Interview with Rebecca Gilbert

July 19th 2010

Interview with Rebecca Gilbert

In my penultimate interview for Art/Value/Currency, I had just one question for Rebecca Gilbert. Discussed over beers and snacks, with a few fabulous digressions, here are the results of our evening…

IS: What four questions would you hope I would ask you, and what would your answers be?


Q1: Where do you like to work? And why?

I feel constrained in the studio. In many ways the studio is a sterile environment that is hidden from the final outcome. The studio is where messes are made and some of my best naps are had. I make my charcoal drawings at the studio and use gesso there, but otherwise I really do prefer to work from my apartment or in public places, like gathering field recordings at the beach. Because I appropriate much of my media and I use myself in my videos and sound pieces, I like the comfort that being home allows me to surf the web and record my voice or make video.

A few years ago I created a photographic catalogue-type inventory of my mother’s humble heirlooms that she’s saved from her mother and that I was fascinated by as a kid. These photographs are what I submitted to Art/Value/Currency. I used my parents’ house lamps, rather than professional lights, to photograph the items.  I liked the warm pink light of a home and how that was conveyed in the photographs. After that time it became clear to me that working from home was more than just a comfort and a convenience, but that the home encouraged my ideas and the home adds to my process by allowing me to utilize a space that I feel really close to. Much of my work revolves around communication and especially how reproduction can bridge the gap between something original and my personal inexperience with it. I feel like the home, or wherever someone feels most comfortable, is a place where we don’t try to experience anything, we are just as we ought to be. Plus, I have a much nicer bathroom at my apartment.

Q2: You make charcoal drawings, photographs, videos, and you work with recorded voice and sound installation— all of these mediums also seem to range a variety of subject matter as well. With a multi-disciplinary practice, how do you determine what medium matches a particular subject matter versus another?

The basic answer would be that if the subject of a piece is the sound of a lake paired with the sound of my voice, then I suppose making a sound installation would be the best medium rather than a painting. If I’m using found video footage of a rock star singing, then I suppose video would be my medium of choice. I like to stay true to the original subject, because in many ways, the rock star (Jim Morrison) is not the subject, but rather my interaction with the footage is the actual subject.

In terms of video, I made a 24-hour long video of a photograph of Bernini’s sculpture “Apollo and Daphne”. Placing the photograph, found in a textbook, beside my bedroom window I zoomed in on the photo and let the camera record for the full day, only using natural light. The video functions like a still painting. Because it’s 24 hours in duration the image shifts from complete blackness to that of a crisp marble sculpture emerging from the TV screen.  As the video progresses with the time of day, the sculpture returns back to darkness. It’s a very simple video, but is difficult to explain how it looks. That video was important for me because I have never seen a Bernini sculpture in person, and I wanted to make a video that was about the image of the sculpture rather than the object itself. The light and dark from the sun and moon passing over its photographic surface was almost the essence of my entire relationship to Bernini’s work… just a flat lifeless page from a book. I was interested in serenading the mass-produced stock photo of an incredible object of desire. This piece needed to be video because that was the only way to embody the passing of time while re-representing the photograph at the same time.

However, after making that video, the simple visual of light and dark became something I wanted to continue in my practice in a different, more tactile, way. Light and dark, in terms of drawing, is defined by charcoal and paper. There is nothing complicated about a charcoal drawing, and I feel that it compliments the technical complexities of video and time-based work. I use charcoal for what it does best: to cover and obscure. The choice of medium is an artifact of my intentions for the work.  By covering photographs and by making silhouette drawings of art historical sculptures, I can quickly and directly embellish and acknowledge the flat surface I have always associated with looking at reproduced imagery. Most of my knowledge about three-dimensional things, everything from Italian Sculpture to Humpback Whales, has come from stock photography. The act of drawing on these surfaces–that have mediated so much of my experience of the world—becomes both a cathartic and reflective act.

Charcoal became the physical and messy surrogate for what light and dark, sun and moon, high and low, provide for me in my video and sound work.

