Deborah Rundle in conversation with Daniel John Corbett Sanders

On My Volcano Grows the Grass is a solo exhibition by Deborah Rundle at Parasite in Auckland. Here, Parasite curator Daniel John Corbett Sanders speaks to artist Deborah Rundle about her artworks in the show and wider artistic practice.

Date 12 September 2021 Interview Daniel John Corbett Sanders Imagery Supplied

Deborah Rundle, From the Inside, 2021, turned wood: chair and table legs, balustrading.

Daniel John Corbett Sanders: On My Volcano Grows the Grass is exhibited at Parasite, a gallery occupying the staircase of my boyfriend and my house on Karangahape Road. The gallery emerged in this format largely in response to the unaffordability of rent in the area, and in response to the encroaching new wave of gentrification on the street. This setting creates an interesting tension between occupier and occupied, domestic and public, gallery and home. Stepping away from the traditional gallery model, do you think Parasite’s context influenced the work you exhibited in this exhibition?

Deborah Rundle: Yes, the location of Parasite and the dual role of the space, with its multiple thresholds and returns, were factors in the framing of the exhibition. I wanted to explore ideas around inside and outside, and desire as a generative force. The title On My Volcano Grows the Grass is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. I was drawn to the idea of the volcano as metaphor, but also as its own sovereign self, with periods of activity and dormancy and a fiery force deep within. I learned that Dickinson was rumoured to have had a secret long-term love affair with her sister-in-law. I wanted to build on this idea of concealing and containing—the subterranean within.

I found the personal narratives behind your works in On My Volcano Grows the Grass to be vulnerable and moving. An old poem resurfaced, a homage to queer romance in Barcelona, a pilgrimage to inspect traces of geological upheaval in Greece with friends, an obsessive collection of table and chair legs you fought to not be used as kindling, saving a skink that had tragically made artificial grass its home. There’s something very queer about the freedom expressed in your lifestyle and stories, and I’m reminded of movies such as Anne Trister [directed by Leá Pool]. These are stories I am privileged to know about having worked closely with you installing the show. What role does the personal play in your work? Do you mind sharing some of these stories with us?

When it makes an appearance in my work, the personal is expressed through the concept of the ‘personal is political.’ I’m not so interested in personal narrative. Whilst my values and lived experiences do inform my thinking, they also have a bearing on the types of materials I work with, most of which are scavenged or salvaged. The chair and table legs, for example, were collected on drive-bys of inorganic rubbish collections—an activity I regularly undertook with my partner late into the night, before the Council shifted to the more sanitised method of running shops at the dump. They seldom save the kind of treasure I am interested in. The roll of artificial grass in Loss has been saved from an earlier project, the skink emerging when I unfurled it. I learned about the process of autotomy, or jettisoning body parts when frightened. It was an easy link for me to make to the parts of myself that I have lost to fear or conformity.

Deborah Rundle, Loss, 2021, artificial grass, photograph.

Deborah Rundle, I’ll Be Your Mirror, 2021, cardboard box, mirror ball and motor, spotlight, vinyl text.

Your use of text extends out of a history of conceptual writing as critique. You use text and language to often challenge master narratives and hold the contemporary accountable to itself. Halfway up the gallery is a rotating disco ball suspended within a brown cardboard box and reflecting the sentence I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR. For me, the work extends from the dance floors of Karangahape Road’s gay bars, now rife with misogyny and transphobia, and invites us to introspectively reflect on how we might be constructing our identities in relation to the problematics of these venues and their fragmented histories. How is I’ll Be Your Mirror positioned as a site of reflection and projection for you?

The use of a mirror ball at Parasite is indeed a direct engagement with the role of the dance floor in queer history. Underground clubs across the world have acted as safe places for queer people to express desire, mix, flirt, and form liaisons and community for a night. These have been sites for the development of codes of recognition and where we can perform ourselves. Some years back I was a regular attendee at Gay and Lesbian Clubs, especially the KG (Karangahape Girls) Club, which in one iteration, operated out of a commercial building on Dacre St, just off Upper Queen St.

