Gabriela Vainsencher in conversation with Sara Griffin on the occasion of “Don’t Have No Colleague”,
Vainsencher’s solo exhibition at Recession Art gallery, 9 Clinton Street, New York, NY
Call my fantasies lame, but one of them is having someone who is knowledgeable about my work and really gets it talk about it at length. So when I found myself in a position to make this dream a reality with my friend and fellow artist Sara Griffin, I did what most people do when they realize they are dreaming and can now fly and have sex with everything- I went for it.
Gabriela Vainsencher: Do you remember you once said about my work that it’s “like a disembodied self floating around in poorly constructed environments”? That line really stuck with me, and I was wondering if you still felt that way, and if so, if you could expound on that a little.
Sara Griffin: I definitely still feel that way. What really sticks with me about your drawings in particular is how they seem so intensely personal but they are not concrete or descriptive enough to describe any particular narrative so they seem almost like the ghost of a feeling. Maybe it’s something I relate to because it’s how I feel all the time. One of the really great things you do visually is that you have text, atmosphere and objects all sort of disembodied, floating around on the page together, connected but separate. It’s a lot like memory, and probably a lot like reality.
When you remember an experience or a feeling, or when you really believe something, it doesn’t ever manifest itself in a really concrete way. For example, think about your mother. When I think about my mother, I can hear her voice saying my name, I think of the area of her leg behind her knee, I can feel the softness of her chest. I don’t see a realized environment or a clear and detailed face. No really typical mothering scenes come to mind. What my mom is, to me, is a feeling located in oddly specific moments. That’s what your drawings achieve for me – they successfully describe that amorphous space between ambiguity and specificity that is what memory and intuition actually feel like. I think that is what I meant when I told you that your work is like a disembodied self floating around in poorly constructed environments – because that is what it feels like to be in my head, and why I think you and I understand each other so well.
GV: Speaking of mothers, mine is a psychoanalyst and we talk a lot about our work. She has often lamented the fact I didn’t follow in her footsteps, she thinks she could have helped me so much more with my career. But actually, a lot of the way I treat language and emotional subject matter (by that I mean when emotion is the subject) comes from the way she deconstructs situations and things people say. She is an immigrant in Israel, with an accent that has softened with the years, but is still very much there. Most her patients are Israeli and therapy happens in Hebrew. She has often told me that out of necessity, she sometimes asks patients to re-tell her something they just said, in simpler terms, because they used a word she doesn’t know or something of the sort. While seemingly this brings the conversation down a notch in linguistic complexity, what actually happens is that things immediately get more real, and the patient says what they really meant to say.
I recently spoke to some grad students about my work, and one of them, who had done some research about me, asked if “having problems” was a theme in my work. I hadn’t really thought of it like that before, but I immediately realized she was right. If we could put it in those terms, would you say there is a specific problem I work against, or perhaps solve, in my work?
SG: Oh man, that grad student nailed it. “Having problems”? How can I follow that?
But, if I have to, and at the risk of totally projecting, I think that what you work against in your work is an idea that experience is fluid and tangible. As usual, I’m going to make this about me in an attempt to talk about you. I didn’t grow up identifying with art or as an artist and it’s probably why I still feel uncomfortable with that term. I came to art through art history, and I started to be really interested in art history as a subject in middle school because it allowed for an interpretation of facts that was more poetic. Some people like to think of the world in sort of rigid terms and insist that things flow in an organized and regimented order. A leads to B leads to C. The reason why I liked art history so much was because it allowed for the history of the world to be told in terms that I could relate to and felt a lot more real and a lot closer to the truth. Because when big things, big changes, are happening in the world, you don’t really see them in the present, but you have experiences in the present that poetically communicate the circumstances of the world around you. What your work does is just that – it works against a notion that truth exists in statements or decisions that wind up being a sort of average or generalization and instead shows how the most honest report of the present tense exists in a specific and poetic description of a moment or an action.
GV: Well, and it also comes from a place of feeling a great inadequacy to report the state of things as they are in the world. I am always a little jealous and a little suspicious of people who talk about large subjects like politics, history or economy with the same certitude I use to decide whether a shirt is ready for the wash. How do you really, really know what is happening? I feel more apt to describe a small situation where I can see all the parameters I have put on the paper between myself and the viewer and say: here is the image I created, and here is what I say to it, or what I make it say to you.
Here’s something I worry about: interpretations to my work sometimes include the words “diaristic”, “self-conscious”, and “awkward”. I bristle when I hear these words, and feel completely misunderstood, although on many levels I think I know where they are coming from. What do you think?
SG: LOL. I shuddered when I read “diaristic”, “self-conscious”, and “awkward” and then shrugged and continued reading to see that you had the same reaction. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I think that is just people groping around for the right word to describe a feeling that is kind of indescribable and then accidentally waxing negative without realizing it. I think when people use those terms, what they are describing is how they feel kind of let in to an inner world that feels honest and uncensored. Like Tracy Emin’s piece about everyone she’s ever slept with. Or, maybe its an underhanded (or backhanded? what’s the word?) compliment. I don’t know, I don’t know who said that.
GV: That helps a little, but I am still worried.
You and I recently talked about a modality in which artistic production can be divided into two categories: concept driven vs. process driven. Although I strongly identify with the latter, I have been thinking lately that maybe there is a concept I am pursuing, some pattern that emerges from all this process. What is that pattern?
SG: This question feels like asking a fortune teller when you’re going to die. Do you really want to know what I think?
GV: Can you talk about honesty?