Q3: When you first moved to New York you were making work about your mother. What made you make the switch from a private history to a more public history, such as with your Jim Morrison videos?

I don’t feel I’ve stopped making any particular work or that I’ve switched from one mode to another. I’m a young artist and I certainly feel like I’m just getting my feet wet and learning to balance out all the ideas I want to work with. When I began packing my things to move from Chicago to New York I began working on the piece that I mentioned earlier, involving the various things my mother had collected or saved. The objects themselves were empty vessels that housed great meaning for her, and for me as well, but to the outside world they were merely photographed knick-knacks. It’s a generic but profound experience, the one you have when looking at family photos, not just nostalgia, but wonder…whose vase was that? Was my mom’s mom into that kind of jewelry, or was it merely a gift? Photographing these objects inspired a growing interest in discovering what my mother was like before I was born. Asking my mother, or looking at her things, isn’t really enough to answer that question. We can only access answers to this question through the medium of reproduction and memory, both of which are flawed and mutable.

Having never been to Rome to see a sculpture by Bernini, and only knowing his work via photographs, created a very similar feeling to that of sifting through my mother’s possessions. Those “private histories” manifested into experiences I have had with public or well-known people, places, and things. Watching a whale go up for air, all you see is a sliver of a huge animal that you can never really see or know. I can hold my mother’s white enamel pitcher, from her family’s past, but it doesn’t really connect me to her past, only to the selected and rehearsed stories that she chooses to share.

These indirect experiences that everyone has–such as watching a whale partially surface, seeing beautiful sculptures via textbooks and google image searches, and listening to famous love songs written about people we will never know–these are similar to the private family histories that we inherit. Having a crush on Jim Morrison (despite him being dead and way out of my league) evokes the same feeling as creating the catalogue of my mother’s possessions, it is the sense of having a bond to something you can never really touch or loving someone you can never completely understand.

Q4: You made a 2 channel sound piece where one speaker is a recording of a whale and the other speaker is your voice mimicking the whale’s drones as well as you harmonizing with the whale. That piece, along with other videos and sound installations, can be seen as both silly and serious. How do you draw the line between being serious and being silly, and sometimes being both?

I’m happy that when brainstorming this question together, we chose the word “silly”. Humor is crucial—in life, in general. I feel embarrassed a good chunk of the time. Being human can be embarrassing, and art is sometimes way too embarrassing. For me, irony is not an option; I’m a slapstick kind of gal. I don’t want to make fun of whales or make wry commentary about the art world. I’d rather make fun of myself, even if while talking about something important to me. Ultimately I don’t make art looking for laughs, but I’m really happy when I get a chuckle. That whale piece gives listeners, myself included, the awkward giggles….should I be laughing? Does she know how weird she sounds? … I’m happy that I can make people laugh while trying to sound like a whale, but as the listener sits with the piece longer, there is a bittersweet understanding that there is a huge intelligent animal out in the sea that no one can communicate with, no matter how we might try.

I think that physical humor fits in well with my work. I don’t pull Charlie Chaplin stunts, but the physicality is in the fact that I use my body and that I don’t have the control of a trained actor, singer or dancer. I’m just a young lady making art. Though I’m not outrageous, I still think the subtle presence of my body or my voice is relatable to viewers. Making animal sounds, or harmonizing with Jim Morrison, or using body language to talk about desperation, can be just enough to get a little laugh and then hopefully… a sigh. In all my work, I’d say that poetry would be the offset to humor and that the “sigh” from the viewer would be of sympathy or understanding toward another more sobering sentiment.

Some of my work, especially my photos and drawings, are not remotely silly, and that’s okay too. I don’t draw a line or sort out what piece needs to be a little silly and what should be serious—that sounds like a torturous procedure. However, when I use my voice or my body, I find that I can’t help but utilize some of my natural given awkwardness to dive deeper into my feelings on a subject. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I’m serious about what I do.