Abbye Churchill interviews Elizabeth Van Loan

Abbye Churchill

Artist Interview: Elizabeth Van Loan

For video artist Elizabeth Van Loan, art is a question of material existence. Not only in the subject matter of her work, but in the philosophical inquiry surrounding her practice. Her hauntingly stark videos bring vibrant focus to banal scenes from a air circulating through the windows to the jutting surprise of a fairground’s Pirate Ship. Through careful framing, Van Loan directs our gaze to the subtle beauty of the everyday, raising questions of endurance, materiality, the death drive and our endless seeking for beauty. Here, she speaks about her work.

I wanted to start by asking you about your sculptures. What originally had you interested in sculpture as a medium? 

Most of my ideas come in a three dimensional form. Objects show up in my mind. I started out working in ceramics in high school. I would draw some, too, but I mostly find drawing stressful.

Why is drawing stressful?

I’m not sure. I think the way I prefer to sketch is to contour drawing where it has to be one perfectly angled line to suggest everything. With drawing you can add and erase and add and erase and I find that stressful. I think it is because my grandfather was a painter and my mother taught me to paint when I was little and so I’ve been watched when I paint and I feel watched when I draw.

It’s interesting that you say that about the contour drawing because I would say you have an incredibly declarative, bold way of being. And I think your work is that way, too. It is exactly the thing it is. It is incredibly precise. You have a laser-guided idea of what something should be. So something like sketching is probably less enticing to you. In your practice currently you’re searching for something that already exists and is perfect in and of itself, which I think, can also be true for blind contour drawing. In drawing there’s always a disconnect between what we want our hand to do and what winds up happening. How you think about finding things in the world versus creating them.

I made sculpture for a long time but I was always really frustrated with it because I was always looking for something that’s exactly what it should be. And, I went from woodworking and bronze casting to mold making trying to get these precise, clean shapes. Essentializing and essentializing and essentializing and I finally just essentialized myself outside of the possibility for an object. When I moved to video and I could just record the movement of air, it was such a relief to be out from under the weight of sculpture. Of course, now I’m about to start making sculpture again.

How do you feel like the presence of the hand exists in your video work?

I’ve been told that my own presence is pretty clear because I frame things so carefully. Everything is exactly what I want it to be. And if it isn’t what I want it to be then I don’t keep it or show it. That’s just the same thing as the handcrafting. It is the catching of scenarios or a confluence of materials.

That’s interesting. I don’t ever think of you as being present in the video.

Oh, that’s nice. I don’t want to be or need to be. When I first started making video, the absence of my hand was a huge relief.

I can imagine. Especially if you’re taking about moving from ceramics, which is kind of the most one to one, hand effect to casting, where you’re steadily removing the presence of your hand. 

Yeah, it is something I talked about at the time, what a relief it was to try and get away from my hands and not being able to.

I think the way I sense your presence or your hand in your video work is through accumulation. It is only visible when I see your works in tandem with one another that you become really present because you have such a strong ideology in your work. Do you feel like the ideology of what you were searching for is the same when you were working in sculpture? Or do you feel that that has changed? 

I don’t know what it is or why, but it seems that whatever I do, I seem to hit the same note. I could sew bed sheets and they would be hopeful nihilist bed sheets. They would feel that way for some reason.

So, hopeful nihilist. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that is to you? 

Well, Stanford Biggers actually gave me that name. I don’t know if I would be so succinct. I think it is just meaninglessness without despair. It is the idea that the question of why are we here, why is this like this is beside the point. We are here, and it is nice. Just calm down.

Do you have any daily practices that you feel like helped you to achieve this point of view? What brought you to this point of view? 

I am a dyed in the wool skeptic. My mother wasn’t raised religious and my father was raised as a Catholic but he dropped it. My parents took my older siblings and I to a Presbyterian church until I was eight. I realized one day that the woman who was reading me the Bible story book actually believed it and I just got really freaked out. I chilled and I refused to go back. And that’s when my family stopped going to church. My parents didn’t believe in it; they were just there for the community. They thought kids should have it. And for some reason whenever I put my foot down––I’m the youngest––but whenever I put my foot down my family falls in line. They all wanted to get camping equipment one year for Christmas and I was 3 or 4 and I insisted that we shouldn’t do this because of the lions and bears and so they didn’t do it. I mean, they would’ve brought be camping and it would’ve been fine. They could’ve convinced me that there weren’t lions.