SG: Nice segue. I guess honesty is something I struggle with all the time. But maybe that’s the point. It seems like the most challenging kind of honesty is learning to be honest with yourself, and that’s what it seems like you do as a profession.
Its like the other day when we were talking about intuition, and how I think it’s something magical and you think it’s something that comes from layers of experience. It’s hard to be honest about what you want and need in the long and short term; it’s hard to be honest about who you are and how you relate to the world. And while that subject is totally personal, the process is really universal and inevitably the answers that we come to are really similar, I’d imagine because we’re all human. I think that the artistic practice that results in art that I really like and relate to is a groping for something really, purely honest. Just one moment that feels totally not contrived or held back. Something that taps into things that you just know and lets go of things that you are trying to make yourself know. Do you know what I’m getting at?
SG: Yes. They all make me think about myself. But also all of the works that focus on telephone poles and wires and stadium lights make me think of work that I like from Tijuana-based artists. I’ve always really responded to that kind of civic infrastructure as a symbol – something that feels so natural and obvious and like pure observation that is actually drawing attention to the web of communication that literally ties knots above our heads. And it’s nice because that same thing happens in cities everywhere; its universal.
GV: That makes sense. When I first moved here from Tel Aviv in 2005, if I would get overwhelmed with how different everything was- the pavement, the trees, the architecture- I would look further up to comfort and put myself back into planetary proportions, thinking: “at least I am still under the same skies.” But when I would look up to these skies, they somehow felt bigger, higher up than they had been in Israel. So I finally found the things that felt almost the same- powerlines, stadium lights, street lamps- monuments to mundane things.
You once told me not to get too attached to people really liking a piece I put up online, because “they may be responding to it like to a t-shirt design”, meaning just because a lot of people like a work doesn’t mean it’s good. Can you talk about that some more? how do you know you like an artwork for the right reasons?
SG: You know the answer to this question. It’s like how a Katy Perry song will come on when you’re at a bar and you’re like “I love this song!” and you want to dance and stuff and it’s fun and well written and perfect for exactly what it is but its a really thin experience of a sort of brief and fleeting enjoyment. And then when a song that’s actually good comes on when you’re in public somewhere you feel for of exposed and can feel it in your gut because whether it is happy or sad, it’s just totally heartbreaking. Right? both are good things, but they’re good in totally different ways and for different reasons.
GV: I don’t think it’s such an easy division actually. I struggle a lot with the qualification of experience as “worthy” or “meaningful” or not. The “deep” moment you get out of a “actually good” song can be totally flat, you just tapping into how clever the lyrics are, how special the singer sounds. I would argue that it is possible that the happy feeling I get from a crappy song (and I am going to call our five-year age difference here and just say I don’t know who Katy Perry is) that I know all the words to is more special, because it is more base, than the one I get from the “actually good” song.
SG: I still think we’re saying the same thing – I don’t really have highbrow taste in music. All I’m saying is: When me and my brother saw Britney Spears (and I’m sure you know who she is, age difference or not) in concert in 2009, we danced and had fun to all of her songs, but when Britney was lowered onto the stage perched on the handle of an enormous umbrella, I cried right there in Nassau Coliseum. Because it’s not elegant, it’s not classy, but it just hit a real sweet spot that I think, you know, a lot of people can relate to.
SG: I have some ideas, but honestly, I can’t project forward. When you tell me about things you’re thinking about doing, some sound right and some don’t, but you always surprise me. Because even though your work is really familiar to me, and even though whatever you do always seems a logical next step, it isn’t always what I expect and new turns in your practice seem new and unexpected in the present and then totally logical in hindsight.
GV: It’s such a weird mechanism- I struggle so much in the studio trying to figure out what I should be doing, what the right next move is, what is real growth and what is a false epiphany. It literally hurts my brain sometimes. And then there is a slackening inside myself, and I do something that feels easy, and there it is- the next step. I can’t recreate it without the brain-pain, and I can’t say what that process entails, so I could just replicate it. I have to go through it every time. The worst of it is when I think I have a great idea, a plan for a grand project, something that is meaningful and serious (you know where this is going), and I get excited and tell people (you) about it, and five minutes later it deflates and I see it was actually a pretty bad idea. Whereas the actual good ideas come quietly and I hardly have time to announce and discuss them before they are already happening.
I often describe my work to people who have not seen it as “pretty much like talking to me”. Do you think this is accurate? if not, how is it different?
SG: You talk in full sentences and paragraphs with no images.
Gabriela Vainsencher was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and raised in Israel. In 2005, she earned a Bachelor of Education and Fine Arts from the Midrasha School of Art in Israel and moved to New York. Her drawings, videos, and installations have been shown widely in solo and group shows in the United States and abroad, including Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, La Chambre Blanche in Quebec City, the Freies Museum in Berlin, Flux factory in LIC, Pierogi and Parker’s Box galleries in Brooklyn. The next exhibition of her work will be at the Fresh Paint art fair in Tel Aviv, Israel. Vainsencher lives and works in New York and Philadelphia and occasionally teaches art at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Sara Griffin was born and raised in New York City. She graduated with a degree in Studio Art and Art History from Bowdoin College in Maine. She is a proud member of bad cop, bad cop: an art collective. As a studio artist, Sara’s work, which ranges from small drawings to large scale installations, focuses on the relationship between individuals and their external environment. As an art historian, Sara is particularly interested in how visual artists express personal and civic identity. Her research centers on contemporary art from Tijuana. Sara lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and aligns herself with the Mexican community there, though she does not belong to it.