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Blogger Tamarin Norwood talks to Andrew Bryant about art and writing, the contemporary fascination with hermeneutics, and the tricky relationship between subjectivity and painting.
Andrew Bryant: Your work reveals a certain ‘permeability’ between words, things, time and actions. Could you talk a bit about that?
Tamarin Norwood: I realized recently that lots of my work expresses an attempt to catch stuff before it goes away. Since time doesn’t stop, everything eventually—or immediately—goes away. But if I struggle with it on its way out, the struggle seems to mitigate a bit against the loss. I try this sometimes by writing words about the thing that’s leaving, and sometimes by making or finding objects that do a better job than the words. I don’t see much of a difference between words and objects when you’re using them in this way.
Because of all this, actions in my work are often repetitive and abstracted, and fail to accumulate into anything you can recognize or keep hold of. I suppose the actions are like this because they’re pressed up against the moving edge of time, which is an agitated place to be because there’s nothing but continuous loss. Put like that it sounds a bit melodramatic but at the moment I’m thinking of it more as a fact of physics than a subjective experience. That said, a certain amount of barefaced subjectivity is creeping in… the other day I bought some PAINTS for instance.
AB: That’s very interesting. I think a lot about loss too. Or rather I try not to. But isn’t loss also necessary for something new to come along? It seems like you are making something of the loss, even perhaps that loss is ‘making’ you . . ?
TN: At the moment I'm concerned more with the structure of loss than with the renewal it brings about. If you think of time as a sequence of discrete events, there's nothing especially redemptive about the new moment that comes along to replace the old, because in an instant it is itself old and slips into the past. Perhaps the distinction between new and old complicates things. In the 'Keeping Time' video I developed on my current blog the movement isn't discrete but continuous and fractious, and indifferent to direction too. It just keeps moving and the origin—the nib of the pen—never shifts an inch.
This absurd stillness always reminds me of a three-day train journey I took all the way across Australia several years ago. I had a camera with me and used up six or seven tapes, and when I watched back the footage I was alarmed to find almost all of it showed the inside of the carriage: close ups of the fold-away apparatus specially designed to function in the compact space that contained us. Throughout the journey I'd taken in the speeding brushland and the long blue sky, but I'd preferred to catch on tape the stuff that stayed still and came with me.
Of course the carriage wasn't staying still at all, it just felt still because it's where I was. Is it in this sense that we might be 'made' by the loss of passing time? We have to stay still right here at the speeding fringe of time because there isn't anywhere else to be, and we have to design our apparatus to fold neatly into this compact space.
As for making something of the loss: that would be nice. But I think the drama of trying to keep time is that the hope contains its own failure.
AB: You recently completed an MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths College. How was that experience and what made you take that path?
TN: Before my BA fine art I did a degree in linguistics, so I have a good sense of the particular qualities of language that make it unique among ways of communicating and representing. With this in mind, I wanted to think more about how language and non-language can be interchangeable, and the sticky field of art writing seemed like a good place to start. I was keen to join the MFA in the very first year it ran, and I’m glad I did because I met some fantastic practitioners some of whom I still collaborate with, and in the first year there was a real feeling that by helping shape the course we were helping shape the field.
I remain very interested in the problem of how things and words relate, but I think there’s a danger in ‘Art Writing’ becoming too neat a category. For me, putting ‘art’ and ‘writing’ together is a helpful way to announce that there’s a lot to do and to think about in the gap between the two words. If it became too familiar and unproblematic a term or field I think we’d lose what makes it most productive.
AB: You have created four blogs on Artists talking to date. What is it about blogs that keeps your interest?
TN: I like trying to draw lines around things, even if it never really works. All my projects tend to contaminate one another so it’s useful to set a clear starting point for a new project by christening a new blog. Sadly the blogs never have equally neat endings - perhaps because it’s never clear when a project is over. Even if a commission ends or a fee runs out, the ideas continue.
And I like the feeling that there’s someone looking over my shoulder. It puts the process on a stage, which is something I’ve thought a lot about and which (perhaps despite myself?) I find very productive.
AB: I like that. Did you know in antiquity the Greeks considered reflecting on the self through a daily writing practice to be a ‘safeguard against sinning’?
TN: I didn't know that, it's a nice idea. I wonder whether they'd read over their writing, or whether the process alone was enough of a safeguard. Blogs are social things, and you imagine people reading over your shoulder even if there’s no one there. That’s one kind of safeguard: making your intentions public is a good incentive to stick to them.
