Interview with Anna Zagala

Anna Zagala: I'm sitting here in Brianna's studio with Brianna. It’s an overcast, summers day, and it's been about a month since So remember the liquid ground, has closed at Post Office Projects in Port Adelaide. So, at this juncture, the one month point after the exhibition’s closure, we've come together to have this conversation about that exhibition, and the works on display. I thought I would start by asking you, Brianna, how this exhibition even came about and how was it that you got the opportunity to show [at POP].

Brianna Speight: POP is a volunteer/curator run gallery and they put out a regular call for exhibition expressions of interest. I was coming off the back of my British School at Rome Residency in 2022, and really wanted to lock in a show where I could build on my ideas, make new work and present it. So I put in a proposal. That's kind of where it started.

AZ: How much time did you have to prepare for the exhibition?

BS: It was about a year. 

AZ: That's a significant length of time.

BS: Yeah. It was great amount of lead in time for a solo show. During that time, I’d lined up a residency at George Street Studios to learn new skills in metal work which tied into the proposal for the exhibition. I wanted to explore photography and sculpture, and work through alternative ways to present ideas I've been working with.

AZ: Working with photography, and sculpture and introducing metal work sounds daunting. [laughs]

BS: You know, when I'm making the photos, there's always this kind of scene that I'm building, this space of play, and you're in relation to objects working with lighting, depth of field and the shutter speed to compose the photo. I really wanted to extend the relationship with the materials I'm working with and think about how to draw out some of those aspects into the [gallery] space for people to engage with. But I didn't want to just take objects from the photos and have them in the room because it feels like it somehow compromises part of the magic or illusion of the images.

AZ: My first impression of your work is how much it reminds me of schlock horror and 70s and 80s TV. There’s a real sense of Jim Henson, a sense of something very imaginative and a little feral. How do you go about that process of making your work? You describe it as prop-making and set building. What is it that is guiding your decisions around making and what goes into that scene?

BS: In building the scene, there's a concept I’m working with. In this project I was really interested in the history of drainage in the southeast. It used to be mostly wetlands, and there's just been this kind of mess of ecocide there. I really wanted to connect a relationship between our body and these water systems. I spent some time in the Southeast photographing drainage sites. I laid those images onto material fabrics, which is what you can see behind you there [Brianna gestures to the hanging fabric behind Anna]. That became the backdrop for the set. I'm conscious of the kinds of materials used in photographs, I love soft and luminous surfaces because they can evoke bodily skin-like feelings and create movement or tension. Then I photograph myself with a timer or collaborate with performers, to create an interaction between the body and material that turns into these strange theatrical interactions. The gestures of the body, and what they elicit is important too, for example in one work, I was thinking about protective postures and showed this with a body curled up and the back turned towards the viewer.

AZ: That’s remarkable thinking about theatricality, not just being in terms of setting but also in terms of the human form.  The history of theatre and the human body on stage is about gesture. What was it that drew you to this idea of evoking a sense of protection?

BS: I guess it relates to ecological issues. And it wasn't that this idea of protection was a central theme in the work, it was just something that emerged as I was exploring how different gestures could convey feelings related to loss of biodiversity, and the sadness of that. Also, I started working with clay last year just as a fun side project. And that crept into the exhibition. I made these little pink millipedes into spiral shapes as they curl up when they're protecting themselves. When I visited a saltlake in the southeast, there were all these dead millipedes frozen in pink salt. And I guess that's where they first came into the project, and I started making these little pink millipedes curled into protective spirals.

AZ: It's almost like the realm of the uncanny, the thin line between protection and death. The curled millipede can be a dead millipede or in a protective state. It's got a shimmering quality that life has, a sort of sadness or something.

BS: I kind of lean into that.

AZ: What's interesting for me is that this project is born of that feeling of concern, even states of sadness, but the work itself is really playful. There is an element of tremendous imagination that's generative rather than, simple disquiet. It's got a sense of possibility.

BS: Thank you. That's a generous reflection. The project indeed stems from a sense of wanting things to be better and starting with that concern allows me to work and think through various emotions. Something that kind of came through the work for me was a sense of wonder in the cycles of life and the kind of iterative nature of things. In that, I felt a sense of possibility and optimism. As part of the project, I started speaking to ecologists working in wetland restoration and it was really interesting hearing about their efforts to re-wet the land in the Southeast. So there’s a mix of this concern, a sense of material play to explore emotions and a desire for a more hopeful future.

