First published in Art Monthly in July, 2022 to coincide with Céline Condorelli's solo exhibition After Work at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh.
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George Vasey: What are your ambitions for the exhibition at Talbot Rice? It can’t be easy bringing all your work together.
Céline Condorelli: I was invited by the director, Tessa Giblin, to present a survey of my work. I have never had a large-scale institutional show in the UK. Most of my exhibitions have been project-based or context specific. It’s a really interesting opportunity to bring together different bodies of work and capture some of the breadth of my practice. A survey exhibition does pose a problem for me because much of my work can’t be transported and installed. While it is a survey, there is nothing that has been left untouched, all of my work is modified for the location.
I’m interested in where you situate your work. A body of work might become manifest in a gallery but it often has multiple strands to it that can be located in different places. It can be difficult to grasp where your art begins and ends.
A lot of my work is made for different spaces and has specific functions: stages, coffee shops and libraries, for instance. Take the work Zanzibar that we’re showing at Talbot Rice. It explores the relationship between plants and display structures, inspired by my exploration of the archives at New York’s MoMA. I also visited Lina Bo Bardi’s cultural centre in Brazil which is built around an established Mango tree. I’m interested in how plants were first used in exhibitions to make the artwork on display more palatable to the public and to help remove anxieties they might have. Zanzibar started life at the Gwangju Biennial in 2016 and has subsequently appeared in many different forms since, including gallery installations and also as a permanent garden located near Kings Cross. It’s a difficult project to encapsulate unless you’ve followed me around for the past five years. I ended up publishing a book to try to bring the project together and to capture some of the work’s trajectories.
What do you perceive to be some of the problems in translating a public realm project into a gallery space?
It is a difficult one. The only way to bring some of my work to life in a gallery is either to narrate it through documentary, which isn’t that interesting to me, or to re-adapt it for the space. The installation of Zanzibar we’re showing in Edinburgh is new and I hope it brings a sense of the whole project. Exhibitions on architecture often start with a lack, exhibiting something that exists elsewhere. I think they often get it wrong because architecture isn’t just a building, it’s not a singular object. We need to work harder at constructing situations in galleries where architecture at the scale of exhibition-making is talked about. I want to start with creating a present situation for the public rather than documenting something that exists elsewhere.
At Talbot Rice you’re also opening up some of your thinking in the gallery space. You’re showing vitrines full of your research.
Yes, for the first time. I really wanted to show the processes behind each work, bringing together drawings and research materials. I think of them as extended captions, opening up the context from where the artworks are coming from. They also include artworks from friends and collaborators, people who have influenced me. Someone like Kathrin Böhm, for instance (Interview AM429). We’ve shared a studio for 18 years and, while our work is very different, she has influenced my thinking greatly and I want to acknowledge that.
Kathrin’s recent survey exhibition at London’s Showroom similarly upended expectations of what a survey could be. The gallery became a studio and workshop space with collaborators sorting through material from her archive during the run of the show – some of it was recycled while other parts were gifted or sold to institutions. I thought it was a really ingenious approach.
Yes, she used the metaphor of composting, which I thought was great. For Kathrin there is no compromise.
Talk me through the title of the exhibition, ‘After Work’, which also shares its name with a new moving-image work.
It’s from a recent film I made with the artist Ben Rivers and poet Jay Bernard. The title comes from a reflection about the relationship between labour and free time. These are very complex subjects but I was interested in ideas of leisure and relaxation, which in part stems from my research in garden exhibition design and how playgrounds are made. Of course, for those who are continually exploited, there is no freedom in free time, yet I wanted to tap into after work spaces that promote culture, such as the history of workers’ clubs and cultural societies. The limiting of working hours through unionised pressures on government contributed to culture’s proliferation. This wasn’t the place of the salon or high society but popular cultural forms such as music and cinema. The title was about trying to claim back this space in some way.
After Work was a commission at South London Gallery. How did you work with Ben and Jay?
The film documents the construction of a playground that I made in Southwark. I wanted to illustrate the labour involved in the construction of culture. Ben and I made this incredible film and Jay – who grew up in the area – gave voice to the project through the soundtrack. I wanted to commission a poem dedicated to this housing estate that has been historically neglected. It’s a really important work for me, and my first moving-image work. It was such a pleasure to work with them. I set up the framework of the film, using my own work as a set that they could respond to: it’s a work in a work in a work. For me, it really exemplifies the exhibition as a whole – foregrounding places of leisure while recognising and valuing forms of invisible labour.
