Born in Chicago and living and working in London since 2001, Joan Edlis explores the gravitational relationship between the sun and the earth through a series of enthralling drawings, diagrams, objects and sound installations. Her current exhibition – The Grey Line Project: The Line of Twilight– is on display at Sandra Higgins’s Gallery Petit until Friday.
1883 caught up with Joan in the lovely setting of her studio flat to talk about her latest work, the earliest memory of art making and to know where the interest in astronomy comes from.
A couple of questions to break the ice; what’s your earliest memory of art making? And when did you decide to become an artist?
My first memory of art making is me using a shoe box to realise a miniature architectural space. I put it outside in the garden and thought about how people would move around inside the space; the box was internally divided up into spaces to walk through – if you were a miniature person of course.
To answer your second question, I was having a walk around Kensington when I came across a building with some sculptures out front; it was the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Entering, the woman at the reception invited me to look around, then afterwards, asked me if I were an artist. I did not answer directly but proffered my photographs. She took my portfolio, went upstairs and brought down a fellow who asked me if I were interested in joining the RBS. That made me realize I actually could be an artist.
If you had to name a few artists who inspire you, who would these be?
The first name that comes to my mind is Richard Tuttle. I felt the almost physical shock of truth when I saw his work for the first time; it still astounds me that something so simple and small asserts itself with the strength and validity of a mathematical theorem. The artists of arte povera – Jannis Kounellis and Guiseppe Penone in particular – also validate my interests through their use of materials and simple daily actions. I also admire Joseph Cornell’s private language which is completely coherent only to himself, but consistently so.
How would you describe your creative process?
Bruce Nauman’s statement Pay Attention probably sums up my practice: I pay attention to the physical and material world surrounding us with all its awe-inspiring beauty. This concern for the world obviously implies an involvement in the human body and itsimpossible-to-mechanize abilities to read under starlight yet glance at the sun, to hear the slightest sound and the loudest, to sense minute differences in tactile pressures or temperatures.
My works are triggered by either something I see, something I find or something I read. My reading is narrow and deep; when something I’m reading grabs my attention I carefully save it in what I like to call “the pot on my back burner”. Among the writings that inspired me is an article I read in 1987 about Grand Central Station in New York by Anthony Hiss, who has an astonishing ability to both perceive and articulate what he senses in a particular place. Another example is the biography of Erno Goldfinger, an Hungarian-born modernist architect who also practiced in London. He wrote many essays; one of the most interesting concerns the spatial experience in relation to architecture.
Bruce Nauman’s Acoustic Pressure Piece also made its mark on me; I saw it at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and it made me understand that what most interests me is to have direct and immediate physical experiences, rather than mediated ones generated by computers or other devices simulation.
Where does your interest for astronomy come from?
Astronomy as such is not a particular passion, but the way it helps to understand how things work in the universe fascinates me. The body of work featured in the exhibition evolved out of two different proposals, the first created for the ArtAngel Open, 2006, and the second for a residency in Texas.
The ArtAngel proposal came out an experience I had at my farm house in Indiana, when I saw a swarm of fireflies rising up out of a 22 hectare field of maize. At that point I’d lived in London for about 5 years and the vision made me wonder how wonderful it would be to bring the depths of summer to the depths of winter, transposing August to December by having the fireflies flash and sparkle at mid-afternoon dusk in a London winter. It was during my research into this project that I first stumbled upon certain astronomical observations: the longest day of the year is not the day the sun rises earliest, nor the day the sun sets latest; in London after the winter solstice, daylight returns at an extraordinary rate – over 3 minutes a day increase in daylight. And after the Summer solstice, the days shorten by mere seconds, but at an ever increasing rate. All this information went into my pot on the back burner.
A proposal for an artist residency in Texas made me think about the differences of latitude between Texas and London, and thus daylight. I started to research daylight, sun activity, sun spots, and then met a ham radio operator/builder. We started to collaborate on the project for Texas and he built for me a radio receiver sensitive to 30Hz-100Hz, well below the threshold of human hearing, but which would pick up radio frequencies bouncing within layers of the ionosphere, including the crackly static sounds of lightening from potentially 1000 km distance. At this point I discovered the Grey Line and all my previous twilight research connected together.
On the press release there is a quote concerning German Romanticism; I wondered, what do you think your art practice has in common with the Romantic movement?
The concept of Sublime is a direct link for me, although I am less interested in its frightening aspect than I am in the simple fact that we live in a marvellous world, if we would only pay attention to it. Its strong relationship to nature, the infinite and the concept of landscape also is a point of commonality.
Your art practice deals with the concept of “landscape” and “body”; would you better clarify these relationships?
This is the most difficult question. I believe that my interest in the concept of landscape has its roots in the practice of Erno Goldfinger, who recognized the immersive quality inherent in architecture – a quality it shares with nature itself. Moving through the landscape, the body indeed proves itself as a point of reference – we measure the world with the body, we experience the world through the body.
Referring back to what Bill Viola wrote in his Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House,I think what I am doing with my current exhibition is to use intellect and analysis as a jumping off point to create works that must be inhabited by and experienced through the body; though based on statistics, numbers, charts and graphs, my works are extremely sensual, tactile, visually rich and evocative.
Your work clearly involves multiple senses; in your opinion, whichof the three primary senses – sight, touch and hearing – is the most “useful”, if you like, to fully appreciate and understand your art?
For me the sense of touch is the most important one as it is both direct and tangible – it also relates to sound as sound is a pressure wave and we feel it in all parts of our bodies. This also goes back to my occupation with “direct” instead of “mediated” experience; I prefer to subordinate the sense of sight to other senses, privileging the tactile, the auditory, the sensual.
Joan Edlis – The Grey Line Project: The Line of Twilight will be on display until July 13th at Gallery Petit, 46 Harcourt Terrace, Apt. 3, London SW10 9JR. Tel: + 44 (0) 207 244 7194; Mobile: +44 (0) 7721 741 107.
All images are courtesy of Aristotle Lui photographer.
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari