In this first installment, Cibrián gallery artistic director Martin Lahitete walks with the artist Katinka Bock around the artist studio in the outskirts of Paris discussing the importance of locality, empathy, and standpoint in her practice.
Katinka Bock: When I arrived here, in this village an hour and half from Paris, to set up my new studio, I read a story saying that since the 15th century, the local hunters have buried their dogs here, under an oak tree. But I haven’t found the tree yet. I’m still looking for it.
Martin Lahitete: Well, maybe we’ll find it together, since we’ve decided to record this conversation as we walk, chatting as we look at the world around us. And besides, I wanted to tell you that it was in a somehow rather similar way that I discovered your work for the first time, a few years ago now. It was in the Petite Escalère garden, on the border between the Landes and the Basque Country.
KB: Incredible... Did you see Tomorrow’s Sculpture there? That’s strange... it’s quite a secret place.
ML: The garden was magnificent. But as soon as there was heavy rain, something that there always had been but which is becoming more and more common in the region, the river would overflow, and the works installed in the garden would be threatened because the garden would be completely flooded. In the end they closed the garden, but I have a very clear memory of Tomorrow’s Sculpture, two bronze feet supported by a metal beam, two figures standing face to face, forming a sort of doorway to the bog, to the lande.
KB: Yes, that’s right, they are two figures in one and which, as you say, form a door, or frame, looking onto the landscape. It is almost a “ritual” sculpture, because it has passed through fire, and later through water. Initially it was meant to be installed in the bog, and since, as per tradition, peat is burned once a year, I came up with a sculpture that could live with fire, and with water given that the area is prone to flooding. In the end, it was moved from the bog into the forest, but there was a time when half of the sculpture was continually under water. It was extraordinary.
ML: Yes, the collector and owner of the garden would tell me how in the last year she had to visit the works by boat, especially to check their condition. It’s a story that tells the tale of our present time very well.
KB: (Laughter). Yes, there was a time when you needed boots, but it wasn’t long before you needed a boat. It was distressing to see how a setting, a magnificent, bucolic, almost romantic landscape, is in fact highly destructive, because when the water recedes, the damage to the land and the works is very serious. The metals rust, the works decompose. The beauty of the flood conceals a real threat.
ML: For you, the working environment is a fundamental aspect of your activity. Whether it’s natural or urban.
KB: Yes, I like conflictive places, where the ecosystem can pose some kind of a problem. And when I visited the Petite Escalère for the first time, Dominique had to carry her partner on her back to cross a small expanse of water, because she hadn’t brought her boots with her that day. And watching those two women, who were no longer in their twenties, living in that way with that ecosystem, made me want the sculpture to represent two figures who support one another.
ML: That’s what I find interesting and like a lot in your work, the fact that you are perhaps as much, and almost at the same time, a studio artist, who tends to work alone, introspectively, poetically, as you are an artist in situ, who works and reacts to natural, but above all social environments, taking action with and on them, and who collaborates strongly. How do these ways of working and engagement fit in with each another?
KB: One goes hand in hand with the other. There are moments with places, and with the users of these places, who are very important, because I need to find a meaning in the meeting with a place, a space, a situation. In fact these are questions of empathy, empathy as a specific feeling, furtive, which is not the same as friendship, because we don’t have to make promises to one another and we leave, in spite of it all, with something that has changed us. That’s usually the starting point. It’s like borrowing something, a temperature I take with me into the studio and to which I try to lend continuation, an echo. But it can also be an uncomfortable feeling. For example, after my first visit to Vitoria-Gasteiz, I left with the impression of not having seen enough of the museum (Artium. The Basque Museum of Contemporary Art), and that’s how I understood that I had missed the natural light, and that part of my exhibition could be related to that. Because I had felt that perhaps Beatriz (Herraez, the director of Artium) could need someone to generate a change in the space. I thought it could be me. And I liked the idea of bringing the outside, the reflection of outside life, into a museum that had precisely chosen to reflect Basque art and culture. It was almost a contradiction that its architecture was so impenetrable, so closed.
ML: And in that same line, you also worked at the Albaola school-workshop, where they’re rebuilding the San Juan whaling ship in Pasaia, for the work Segment with Unknown Radius? How was that collaboration? Back then you told me that you had had to make yourself accept and adapt to the rules of the workshop, in much the same way as the wood you used bends with time.
KB: I thought it was really great that they told me I could only work with them if I proposed something that truly interested them, because they had no time to waste on useless collaborations. We made an arrangement to meet personally, and I described what I’d like to do with the school students. It was like a test, but I didn’t see it as an obligation, I thought it was really good that we were talking in the present, rather than through a value system where the artist and the Region’s big museum would deserve all the attention as a matter of course. Instead it meant: is working together interesting or not?
ML: It really is a kind of mutual footprint...
