Interview November 1st at Zarah Café, Gulou
KL: I’ll get you to introduce yourself first and then I’ll ask you specific questions.
LT: I’m Elisabeth Tomlinson and I’m from upstate New York originally. I’ve been living in Beijing for two and a half years now. I moved here to teach high school art at Tsinghua international school and then I just left that position to start studying at CAFA (The Central Academy of Fine Art) in August and I’ll be there for a year.
KL: What has your experience at CAFA been? Is it a positive experience? I’ve known people who have worked there but no one who has studied there.
LT: My specific experience has been beyond my expectations. I keep thinking that I’ll most likely look back on this year and see it as a major transition point for my artwork. But then it’s a very uncomfortable thing daily. One, because my Chinese is functional but not casually conversational and all of my classmates don't speak English so if I really need to communicate I can but there is no easy conversation about art or anything else. two, because I’ve been really challenged in my art making. I’m studying figure sculpture which I’ve been studying for quite some time but from a Western, Classical perspective that is about anatomy and structure and symmetry and all of the rules and details of the figure. But my professor, Shang Xiao Feng, he's an abstract artist so his approach to the figure is almost funny, the things that he tells me is the complete opposite of what I've learned and studied and what previous mentors or professors have taught me. It's a complete reversal of what I think I know. I've learned over the last few months to throw it out and just go for it and see what comes out by the end of this year. If you looked at a current work/previous work comparison it’s very, very different. In the style, the approach to the figure – same subject, completely different approach. That’s been surprising. It’s been humbling but very educational for me. It’s been a very positive experience.
KL: As far as changing from the classical to the abstract, have the materials that you’re working in changed as well? Are there different processes involved?
LT: That, I think, is maybe what was difficult at first and still is kinda difficult at times is that everything is the same. The process is the same, the techniques is the same – I’m using clay sculptures then casting in plaster then you can take the mould and cast in bronze or wax or anything but, right now, I’m casting in plaster and that’s what I was doing before I moved to China and my undergraduate was in pottery and ceramics so that’s all with clay and glaze and firing. I’m very familiar with the material and I thought I was familiar with the subject so everything is consistent except the ideas behind it. What my hands are capable of doing is technically the same but the theoretical backing is opposite.
KL: Does it offer you more freedom, do you feel, or are there more constraints?
LT: I would say, there’s definitely more freedom because one thing I’ve been learning is, if I’m not excited in the process, then you can tell in the final product. The piece itself shows a lack of engagement with the process. Before I was almost academically studying the anatomy of the figure and not using it necessarily expressively or gesturally. This is not that. This is based on the movement of the sculptor then trying to understand and mimic the movement of the figure, of the model. Instead of trying to capture the surface, the musculature, the curves, the specific anatomy –that's what I would call the surface of it – but rather capturing the essence of it, the core movement of the figure. It definitely frees me up to, not only work more quickly which changes the aesthetic in general but also changes the process. Also, I would tell any artist, if you can, go study in another country because the more you’re exposed to different ideas or approaches the more freedom you have to pick and choose and mix and match and decide what you identify with and how you want to work. Again, I think I’ll look back on this year and think, that was the turning point of forgetting what you think you know and maybe I won't be making work exactly like this but at least I have a wider pool to pull from.
KL: I always get a picture in my mind of sculpture classes (specifically the Lionel Richie music video for Hello) of students sitting in a room working on their pieces and obviously you are restricted in what communication you can have with others so when you’re learning art is that somewhat exacerbated or simplified by the fact that you are able to physically watch their process and see the art that they are creating? Do you feel like you are missing out on a lot because of the language barrier?
LT: I think that there are definitely things that are missed, in terms of just camaraderie in the studio. I do think that, as an artist, it's important to have community and conversation so, yeah, that is a drawback but I think it's interesting that you say that because if I think about it I do think that there are some benefits. I've found myself, for one thing, focussing more. I'm there, I'm surrounded by people. I have company but also it's laborious to communicate so I focus more on my work. We're all in a ring around the model and every single day sculpt for four hours, that's my day-to-day – and my professor comes three or four days of the week but he will come later and do a lecture for an hour or two so I feel like I have learned from just seeing what they are doing every single day. We're all sculpting the same thing so I can identify, are they hitting it or are they not? Do I see what they're seeing or do I not? It's just me looking, it's not me talking to them and asking, do you think you've hit it or not? Do you think you’ve captured it or not? I’m just taking in the visual information that’s there so maybe there is something special that I’m learning from that. When my professor does a demonstration, when he does lectures, sometimes he’ll forget to translate to me so I have to gather the information that I can. But there are some times when he doesn't need to reiterate what he is doing because I am picking up the essence of it and I can see what he’s doing. Sometimes I can see him take someone’s sculpture and I can see the transformation and I can see why there’s a difference so there is a lot of visual learning that goes on because I can’t talk and maybe that is an opportunity that would be lost if I was constantly conversing with my classmates.