Work and play, of course, can often become very blurred in the cultural sector.
Yes, much of my work is about how leisure and labour often operate inside one another.
The viewer’s body is often forgotten in exhibition design – for instance, there is often little to no seating in large-scale exhibitions. I am also thinking about how gallery conditions emphasise care for objects rather than people. Cold, dry and dark environments are good for conservation but less comfortable for visitors, for example. I’m interested in how you continually emphasise the bodily encounter. You have worked with seating, for instance.
I’ve worked with seating for years and this came out of my work on Support Structure, a long-term project with Gavin Wade exploring forms of support in the cultural sphere. I am fascinated by the hierarchies of labour and the presence of bodies in museum spaces. Institutions reify particular types of artistic labour while deleting other forms of technical labour. We have a highly sophisticated way of recognising what is the work and what is not the work in a gallery. I’m interested in how the technician’s labour – the person who builds the show – is often removed.
Is this why your work engages with gallery infrastructure?
Exactly. I’m interested in the lighting, seating and walls etc – the things we don’t often pay attention to. The art world relies on these processes of deletion. In the history of commodification, manual labour is necessarily invisible for an artwork to enter the market and accrue value. These are big, abstract ideas that have direct pragmatic consequences in terms of value and the ways in which people are paid. This also impacts on artists. The art world pays for objects but not services, so it can make it very difficult to compare artistic labour to other forms of labour in different industries for instance.
I’m interested in how your work operates on an aesthetic and functional level. It holds simultaneous values.
My interest in gallery infrastructure is about redirecting attention. Making a museum bench is a very simple reversal. It can be acquired by a collection and also have a use value. I’m interested in how this frays the edges around how an object can be read, be it by an art historian or by a four year old. The artwork has different registers.
I see my responsibility as an artist as closing the gap between the gradual removal of the body in art spaces and the distance we have to the objects we are surrounded by, which comes back to what you were saying about embodied encounters. I want to create intimacy between culture and society. This closeness is incredibly political and all of my works try to tackle this issue in different ways.
What does distance between the viewer and the object do?
Distance removes the possibility of a reciprocal relationship. If you look at ethnographic museums, artefacts are often violently removed from their original context. I’m reminded of Alain Resnais and Chris Maker’s 1953 film Statues Also Die, which explores these ideas. I’m not sure that we are that much further along since that film was made. We’ve seen more projects that address these material conditions, but it’s still a common way of encountering artefacts. It’s the big problem of the moment: what do we do with objects in museum collections? Are we protecting them from humans? Are humans protected from the objects? This is one of the great unresolved questions of our era for museums.
You talked before about the reification of the artwork in the market and this process is similar in the museum. Distance from the artefact removes the potential of dialogue in an attempt to naturalise the museum’s historical entitlement to it. You often openly reference architectural figures like Lina Bo Bardi and Friedrich Kiesler, who are very significant in the history of exhibition and museum design. You draw a lot of historical references into your orbit and I’d like to know whether you see a connection here to the question of cultural intimacy.
The thing is, I don’t really believe in history in that way. I’m interested in how we address the past through the present. I’ve had a long engagement with the work of Bo Bardi and this connects to my earlier work into friendship, and questions of how to use citation throughout my work. Ultimately, I’m interested in how I can contribute to Bo Bardi’s legacy – her work is something that is still in progress, hopefully I can productively contribute to it.
It’s a very dialogic relationship to your influences. It doesn’t deny genealogies, it builds on and negotiates these antecedents.
Certainly Bo Bardi has much to contribute to today’s exhibition culture. I do like the idea that continuity with the past suggests a form of cultural intimacy, that we’re all part of the same community of voices facing in the same direction.
For me, your work is about looking at looking. It’s about the frame as much as what is in the picture.
I’m drawn to minor strategies and what is unseen and unnoticed. I’m trying to expand on these situations so that something overlooked has a moment to flourish or simply be acknowledged. This is something that I do through display. There is something in the minor historical moment that I’m interested in.
