Interview between writer and critic Jan Verwoert and artist Hannah James on the occasion of the group exhibition Kairos Time, Tent, Rotterdam curated by Matteo Lucchetti.
Jan Verwoert: In your installations you often use textiles in an architectural manner; fabrics suspended from the ceiling or supported by frames divide the space like walls. So, for you, space is never just something built from concrete, wood or stone?
Hannah James: In my work no, I’m interested in a softer form of architecture and a less permanent structure. My work with textiles has been influenced by Gottfried Semper’s thoughts in The Four Elements of Architecture and other Writings, 1851. Semper argues that nomadic structures using textiles were the first forms of habitat and that even when more permanent materials such as wood and stone were employed to build, it was still the textile that remained the essence of the structure. Because of this he believed that the exterior of a building, usually rendered in stucco or paint, should mimic the forms found in textile: weave, pattern and drapery. Crucially for Semper this act of mimicry acted to mask the solidity lying beneath. He termed this act of dressing a building ‘Bekleidung’.
I am fascinated by the notion that ‘Bekleidung’ then produces a curious new form of liminal materiality, in which the materiality of the hard stone and wood is denied at the same time as the flowing, soft immateriality of the textile is rendered solid in stucco. An interesting tension between permanence and temporality is created through this, as both qualities are either negated or reversed. It is this state of liminality that I would like to speak of through the materials and writing I have been working with.
JV: So, if the origin of a liminal, temporal architecture lies in the act of nomads on the move setting up a tent, the experience of movement would seem to be equally important for your work?
HJ: Yes, the role of choreography is important in my practice. Beginning with the manner in which viewers are welcomed into the work, then physically guided through a space and positioned to view works and other spectators. Yet, within film and language there is also another temporal movement taking place through duration and montage that ask the viewer to travel along in a cognitive sense rather than physical.
JV: Video and audio pieces are part of your installations. A storyteller takes me to what could be physical or mental spaces; your storytellers break and enter into the spaces. They are usually neither the owner nor sole inhabitant. Who are these storytellers? How do they operate?
HJ: With Yellow, a sculptural film piece, a female observer is recounting a story of an absent male figure that is obsessed by visuality. This obsession extends to his house and contents, which he decorates entirely in a single colour. This male character is based on Claude Monet and the female voice is questioning this character’s relation to space and identity. She also begins to make connections to ideas of synesthesia, as senses become transposed. It becomes apparent that the male is losing his eyesight, meaning he will loose the sense he values the most: becoming trapped inside his own interiority. While listening to her narration the viewer is watching a film in which a pair of hands draw out a domestic space onto a piece of yellow paper. This space materialises as the male figures eyesight disappears.
In Crab Bekleidung, an audio sculpture, there are two voices and headspaces, one male and one female. The text spoken by the male voice takes reference from Roger Caillois’ Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia, 1935, while much of what the female voice speaks is close to Semper’s ‘Bekleidung’ theory of dressing or masking, which I relate very much to mimesis. The male figure takes from Caillois his example of a spider crab who uses the material of its surrounding to dress itself and become part of its context, and the distress of a schizophrenic who claims to know where he is but feels unable to locate himself in that place. This breakdown in the distinction between body and space is the truly psychological nature of architecture, which is something I am continually drawn to. The headspace we then enter into with the male is an unknown one, for himself as well as us. He is battling with the temptation of space: pursuing and escaping it simultaneously. The female headspace offers a more stable position. She provides an insight into the male’s appearance, his temperament and his habits. In the installation, each voice emanates from its own speaker or mouthpiece. Yet, while the speakers are installed side by side and doubled by their structural embodiments, it remains unclear if the two voices are speaking to each other or holding monologues.
The third work in the installation is the film and textile installation Piranesi Sense. Within the film a text is employed from Sergei Eisenstein’s Piranesi, or the Fluidly of Forms, 1978. In this essay Eisenstein hails the visionary architectural drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi as creating the rupture point from which modern architecture exploded. Piranesi’s impossible depictions of space symbolise a radical new proposition for architecture; becoming intensely psychological through their frightening incredibility. Eisenstein’s writing has the tone of a delirious manifesto and I heightened this frenetic mode further through breaking the text into fragments and inserting them throughout. The viewer is also presented with both a printed form of the text on paper as well as a spoken voice over. Through this doubling of auditory and visual the female voice is able to discernibly edit and contradict Eisenstein’s printed words: undermining its authority further. Meanwhile the associatively collaged images within the film ask the audience to speculate on what the particular topology and logic of this disordered physical and psychological space could be.
JV: So, men locked in their own headspaces provoke the subterfuge of someone who can undercut their solipsism. But how does a spy enter into the house of a visionary or deluded man’s head?
HJ: Exactly, how do we gain access to their thoughts? Are we welcomed in or spying; are we sitting together or at the next table overhearing their conversation? I would consider my position as attempting to enter into a dialogue with these figures I have identified, but often they are not responding, so I am left to take an outsider perspective and speculate on their thoughts. For the audience I then re-present these ‘interactions’. The narrator in Yellow addresses the audience directly; she is keen to be heard but also takes her time to share her speculations. Piranesi Sense disrupts language to such an extent that the film rejects verbal communication all together in favour of letting the images to do the talking. Crab Bekleidung creates an uncertainty over who is speaking to who and who is listening. But, it is through this awkward interaction that a space is opened between the male and female figures that the audience can then inhabit: as potential mediators or at least empathetic ears. The capabilities of visual and textual language to communicate in relation to the question to who is talking and who is listening are reoccurring concerns in the practice.
JV: The proprietors of these mental spaces tend to be gendered male and those who enter female. What’s your take on this?
HJ: Gender is something I have become more conscious of as I have become more involved with language and voice in my work. The female is often taking an outsider position, maybe she is not welcomed in, but also maybe now she also choses to stay on the periphery because she can see more clearly from this position. This subtle positioning of gender allows me to then use humour and subversion to question these psychologies and spaces further. It is important that all insights are mediated to an audience from the female position.
JV: The female voice has a certain mobility in relation to the mental architecture, compared to the men who seem stuck up their own stairwells. Would you connect this versatile, mobile, persona to the notion of impermanent architecture we were speaking about?
HJ: I have always had an association of architecture and theory being quite male dominated, the next mega building built by another, often, male architect. So I found an access point to thinking about space through feminist theory. It may go too far to associate the nomadic with the female, but impermanence definitely comes with a sense of mobility and an ability to shape shift, which is a trait I have aligned with femininity in this body of work. Semper points to a strong connection between the body and architecture, as both need to be dressed in textile to reveal their ‘true essence’. But these dressings can be changed: they are temporal. Likewise the observer must shift shapes and take on multiple personas in order to gain access to all these houses and headspaces.