Interview by Alexis Mackenzie
When Chicago based artist Heidi Norton was invited to exhibit at Mark Wolfe Contemporary, San Francisco, it was assumed she would simply be shipping various works and photographs, as most artists do. The gallery didn’t yet realize the special alchemy which would months later be transpiring within the gallery walls, before our eyes. Combining photography and sculpture, Norton’s works incorporate a variety of unique materials, which she sourced locally, creating her works onsite in the week before the exhibition opening. It was captivating to witness the array of wildly varied materials come together like a gathering storm, and, under her round-the-clock exertions, all come together into a final presentation of calm beauty. As her husband (and assistant miracle-worker throughout the week) put it, “She’s like a wizard”. I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi about her processes and inspirations.
You created most of the work for this exhibition on-site. Assuming this is this your process for all exhibitions incorporating your sculpture works: how does working onsite in different parts of the country effect the work itself (in terms of available materials, time restraints, environment, etc.)? I imagine this usually results in serendipitous surprises and some local influence.
In all my work I am generally interested in the instability and the liminal elements of time, especially in regards to ideas of preservation versus the loss of time and cycles of time. These types of processes work very much like the contrasting methods of making in my photographs and sculpture. The desire for chaos, cut with methodical control.
When planning a show outside of Chicago, a lot of researching goes into studying the physical geography of the land. What is indigenous, what is the light like, what is the climate, what is the vegetation, natural histories of the land, etc. This often dictates and determines what the piece will be about and look like. The next thing is locating sites of resources. Where do I source? They range from convenience and mass consumerism (Home Depot—I literally feel like I am “saving” the plants here), to recycling and repurposing places, to nature preserves, to an aunt’s back yard. In the same city I could be running up and down aisles like a supermarket sweeper, to me in mud to my knees plucking weeds from the earth. It really depends on the site, the concept, and if the ideological situations aligned or not with what I am trying to speak to.
Most of the remote challenges boil down to time and where I find resources. It would be idiotic of me to go to a city 500 miles away, place myself in a situation with zero knowledge of where I source material and the show opens in three days. For “Light in the Dark”, twelve of the works were made on site; I arrived with itineraries, sketches and floor plans. Was it guaranteed that all of this material would be available? No. Was I guaranteed that I would finish twelve pieces in three days? No. So as much as I calculate sites, the work is never set in stone. I have to go into it with the understanding that choices and plans may evolve. This can be a hard thing for an artist, very anxiety inducing. I have found I like this anxiety in a strange way, like Freud speaks of the Death Drive. The unknown is something integrated into my work and something that has attracted me to the process and the use of living material. So there is this constant battle with what I know, what I control and what is unknown. The unknown, the excitement is generative.
Your works for this exhibition are inspired by change processes – growth, development – which are stimulated by different light frequencies, usually taking place in the “dark”, imperceptible to the human eye (photographic exposure/development and emerging plant life). What led you to be inspired by this particular theme?
Light fascinates me, especially in regards to the similarities’ within photography and plant growth and development. Most of us think about white light’s additive processes. This can range from Visible Light and how we see and its production of color, to white light’s (the sun) effects on photosynthesis. All of the materials I use are reactionary to light and as a result are privy to chemical and physical change. There is a fascinating article by Melissa Sue Ragin called “ ‘Homeostasis is not Enough’: Order and Survival in Early Ecological Art”. Ragin draws parallels between entropy, elemental art and the Alchemists’ (especially Hans Haacke), vision and psychological perception, and the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy’s “Vision in Motion” is very closely related to Gyorgy Kepes, “Language of Vision”. Ragin draws comparisons between the imperceptible and limitations of the electromagnetic system and vision, arguing that most of the results of what we perceive come from the Gestalt effect “the transformation that the viewer must witness (within Alchemist Art) in one sense are unviewable (invisible), and to see the process, one must perform invert gestalt, seeing in the experienced constant the known variable.” This got me thinking about latency’s relationship to photography and the chemical process of recording light as well as the ways in which photo receptors record/trap light. Then I began to think about the role of darkness. What role does darkness play in photography (i.e. the camera obscura and the “darkroom”) and what is its effect on plants? The absence of light is darkness. But is this same as invisible light? Imperceptible light? What is Ultraviolet light and Infrared Light and how are they related to photography and photosynthesis? Plant’s visible growth happens in the biosphere, but its life is generated from the (geosphere). That geosphere is composed of black light. If photosynthesis is a plants response to light, photoperiodism is a plants response to darkness. This is controlled by the phytochrome pigment in the leaves. The pigment shifts between two forms based on whether it receives more red or far red light. The reaction controls different reactions including see germination, stem elongation, dormancy, and blooming.
You use some unusual materials in your work – wax, plants, detritus – it seems you prefer mostly organic materials, but also incorporate found objects and latex paint, etc. What attracts you to these materials, or what qualities do you look for in the materials you use?
