The London and Basel-based artist Sophie Jung works across performance, sculpture and text. Recent projects include a series of live performances during Frieze London 2019, the solo exhibition ‘The Bigger Sleep’ at Kunstmuseum Basel and the installative performance The Day Teaches The Day at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Her latest solo exhibition ‘They might stay the night’ at Casino Luxembourg, which consists of a “coalition” of sculptures, had to close temporarily due to the Corona pandemic. When Sophie and our author Louisa Behr talked on the phone about the interview, they quickly came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to discuss primarily how her projects and artistic practice are affected by the pandemic. We’re still in the middle of it, so we can’t put the effects into words yet. Rather, the crisis gave us an impulse to talk generally about temporality, materiality and presence within performative and sculptural work and to examine their virtual potentials.
Louisa Behr Sophie, in your artistic practice you often merge the categories performance, sculpture and text. During your performances, for example, you often read out excerpts from texts specifically written for the sculptures or the settings. Your sculptural installation at Kunstmuseum Basel or Come Fresh Hell or Fresh High Water at Blain / Southern in London could be visited as an exhibition situation, but at the same time it became the stage for your performance. Can you comment on that?
Sophie Jung I’m not a huge fan of categories, or rather I am, but only in that I enjoy breaking them down. I’ve made performances that work within an exhibition setting where I activate what you’d call a sculptural or installative proposition. With those pieces the sort of inherent logic, their inter-active subcognitive sense-making and also the sensuality of the sculptures in formal solidarity within and amongst each other comes first before any form of pronounceable content is worked into or out of them. In these situations and performances, I react to a collective of assemblages that came into being through compositional and improvised affective processes. Their making is an exploration, it discovers, or even forms an abundance of thought rather than having to react to, translate or represent them. I propose something formal, a set of seductive or conflicting aesthetics that then seem to offer me a multiplicity of conflicting, simultaneous logics or ‘meaning’.
As each show is a troupe of polyamorous sculptures with a plural syntax that is not necessarily rational, it doesn’t want to make sense but to make senses. So, to me it’s important that I’m not – as Susan Sontag calls it –an ‘over-cooperative author’. I don’t build a preferred analytic interpretation into my work, but I do construct it towards a specific reaction, in order to trigger a specific mechanism.
LB What’s the relationship between the different parts of the exhibition?
SJ Once those exhibitions stand in their own right, they lend themselves to me, albeit temporarily, as a set. I, somewhat corruptible, put myself into the position of the ‘reader’ and try and react to the setting, the sculpture as an autonomous piece with related, but equally autonomous and debatable readings. It’s important to me that it’s a multi-step process, that singular meaning or content isn’t inherently built into the piece, isn’t exchangeable or equitable, but that it softly lands, as a transparent veil, woven of deviant strands. I can throw mine over it, before a live performance, and I’ve worked hard at weaving it into a crafty piece of silky delight, but I can equally blow my nose with it and let the audience throw their veil of deviant meanings over it.
Of course, the texts that I write are not random fabulations, I’m carefully letting each assemblage make its mark on me and I try and transcribe that with all the voices I can muster. Again, not to force them to make sense, never, but to sort of activate them in different ways, probe them, transform them and try and temporarily, fluidly figure them in and out and around each other.
So in the case of me performing in an installation, the installation always comes first, but I do also perform without a sculptural setting as trigger. In those cases I respond to in-this-world-‘objects’ of thought, of dominance, of sweetness and of pain, observations and experiences that I haven’t specifically crafted in order to react to them. Unlike my sculpture-performances, these have a more direct address and formalize epistemological structures in order to subvert, deconstruct, u/dis-topically re-compose them, always from different angles and on different layers of perception.
LB Could this practice be seen as a way of institutionalizing performance art? Or to what extent do you see your practice as a deconstruction of traditional categories? Is that kind of very theoretical interest an issue for you and your work?
SJ I don’t know if it’s an example of institutionalized performance art, or honestly, I’m not too fussed, you know. I just want to do my work in an inclusive accessible setting whose funding and whose politics are as ethically uncompromised or as closely aligned with mine as possible. I hope that people find their way to it and that I can trigger some reconsidering or re-synthesising, that I can challenge a fear of complexities and impart some joy for contradictive pluralities – basically that the work generates new worlds (lmao) new dis/orders. Those are things that are important to me and where I place my theoretical interest. For the rest, I’m not necessarily that interested in a conversation around institutionalized performance art. I’m obviously very aware of the intersectional conditions from which we start, which is why I try and avoid any universal conclusions or premises and of course I am aware of the importance to always integrate the ‘who’s speaking where and to whom’ into any equation. What is my context, what are the contexts of the materials used, what different contexts could a potential audience bring to the context of the host space – those considerations are at the core of my practice. They are proof of the inherent plurality, the ambiguity, the paradoxes a piece will balance at any given time.
