RAIZVANGUARDA launches its Artist in Residency Spotlight Series. Over the coming months we will be interviewing the wide range of artists who attend our residency programme giving you insight into the individual and the work they produce. Today we shine the light on our previous artist in residence Jessica Ostrowicz, installation based artist from Dresden, Germany.
As a young female artist, do you agree to be called this? Or do you prefer to simply be called ‘an artist’?
I used to be very opposed to being called a female artist, because I was under the impression that people would read feminine or feminism into everything I make. Feminism can often be used as a dirty word, or at least interpreted as such. In fact, I used to try to work in a way that I considered more masculine, because often there is a difference between the way men work and the way women work. I think it wasn’t until within the last few months that I stopped caring. Art that is forced loses something of its integrity, and the language built up between artist and medium doesn’t work so fluidly. I often like to think of artworks with a similar status to the artist or viewer, although perhaps it is more a language than a person. But in any case, as sensual and sexual as art is and can be, it certainly isn’t gender specific. But that in itself is a much wider topic of conversation, and one that doesn’t really have anything to do with my practice. To answer your question most simply, I much prefer the term artist, but I won’t refer to myself by that term until I finish studying.
Throughout history, many female artists’ work often has not been as well acknowledged as that of men. How do you feel about it living in the 21st century in Europe? How is it to be in the art scene as a woman?
There are several themes to address here… The first is one that I won’t dwell on for long, and that is the fact that you have asked specifically about being a female artist In Europe. I can’t speak on behalf of other parts of the world, but I am fairly sure the experiences of female artists differ hugely according to culture. In many ways women working in the arts in Europe are very lucky. We can make whatever we want. I won’t say that we can do this without being judged, but great art will never exist without criticism, even if it’s to the tune of critical acclaim. The aforementioned ‘problem’ of femininity and feminism is perhaps one struggle. We are artists making art, not female artists making feminine art and male artists making masculine art. At least, not necessarily. But in the grand scheme of things it is still harder for women than for men. Women remain hugely under-represented. In 2014 only 14.42% of solo shows in 28 of London’s leading public galleries were by women. This isn’t particularly a sexist issue, but it is an issue. I think one of the main problems is that further along the line in artists’ careers, the individual artist requires support structures. For some reason, women do not have these in place as well as men.
On a more personal level, I have experienced sexism on numerous occasions. I think one side of this is that I work in installation, and therefore one side of my work is manual building. I have had fellow (male) artists stand over me and watch what I am doing as if expecting me to need help or advice. The thing is that often I can’t install my work alone, and it would be idiotic for me to try. But I ask for help because the installation of large scale work requires a team, not because I am incapable in some way. I always try to assemble my work with people who work as a team and are willing to listen to my instruction and vision, rather than with people who think they are helping out ‘the woman’, rather than the artist and project leader. On three occasions I have been told by male artists that I will never be successful because at some point my maternal hormones will kick in, and when I act upon it my male colleagues will get ahead. There are very few things that make me more angry, especially as someone ambitious. But I have learned that sometimes I just have to work even harder than they do. And to politely ‘extend my middle right hand digit and say “would you like a lemon and lime with that mister?»’
Jessica, on your website there are the words: ‘From the moment of birth we are a product of something: a product of our family, a product of our culture, of our education, of our choices, the paths we traverse, the people with whom we come into contact…’ So what are you a product of? Please name some of the most significant people of events that have influenced your development as an artist.
I am a product of almost everything I have come into contact with. Even if I have chosen against some of the things that have crossed my path, those decisions have changed who I could have been and pushed me into another direction, or kept me on a track that I was given the opportunity to leave. Potential is a fascinating thing… People throw around the word freedom all too easily, but if you think of one possible definition, it is someone who is without contingencies. I’m not sure if this is possible. In fact, I’m sure it’s not.
One conversation that has stuck in my head was with a painting professor five years ago. She said ‘Once you have said something, you’ve said it, it’s out there. You can’t take it back’. Given that I work with language, this was simple and useful advice. Some of the themes that I deal with in my work are extremely personal, and I have learned to speak about them without speaking about them. But I address them in the language that I can best speak, and that is the visual language which I have developed. To the viewer, this makes these themes abstract. That’s the beauty of art. Some people won’t be able to get close to the real meaning, some people will be able to respond to it whilst not knowing why it has been made or what my intentions are, and some will understand. I say a lot with my work, I am a conceptual artist, but I layer everything behind a heavy gauze. And so it should be. If I wanted to be completely vulnerable I would walk naked through the street reciting my life story. Although that’s probably already been done.