In all the work you will see evidence of plant life (or death). Some of my use of the material is metaphorical and its initial interest comes from my homesteading upbringing. Most of my fascination comes from trying to more deeply understand the symbiotic relationships within nature– the evolution, the flux, the cycles, the systems, the life and death. More recently I have been interested in the thinking of plants—their intelligence and consciousness. Plants bring people together—for caring, for harvest, for cooking—they are communal. I am interested in all species/types of plants that range from domestic and exotic, to wild, to weeds, as well as many plant materials/remains/parts. Typically the “type” of plant is chosen based central concepts specific to the piece which may be determined by the landscape and geography of the space in which is being shown. If I am interested in ideas of generative growth, I may use a cactus or short rooted plant and typically the material I use is wax. If I am interested in death, I may use a long rooted plant and most of these are incorporated into the glass works.
The organic material is always “preserved” with something synthetic- something utilitarian, something artificial, something toxic—resin, wax, latex paint. And the resulted pieces are ever changing. The plants are unstable, but also the substrates that encase (the wax) or display (the glass).
This show also incorporated ephemera related to photography and science. Found exposed film such as ortho and reversal film, lenses and thermochromic film were used as montage mediums and props within the sculptures and photographs. An endoscope camera was used to record the video shot with a black light and light box. Scientific pages, list and diagrams of my parent’s life as homesteaders were also incorporated as photographic transparencies into the pseudo glass slides.
So yes, you shot your first video ever displayed for “Light in the Dark”, using an endoscope. What interested you in making a video, and what was your process/inspiration for creating the unusual visuals and sound for it?
What is “Light in the Dark”? If light equates to seeing, does dark equate to the latent- it’s there but we can’t obtain it visually? What can I use to show this latency? This piece and the photograph, “Black Light/White Light/Grow Light/Dappled Light” were the touchstones to the show. One could argue they are the most literal in their exploration. An endoscope camera is used to microscopically view the “inside” of something. The camera’s physical compactness allows scientist and doctors to forge physically unattainable areas while keeping something whole. I was not only interested in the dark space of the plants, roots and systems directly below the earth surface, the geosphere, but I was also interested in the threshold between the geo and bio—that liminal space. So this video starts with the scope probing around the soil, simulating a root system or a seed germinating. It gradually ascends towards what looks to be dark light or grow bulbs, as the camera pushes towards the threshold it becomes enveloped (or swallowed) by the plant and the camera seems to be inside the plant stems or leaf witnessing photosynthesis. The audio for the piece is a recording of the sun. So while, we visually witness the latency of generation and growth, we hear audio of something that is also unattainable but life producing. It all comes back to the Sun.
The dialogue between your photographic work and your sculpture work is so strong; each reinforces the other in a very positive way. Did your sculpture practice arise from creating tableaux for your photographs, or did these practices develop alongside one another? What do you enjoy about working sculpturally vs. working photographically? I imagine each comes with a unique set of creative processes, challenges, and rewards.
The photograph came first. However, I have been constructing/sculpting to photograph since I was an undergraduate. I have always been interested in the inner play between photography and sculpture. Most people believe the photograph flattens and compresses space and it does in regards to the physical paper that is exhibited. However, the photographs I am interested in creating expand and distort space, disrupting the viewing experience. The sculptures also do this. On one side of the sculpture you get something flat, the plant pressed tightly against the surface, suffocated in bubbly resin. The other side explodes from the surface, simulating hanging gardens, jungles, and disproportionate sprouts of life. I started making sculptures for exhibition out of the desire to reinforce this relationship. I also wanted to further investigate and tease out relationships in regards to PHOTO graphy and PHOTO synthesis. The act of making each though is dramatically different, as I mentioned before. Being trained as a photographer, I am very methodical and controlled with my shooting, all of which is shot with a large 4×5 view camera. The act of shooting is ritualistic and controlled. The act of creating sculpture is wild and free; at times chaotic. Dirt is flung, plants spill water, and resin is poured. All of which are dangerous in the world of mechanics and film. My studio is a cross between a greenhouse/nursery, a mold making facility and shooting studio—none of which belong together.
In the past you’ve fielded criticism for your use of living plants as a sculptural material; what is your usual response to this, and are these concerns something you ever grappled with yourself?
Life is mutable, art work should be mutable. The idea of reuse within practice into new configurations is something that fascinates me. Ecology is the interactions among organisms. My work is not about that one living plant on the glass or in the wax or recorded onto film. That single plant’s life, death and cycle stands for something much larger. It is the martyr (the one I chose to reinforce my beliefs in ecology and evolution). It is my hope that the viewer sees it and becomes aware or thinks about much larger systems. These could range from ecological and environment issues to notions of life and death. I am much more interested in speaking about ideas of symbiosis and ideas that new life could be a result of a death and that death does not need to be ugly.
Somebody wrote this recently about my work: “Because art reflects and converses with the brutalities of life, so often the idea becomes that the art must also be brutal to view, to feel, a journey of gruesome immersion. This makes a point, yes, but you, instead, handle slow death with such gentle and veiled evocation. Your work reminded me that even aging, which this country fears and avoids, has its grace, whether or not it’s the aging of plants, flesh or light. As Eckart Tolle once said (paraphrase); “If all continued to grow and grow, if there were no death, the world would be monstrous. Imagine it.”
“Light in the Dark” is on view through December 20th, 2013.
For more information visit Mark Wolfe Contemporary, San Francisco.
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