I think of I’ll Be Your Mirror as a hopeful work that acknowledges the generative and reflective potential of the body engaged in dance. The personal pronouns in the phrase, “I’ll be Your Mirror” act as shifters, in that ‘I’ll’ and ‘Your’ shift with use. We are each other’s you and the question becomes, are we each other’s mirror, a place we can look to in order to see ourselves? Implied is also an invitation to engage in critical reflection alongside celebration and recognition.

“I’m not so interested in personal narrative. Whilst my values and lived experiences do inform my thinking, they also have a bearing on the types of materials I work with, most of which are scavenged or salvaged.” — Deborah Rundle

Deborah Rundle, Speculum, 2021, glass mirror, sandblasted glass magnifying mirror.

Deborah Rundle, Oh, Oh, 2021, MDF, backlit LED.

Conceptualism in its tradition is described as a mirror, one that tends not to direct its reception. The play on words in your work Speculum, a magnifying mirror etched with the word ‘Speculum’ and framed with a domestic mirror, proposes the image (as I encounter myself in the mirror) as confined as it is invasive, interior as much as exterior, holding a position as much as an opposition. What does it say about me? Following this thinking, artists such as Mary Kelly and Vanessa Place have described conceptualism as feminism. How do you situate your text-based practice as a practice of feminism?

The indexical function of the reflected image is explored in this work. It is used as an investigative strategy. It’s a bit of a play on the Lacanian theory of the ‘mirror stage’ in which Lacan asserts the importance of the mirror in the formation of subjectivity. The reflected image is first seen as an ‘other’ or object outside of the self (in a sense, the child is itself the ‘other’) and then of the self for whom the term ‘I’ can now be used. The theory being: fragmented and undifferentiated from the whole, identity shifts to a unified, singular subjectivity. Or does it? The mirror may be conduit for the formation of a centred self, but within reflection is a mere notion of self, forming and reforming while filtered through the dominant paradigm.

Placed on the household mirror is a small magnifying mirror—the type used for self-scrutiny whilst on the hunt for blemishes and maverick facial hair. Sandblasted on its surface is the word SPECULUM. Its origins are Latin, simply meaning ‘mirror’, which itself originates from ‘specere’, to look. But of course, it has another meaning, that of an instrument inserted into an orifice to facilitate interior inspection. So perhaps the work invites a deeper form of self-inspection, so that we might shift from surface to substance, from looking to doing. In that sense, it can be seen as sitting within a feminist conversation, where ideas of a feminine ideal are still at play in both a sense of self and of self-worth. In a more general way my text based work, whilst not a direct expression of feminism, is always informed by a politics of considering the machinations of power.

Deborah Rundle, Sweet Pepper (detail), 2021, glass chandelier teardrops, adhesive vinyl text.

Deborah Rundle, Tephra, 2021, lava bombs.

Lastly, in your nostalgic poem Sweet Pepper there’s a word that raised some eyebrows. What is your relationship to this word, and why do you think people might be shocked by it?

The poem contains the line, ‘smell of your cunt’, followed by ‘teased my nose / rust pepper / tang again / in my mouth’. Cunt, in this context is a positive term. However, it’s also a ‘four-letter word’, more frequently used in gendered vitriol. The forthright language is quite confrontational, especially when combined with the overhead line of vulvate chandelier teardrops. I use the word in a matter of fact, but also tender and sensuous way, as a past lover is brought forward in time through the olfactory sense.

Within the exhibition, it is the work that I feel the most exposed by. It is declarative and I take the risk of it being viewed negatively. But in the end, I decided I was committed to it, as it felt congruent with a theme of desire. It also brings notions of sexuality to play in a layered way. In that sense, it moves across the personal and the political and brings them into conversation. I hadn’t quite factored on the multiple postings on Instagram though!

Deborah Rundle, Sweet Pepper (detail), 2021, glass chandelier teardrops, adhesive vinyl text.

Deborah Rundle, On My Volcano Grows the Grass, Parasite, 23 July–8 August 2021.