Series.
I also had had the desire to see my paintings in three dimensional forms and had been working on that in my studio for a couple of years.
Then the character Actor Boy set this challenge of making work that was separate from mine. That figure comes from the future to the present and is also rooted visually in Jamaica’s past. He comes from another possible and better future – this is the concept that drives the project. He evokes an aspirational future, which led me to ideas around utopia. My research around utopia drove me to Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome that concretizes his ideals about creating a rational utopia. At that time, in one part of my studio I was experimenting on those geodesic spheres with a variety of materials, but not knowing what they would be; and on the other side, I would be working on two dimensional drawings and paintings. One day, they came together and it was there.
It fitted into the dialogue about human trafficking because the images on the domes largely reference slavery, which is a predecessor of contemporary human trafficking. The sphere is indicative of the movement and reminds us of the globe. It was interesting for me to draw out that connection. Utopianism kind of represented this aspiration of the people to move. Moving is not always about coercion, some people also leave trying to create a better life.
The other element at Duke, not exhibited here at BIAC, was a large painting of the trash left over from sugar cane cultivation – Bagasse – which related to the economy of sugar cane and its links to slavery, and economic systems in general.
From the construction of your sculptures, mainly, but also from your painting, we notice some references to architecture. Does it influence you?
The architectural references filter into my work from different sources and I don’t really go out looking for them. Maybe the geodesic sphere got lodged in my mind when I lived in Montreal and would see the remnants of Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67.
What are the evolutions your Transporter Series has gone through since 2011?
The evolution is not obvious in the pavilion, where the two spheres are from 2011. Mainly, what I have been working on out of the Transporter Series are temporary outdoor sculptures, derived from the same method of working and from similar imagery. These are smaller, organic forms, made of silkscreened and laser cut equilateral triangles. They can be assembled into any shape and are continually being remodeled. I originally started to cover existing structures and furniture before heading into public space. The idea behind that development was to create some sort of cultural space. This emerged out of feeling constrained in Victoria, Canada, where I lived, because there is limited cultural space. There is not much evidence of cultural actions and a sense that there is very little public space for contemporary art, especially from practitioners not from a Euro/American background. This was my impetus for putting those pieces into the public arena. I like the idea that they have a presence in the space.
Are those smaller iterations still related to migration and violence?
Yes, in a way… The act of inhabiting a space as somebody from a minority and with a certain history is crucial in the action of putting the artwork in the public space. The images I use relate to my past, even if they are heavily camouflaged, turned into patterns and therefore not immediately evident. My personal history is very present in my work, if coded.
Last year I had a solo exhibition in at Open Space in Victoria, where I was exhibiting the geodesic spheres, Bagasse and the sculptures I just mentioned suspended on a triangular grid. Here the gallery space was used as a white cube to exhibit those creations as art objects while other actions were happening outside of the gallery with the outdoor sculptures more aggressively making their presence felt in public space.
What are the reactions you are getting from your audience in Canada? Both about the artworks presented in traditional exhibitions, in gallery spaces or museums, and the pieces shown in the public space with the intention of creating that cultural space.
It is hard to tell. The outdoor sculptures don’t last very long generally; they either get vandalized or taken down by the city. I also believe it depends on the type of space you put the work in, how long it lasts and the context you are showing it in. What is interesting about that is that it allows the culture to perform itself so they function very differently in different contexts.
About the exhibitions, maybe I prefer exhibiting in Jamaica. The audiences are more inclined to let you know where they stand. The response has been good in Canada but Canadians are more polite – it’s difficult to tell.
How do you deal with postcoloniality in your practice?
It’s pretty obvious that a lot my work engages with notions of power, slavery, historical violence and its many legacies by using very heavily loaded imagery. So yes, on the surface I’m deeply engaged with a postcolonial narrative, and some readings of my work can focus on this exclusively. But there are always elements that work to destabilize that narrative, whether it’s the various contingencies that combine in the formation of the work or its visual presence.
In terms of reading of the pieces, does the audience really see the images, hidden behind the patterns? The content of the message is heavy but transmitted subtly.