This brings me back to Support Structure, which you worked on with Gavin Wade from 2003 to 2009. What was minor in 2009 has become much more central to artistic discourse in the intervening years. I’m thinking about conversations around care in particular. This topic has become ubiquitous in recent institutional discourse. Your interest in acknowledging invisible labour, for instance, makes me think about access documents — a rider that outlines access requirements — for artists. There is a language around these ideas that didn’t really exist ten years ago. What you think about the amplification of these discussions.
Words such as ‘support’ and ‘care’ circulate much more than they did 20 years ago, for sure. When I was working on these ideas, there were certainly discussions but not in the way there are now. Support Structures culminated in 2009 with a book that was intended as a bibliography, precisely because there just wasn’t much published on the topic. When I started out in the early 2000s, people were often baffled when I said I wanted to make work about these things, but that doesn’t happen anymore. First of all, I think that the art world is more aware of the labour that goes into the system, which is really positive. There is much more effort to make labour more visible yet it’s important to add that working conditions in museums have deteriorated. There is much more vocal opposition to exploitative practices yet we’re still a long way off actually fixing many of these issues.
Can the rhetoric of care become a form of institutional camouflage? Can it hide careless practices?
Exhibitions and projects on care have proliferated in institutions that blatantly don’t care. I’m torn because it’s important that these conversations are more present but I also think we have to move beyond paying lip service.
Your work moves beyond representation. Perhaps because of your background in architecture, your work is very solution focused. It doesn’t merely point at the problem but offers an alternative. I find your work hopeful.
I do try and make work in an optimistic way. It’s not always easy, of course.
Your work often emphasises very particular forms of engagement for different types of bodies. Why are you interested in working with children?
The work with kids is trying to work against a form of exclusion and to provide them a space. It’s not easy to find projects that can really engage children. I’m keen on projects that speak equally to different audiences. I think I’ve done it twice. Many years ago, I curated a group exhibition on puppets. It was so thoroughly researched and was successful at talking to very different audiences. At Eastside Projects in Birmingham, many of the audiences coming to the show had not been to the gallery before. It was full of kids and their grandparents alongside the typical art audience. Puppets are such resonant objects for talking about sculpture – touching upon authenticity, play, interaction and the question of who has a voice etc.
The second project that really resonated with a broader public was the series I made with carrousels. I worked with children exploring spinning tops which then informed these larger carrousels I made at Stroom Den Haag. These two projects were very much about speaking to different audiences and including them in the process. The kids became advocates for the work, and I liked how the project was situated between public art and an exhibition. After the show, the carrousels were given to the schools to be used. It was an artwork but it was also functional and it really opened up a different conversation. The exhibition was just a moment in a much larger involvement and process.
Do you see your public work as a Trojan horse? Your work is often pointing at something larger – it’s always networked to a series of concerns around permission and how we regulate our bodies in public, for instance.
I often refer to my artworks as instruments but I like the idea of the Trojan horse, it’s definitely an appropriate image. I guess it’s an alibi, an excuse for something else.
Your work is often in-between things: objects and locations, but you also frequently use curtains. They’re metaphors for your practice in many ways, occupying a physical and symbolic threshold.
I think of it as existing on different registers, working against boundaries. My first solo exhibition, ‘Additionals’, held in 2012 at Pavilion in Leeds, summarises this well. I made sculptures which were also used as props in Beatrice Gibson’s Tiger’s Mind, 2012. It was a complex project designed collectively around a Cornelius Cardew score. My sculptures were accompanied by my first curtain installed in a film studio complete with screen shots from the film. It’s a good example of my practice – the sculptures had many different roles and inhabited simultaneous lives.
How do these strategies relate to one of your newest works, Thinking Through Skin from 2021, which is exhibited at Talbot Rice?
Thinking Through Skin was first presented at Nottingham Contemporary and is perhaps the most different work in the show. It is accompanied by a soundtrack by Hannah Catherine Jones which brings it to life. In essence, the work explores the future of colour production, inspired by Cephalopods which sense and produce colour through their skin, in that way becoming part of their environment. The installation emphasises different ways of seeing, exploring how we can reinvent colour reproduction and image making, drawing from the animal world: colour as a state, an emotion, a feeling.
This brings us back to how your work looks at looking. About how we see as much as what we see.
If Support Structure is about ways of seeing culture, Thinking Through Skin explores different ways of seeing our environment. It’s a scaling up.