Do your usually have personal stories behind your art works?
I draw inspiration from personal experience because I know myself and I can speak sincerely about my own thoughts and my own experiences. But a large part of my work addresses thoughts I have about what I think art is. I discuss my views on what I believe to be an inconsistent triad between artist, artwork and viewer, and directly confront the spectator and their gaze, speaking in the first person from the perspective of the artwork.
Birds. Millions of birds in your last artworks, painted, drawn or cut out. Why is the symbol of the bird do important to you lately?
To understand the image of the bird, you first have to look down to the bottom of my work. The birds usually mutate into spiders. Why? Because some people believe that chaos and freedom and the same, and some people believe that freedom and chaos are different. I have had a number of people very close to me over the last few years say that they need to be free, and this has often occurred during instances that have terrified me. The symbol of the bird is associated with freedom, however I repeat it so many times that it becomes chaotic to the point of abstraction, and then I pull spiders out of them, a symbol that for me, as always been something nightmarish. However I always find ways of constructing the chaos, so that actually what at first appears abstract is something formed from a careful structure. I’m not sure why yet, I guess that is why I continue to work with this theme. Perhaps I am trying to find reason in chaos.
You use different materials: oil and chalk, ink, plastic, special paper. How do you choose the material that you work with?
I used to be a very proud painter. I tried to make paint work for every exploration of my concept. This doesn’t work. There’s a point at which paint wasn’t adequate for me, and wasn’t the best way of transmitting what I wasn’t to say. I do still paint, but only when it makes sense. I guess that the common theme with the materials I choose is that they are almost exclusively white (except paint obviously, although the paintings invariably always come out in a shade of pale), and I also work with materials that allow transparency. I think the viewer to be involved in the work, rather than a removed spectator. When the work is transparent, the viewer lends their moving shadow to the experience of the work had by the person on the other side of it, and vice versa. I also think that an artist shouldn’t hide behind their work. I guess the transparency is something of a metaphor for the veil that my art often is between myself and the viewer.
You’ve said that you like to be inspired by the space in which you find yourself, and to build something accordingly. Did the location of our residency have some influence on your work?
It influenced the way in which I made my work. The place was extremely peaceful and open, to a point where time no longer seemed like an issue. It was extended, but not dull, just long and accommodating. Some of my installation work follows a very repetitive process. I sometimes liken the process of artists to Sisyphos; repeated working and minimal satisfaction at the end. Masturbating with no finish. This is the thing that drives us to continue making and to make something better. I comment on this behaviour by working with repetition. “Work makes freedom(?)” In my atelier, this kind of work is exhausting, but at the residency I was able to get into a sort of zen head space, whereby the repetitive actions brought me peacefully into a space of quiet meditative contemplation. This actually brought my productivity levels up.
What is more exciting for you: the process of creation or the result and public presentation?
Exciting isn’t a word I would use for any of those stages. Each of the stages are equally important. An artist who doesn’t make art to be seen isn’t an artist, they’re a self-help therapist. The process of creation is something I often describe as being in love. Sometimes it’s magical, it’s a high like no other, sometimes it gives energy, sometimes it takes energy, sometimes you want to abandon it, sometimes you just don’t care, sometimes you are miserable. But the rush you get when it goes well! I guess that is something akin to exciting. The result doesn’t exist for me; I don’t tend to finish. I reach a point where I have to stop. More often than not, stopping is just as deflating a feeling as it sounds. It’s the end of the relationship. There is no great climax or applause, just a ceasing of making. The next stage, the exhibiting, is terrifying. One of the reasons I make art is for this rush. But it’s like tightrope walking. There is such a fine line between excitement and fear. Yes, everyone is looking, which can be exhilarating. But how are they looking? What does their gaze say? Do they feel moved? Do they even care? The gaze of people who do not know that they are looking at the result or the end of a period of torrid love and work, can be very cold. But I predominantly with installation. I haven’t exhibited a painting for over a year. Seeing the pieces I have built come together in a space to form the final work can be, well, exciting.