I am fine with that. Once the images are selected and the form exists, then the choices become esthetic and it is all about how it looks and the feeling I get when I am looking at it. There is a play on whether the image is visible, identifiable, or hidden. This openness allows me to play with that and not to get caught in the heaviness. There is no forcing the interpretation and the reading; they are not didactic objects. One can have different readings but the specific images used and the form always generate this tension between form/pattern and the narratives of the images. It is one object but it doesn’t tell the same story or even seems to tell multiple stories.
I also like showing them in series because then there is probably one of the spheres you can read and suddenly it will change your reading of all of them…
Are the repetitive and intricate patterns you use, throughout your sculptural and painted work, an epitome of the complexity of the issues you address?
In a way. Repetition is a sort of violence but the patterns created through repetition remove themselves from this violence. This fascinates me.
The patterns also become beauty. Which is also the case with the lightness of the pieces and the fact light can go through them… It is hard to reconcile beauty and light with slavery, and the narratives are so heavy… But there was a big turning point in my work when I decided to abandon heaviness of the stories that were supposed to be told with those images. I didn’t want to deny history and still wanted to involve that history but not necessarily be burdened by it.
Is healing a word that finds echo in your practice?
Healing is a personal word for me and how it enters into my practice is complicated, but yes it’s there, specifically with the reference to historical traumas.
According to you, in which way art can be a tool of understanding for the past, the present or the future?
It’s more about opening up new relationships than creating understanding.
Political awareness and discourse are part of your work. How do they inform your investigations and how do you integrate them in your creations?
Making something and putting it out into a public sphere is inherently political, regardless of whether your choice is to reassure and reestablish a status quo or destabilize and establish new relationships. At the moment the work I’m doing with temporary public sculptures takes this on. I’m putting different iterations of the same object into various places with differing political contexts. I’m looking at how this affects the work.
My work is also political because it is looking at historical and political references that people don’t actually want to see. It is not ideological in a sense that I am not pushing a certain way of resolving those issues, but I am trying to change people’s perceptions. Being an artist is about actively creating cultural spaces and political spaces and that is about changing the world.
Where would you say you are standing as to your artistic career?
That’s an interesting question. My art operates in multiple milieus, some of which I’m well established in, some I hardly exist in at all. I guess what’s important is that I feel I’ll always be able to find a way to make art and live.
Lately, you have lived in Canada. How do you feel about the art scene there and your interaction with it?
I’ve benefitted hugely from public support of the arts in Canada and it has been a very good place for me to make work. My work however is better known and accepted outside of Canada.
You have been appointed Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston. What are you expecting from your experience there?
I am looking at building bridges the region and I am excited about that prospect. Jamaica is well placed to have a regional focus and look more beyond its borders. I am looking forward to bringing those interesting conversations into the gallery.
Part of the job of the curator is to develop the context around the work. Readings of the work can change dramatically depending on their context, like at the international pavilion here, how the works play off each other visually and thematically, and are also different because they sit in this very specific space at this very specific time. So as a curator I’ll be working to flesh out the complexities of the context I’m working in. In some cases I would also like to take a very active role working with artists. I don’t see myself just asking for some works to put on a wall; I am more interested in interacting with the artists, to see the work they are doing and what we can do together. It is about drawing on the works of artists in different ways.
Which artists do you plan to exhibit? And what about the inclusion of the diaspora in your curatorial approach?
I’ll wait until I am there and understand more what is practically possible. But I certainly would like to push a more regional focus or a broader focus. I am interested in working with artists from other parts of Caribbean or from the diaspora much more than we currently do. Maybe put the emphasis of Jamaica in the context of Caribbean rather than in its own setting.
About the diaspora, the last National Biennial at the NGJ expanded the definition of Jamaican artists to include artists from Jamaican parentage that live abroad. The show featured really interesting work. I think that we can go further.
What are your upcoming projects?
My currently project is to produce a set of temporary public sculptures in London. I also have some things planned with the Actor Boy persona in Jamaica in the spring.
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Charles Campbell © Uprising Art