AZ: Thinking back to that moment where you're at George Street studio, and you're embarking on this investigation of photography and of sculptural form. What did that look like for you? And how much time did you set aside to sort of explore different possibilities? And how did you know when you maybe arrived somewhere.

BS: The George Street residency started in January and the show was scheduled for November which felt like a short amount of time to learn how to work with metal and present resolved work! I experimented a lot and tried to create a manageable scope for myself in the metal studio. I started working with thin metal rod I could twist and weld. I built structures that were light and I really love the line aspect of this thin metal rod [picking up an twisted object nearby]. It can bend quite easily. I started experimenting with ways that this could interact with the photos. It felt like it was like a first date or something [laughter] like I was making like this over here, then making this over here and thinking about how can –

[in unison] bring them together.

BS: I printed photos on aluminium and experimented with cutting shapes in the photos, but they felt too precious. Having gone through this intense process of staging and performing I decided I didn't want to disrupt them too much. So I started considering how the thin metal rod could work as cradles for the photos or as sculptures on their own, alongside the [photographic] work. There was some degree of success in the exhibition as to how they could work together. But it was very much something new for me and something that I'm still exploring now.

AZ: Integrating them even more.

BS: Yeah, I will keep working on this, it feels exciting. It was at times a challenge working between George Street Studios and developing a photo series, simultaneously. They felt kind of separate. But through that process of exhibiting, it's enabled me to practice intensely and explore how the two processes can be more closely connected and how audiences interact with the work.

AZ: The form is very evocative of root systems, or biomorphic forms. Tell me, what is that surface treatment?

BS: It’s polyurethane rubber with green colour pigment added.

AZ: It feels like quite bodily. Mucousy

BS: Yes! phlegmy.

AZ: Can I ask you about that? The sense of the body in your work? The environmental aspect is really upfront. You can feel that when you're in the presence of the works. What is it about uncontained, fleshy, and seeping body that appeals to you?

BS: Yeah, I just feel affected by it. To go back to the earlier question about the forms of the sculptural works. They come from maps of the drainage system, a pretty extensive drainage system that takes lots of water out to sea. It’s controversial because while it means farmers can farm their land it has also had this devastating impact on the ecosystem and water table. I drew from the topographical map of the drains, which looks like it could be a root system, and then translated them into 3D forms. I was considering how we're not separate from nature, but a part of it, and how this removal of water has impacted our lives. I imagined this in terms of sickness, and that's where I landed on the funny, disgusting phlegm. I was also inspired by reading Bodies of Water [by Astrida Neimanis] who talks about how all our waters are connected. I first encountered Neimanis’s work through Rosi Braidotti’s text Posthuman Feminism, which has also been a touchstone for me in developing this work.

AZ: That really comes through. It sounds like reading is important. Do you use it as a starting point or something you return to? What is the role of texts for you?

BS: Reading is really important to me, and texts play a big role in developing my concepts for a project. Philosophical texts help to unravel ideas and break down complex topics. This kind of really helps with mapping a contextual framework or position to approach making. And then you think with that while you’re making.

AZ: Kind of an anchoring?

BS: Yeah. Absolutely. I think of texts and particular voices as anchoring points in my process.

AZ: Coming back to POP and your show. I thought it would be a nice place to finish to ask you to reflect on what the experience was like for you to install your work and then view it as an exhibition.

BS: It's exciting to consider people engaging with your work and ideas and equally daunting. But also it's fun to be in the exhibition space figuring out how to position works. I was asking How can people move around them? and How can they actually be installed? At POP the walls are comprised of various materials, so it was an install challenge in that sense. But yeah, then there was the fun of the materials and having little millipedes to play with. Also! Showing alongside Danny Reynolds was wonderful. During install we kept missing each other, but could see each other’s shows go up slowly, chatting over Instagram and asking about artwork placement. The day before the exhibition opened, we finally met in person, and it was really lovely. And we just basically talked about how stressful it was. [laughs]

This interview was supported by Post Office Projects in conjunction with my solo exhibition So remember the liquid ground (22 November – 16 December 2023) 

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