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Interview with Sophie Whettnall

Brussels-based artist, Sophie Whettnall, is an eclectic artist who likes to work with different media and, above all, who tends to approach different themes through her art. In fact, her art -she says- should not be limited to one reading or too a sterile contemplation, just like life itself should not. At her latest exhibition "La banquise, la forêt et les étoiles" at CENTRALE for contemporary art in Brussels, the artist conceived a visual tour of great beauty that she site-specifically designed for the space. Sophie Whettnall created an experience, which goes beyond light and images, and make our eyes become witnesses to great emotions. For the exhibition, the Belgian artist was asked to invite an international artist to exhibit with her at CENTRALE and she chose Etel Adnan, who is a Lebanese American artist and writer.   What follows is an interview with artist Sophie Whettnall, which took place at the Museum where her latest exhibition "La banquise, la forêt et les étoiles", curated by Carine Fol, is to visit until August 4th.

_Let us talk about the work "Transmission line", which closes this exhibition. It is a very intimate video, which you edited and cut, in order to make it become universal. Your goal was to create something to which each visitor could relate. You said you "hope to give visitors the occasion to be in touch with their inner selves, or to confront deeper grey areas that we rarely challenge in today' society". Interestingly enough, you use videos (often amateur ones) to communicate deeper messages, in a time when the use of a camera is often linked to a rather superficial purpose, such as the share on social media. What do you think about the stream of images we are confronted with nowadays, especially through videos?  I think the effects and consequences of social media on our society are terrible, and I am really upset with the use we make of it. We are literally attacked by a stream of images and we are becoming unable to discern among those and to give a value to what we see. When I started to use videos as an artistic media, I used both an old camera and my IPhone one. What I wanted to do was to grasp the moment. In my first videos, all was about either staging the scene or witnessing the scene. In both cases, I always had clear in my mind what I wanted to show. In the case of the video "Les porteuse" (eng.:The carriers, video at the beginning of the exhibition*), for example, I am not there, I stayed behind the camera, but my presence is palpable. The video is not just a result of weeks of research for obtaining the perfect shot, it is also the incarnation of the idea I had in mind. I knew what I wanted the video to be like, even before starting to film, and that is the part of me, which is present in my video, even if my body is not there. For the artwork "Transmission line", on the contrary, I decided to work with a cinematographer, because I wanted to have a high quality video. I wanted to show visitors something new, something we are not used to anymore: the video is a poetry of lights, where the subjects are perfectly framed and each detail is studied and balanced. This piece is a homage to cinema and to the old masters: for the first time I included a cinema reference in my work and for this reason, I wanted to go back to the perfection of the medium.

Les Porteuses, Sophie Whettnall, 2009

_How much does your country of origin influence your work, i.e. how much is Belgium present in your work? Belgium has a strong heritage of landscape art and I came in close contact with Flemish paintings at a very young age, at school. Surely, this is in my mind and in my "cultural DNA" and it for sure influences my art. Joachim Patinir, for example, is an artist I discovered, while I was in Spain, and whose landscapes struck me. However, I would say that my artworks are universal in a way and that they deal with memory on different layers, which -together- create a common memory, to which everybody can relate.

_What are the main traits of Etel Andnan's art, which impressed you the most and made you invite her to exhibit with you at Centrale? What I found interesting about bringing together my works with those of Etel is the common traits we share. Although we come from a very different background, we do share some experiences: in fact, even if she comes from a different generation than me and from another country, we both have a similar modus operandi. Both Etel and I are interested in representing the landscape, even though in different ways. We both try to transmit a message through our art; Etel in particular comes from a culture in which the oral transmission has always had an important role and I think this is obviously present in her art. Finally, I also liked the fact that the media and style we use are somehow radically different from one another. Showing this sharp contrast between my work and hers seemed to me a very immediate way to display how multiple we are and (more in general) how multiple art can be, which is very much the leitmotiv of my oeuvre.

