Soft and Weighted: an interview with Antje Barke

Antje Barke speaks to Becky Hemus about her current exhibition Seven Islands at RM Gallery.

Date 22 August 2021 Interview Becky Hemus Imagery Courtesy of the artist

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Becky Hemus: Let’s start by speaking to how the exhibition came about.  

Antje Barke: The exhibition was born out of a collection of photographs I took when I was in Canada in 2017 with my partner [at the time]. We were visiting his family, he was reconnecting to them and finding his roots. I think in many ways I was really disconnected from a lot of the experiences we had. I found myself in key moments photographing really abstract, periphery spaces. I’ve been thinking about these photographs for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to dive into something so personal and inaccessible. 

This exhibition formally explores that feeling of projecting onto peripheral spaces in a romantic way. 

Do you often feel like that in life as well? 

Yeah, I think so. I don’t really let people know that usually. This is a strange exhibition for me because what I have given the viewer is—

 —it’s quite sparse. 

Quite sparse! It’s quiet and subtle, but for me, there’s also a lot of intimacy. This perhaps comes across in the relationships between objects, or how I’ve engaged with those objects, but I think it also reflects how I move through the world—with a dissociative relationship to things. I’m drawn into structural forms and pay so much attention to what is going on outside my immediate space.

So when you were on this trip, you were going around photographing piles of gravel.

Yes, for no apparent reason other than because they kept grabbing my attention. It seemed to be a way of deflecting, something to focus on and to disassociate from my surrounds. 

And the people you were with knew that you were specifically looking for gravel piles?

They caught onto it. They began to realise, ‘Oh, you’re not photographing the beautiful scenery.’

Or the people.

Yeah, or ‘us’ in these moments.

I think it sprang from being aware of the history of voyeurism in photography as a visitor, and the power that you hold as someone with a camera. Wielding that in moments that were beautiful and stunning and intense, and would have been incredible to capture, felt unfair. 

You have a sense of removal when you decide you’re going to be the photographer and not be engaged [with the action], and you’re going to document people having intimate moments with each other.

Sometimes I feel like you remember a moment a lot more when you really hone in on something. Rather than trying to capture the whole moment, if you tether it to a really specific memory then it’s absorbed into the wider event. 

Absolutely. For example, [when I took] the bigger photo we were sitting in a carpark on the way to my partner’s uncle’s house who he hadn’t seen in 10 years. It was his mum’s closest brother, but she hadn’t seen him in a really long time either. It ended up being the last time they saw each other as he was dying from lung cancer. 

I wanted to be present, but it didn’t seem right to photograph them in that context. At the same time I had this innate wanting to be busy and let them have space. The photographs were my form of busying myself. I then had this amazing collection of images that were really hard for me to process. They were bound up in such a personal experience that no one else would get from looking at those photos.

 

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

The exhibition stemmed from a residency you did earlier at RM, is that right?

When I was doing the residency I would be here really late at night. The gallery is situated at the end of quite a dead space down this long alleyway and you feel very by yourself. There’s also a lot of construction work going on in the area, the Karangahape Road train station is being built, so you have to go through a maze with lots of potholes. I was walking one day and saw this specific style of sandbag that I’d never seen before with a hole in the centre and text on it printed in a certain way. It was quite early on [in the exhibition process] but I knew the sandbag was something that I wanted to make. There were also a lot of vacant store windows in Tāmaki Makaurau that I noticed as I would walk home, where the windows had been whitened out. There are windows and frames in the installation that draw on this blankness.

The exhibition was made in six weeks. I was really strict with myself as I didn’t have time to really research or read, so I had to work from intuition and trust my processes. It allowed for a vulnerability that wouldn’t usually be present. Through being open-ended, I removed all the structural and formal qualities that you would usually expect in a work like this, that you might expect within my practice. 

When I previously used text I would align it to critical theory, but in this case the exhibition was so grounded in my own experience as a source material. In some ways I think it’s a form of autotheory, a feminist position that is usually found in multimedia work. It’s this idea of allowing complete transparency and vulnerability and failure to come through, which in itself challenges the hegemonic structure of how things are supposed to be, incomplete; and what is valid and what is not valid. I’ve been really interested in the ideas of Lyn Hejinian for a long time, a poet/feminist writer who talks about being completely open-ended as a subversive tool for challenging structure, both literally and politically.

And do you feel like being able to let go comes from having all this knowledge that frees you up at a certain point?

At a certain point, yes. On the other hand I think having that knowledge can cause a lot of internal conflict…it can make you freeze as well. It was an amazing exercise to feel like I had no choice but to just do something rather than questioning, making rather than thinking. It’s quite liberating actually. But it’s a funny one.

I’ve always had a very feminist standpoint in my practice. I’m interested in subversion, utilising materials that sit within a masculine or industrial realm and carry inherent power dynamics through their structure. I’m often working with steel and sections of buildings or photographing construction sites—my presence in these spaces changes things.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

I feel like the sandbags are some of the most connecting things in the exhibition. They are these weighty, grounded objects that are hard to disassociate from.