KB: Exactly! That’s a good definition —something mutually borrowed from one another— and a concept that interests me enormously. There’s no negative push on the one hand and positive pull on the other, on the contrary, one makes a footprint on the other and vice-versa.
ML: In the Cibrian exhibition, you show a work entitled Four your eyes only, a new version of a work you had previously shown in Pivô, in São Paulo. The two share the same title, but they are nevertheless very different from one another.
KB: Both are like recorders. In the first version, a piece of fabric was simply laid on the roof of the building in Pivô, in São Paulo, for almost a year. The sun beat down on the cloth and on the ground beneath the cloth. In San Sebastián, that cloth has been cut in two and will have the shape of an angle. The angle is the coming together between the horizontal and the vertical, and perhaps that is the theme of the exhibition in Cibrian: the angle as a crossroads between geographies, directions, which are always, moreover, the edge of a space. When I discovered the gallery space, I saw that there were many angles. They are intersecting stars, and I like that very much, because the genealogy of the space is impossible to immediately understand as it follows a logic behind our time. Each angle tells part of a story, a contact with a neighbour, male or female, and I like that very much. The other piece in the exhibition is also an angle, but in aluminium. Again it has gone to Albaola, to the sea, to be immersed in the water, impregnated, tempered, for a few months. When it comes out of the water an inscription will appear on the material.
ML: I get the impression that since you have come to work at Albaola, your reflection on the angle and edges has evolved, insofar as the sea, the Ocean, has no edges, only a bottom. And perhaps this opens a new reading or focus of your work, with the idea of navigating an expanse where there can be no echoes, or edges...
KB: No edges, no vis-à-vis... Well, there may be none for us, but for the other species that live in the sea, situations of vis-à-vis and even the existence of edges undoubtedly occur. But for us, human beings, it’s true that if you imagine a voyage on board a whaling ship between the Basque Country and Canada, there would be neither edges nor vis-à-vis of any kind. And I find that projection magnificent. In Italian there is a term I think is lovely, “annacquato”, which means to dilute, and to lose one’s concentration, to blend in with the contours of life. While these are situations that interest me, they clash with my deepest interest: finding the right shape. I love sculpting and it’s the only thing I’m interested in, that edge. And I think that the meaning lies precisely in that contradiction.
ML: As you say, vis-à-vis actually exists in the marine environment: whales can see thanks to their inner ear. That’s another central element of the exhibition, an object that fascinates you, a little bone of scarcely fifteen centimetres, which acts like a radar.
KB: That’s right, it’s a radar. And once again, it functions by associating the horizontal with the vertical until finding a balance. It takes place in the ear, in that element resembling a little shell.
ML: So here we are at the door to your workshop.
KB: Yes, let’s go in and continue inside.
ML: And in fact there’s an echo in here now!
KB: Ha ha, yes, you’re right! There will also be one in the gallery space.
ML: In the centre of the gallery, you’ll place a sculpture taking its inspiration from that bone in the whale’s inner ear. However, the centre you identify is not necessarily what we may traditionally consider as the centre of the gallery space.
KB: Yes, because I thought that I should follow that idea of echolocation and ask myself what was the true centre of the gallery space. I cut out the gallery plan and, using a needle, set about finding the centre of the cut-out, the place where the sheet of paper was perfectly balanced on the point of the needle. And the centre identified with this gesture is a point not in the centre of the exhibition space, but inside the storage space, right next to the place you go into it. That’s how the decision was taken, so now I leave you to adjust and to live with that decision for the duration of the exhibition. (Laughter). It think it’s lovely that we are talking yet again about an edge. But, of course, it’s a suggestion, not an obligation. It’s the same as with Albaola. You’re free to say no.
ML: Of course it interests us. It prompts us to see and live with the gallery space in a different way. And to a certain extent, it’s also what you’ve also done with the outside of the gallery, its environment, the district. You invite us to see it and to live it differently through the photographs you’ve taken in the area around the gallery.
KB: While walking, Gregorio, you and me, in the streets around the gallery, we have learned to exchange our perceptions of the district. I had the camera with me all the time as we strolled, and I have decided to choose one photograph taken during that session for the exhibition, or perhaps two. The other photographs come from another place, another time, a moment at the start of summer, in Italy, in Pompei. But that was just after having spent some time in San Sebastián, and I was still carrying the mark of that stay in San Sebastián. That’s why they have their place in the exhibition.
ML: That reminds me of the role you gave the artists you requested for your exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations and the publication you created there. You called them foreign correspondents. Those figures, like those of the passer-by, the passers-by, run across your artistic universe.
KB: Yes, it is very important for me, even if I am enormously interested in the peculiar characteristics of the place, if I draw a lot from it, for an outside aspect to figure too: and particularly the passer-by, the stroller, the foreigner, embody that outward appearance. That’s where I find myself right now, in the desire to bring aspects from elsewhere, from the outside to a place where I believe that a meeting is possible. I want to create openings.