La banquise, la forêt et les étoiles, Sophie Whettnall, 2018-2019

_In a time when we are more and more disconnected from nature, you decided to pay homage to it, through this exhibition. Could you say there is a political message behind your work as well? The fact that we almost totally lost our bond to nature is a serious issue of contemporary society in my opinion. Nature is recurring in my artworks, because I see it as my main source of inspiration; I think humans need nature, and I believe in the healing power of it but also in the important role it plays in letting us understand more clearly, about ourselves and the world in general. Nowadays everybody knows our planet is in danger and we are responsible for the destruction it is going through. I, as many other artist, am for sure worried by this and my concern is for sure present in my art, although I would not reduce my art to that. I think everything has to be observed from different points of view, since nothing goes in one single direction but has multiple interpretations and meanings. Having said that, the artwork I created for in the main hall of Centrale clearly recalls the frightening images of the melting sea ice at the Northen Pole and it also invites visitors to reflect upon the responsibilities that the old generation have towards the new ones and to think about the concept of transmission and common duties. The ice-sea I created for this exhibition is a sort of fixed image of what is going on at the Poles, so it is a sort of "frozen moment": the work also works on the concept of time and its relativity, but at the same time, it shows the urgency of our situation. Each of my works can be interpreted in several ways and can unfold a different meaning according to the beholder, and this is what I try to achieve by doing art and this is also why I try not to give one single definition of my art, but to keep it varied and mixed. _In Art History, nature has always been a great source of inspiration for several artists. The word nature is a combination from the past of nascere (to be born) and the suffix -urus in Latin. Thus meaning, "the force who / which gives life".

Is there a connection between the visceral force of nature and the miraculous action of giving birth and procreate, in your works?

I totally agree with this, and I think this is a very important point. As I said, I think nature is crucial for our mind and our soul and for me it is essential to be in contact with nature in order to create.

I would say there is a connection in the sense that nature helps me creating, it inspires me...

Nevertheless, I would not say my work is necessarily linked to the act of giving birth, because it is so much wider. Of course, as a woman and a mother, this is present, but again, I would not reduce my art to this. Nowadays we like to reduce things to one single concept, we like to label things, which is extremely mortifying. Life in fact is a variety of situations, cases, coincidences, accidents, ... Reducing everything to one thing or putting things in boxes is very dangerous because it reduces our capacity of complex reasoning and it makes us incapable of questioning what we see or of thinking differently.

I think homologation is a big problem of our culture and I have always struggled with it since I was in the art school, where I could not stick to one methodology, but I felt I wanted to explore as many media as possible, since I think that to each idea corresponds a media.

_Your works often play with oxymoron ("between softness and sensuality, femininity and masculinity, presence and absence, control and docility, personal and universal, the defined space and the infinite..."). Do you think opposite mechanisms are ruling (especially in) our contemporary society? Rather than opposite mechanisms, I would say that our society has the tendency of only looking in one direction: we tend to see things either black or white. What I like to do through my artworks is to crack this code and to reverse the elements that rule our society. This is for example the case of the video "Shadow boxing" where the abrupt movements of the boxer are in sharp contrast with my being still and impassive in front of his feasts. The contrast reverse the idea we usually have of the body of man and woman, being the first often associated with strength and power, the second one with weakness and delicacy. Here those associations are reversed and the roles of man and women are nullified and the boundaries are faded, since my body is the one which results strong, while the man boxing in vain ends up being weak and emptied of his masculinity.

La banquise, la forêt et les étoiles, Sophie Whettnall, 2018-2019

Sophie Whettnall – Etel Adnan. La banquise, la forêt et les étoiles 04.04 > 04.08.2019 CENTRALE Place Sainte-Catherine 44 1000 Brussels Photo credits © Philippe De Gobert #SophieWhettnall #contemporaryart #exhibition #artinBrussels #artinterview #artblog


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