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Judith Cowan 

On The Life behind the Landscape

Judith Cowan, A Memory of a Particular Corner in Rome, 1979, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society from the Tom Bendhem bequest (2007) ©Judith Cowan

To coincide with our Summer exhibition The Life Behind the Landscape: landscape from the Rugby Collection we caught up with Judith Cowan to find out about her affiliation with Italy, and creating work during a pandemic…

Can you tell me about A Memory of a Particular Corner in Rome

I created the piece in 1979 whilst on a Gulbenkian Rome Scholarship—it was made trying to understand and assimilate the place. I always felt it was on its way to becoming something, and on reflection, it was more about how I was starting to understand the concept of space. It was working with the memory of a place - you go and see it and come back to the studio and it is how you deal with that - the sensation of memory, trying to make sense of it. 

It is also about how you pass from one space to another, and how people pass through a space. I would be sitting in a church and taking it all in - things and people would come and go, things that weren’t controllable – it is about the whole experience of this—the intersection of fixed architecture and people’s movement which cannot be fixed. 

The piece is made on tracing paper that incorporates beaten wire with gesso applied which pulls and tightens as it dries—an intersection between fragility and tension. 

Charcoal enabled the line to be more decisive. You just have to say this is it, this is what I have seen, this is a shadow. This commitment of line meant ‘action’ and ‘doing’. That resonates as an artist because sometimes you just must do - you can see things, collect things, read things, have ideas, and then take an unknown step. 

I wrote down some quotations in my sketchbooks at the time from the books I was reading about Marcel Duchamp encountering the anatomical work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Marcel Duchamp says: “To arrive at the Impossibility of sufficient visual memory [is] to transfer from one like object to another the memory imprint.”. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about how “The boundary of a body is neither part of the enclosed body nor a part of the surrounding atmosphere”. 

So, both connected to emptied out space. This is a lovely thing to rediscover.
Is there one experience from your time in Rome that stands out as having a direct impact upon your work then?

The entire experience was important - speaking in Italian, communicating more through gesture and metaphor, entering into the opera of Italian past and present.

The historians and archaeologists at the British School in Rome would get special permission to visit places inaccessible to the public and allow the artists to tag along. 

Visiting the roof of the Pantheon has continued to be important – the reciprocity of scale and perspective, being overawed by a new sensation of space. At the time there were no railings, just the sheer drop around the building. Instructions were to climb to the ‘oculus’ in pairs for safety, and if you suffered vertigo, you just had to sit to wait to descend! I managed to lay on my stomach looking over the abyss. A sense of scale, and of perspective (what you see and what you feel) is important. Also, the roman concrete used on the Pantheon is still stronger than our present concrete. It was strengthened by a rare mineral produced during chemical reactions between the mixture of volcanic ash and lime with seawater. 

How do you think your experiences in Rome connect to your current work?

Italians are very open and even in bad Italian I could have discussions. It was easy being foreign there - I didn’t know the etiquette of things and could speak to people without worrying about who they were and what I should be saying.  There were lots of openings and events that I attended not because I was invited but because I was not excluded.  I also think speaking in a second language is a great experience for an artist because you cannot fall into being lyrical, you must find language (often using metaphors) grounded in relation to how you think about your practise. 

On returning to Italy, for an exhibition after the scholarship, I spoke to a critic about the importance of nothingness which I think some people, especially the Italians, find very easy. The English, on the other hand, seem to want a definitive object. In the 1980s it was definitely ‘object sculpture’. I was thinking about empty and lonely spaces and how that fits with vast spaces. Nothingness is something that is full in Italy. But I have continued to question what it is full of or with. 

In Rome I was trying to draw as I walked through a space, somehow being that space. Even if you sit still in a church which is of course what the drawings were about - people come and go through the doors, or the light changes. Making Finnegan’s Teeth [2009] was very similar to walking through the space in Rome because of how it felt in the body, here of the dog. Since then, I have made other works that explore this embodiment—being a pile of blankets, being a boat, a voice…

I read a quotation that descried you as ‘a new generation of Flaneur’. Do you feel that is an accurate description of your art?

Absolutely. In Rome I was trying to draw as I walked through a space, somehow being that space. In 2009, I became the animal, the dog in Finnegan’s Teeth as the changing landscape of Kings Cross is seen from the dog’s perspective. The Flaneur idea relates to this work, but also to how I experience the world through the eyes of others.

The text and images from Finnegan’s Teeth have three voices - the dog, the walker and the place. At that point, Kings Cross was quite rapidly changing, I wanted to make a book through which you had to move in different ways.

We walked around and with a camera at his head height, I would take the picture when he turned to look at something. Often light changing or sudden noise made him turn, creating odd photographs from an odd perspective—to me, this was a new type of image making. There is a dog’s eye view of a policewoman because at that point King’s Cross was a sensitive site, but as the dog looked up, I had to take the photograph of her from the dog’s height. Whilst the photograph was allowed, I received a caution (a copy of it is in the book).

The work returned to the same streets, where excerpts filled the windows of an empty building, a space under a canal bridge and a billboard. I also showed images from this project in Prague where the billboard image/text was fitted inside a room. The words were enormous, and you would walk through a doorway below them.
Experiencing the world through different characters is a reoccurring theme within your work. Is the pursuit of an out of body experience a conscious concern? 

I am not sure I intentionally become something else but perhaps instead wish to be fully immersed within a space to understand it.  

When I showed at Camden Art Centre with an exhibition entitled water rises in proportion as it drowns you, there were photographs of water. There was a moment whilst taking the photographs when I was laying on the boat and there was this swell in the water where it dipped before coming up and I took the photographs being the boat. 