But whether or not anyone reads it, I think writing must always be a safeguard against something or we wouldn't do it. Every day for the last sixteen years I’ve been writing a kind of diary, so I have hundreds of A5 books stacked up around the house. A few years ago I tried to stop, because the writing was starting to take over and everything I did felt anterior to a written reflection. But after a week without writing I had a headache and I’d started making surreptitious Word documents to ease the pressure, so I gave up trying to stop. Later on I read Woolf describing ‘the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life’, and it sounded just like the headache I’d had. I think my writing is an attempt to safeguard against that dumb accumulation: stuff going away before it's caught. Likewise for the objects and other things I make.
There are certain things I try to record and accumulate in these diaries; certain other things go on my a-n blogs; and still other things end up on a separate blog attached to my artist website. Each has a different character. The a-n blogs tend to be more practical and project-based; my website blog follows scraps of ideas over the course of several years, and my handwritten diaries include reflections on my practice and specific art projects, but aren’t dedicated to artwork.
AB: As a culture we seem to be increasingly interested in giving an account of ourselves (as Grayson Perry’s recent TV programme about the process of researching and making his tapestries demonstrates). Blogging also reveals this current obsession with hermeneutics – interpreting our actions, desires and impulses – but your blogs, by playfully problematising the relationship between making and writing about making, seem to be doing something different…
TN: I agree. I think we’re living in a climate of increasingly public reflection and self-presentation, and I’m interested in what happens when a person—especially an artist—chooses actively to engage in this. I think this engagement is problematic in a very productive way, and because I find it so complicated (it’s the subject of a PhD I’m starting this year) I try to skirt around it on my own blogs.
Nevertheless the blog format has a strong association with personal or immediate writing and revelation, and because of this it makes a good platform for first-person experimentation. I like fiction. On my blogs I’m very selective about which personal or anecdotal information to include. It’s quite rare that information about my working day feeds into my working process in an interesting way. It’s not often relevant. On a good day, when I write a good post, I can find bits and pieces around the house and in the day that contribute to the ideas I’m describing, whether their contribution is formal, tonal, thematic or anything else. Perhaps it’s like writing fiction with a limited palette: you can only use things that have actually happened.
So the posts add a kind of background noise or texture to my practice. Because I make a lot of my artwork out of language, my working process isn’t always distinct from my writing process. The words count whether they’re in a blog or an artwork. The writing is sometimes an annexe to the artwork, sometimes it participates in the artwork, and sometimes there’s no artwork at all unless it’s in the writing itself.
AB: You mentioned earlier buying some paints. You linked this to ‘barefaced subjectivity’ and put the word in capital letters as if holding your hands up to committing some crime against art. Why do you think painting and ‘subjectivity’ are linked, and why are both so shameful nowadays? I mean, isn’t it a bit impossible not to be a subject? What does painting mean to you?
TN: The capitals were a bit provocative weren’t they! I haven’t painted since I was at school, so paint has always been quite alien to my practice. I went out the other day and bought some oil paints and turps and two very smooth brushes. I didn’t buy them because I work as an artist but because I wanted to remember what painting feels like, particularly the texture and the movement. So I have these paints in my house and I’ve started using them, but they might not make it into my practice.
That said, over the past few months I’ve been reading about and doing more drawing, and through that I’m starting to understand how to look at paint in a way that excites me as a practitioner. The other day I saw Jenny Saville in conversation at Modern Art Oxford and she described the rare moment when she gets a brushstroke exactly right and for a second it feels just like touching another body, flesh to flesh. I’m interested in the analogy between paint and flesh, and the way the shape of the painter’s body has to mimic the shape of the body being painted in order to get an image that also mimics it.
I can't see an inevitable link between painting and subjectivity, but there does seem to be a connection in my own mind. Perhaps it's something to do with the paint-flesh analogy (I like De Kooning's line: 'flesh was the reason oil paint was invented'); or because fleshy figuration implies a fleshy subject positioned in relation to the object; or it might be a legacy of abstract expressionists who used paint to catch the movements they made. Personally I want to spend time with the texture and movement of the paint, and if the painting feeds into my practice it might bring with it this foregrounding of the subject position my work often takes for granted and skirts around. It would pay a different kind of attention to this idea of loss we've discussed.
As for crimes against art, I think there’s a lot of irony left in the air since postmodernism, and in this context what I called ‘barefaced subjectivity’ becomes quite a marked gesture, and one which is difficult to handle. We’re all trained now to understand subjectivity as a given—it is impossible not to be a subject—but I think a commitment to the emotional experience of a subject position remains difficult to assimilate into contemporary critical art discourse. Critical theory doesn't seem to know what to do with it, and perhaps this anxiety breeds the shamefulness you brought up. I think nowadays painting gets the respect it's due, but perhaps where paint is linked to subjectivity and then held up against this kind of critical discourse it provokes the same anxiety of assimilation.
Tamarin Norwood is an artist and writer. www.tamarinnorwood.co.uk
Andrew Bryant is an artist and freelance editor living in London
First published: a-n.co.uk July 2012
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