Friday, 29 February 2008

INTERVIEW: Artist Anne Desmet

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, February 2008

Anne Desmet, artist of Urban Evolution, which continues at The Whitworth Gallery until 3rd August 2008, answers Thalia Allington-Wood’s questions about her work and ideas.
The space and environment an artist needs to produce their work is always something very personal and individual. What environment do you require?
My studio is a large, light, airy room on the first floor of my tall terraced house in east London. Its two sash windows look onto the houses across the street. I could do with a larger studio really, as the available space is increasingly full of seashells, pieces of slate, broken tiles, stacks of portfolios, framed pictures, books and papers. But I like the warmth and light of this room and enjoy working from home.
What is it about printing which you prefer to other art techniques?
I was born with a congenital hip dislocation, which resulted in my having to spend about five years of my childhood in hospital having assorted surgical procedures to fix it. A lot of the time I was reasonably well, just lying around in bed waiting for bones to mend. I spent this time making pencil and black pen drawings of whatever was within sight – the light bulb above my bed, my hands and feet, a bowl of cherries. Later, when I applied to art college, my tutor Jean Lodge introduced me to wood engraving and stone lithography, which she rightly thought would expand my mark-making vocabulary in positive directions. For 14 years, since then, I’ve had my own Albion press. There is something about the range of marks and their crisp clarity when printed – as well as the excitement of cutting light out of darkness, as you do when you are engraving a lino or wood block, that is, for me, intensely satisfying – far more so than any other drawing or painting processes

Lots of the architecture found in your work is rooted in antiquity. Has this always been the style most inspirational to you and what is it about those spaces that you find yourself responding to?
In 1989 I was awarded a Rome Scholarship in Printmaking, which gave me a year to work as an artist in Rome – with a travel grant to explore Italy. My initial forays into collage and all my current work stem directly from that experience. In Rome I filled sketchbooks with studies of streets, buildings and townscapes. Prior to that, most of my work comprised engraved portraits. The visual impact of intense Italian sunlight on Rome’s dramatic architecture, coupled with a sense of the city’s history, was inspiring. Since then, buildings, their history and vulnerability, their evolution and degeneration, have continued to fascinate me.

‘Babel Flower’ juxtaposes natural fragility with the sturdiness of stone, can you tell us more about this piece?
Bruegel the Elder’s magnificent Tower of Babel painting of 1563 is the direct inspiration for all my Babel Tower (and the Babel Flower) collages of recent years. The biblical account of the Babel Tower is very relevant to the 21st century in that it evokes a sense of the intense, grandiose, timeless beauty of mankind’s most ambitious constructions, the vulnerable yet aspirational qualities of towers and the ambition and fragility of human dreams. These are the sensations I hope my own imagery conveys.

Salman Rushdie in his essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’ talks of the ‘greater resonance’ things gain when they are remains from the past, how objects and memories have a fragmentary nature, like ‘broken glass’, which reflects nostalgia, while also creating our present identity. This to me seemed very relevant to your work, do you agree?
This does seem to reflect my work and the thoughts behind it very well. My work aims to capture both a sense of time and timelessness. Fresco fragments, preserved in Italian museums, are such potent echoes from the past. Ancient, splintered symbols of a high, lost culture, they assume the totemic qualities and raw emotional pull of religious icons. My collages of Manchester’s Victoria Baths, depicting fragmented glimpses of its mosaic floors, snatched reflections in mirrors or windows, attempt to tap into that symbolic quality of fragments of memory.

You have said that you are interested in sites which ‘imply change’ but also a ‘process of mutation’, do you feel that modern development damages or detracts from classical surroundings?
Not necessarily. I like the ebb and flow of cities and the way in which new developments co-exist with much older structures. I worry, however, when structurally sound, architecturally interesting, historic buildings are replaced with cheaper, shoddier, alternatives. Whilst I don’t believe everything historic should be preserved, I do feel that sound yet redundant old buildings should be renovated for an alternative use. They are part of our heritage and we should take pride in them.

Do you feel it is ever really possible for an artist to remove themselves from their work?
Not really, in that the work would necessarily be redolent of the artist’s ideas and intentions. But yes, in the sense that, centuries after an artist’s death, his or her work may make a strong impact on future generations who may ascribe to it motivations and meanings that perhaps the artist never actually intended. Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Marriage’ is a classic example of that. Time doesn’t just change the urban environment but it changes people’s perceptions, including how they view art.

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