LB You often talk about synthesis, merges, coalitions, collectives. You seem to be interested in different forms of coming together or building associations.
SJ Yes, it’s a larval amalgamation between me, the maker, the work in itself, the reception of the many materialities that are in the sculpture with the many voices in the text by the many people in the space in their conditions and conditionings. That, and this is crucial, does not mean however that a work can’t or shouldn’t be singularly meaningful to any one person at any one time.
When you ask about institutional critique, I’m of course interested in all those aspects, but I’m not specifically interested in discussing or deconstructing a sort of category of performance art, because these categories seem, you know, very limiting and also only interesting to scholars of art history or some other intellectual busybodies, I don’t know, I don’t think they matter to most people. In fact, I think they order and tame, they restrain more than anything. But again, that’s not to say that I shouldn’t be or that I’m not aware of the institutional as a position to challenge or of political conditions that sort of intersect here. If that makes sense.
LB To hook up with the first question again: how do the implications and the different layers of meanings change in the moment the objects turn from being an autonomous part of a museum exhibition into a prop for your performance?
SJ I assume that the essence of your question is when is a sculpture a prop, an exchangeable container for meaning or a tool, an accelerator for narrative, and when is it autonomous or even auratically hermetic?
LB Yeah, I think that makes sense.
SJ Traditionally, in theatre, a prop is used to accessorize and lend specificity to on-stage characters and to propel narrative. A prop is denied an existence as the thing itself but serves as a sort of shadow representation of an idea, a narrative thread. Funnily enough, I would say that that’s the way we, in the western tradition, are taught to experience art. We learn to see it as a prop, i.e. to replace what there is, an unruly, untameable, powerfully irreducible material entity, with the clean and tidy sense we’ve made of it, either as storyteller, embodiment of historical narratives or concept-bearer. We figure it out (of any agency) and my aim is to transcend the binary tool and considerable aesthetic object, the ready-at-hand and present-to-hand. The sculptures I make are made up of a plurality of objects which come from a variety of contexts and therefore come with different histories, timelines, textures and densities. They are already not only one idea of one object, they are already very paradoxical within themselves. They have different aims and means and reasons for being in this world. Parts of them were either produced to serve: an object of utility; or to please and distract: a decorative item. In a capitalist society there is little imagination for alternative object-production. As sculptural assemblage they get to shed themselves off their duties and can form new allegiances, generate new identities. Within the performance, I sometimes address them in their potential to serve or to please, but always from idiosyncratic angles, and often the wrong way around.
I very strongly feel that objects as classic metaphors are a waste of space and extremely disrespectful towards the object. But at the same time, you cannot deny a reader a certain element of legibility. They will read, whether you want them to read or not. So, when the sculptures are shown as an exhibition, they are understood in their entirety and in their complexity and then they’re also silent and withdrawn. And when they’re used as props, they begin to speak but they also disappear out of their materiality because the idea or the narrative is foregrounded, and they become tools. So, for me, I want them to be both, withdrawing autonomously into their complex assemblage of auras and at the same time to tease us with their remnants of tool-ness.
LB I really enjoyed your installation at Kunstmuseum Basel. Can you tell us more about the objects used there?
SJ In The Bigger Sleep, every sculpture was made up of objects that had a plurality of temporary functions. As in a small theatre company that wants to produce a multi-character classic, each item had to take on several roles. A metal wire construction served as cloud, as bar, as soup kitchen and as rattle, a metal bench press was turned around to play Pegasus, its fist of feathers a brief revolution when the black table legs on top of each other became Marie Antoinette’s window, turned around into a guillotine, the Millennium Falcon became a waffle iron to feed the audience waffle, a rusty military ladle went from that to a chic hat to a clock-tower bell, a reproduction of the Parthenon frieze became a lyre / a liar and made my butler freeze / frieze and so on. This was the most theatrical piece yet, when I use the sculptures as text-triggers they are equally addressed in a plurality of functions, but more in a subtly and literary fashion. I suppose using them for several things makes them slippery, introduces the untameable potential that they do still have so it leaves them their autonomy in that way. They briefly lend themselves to me in one of their many incarnations, but they don’t enslave themselves to me. It’s funny, my current show has neither text nor performance, yet somebody said to me they feel like they are walking through a constantly morphing stage set for a multitude of overlapping plays.
