Sarah Bliss has kindly accepted to showcase her work You Leave Here
You Leave Here by Sarah Bliss
“You Leave Here is from a body of work made in Ireland engaging Irish history, culture, land and language. In You Leave Here, I’m interested in the embeddedness of language in the land, the relationship of the body to land and language, and the cultural and material consequences of rupture from land and place. Layered tracks of a voice trace the body’s leave-taking across a specific landscape, interweaving personal narrative, fading communal memory, and geography. Imagery of moving hands engaged in a struggle at times tender, at times violent, insists on the intimacy of the relationship between the body, land, and language, and the pain that arises when that relationship is rent” Sarah Bliss
THE CAT CINDERELLA INTERVIEWS SARAH BLISS
The Poetics of Skin (2012). Installation view of sculptural video installation (a collaboration with sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll. Image credit: Driscoll)
Barbara De Dominicis: Could you briefly describe your background? Does sound have a place in your work? How?
Sarah Bliss: I’m a movement and visual artist working primarily in video, photo, installation and performance. My academic training is in political science and theology – my graduate work was in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. My interest lies in the nexus between the body, place, and theological ideas and religious practices. Sound has come into my work through the side door. For some time, I’ve been interested in the activation and loss of the voice, the use of sound to alter consciousness, the authority and power of sacred text, and the causes and consequences of the loss of language. As my work has become more performative, and sourced more and more from the body, I’ve increasingly been investigating the dynamics of voice and voicelessness. My use of sound is largely related to this exploration of voice, language and the body. It enters my work as an element of video or as part of multimedia installations.
From the Freezing Falling series. Archival inkjet print. (2010)
B.D.D.: Your recent video piece “You Leave Here” invites us to revise our notions of identity and belonging and our dependence on language. Would you tell us more about this work: its points of origin, and what attracted you to language and leaving as subject matter?
S.B.: In the spring of 2012, I spent six weeks in Ireland, launching the second phase of a long-term project investigating the workings and failings of memory, and the complex, interwoven dynamics of economy, culture and religion in a remote Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region of southwest County Kerry. Through deep engagement with the landscape, community and history of the small township of Ballinskelligs (population 600), I’m seeking to make concrete one unique expression of larger cultural, economic, environmental, and religious trends happening worldwide.
You Leave Here is one of the first pieces to come from this new body of work. It speaks to the cultural amnesia and dislocation that has accrued in Ireland due to several key factors: 1) the long history of British colonialism in Ireland and its concerted effort at cultural genocide; 2) the devastating dislocation and concomitant cultural destruction wrought by the Great Hunger of 1847-1849; and 3) the repeated environmental and economic collapses now accelerating in the late 20th and 21st centuries, which make it increasingly impossible for people to earn a living from land and sea, forcing them to emigrate or radically alter their way of life.
The video pairs audio of a stuttering, confused, fading Irish voice attempting to give directions or describe a journey across a specific landscape, with imagery of a pair of hands engaged in a struggle which is at times tender, at times violent
Video still from You Leave Here. (2012)
B.D.D. “You Leave Here” calls to mind Edmond Jabes’ “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook ofHis Arm a Tiny Book”, and of course his “The Book of Questions” as well. Do you think the way social pressures tend to conform and transform individuals across cultural, linguistic, and intimate proddings have been shaping identities to the point of creating a perpetual vulnerable psychological condition?
S.B: Thanks for offering that reference. The work of Jabes’ is very pertinent. What happens to the voice when its access to language is ruptured? Jabes’ The Book of Questions attempts to find a new form and new ways to speak the unspeakable after the horror of the Holocaust. You Leave Here offers one solution: to speak through the body. Unlike the voice, the body can never be silenced. It will always express its truth, even against the will of its inhabitant.