In 2013 I made a film called Angelica. The film followed a historical character Angelica as a puppet who was released onto the streets of Palermo and explored what would happen if she were liberated, despite always being tied to the puppeteer. Angelica was more than the physical puppet—in fact there were several Angelica puppets–she was split between these different versions of herself, individuals that were made by different generations. The way she was embodied related to the way those individuals perceived her. Again, scenes were shot from Angelica’s perspective, showing what she saw. 

The film was projected onto the walls of the Sharjah Art Foundation and people were tiny as they walked past. The film was in two-minute slots—as each slot played out it would rise upwards giving way to another, so time was playing itself out as another time came into view. And, thinking about it now, that was often the case in Rome—you would get one bit of the past siting underneath the present.

Do you think there is a spiritual element to your work?

I think if I set out to create something spiritual, it would not work. I do not think it is religious either. It is more an attention to philosophical, or phenomenological questions, such as nothingness.

I once saw a Humpback whale breach the water vertically only 4 metres away when returning from the isle of Rona. Earlier in the trip, I had been actively looking for wildlife and was disappointed—like looking for the spiritual and there just being nothing there.

I was getting cold, alone on the boat deck when out of the water this whale shot vertically upwards, and I found myself shouting ‘There’s a Whale!’ and everybody came on deck. Only one person caught sight of the tail splashing back into the water. I had nobody to share what I’d seen which made it seem spiritual. I can still recall the white ridges on the underside of the Humpback Whale.

The story came to mind because something can be there when you do not expect it to be there. It’s to do with being seen and not being seen, witnessing, and something being there without being witnessed. I am interested in bringing something into existence, catching it as opposed to defining it. 

Would you say that drawing is an important part of your practise?

Drawing can be a photograph, it can be a sketch, it can be a thing that doesn’t have a place in the world. 

In the to-ing and fro-ing of trying to make something work, something new emerges. What you mean to say manages to be said somehow and can become a lynchpin for what comes afterwards. There’s something mesmeric in the moment when that happens.

It’s that stream of consciousness at the beginning that leads to something. It’s almost done without thinking, but you are thinking. There is a feeling of place, and a feeling of the materials in my hand, and at the intersection of these are liminal spaces where a number of questions can be framed. 

That is how I feel about the piece in the Rugby Collection, it is the start of something being identified, You need to have an element of trust- the drawing gives you that sense of the idea’s existence. If you draw what it looks like, then why make the sculpture?

Although your work often focuses on the point of view of others, you also make biographical works that are personal to you.

Working with the personal can be a catalyst, but to my mind, it can be indulgent or difficult to work in this way, it can be hard to be objective. I need some sort of embodiment to begin, but it’s how that embodiment validates itself within the language of piece. 

Double act was about breathing, and being alive, just watching breath. It’s a piece that consists of two torses in nickel plated bronze, each encasing a fan that caused a shared balloon of fabric to trace the action of breath. 

There is an orchestration or a control of how much air goes into it, but it is more about the attempt rather than ‘this is the perfect globe shape’. It is always an impression; it fills itself and fills a void with nothingness. The jumpers were cast from wrapping a friend in clingfilm then casting him in plaster. 

Globes Of Stuff  began with an article I saw in a newspaper about a flood in Pakistan. There was a photograph of a person who had collected all their possessions together and was floating them on top of a raft made of wood to keep them safe. I was struck by an overwhelming sense of empathy towards his situation and thinking about what possessions I would collect. Making it became a re- enactment in a way. One continuous line of fabric wrapped my every-day objects. I was thinking of how history holds itself on something—it was important to feel the depth of things being tied. 

I did not realise they were quite so big.

My audience react to scale in front of the works, and I like that they are often confused by it, not being sure how big something is until they come face to face. From images seen on the internet, people often think I’ve Photoshopped things.

For The Palace of Raw Dreams I worked with a Sicilian puppeteer. I created footage that played with the perspectives of the puppets in the show. There was a really tall platform which suspended the screen, and two sets of ladders either side—the public walking past were so small in comparison to the scale of the projected puppets. The ladders were the only physical thing that gave scale a human sense—it’s funny to think that you connect more with them than the puppets. 

There were parts of the film that had screaming, and you had these people in suits with briefcases walking along and being startled by the sounds echoing around—so the scale was also in the difference between people’s day to day perspectives and the puppet’s.

How do you choose which materials to work with?

I work with the breaking points, capacity or limits of materials. With certain things I have my own knowledge, but sometimes I work with specialists who are like guardians of a material—either way there are parameters I then push and challenge. 

Understanding is helpful but so is dumbness and naivety where all seems possible.

Materials have a molecular structure that holds them together and I need to think about that when I work with them. The empty or negative space surrounding or within an object can be claimed as a material. 

I need to sense the limits of a space in which a material is to be planted and this becomes like inserting a haptic technology into a conceptual or architectonic space. Things like sound, air pressure, light will start to resonate or move. 

Has the pandemic affected your work? 

It became and intense period of working with no distractions and enabled me to complete a major new work entitled mouth to mouth.  People and factories were still working—I had all this time to hone very specific processed with metal—spinning, polishing, anodising. I’ve been lucky, the people I was collaborating with – sound technician, puppeteer, and metal technician frequently travel and it was a rare opportunity to have all three of them available, at least at a distance. 

There were moments of working where the piece was coming together surprisingly and  it was exciting to anticipate an audience. This is something the work needs next.

If you feel you’ve got nothing left to lose, if you don’t know what the world is going to be—it can be a freeing way of working in the present.

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