KL: In a materials-based art form, do you find that it provides limitations? Compared with painters who can easily and cheaply buy canvas and acrylics, they can store them easily, move them easily, reproduce them at low cost and easily recoup any money they have spent. Do you find with the requirements of sculpture – needing more studio space etc – effects your experience as an artist in China? Does CAFA fulfil all of your requirements or is it something that you think you’d like to continue to do at night while listening to Lionel Richie?
LT: That is definitely a challenge. Not just because I live in China but for any sculptor, because the equipment is expensive. With ceramics you need a kiln, you need a whole studio, you can't set up an easel on your deck. You need a studio and that's very expensive. With this specific medium, there's not a lot of equipment but it's the space thing so I have sculptures in boxes in my mum's basement back in upstate New York and that's not exactly a fun thing to know. I know when I leave China I will leave my sculptures behind unless I choose specific ones that I want to ship. Then the cost alone and they will likely be broken by the time they get there. That is definitely an added challenge for sculptors and it really just necessitates things like residencies and fellowships where you basically get to piggyback on someone else's studio. Even moving several times from apartment to apartment, with bodies of work that I’ve created in Beijing, you have to make a decision, this thing that I’ve spent 40, 50, 60 hours on, do I want to keep it or not. I think, I actually love the process of making, of sculpting specifically, especially with clay but then the actual end product I’m not as attached. So losing the artwork doesn’t always feel like a loss to me. It’s not that hard for me to let them go.
KL: I’m getting this picture of every time you tell your friends that you are going to move house, the vultures start circling.
LT: I don't know how many people would want nude figures in their home.
KL: I would love a house full of nude figures. Anyone who wouldn’t is crazy.
LT: Well, next time I move I’ll call you up.
KL: I’ll make some space. As much as you love the process, let’s move on to the actual artworks. The work that you sent me, the earlier work is much more classical but… tell me about the rats.
LT: That was a body of work that I created the year right before I moved to Beijing. I was in a year-long residency in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was, again, studying the figure and that body of work came from, I haven't talked about it in a little while… the core idea of that was – honest self-reflection. When I view someone else I view them outside of myself so I view them objectively but when I view myself there are constant excuses and reasons why – I know I was grumpy that day and that's why… I know that I had this happen and that's why… - I wouldn't do that for someone else necessarily. In that way, we have a constant blind spot for ourselves. And no matter how self-reflective you might be, my basic query was, can you ever see yourself objectively? And if you could take your “self” outside of yourself and look at it objectively, what would it look like, and then how would you interact with it? If I could disembody myself and meet myself what would I look like, what form would I take and then how would I react or interact with that thing? So, that was the rat. Each figure interacts at a different level of intimacy so one is holding it away, one is holding it in their mouth, one is sexually caressing it, it's like this evolution or escalation of interaction with this out of body thing. I maybe instinctually went to animals in general but then I went to a rat because there are very few people, unless they have a pet rat, who will respond positively to rats but it isn't necessarily about fear either because the rat itself is a very small and pretty innocent animal and the way I sculpted it is in this pure white porcelain that is very idealised in a way which, in itself, is like taking something and purifying it or taking something and adding another dimension of representing it in a material that doesn't quite make sense. It’s contrasting material to their nature.
KL: You’re used to seeing, particularly, the female figure in that glossy white perfectly…
LT: Right, I didn't want to say that if I could see myself, I am a rat because the work isn't about self-loathing or about self-glorification, it's about both. Maybe it would be an idealised rat that came out? It's a loaded thing in that it would be complicated to be able to view yourself objectively, truly objectively without any blind spots. Then the final figure, which was the full-scale one with the rat head, was sort of a resignation to that blind spot. You see the woman holding the rat, interacting with the rat in all different ways and then understanding that those blind spots will always exist. That, those dark corners, or those positive aspects of yourself that you are unable to recognise will always elude your understanding. That declarative statement – I am the rat and the rat is me.
KL: It's a lovely piece. When you are doing more classical style sculpture where you've just described such a strong, linear, coherent narrative compared to the other work you have sent me where it is much more about expression, movement, and energy in the pieces, do you find that when you are working to a theme or trying to create pieces that are trying to have a certain meaning (or do they no longer have meaning), you said you felt more freedom but do you find that when they become more expressive in that way, they become less expressive in intent?
