Interview with Diane Victor
Folly, Frailty and Fear is a new body of work. Where does it come from, what do you want to say with it? What is the driving force behind it?
This body of work comes from a number of different places – the bulk of the work came about from the show that should have happened last year (In Praise of Folly - 2020), but which due to Covid 19 and the follies of our world, was postponed.
The driving force initially was my interest in Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam’s text (In praise of folly, 1511, and Das Narrenschiff or ‘Ship of fools’ written by Sebastian Brandt in 1498) and the way each author approached satire. Erasmus, for example, used his satirical writings as a way of being critical of the powers that existed at the time, when it was rather dangerous to speak out against accepted opinions and to say things that were not considered correct. Many people were executed for incorrect opinions – which meant that one had to couch criticism very carefully so as not to be seen to be dessenting.
I was interested in Erasmus’ use of humor and satire to expose injustice – something that I have worked with and that has always been an element in my work. This was the approach in the first body of work that was to be the earlier edition of this exhibition.
Then, over the extended period of lockdown – different bodies of work started to materialize – depending on the different materials I was experimenting with. I have always been someone who like to play around with different surfaces, and did so in sandstone, smoke, and chalkboard, among other materials. As a lecturer, my teaching online made use of the Blackboard digital programme - and this led me to experiment drawing on analogue old-school style blackboards. I was thinking about learning processes, calculations and miscaulations, all the while reflecting on the things we seem to have not learned as a society, as a species and as individuals. All the lessons are out there but we never seem to learn, but keep repeating our mistakes.
This section was conceived as an experimental body of work in a new medium for me. As the 2021 show drew closer, I went back to the original body of work and reworked aspects and themes of these. So there are a number of different departures – linked together by the use of satire in most of works, as a way to reflect like a mirror towards ourselves and the society we live in, showing the global folly that affects our world.
Frailty and Fear are part of our daily existence as humans. Frailty, like the vulnerability that has affected me physically in my own body as the effects of kidney medication eats away at the bone structure, is part of my reality. The frailty is reflected within society and when we realize how vulnerable we are, and how easily one unexpected viral infection can paralize the world – quite literally.
Fear comes with the frailty;globally people are afraid of illness, death and the results of the pandemic. Previously I would not have worked that much with the concept of fear of illness, but rather more within the South African context, of violence. The themes of violence in our society, violence against women and the fear that constantly permeates the lives of many women, be it in their homes, using public transport or out in society still rear their heads in this body of work. Sometimes unfounded and sometimes real, fear is about how one negotiates the world around us.
The final show reflects on my own folly, and the folly of those around us (not specifically pointing a finger at individuals,but making note of the folly that engulfs us). This work is not made with the intention of political cartooning or caricaturing and cannot be seen as purely political satire, but has more of a societal critique in its reflection. The work hopes to reflect on society in a slightly lighter way - this society where we seem never to learn from our mistakes.
Erasmus was writing at a the time not that long after Europe had been devastated by the black plague – Europe was constantly wracked with political conflict and petty wars. The chances of getting old in that time were rather slim and commenting on your king or the church put your life at risk. Erasmus dedicated ‘In praise of folly’ to his good friend Sir Thomas More who himself was later executed by Henry VIII for views in conflict with those of the state
We live in more privileged times by comparison…
Thematically you deal with the underbelly of contemporary society. Is your focus mostly on the vulnerable and disadvantaged? Is this approach the reason why your work translates through fragile and ephemeral media such as ash and smoke?
The majority of works on this exhibition are not ash and smoke – I have worked with those materials before as I was interested in their properties of fragility and ephemerality. This new body of work reflects on the vulnerable, but also on power relations, as well as every day people who are neither overly wealthy nor powerful and as such are discriminated against. The work also reflects on the stupidity observed in our everyday existence. The daily stupidity that gets posted on social media, the obsessions we have with ourselves, in a society where the illusion of reality and pretense is of high importance, is drawn in focus. The work is less directed at inequality in society, but is more of an attempt to reflect on the stupidity that affects us all if we allow it.
I have returned to more traditional drawing mediums like charcoal and ink while having a chance to experiment again with stone lithography. Litho stones are rather heavy, physical objects (the limestone used to produce ‘taken for a ride’ weighs a few hundred kilograms. The physicality of drawing on stone is interesting and contrasts with the fragility of the lightly drawn mark on the heaviness of the stone.
Your bold confrontation of difficult topics is often subliminal – almost masked by the beauty of your sublime mark making. Do you consider this a strategy to draw the viewer to the actual context?
I have found from experience that difficult subject matter is often more easily accessible and approached by the viewer when partly camouflaged through a visual aesthetic, a technical component that pulls the viewer into the work. I find this a more effective strategy than blunt, or overly aggressive images that tend to elicit a knee-jerk reaction and limit the multiple readings that attempt to transcend the didactic statement of criticism.
I am interested in how a visual aesthetic can allow ambiguity into the readings of a work and how the process and the medium hopefully invite other unexpected readings.
Do you see yourself as a satirist, commentator, facilitator, prophet or critic when confronting these rather problematic themes?
None of the above, but some may indeed apply. When approaching work the intention for me is not to fufill a particular niche but hopefully to reflect the honest intention of reacting to a situation in a considered and critical way. I am often triggered by a strong emotional reaction to a situation and this is translated more visually than verbally; it is not a reconsidered position but hopefully a self-reflective response to a situation. My work is not easily characterised and therefore I wish to avoid labeling my work or having it labelled in a particular way.
Where do you find your inspiration and how does it relate to the end product?
I respond to the world in which we live, our immediate interactions; the news,switching on the radio, the internet, talking to people and just being in one’s own space. The Covid lockdown over this past year allowed more time to reflect and think through one’s own position on life. I respond to the environment in which I live mediated through a combination of inputs – whether it is news coming from the United States, China or the Middle East or via the housing estate down the road. I think we are all actually living in our own heads rather than in a real world. There is an amazing similarity in peoples views and perceptions despite living in different parts of the world. People are the same – their fears and frailties, and their stupidity that effects their decisions.
You are constantly busy with technical innovation, developing different media from a previously explored media.
- From classical lithography to using the stone as medium to draw on
- From etching to large scale embossed etching
- From ink drawings to splash drawings
- smoke drawings to smoke drawings on glass (church windows) and printed on fabric
- ash drawings
- blackboard drawings
Please explain what leads you to such innovation
My interest in different mediums comes from various sources, partly from working with students for many years where you are constantly looking at ways to help them move out of their own comfort zones by exploring new materials and techniques. But in attempting to encourage others to question the materials they work with,you need to do so yourself,you can’t preach what you don’t practice. It is in this exploration that innovative approaches present themselves.
The demands of printmaking requires that one becomes a constant problem solver and these problem-solving abilities are conducive to developing alternative approaches. This is less obvious in traditional drawing – there you solve problems formally with composition and mark making. With printmaking you sometimes have to reinvent the wheel and the printing press to try an solve a problem.
Developing an interest in new materials also comes from a sense of play. Much of my drawing is, despite the fact that its subject matter may be serious, often quite playful. The way I draw is through a sense of play with a lightness and flexibility that I find imperative in drawing. There is the need for lightness in the way one interacts with a drawing and often I do a lot of drawing on the floor – the same as when we were children. With smoke drawing, however, lightness becomes very important due to the physicality of moving with the material to deposit candle smoke on a surface quickly enough for it not to set fire to the paper.
What is your working style?
- Obsessive, nighttime working, passionate?
- Working on different projects simultaneously?
- Spending time at different homes, travelling nationally and globally?
- Why and how?
My approach to work depends on how tired I am and how far away the deadline is. Unfortunately I tend to work better under pressure, which is somewhat detrimental to the work and my physical wellbeing. The sharp focus needed in my own decision-making is aided by external pressure of time, given too many options, my mind tends to overcomplicate matters and works become too complex or even illustratrive.
I tend to work best when I am tired because then can I focus on the work and less on the world around me or what is in my head. I work at various studios driving between cities and thus have to be able to adapt to different working environments from my rural studio in a relatively quiet Midrand to the hustle and bustle and noise of the inner city in August House in downtown Johannesburg.
In light of the above, where do you find the time to clear your mind, digest concepts and allow the muse in?
I enjoy running, horse riding and hiking when I get the time. I prefer to be active outdoors where one has to be in the now and focus on what’s really around you and how your body is responding when riding a horse or running. While engaging in these activities, one can’t think of other things or you are going to land up get hurt. I am also an obsessive reader and can slip into a written life in another world, only to come back and proceed with drawing. Music is another great escape as are audio books.
You often state that as an artist you only want to create. How does this approach fit in with your business model (marketing, admin, pricing etc.)?
I am not a good example of a multi-tasker preferring to fully focus on one thing at a time. When I am working, I am working and tend to let everything else slip and the world carries on without me. Although I am able to work long hours and for weeks at what I am obsessed with, I am bad at doing things I do not like, such as admin and writing. This of course is a bit of a self destructive pattern resulting in things not getting done but ignored.
What do you consider your seminal works after a successful career of more than 35 years?
This is difficult to answer off the cuff. The best place to look is at publications such as the ‘Taxi book’ and ‘Burning the Candle at Both Ends’, where I sat down with others and selected works, considered valuable and worth recording. I tend to be immersed in the work that I am doing in the now and when I look at previous work, I see things that could have been made or drawn better but that cannot be remedied, so I do not dwell on these but learn the lessons to apply to current work.
I am interested in producing work that responds to a specific location or space with particular histories. Often the environment is an integral part of the work itself. The smoke drawings of animals made for the installation in the old Hall’s Abattoir in Nelspruit and the ‘14 stations’ installation of women killed by their spouses, at the Aardklop festival a few years ago are examples of where the environment completed the meaning of the work. Sometimes there are ongoing bodies of work that need to be made. The series ‘Disasters of Peace’ is an open ended series of images that I have no choice but to make as the images (mostly gathered from news and radio reports) grate in my head – they need to be drawn in order for me to process them.
You seldom use colour. Why have you decided on drawing and printmaking, rather than formal painting?
I am not a colourist, I work intuitively with line and mark. It is a vocabulary that seems to make more sense to me. When working in colour I find myself too dependent on the object itself and trying to get it correct which takes away from the expressive quality of the work.
I haven experimented by working in colour, my interest in colour was in its visually seductive nature. On a residency in Vienna I was intrigued by displays at the KHM [kunshistories museum] which seems to hold an inordinate collection of exceptionally violent paintings in its collection. Rather than being repulsed, crowds of people that included mothers and children would come to stand and marvel at the works, seemingly oblivious to the violent subject matter. The colour and technical virtuosity appeared to affect their ability to read the images. I preferred my technical ability with mark and form to do this for me. I do believe that colour use is an intuitive thing and I don’t use colour in an inventive way - so I abandoned it in favour of strong monochromatic works instead.
Click HERE to watch Diane in her Studio at August House, Johannesburg.