LB When you’re talking about the binary of objects – on the one hand the autonomous plurality of means and reasons and on the other hand your proposition of playing with the idea of tool-ness and transforming them into several things – I think about topics as originality of objects and interpretations attributed to them by us. What are your thoughts and from what is your approach on this this topic?
SJ Obviously, I understand that the way we are taught to read any kind of discourse around objects in the art world or a tool-ness of objects is through Plato, Heidegger or Kant. The idea of the object versus the object itself. The idea being its essence and that essence always being somewhere else, so the materiality of an object is always a placeholder of its essence, which is the idea which transcends etc. but I think I kind of come from the other direction and I look at an object’s direct presence, its plurality of manifest presences, so that’s much more the materialist logic, which I think is a lot more respectful of the object in its autonomy while considering the many forces that brought it into existence and the speculative fabulations that carry it further. To be honest, I would actually like to steer these conversations away from the old thinkers that everybody constantly has to refer to in order to say something new. I think we can say something new without referring to them. They perpetuate a very phallogocentric view, an immaterial idea as the original object, i.e. a lack as truth.
No, there is a materiality, there is an awareness, there is a presence, there is an abundance of voices. They come into being, they constantly renew themselves, they are not imminent to the thing, but they are generative within an object. And I relate much more to texts by people such as Hélène Cixous or Sara Ahmed, who wrote this fantastic book Queer Phenomenology (2006). Or, although written in and for a different context, Maria Lugones’ brilliant concept of “world”-travelling or even Gertrude Stein’s Composition as Explanation.
LB Your exhibition at the Casino Luxembourg is only installative and you told me that you and the curator Stilbé Schroeder decided not to create a virtual presentation concept now that the exhibition is closed. Given our previous discussion about the plurality of objects, I was wondering if you ever considered to translate the essence of objects somehow into the virtual during the temporary closure of the show?
SJ No, I don’t think everything has to be transferable and translatable. These objects were made to be seen live and while I’m going to use images to communicate about the show, I don’t want them to have to communicate the show. The experience, the sort of encounter between body and the work and what happens in between, cannot be replicated. As a body encountering a sculpture you raise a question to that piece and vice versa and something happens in-between. This experience is much more visceral and affective than images could ever describe. When you look at an image, you’re in a position of analysis, of consumption. Whereas when you encounter an artwork in space, analysis is suspended for a moment at least, the imminent reaction is on a different plane.
LB Yes, that makes total sense. Also, because the architecture and space have an impact on this experience.
SJ Exactly, the space of the Casino Luxembourg is so important for the reception of the show. It’s what we spoke about before: the space a show is hosted in sets a tone. Here you encounter the troupe of pieces through various trails of ambulation, you draw your circles through the different doorways, and each chosen path performs a different syntax, leads to a different perceptual composition of actors, so the ambulation through the space is very important, the phenomenological trickery of the mirror floor, which destabilizes your sense of coherent self. I’d rather not show it, than show it badly. Yeah, I suppose experiencing the work and seeing the work are two very different things.
LB You mentioned to me that doing virtual performances in this specific situation would be out of question for you, because the bodily co-presence between actors and spectators is essential for the narrative of your performances, which usually have an improvised component. Can you elaborate on that?
SJ Obviously, you can also perform for the camera and that is definitely an interesting and valid context for a performance, but in this context I think we have an abundance of incredible works made for screen that can be watched now. I basically don’t see why it would make sense to live perform through a screen if I don’t absolutely have to and I think everyone has their own approach here. To me a live performance only makes sense when you can encounter a live audience directly and physically – it’s a conversation. In theatre, even if the fourth wall is partially broken the lights are still so bright that the performers cannot see the audience and in a lot of contemporary theatre, they don’t veer from their learned lines. I think such pieces lend themselves to live-streaming or virtual performances. In fact, that’s probably the main difference between performance and theatre. In theatre, you speak at the audience and in performance, you speak with the audience. That’s why I’m interested in generating a third space, which is somewhere between me and the viewer. I love the concept of live editing and the edit, big or super subtle, happens based on audience presence or the feel of certain densities, collective or singled out attention shifts. The piece can dramatically differ in tone depending on audience.
An audience co-creates, if I address them in a way in which their possibility for response is built into my address… then my response will take account of and respond to their individual and collective presences., If I haven’t got that presumed dialogue then I bore myself.
Another reason why I’m not into the idea of live-streaming a virtual performance is that I think that this specific time in history is a really good moment for reflection and adaptation and I think that our obsession with production and constant visibility is really toxic. I mean, let’s make art when and if the urge, or to use Audre Lorde’s term the erotic is there, but not for the sake of mindlessly “performing our job” and generating content.