LT: That’s a really good question and I think that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. I keep coming back and forth because in some ways the actual aesthetic of my classically trained figures, I find rather stiff and I think I’ve always wanted to master the anatomy and then break the rules but I got stuck on mastering the anatomy and now I’m being forced to break the rules. I think what I am ultimately interested in doing is to bring the two things together. So aesthetically this loose gestural understanding is where I want to be. Thematically, having more of a narrative, a story to tell or a message, not necessarily a political message is the goal. Something that I love when I view work is the understanding that there is an emotional quality to it and when you dig deeper there is more and more and more to it. Complex layers of understanding but the immediate impression is an emotional impression whether that is just awe because the technical skill is so overwhelming or because there is clearly some narrative of joy or pain or agony or anything that can impact an emotion. When I see work like that I'm like, yes this work has nailed it and then they have really nailed it if the technique is there and the visual understanding is there and the aesthetics are there and there are layers on layers on layers of understanding that I want to talk to them and understand. I think that's obviously, for me, the goal. That would be a masterpiece in my opinion. I do think that right now I'm studying the form so when I discuss and when I think about it I'm thinking about the aesthetics, the form, the approach and I'm completely neglecting any sort of theme or idea. Right now, So, you are right that right now I'm neglecting one to focus on the other but I think before I was focusing on one and neglecting the other and so ultimately I think that they'll come together. I couldn't forever neglect the ideas behind it but I also think, no matter how good your idea is, if I can't see it in the work and I don't have a response to the work then no one cares. So, I do think that me focussing so much on the ideas behind the work and then just trying to perfectly master the technical skill was not enough and so I'm happy to have this departure from that and an aesthetic shift and a shift in my approach to the figure. I think bringing all of those things together will ultimately be the right recipe for good work.
KL: How have you gone engaging with the creative community in Beijing? Is that something that has been easy? Has CAFA facilitated that to some extent or do you find that it is hard to find like-minded people in a natural way that doesn’t feel like you’re artists speed-dating or something?
LT: I have connected somewhat but CAFA definitely facilitates it more because my day-to-day every day is around artists. The last two years it was a different dynamic because I was teaching full time which is a very different thing to being a working sculptor but then I would be sculpting in the evenings every day after work. That's very isolating, just me in the studio. This past year I've had a couple of exhibitions and there is a really awesome community here in Beijing and I think the longer I'm here the more I get what's going on and know where all the spaces are. This first year I was here I had a good friend who had been here for six years and she just swept me into it and that was awesome so there've been some opportunities and Beijing is a cool place for the arts. I would say, I definitely wish I was more involved because I kind of touch in and touch out and I wouldn’t say that I have a big network of friends within the art community but there have been some opportunities that have come up that I think are very specific to Beijing. Someone at my stage in the US would have a very different experience in terms of gallery shows. It’s a constant hustle and you’re just doing group show after group show where you send in one piece and it’s a very different thing whereas when I showed last May, I sent in a proposal to a gallery and they were like, sure! Then I was like, okay! I know this other artist can we do a dual show and they say, sure! There are some more open opportunities, which is exciting.
KL: Did you find the gallery shows satisfying? Not just on an artistic level but in your interactions with gallery spaces.
LT: That’s also very different because there is a certain gallery culture in general that has to do with the aesthetic of the space or the treatment of the space. When I exhibited last May I had sculptural works and they hadn’t exhibited sculptural works in that space before. They had only done 2-dimensional work so it was clear that they didn't know how to treat sculptural work so a few of my pieces were broken. There have been some pitfalls and it is, I think, a growing or maturing gallery culture and ultimately it's not that having a white box gallery is the ideal thing so I'm not saying they have to perfect that. But, the fact is, for the gallery I dealt with, that they hadn't quite figured out how to deal with curating work, with dealing with artists in a gallery setting and also the treatment of the work itself. I think that's probably something that they'll mature into, though and that was also just with this one space so I'm not making a broad judgment.
KL: What is your plan for the future? More China?
LT: After I’m finished with this programme, right now I’m sending out all kinds of graduate school applications so we’ll see where I end up but that’s the plan to attend grad school for an MFA.
Following a degree in arts education and ceramic sculpture from Roberts Wesleyan College in New York, Elisabeth completed a year as a resident artist before moving abroad. Her time in China has been spent working as an arts educator in both academic and nonprofit settings, living as a n international artist in residence, and studying sculpture at China's Central Academy of Fine Art. Most recently she is the founder and director of international arts nonprofit, Artists Abroad.
Her recent bodies of work, be it in America or China, in two dimensions or three, have a common theme of critical self examination. The work is a blunt questioning of self and an attempt to make direct eye-contact with an illusive confession. The question, however, is put to the audience as the work is displayed. It is no longer her narrative but the narrative of the viewer. The work then questions their self and pulls out their confession.