B.D.D.: The way societies are structured seems somehow to be erasing our individuality, originality and uniqueness -our strength - in favour of a growing linguistic, psychological, and ontological conformism that makes us weak…
S.B.Yes, I very much agree. In this work, I highlight the importance of the link between not only culture and language, but also between the body and Place, and language and Place. So the disembodied voice maps its way across a familiar landscape, but one that’s become unknown even to itself. And the hands insist on the necessity of the body’s participation in the mapping; they insist on the knowing that can come only from the body.
Language develops in response to unique and particular sets of conditions, relationships and experiences. Historically, these have been rooted in a particular place. As people and peoples have by choice or by force been uprooted (or disentangled, depending on your perspective!), this disconnection from Place has broken our sense of belonging — the knowing of our unique place within a strong and all-encompassing web of relation. That leaves us, as you say, perpetually vulnerable. And it exacerbates the disconnect that is contributing so greatly to the global environmental catastrophe we’re facing.
One language dies every 14 days. Within the next century, linguists expect that half of the world’s current roughly 7,000 languages will have disappeared. With them will have died the infinitely varied ways of thinking about things that we assume are fixed: concepts of time, spatiality, even color. I mourn this loss.
B.D.D: It seems you often react to or use ”site specific places” in order to delineate your explorations. What draws you to a particular site?
S.B. Yes, I often engage specific places, accessing their energetic and material histories through kinesthetic exploration, fieldwork, and historical research. I then create conditions and situations that reveal the dynamic interplay between place, body, psyche, spirit, and time. I look for sites that carry rich histories (e.g.: the overgrown and crumbling ruins of a vast 20th century New England brick beehive coke kiln) or that have strong metaphorical possibilities (a miniature stainless steel freight elevator stuck in the basement of a repurposed school.)
Return to Grace. Archival inkjet print. (2010)
A good example is my video installation Before the Drop, which I developed for projection into a 3’ x 2’ x 3’ stainless steel freight elevator. It speaks to situations over which we have no control, would never willingly choose, and in which we feel lost and trapped. For some time, I had been exploring both the kinetic sensations of the body inside a confined space and the psychology of cataclysm, entrapment, and resiliency. During a walk-through of an art space where I’d been invited to create work, nothing grabbed me until I came to the basement and discovered this miniature elevator with walls of shiny stainless steel. Immediately, I knew this was it. The space was cramped, cell-like, confined. But the reflectivity of the stainless steel opened it up, offering another layer referencing the dreamworld. I created a video piece for the site, which I projected into the back of the elevator. The projection placed two life-sized bodies directly inside the tightly enclosed space. In the elevator, the claustrophobic physical constraints of the setting became a metaphor for the unbearable ontological reality of their lives.
Installation view of Before the Drop. (2010)
B.D.D. : What are you working on now?
S.B. : About 17 different things! Another piece in development, Confessio, is part of my larger Ireland project.
Video still from Confessio. 2012
It’s a contemporary retelling of St. Patrick’s Confessio, which he wrote in the early 6th century. Both a defense of his life’s work and a declaration of his deep faith, Patrick’s Confessio tells the story of his teenaged capture and enslavement by Irish chieftains, the growth of his profound relationship to the Christian God while suffering as a shepherd slave, and his escape from slavery and subsequent calling to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary and minister.
My Confessio, a video work, investigates the relevance and power of this religious text today. Interweaving my own narrative with audio I recorded of recitations of Patrick’s text in Latin (the language in which Patrick wrote), Irish, and English, I engage Word both as the Word (of God), and as human utterance. What does it look and feel like to hear the Word not only through God’s utterance – sacred texts – but also in every action, encounter, object, and being which one encounters? How does one respond to the imperatives asserted? And where and how does one access the authority of one’s own voice?
I’m interested in injecting these questions into the discourse of the secularized, intellectual and cultural elite. So many of us don’t realize that we are actually the minority in a world characterized by vibrant religious cultures that are the default position, not the exception. I agree with scholar David Hempton who views “this gap between secularized cultural elites and global religious traditions as potentially one of the most dangerous things in our world.” My work aims to help bridge that gap.
The Cat Cinderella thanks so much Sarah Bliss!