A sandbag carries much more weight than it suggests, so there’s a lot of innate poetic discourse. It’s this small object that looks so plush and soft, but you can’t easily pick it up. These ones are a bit more resolved than a classic grungy one that you’d see on the side of the road. They are also layered with text—nothing is obvious but they have a lot of poetic weight.

I made them in an ad hoc way, as I wanted to recreate industrial processes as much as possible. It was interesting, trying to make something look perfect that is often made in factories in very imperfect and careless ways. I had to learn the ropes and then unlearn them. 

To apply the text, I made a stencil and attempted to airbrush them consistently. There are places where this bleeds onto the surface, which ironically mirrors the messiness of factory processes. 

Can you talk more about the text that is on the sandbags?

The text is taken from a series of emails that someone from that time in Canada sent me afterward. 

When I received these emails, they were really light and warm. The photos [they sent] were of similar piles of dirt and gravel, or snow (in the case of the one I exhibited), to the ones I’d taken, but they had a sudden warmth that I didn’t attribute to my own. It’s interesting how different people view the same moments, because that wasn’t how I found the trip to be. It was beautiful but intense.  

These emails were almost an ironic misuse of technology, there was no content, it was just the subject line with a different photo connected to each one. 

Very mum and dad style.

Yeah totally, but together the emails made this beautiful poem. 

The lines were: “bonne fête”, which is happy birthday (sent to me on my birthday, a beautiful birthday present for me!); “Sept-Isles”, one of the towns we went to that translates to “Seven Islands” and where the title of the exhibition came from; “where I walk every day; snowbank in springtime very dirty;” then the last one was “good day and lots of love.”

How many years later did they send these to you?

They sent me the emails in 2020 during the lockdown, which is also interesting in hindsight because it connects to different moments of isolation. I felt quite isolated in Canada as it was such an intense situation and I was so far from home. There were a lot of personal things happening at the time for my partner, and for myself, that I ended up having to process later, [particularly] through working on this exhibition.  

They’re very covert in the way that you’ve presented them. It’s hard to read the writing, and because it looks like basic identifier information that would be on sandbags anyway, the viewer wouldn’t necessarily even try to read what was there.  

Yeah, totally, because they have numbers and JPEG file names and dates that look like the SKU numbers you would find on industrial sandbags. I think it would have been less successful if the same text had been handwritten, or if my feelings were written on the sandbags. It would have been so overt. 

Do you feel like when you include these really personal elements that are not patent to someone who walks into the exhibition, then in some ways it’s a cathartic thing for you? It adds something to the work, but it resolves it from the back end more than anything.

Yeah, it was a healing thing for me. 

I couldn’t quite find the words that didn’t feel like I was spelling out someone else’s experience or someone else’s narrative, or even my own, in ways that weren’t intensely vulnerable. These emails felt the perfect format to do that because they had details that could be hidden within the design.

I came to the realisation when I was looking through images that I was interested in the alignment between poetic narrative and structural form, but that realistically you can put any suggestion of a narrative on these images and it doesn’t matter what it is for the viewer, they’re going to think it’s fiction or nonfiction or add their own index of experiences. It’s a very Felix Gonzalez-Torres approach to things, you know? [Laughs.] I found this quite freeing because it meant that I could be as overtly personal, or not personal, as I wanted and I didn’t have to give it all away to the viewer. For my navigation of this subject in particular, it’s an approach I found could be quite liberating. I think it’s complicated with work that is personal. I’ve never been comfortable with it because you feel like, why will the viewer care?

Because someone has probably had a grain of the same experience. And if you can relate to that, then you can relate to the whole artwork so much more because something about it is exactly the same. Even if it’s one feeling to one person.

Coming from the school of conceptual art, having gone to art school, needing to have a solid, critical logic for everything—I’ve always wanted to do something that feels important. I like to apply a postmodernist approach of deconstructing things, subjectivity comes with that. But then there’s this facet of postmodernism where you are aware of the critique, and the idea of being about nothing is not good enough. You need to situate yourself in a certain politic. And so I’ve found that I’ve never [before] let myself be very vulnerable or self-reflexive in my work. 

It’s interesting that you say that. I feel like in the last few years there has been a social turn where personal things have become entwined with the political. It used to be that celebrities and pop stars wouldn’t be encouraged to share their political position, but it’s become a lot more important for people now to know where you stand on things.

And to be transparent.

In the last couple of years I’ve come to the realisation that if you’re going to have a position then you need to be self-aware of your own place within the structures that surround it, so as not to reinforce hegemonic power, the status quo. I really like a text by Rey Chow called “Postmodern Automatons” that talks about this, critiquing the subjectivity of white feminism. I think it reflects that need for being located and having a clear, self-aware position. 

For me, transparency and vulnerability are really big for allowing me to be self-reflective, and for the sensitivity with how I approach the work. But how do you do that with my work, where it’s so structural and so abstract and non-emotive? This project has been an exercise of learning how to be vulnerable with emotional things.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.

Antje Barke, Seven Islands. Installation view, RM Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau, August 2021.