LB Your answer leads me to the aspect of fleetingness within live performances – they take place and are not repeatable in the exact same way. The constellation of people varies, as well as the emotional constitution and atmosphere. Especially in terms of breaking the ‘fourth wall’. This is different, of course, in virtually shown performative art. Additionally, the recordings function more like a documentation. How would you describe the differences and what impact does this have on the factor of temporality?
SJ As mentioned earlier, I’m interested in the space in-between me and the audience, the space where something happens in this sort of collective (non-)comprehension. Me throwing something out, it being received by others and thrown back to me – either with sheer attention, apprehension or curious excitement. This thing that happens in-between us is the work and it’s constituted both by me and the audience. I’m not talking about audience participatory improv, it’s much subtler than that, it’s macro-improvised, the tone is improvised: which aspect of these really very polyvocal texts, which voice in the text I enhance, and which voice in the text I mute – all of that is dependent on the feeling of the audience.
Of course, I’m all for documenting performances, but you have to be aware that you’re not watching the performance but a documentation of it. Your role is passive in that. Performance for the camera, however, uses decidedly different strategies and hovers in a completely other temporality, has a different address and a different mode of operation. Its constitution in time and space is less precarious, as an audience you have a less responsible yet possibly more intimate focus. Because of the clear visibility of micro expressions of the performer there is a sophistication in pronouncing the unspoken that is close to the uncanny. If the performer speaks to the camera the spectator feels addressed, this third space is constituted, but in an unstable space-time continuum.
In a similar vein, one can also talk about the reception of a work seen at home: it incorporates your screen’s colour setting, the interior design choices behind and around it, the level of noise in the room next to you, etc – its time is manipulatable by you, it can be paused, skipped and is basically open for second hand composition by the viewer. Therefore, there’s also the possibility of variation. Every time the work is seen, it can be structurally different, not as a performance repeated over a few evenings, but it is intensively different.
LB I think this is a good moment to conclude that discussion and to ask one last question about virtual teaching, which a lot of us are probably experiencing at the moment. You are a guest tutor at the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst in Basel. In that context you’re preparing a workshop, which also has to take place virtually. How are you planning to do this?
SJ The subject of the workshop is ‘What’s at stake’ and I think the theme kind of relates to the current situation. I think we’re all a little bit stuck in our practice as we’re used to producing and relying on our style or our projected audience-expectations. We hardly ever question why it is that we do what we do. What urgency or what curiosity these pieces we churn out come from. What they embody and if their embodiment is still a sincere expression, if we still dig deep and if we dig in the right place. So, I think that with the sort of silence and this enforced solitude around us, this is a good moment to re-question our motivations and the different forces that are in our work – if we’re actually still okay with them or if we wanted it to exert its power somewhere else maybe. I live-react a lot while teaching and usually structure the course loosely and edit it from day to day based on needs and wishes, so preparing for a less animated and less flexible classroom was very difficult. It’s really hard to get into a flurry of dense critical thinking when mics have to be switched on and off and cameras aren’t working and it’s harder to gauge the level of engagement and interest but we’re doing our best. I think the students are really working very hard at engaging within this extremely difficult scenario. And, lastly, in reminiscence of your first question around institutional critique, I truly love the fact that this way of encountering each other allows for a bit more sneaky context, I welcome the collages of individual conditions that become visible, not for the sake of voyeuring, but because it disrupts any perceived classroom homogeneity or any false sense of ‘we’. We are plural, we are different, our backgrounds differ and yet we can find a collective voice, and yet we can communicate.
LB What a good way to close the conversation! Thank you very much, Sophie, for taking the time to talk with me about these topics. I believe that the interview has definitely given me new food for thought and also different perspectives. The many different approaches to subjects surprise me time and time again – in a positive way!
Sophie Jung – They might stay the night
7 March – 25 October 2020
41 Rue Notre-Dame
Sophie Jung is an artist based in London, UK and Basel, Switzerland, who works across text, sculpture and performance. Recent projects and exhibitions include Woman Standing at The National Gallery, Prague, Taxpayer’s Money for Frieze LIVE; Dramatis Personaea at JOAN, Los Angeles; The Bigger Sleep at Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart and Block Universe, London; Come Fresh Hell or Fresh High Water at Blain Southern, London; Producing My Credentials at Kunstraum London and Paramount VS Tantamount at Kunsthalle Basel. She is currently working on solo exhibitions at E.A. Shared Space, Tbilisi, Istituto Svizzero in Milan and Galerie Joseph Tang in Paris and works as a guest mentor at Institut Kunst, Basel.