Untitled2014 by Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan: So I was telling you about what happened to me after I was invited to Documenta 13 as a painter. Before that, I had little galleries here and there. I was happy because I exhibited enough to feel like a painter. I could work at my own pace, because I also have to take time to write. Anyway, since Documenta . . . Galleries wait for artists to be recognized and then they all solicit the same ones. That happened to me, but I had to say no, because I can’t produce. I can paint, but I can’t produce. I always have done that, even when I was younger. Visual art is big industry; lots of money moves around, which is okay, it’s vital. But it’s also a bit of a heartbreak—I wish this had happened, let’s say, 20 years ago. It’s a nice feeling to have your work appreciated, but it’s almost a fashion for women to be recognized late in life. Agnes Martin, for example. It’s a trend, but we hope it will change.

Lisa Robertson: Do you think survival is what’s being rewarded?

EA: Not necessarily. There are people like Mona Hatoum who got recognition when she was young. It’s possible that in the past, unconsciously, people paid less attention to women’s work. Things are changing; there are more and more women curators, and more women gallery owners. It doesn’t mean that they will automatically pay more attention to women’s work, but it’s changing. We can’t complain.

LR I’ve been rereading your books in the past two weeks, three or four of them. I read this beautiful line in Seasons this morning: “Women are keepers of their own story therefore they are historians.” I put that in relation to images in your work. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about images—about how the image works in Baudelaire, for example. It’s not only a visual or optical event, it’s happening across all the senses. It’s a poly-sensual perceiving.

EA Yes!

LR So I have two questions. One is about the relationship between the image in poetry and the image in painting, and the other one, which might not be related to the first, is about women’s images. In an interview with Steve McQueen in The Guardian about his film Twelve Years a Slave, he said, “Some images have never been seen before. I needed to see them.” It resonated for me in relationship to your work. You are making images that have not been seen. Some of that might have to do with the fact that you are making women’s images. Do you feel that?

EA Until now at least, a woman’s life, her psyche . . . we don’t like the word essence anymore. As women, of course, we are different from each other as people, but we are also different from men. Or we have been up until now. So we have our own images. We’ve had little girls’ lives, so we carry that. When I grew up in Beirut, there weren’t many sports for boys or girls, but certainly girls were aware of being little girls, of being in. This idea of the outside and the inside works very strongly in women’s lives. In fact, women are rooted somewhere, they are stronger physically. Women are containers—the baby is in their belly; making love is receiving. This container contains hearts and stomachs. Images are, in one way, what we receive, but they are also the tools with which we think. To make images, you think with them, somehow. You mentioned Baudelaire. For Baudelaire, images work not like shapes, but like ideas made visible. He was particularly interested in the encounter between what we call the inner world and the outer world. And poetry deals magnificently with that. It is one of the major definitions of poetry. It addresses that relationship between what we call the subject and the object, which melt in what we call consciousness. Sometimes we transcribe this state of mind into words and call it a poem or a text. The same is true for the other arts. Writing is a very mysterious activity. When you write, you say things that would not have occurred to your mind otherwise. I don’t know if the fact that we don’t use paper and ink anymore affects writing. On a computer it’s a new situation.

LR Do you write on a computer?

EA My poetry is not long. I write in little paragraphs and they pile up, so I do it by hand. But I am more and more obligated to answer letters or emails, so then I use a computer. But to go back to what an image is—

LR That’s my real question. (laughter)

EA For example, I look at this table in front of me. Somebody over there, however, may look at it and not see it. Seeing is an activity; it is not passive.

LR The last sentence I read before I got off the metro on my way here was, “Behind an image there’s the image.”

EA There are layers of images—that’s what I meant, very simply. There is thickness. Vision is multidimensional and simultaneous. You can think, see, see beyond: you can do all these things at the same time. Your psyche, your brain catches up. Some people today say that an image is not necessarily a clear figuration of something; it could be like a blurred abstract drawing, like a sliding door.

LR An event in perceiving.

EA Yes, an event. It is a speed that you catch. Images are not still. They are moving things. They come, they go, they disappear, they approach, they recede, and they are not even visual—ultimately they are pure feeling. They’re like something that calls you through a fog or a cloud.

LR So they are immaterial, in a way.

EA That’s it! They are immaterial in essence. But they could be strongly defined, or they could be fleeting, almost like a ghost of things or of feelings going by. So the word image is very elastic. It’s a very rich concept. Although we are bombarded with images, our culture is anti-image. We think we don’t like it; it’s not fashionable. That is why Surrealism exists: it intends to amplify the image, to force us to see it. Andy Warhol understood that we are surrounded by so many things, and people, that we do not see them. We are rather blinded by them. So he forced our attention on soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.

On an other level, there are also different clarities. Some things are not meant to be clear; obscurity is their clarity. We should not underestimate obscurity. Obscurity is as rich as luminosity.

LR I was thinking about the way that light moves through your work. There is, for me, a very strong sense of light as being human light, spirit. Also, the light of a single day is a human unit.

EA The environment was my life, maybe because I was an only child. I didn’t have brothers and sisters to play with, so the light coming in through the window was a great event for me. I played with that instead of playing with other children. It was my companion. Beirut is a very sunny city and there were very few cars when I grew up. That was a blessing, because there were people in the street. I remember trying to walk on my shadow. Shadows and light were two strong entities. In Spain or southern France or Italy shadows are very strong and beautiful—the patterns are very clear. Light is an extraordinary element. It’s a being on its own, it’s something you look at, and that also you inhabit.

LR I wrote down the phrase: “The situation of consciousness in the daylight.” The idea of the French Enlightenment and the meaning of enlightenment in the sense of 18th-century rationalism is also in your work—

EA I went to Catholic schools all my life. There were no other schools in Lebanon. We had religion around all the time. I’m lucky—I never believed in catechism or any of that. I was always a dissident without effort, at a distance from all the things the nuns were saying. I never liked saints. What touched me was their speaking of revelation, even the word itself. That always made sense to me. We owe life to the existence of the sun; therefore light is a very profound part of our makeup. It’s spiritual, in the way that even DNA is spiritual. What we call “spirit” is energy. It’s the definition of life, in one sense. Light, as an object, as a phenomenon, is magnificent. I am talking to you and the light coming in through the window has already changed. You go on the street and you look at the sky and it tells you what time it is. We are dealing with it constantly, and obscurity is also maybe its own light, because it shows you things. Obscurity is not lack of light. It is a different manifestation...
(Interview continues at http://bombmagazine.org/article/10024/etel-adnan)
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Period / movement: abstract