So you feel like your skepticism was inherent? 

I feel that I was born with it. My father is really pragmatic. And, then it has just been reading that’s slowly shaped me. Peter Pan and Kierkegaard and Barthelme and I just have sort of fallen in love with things that have given me more precision of expression. I think the nihilism––I was just born this way.

What’s the feeling that you get when you’re in the presence of your subject? I feel like with each of your videos––thinking about the windows and the pirate ship and the soccer field––there’s this isolating effect that happens where it feels like you’re entering into a tunnel. What is that experience like for you in the moment? 

The way I find subjects is by wandering with a heightened state of receptivity. When I find something the way it makes me feel is like when you’re walking down the street not paying attention and you don’t hear your name being called, you just react. It is like someone just takes you physically. When I’m riding my bike and I see something, I’m stopping before I know that I want to stop.

What part of your body is controlling you at that point?

I don’t know. I feel like the part of me that’s verbal is much slower then some other parts. It is definitely me leaving something up to my unconscious. I just go passive, wander and then when I find myself being pulled in a direction it is always what I’m looking for.

It is interesting that you’re talking about a submission to the unconscious or something that is not at the present level as a kind of way finding tool or mechanism to seek out subject matter. 

I can do it fully conscious, but it always feels hallow.

A lot of times when people talk about that kind of submission or guidance it is in the context of faith. 

I think I’m not looking for anything. I don’t need to have faith in anything. But I like the sensation of faith. I think it is possible to have the sensation of faith without putting that faith into anything. A lot of what I do whether I’m engaged with those ideas consciously or not turns up as having to do quite a lot with the death drive and the joy of obliteration.

I’m thinking specifically of the water book where that might be the case?

Yeah. That’s right where that is. That’s all that that book is about.

That’s an interesting work because it is also sublimely beautiful at the same time. Which again is a very historically faith-based religious expression. So I think your work tows the line between something that is faith seeking and nihilism. 

Well, it is faith without seeking. People think that to love you have to direct your love toward something. Or to have faith you have to have faith in something; you have to direct it. But, I guess people generally accept without context internally directed sweetness or self-love but having faith and faith in nothing is different than having faith in yourself. It is just sort of not looking. Faith is stopping the search.

Because it is intrinsic? 

I can’t talk about Christianity except through Kierkegaard because I don’t know that much about it except through Kierkegaard. But he says that if there’s not some contradiction if there isn’t something where your search for understanding will fail you then you don’t need faith. It takes a situation where your rational mind can’t reconcile something that faith comes into play. But for me, I don’t ever ask my conscious mind to reconcile anything, except as a pragmatic useful technique to being in the world. So it is like I have faith in everything. It is kind of a childish state.

Faith in everything but finding hopefulness in nothingness? 

Yeah! The hopefulness isn’t with any expectation. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen. It might be really painful or tragic. Dying and the process of death or some kind of Armageddon or the slow painful unspooling of mankind. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t really care. The hopefulness isn’t an expectation that things will turn out well in a logical, rational way. It is an expression of temperament.

But I think what your video work does is to isolate a present moment as everything.

Yeah, yeah! That’s nice that it is doing that. That’s what I’m trying to do.

But I think that speaks to what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter if there’s an end of days. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the future. And it doesn’t matter. Because there’s this, right now. This makes me think of Zen Buddhism. What I’m scratching at is that your philosophical approach to making work is kind of like the absolute desired position of a lot of religious pursuits. Can you talk about how you see those things as being different? 

My philosophical positioning is really very similar to Zen Buddhism but I find that’s it more effective to be coming from a place of darkness.

This is kind of what I discuss in the “Courage” pamphlet. I feel like when you really embrace pain and darkness and failure, the whole thing kind of brightens. You’re not bracing against anything anymore. You don’t have to be so mindful of what’s good and what’s bad. You just have encapsulated it all within yourself and all you’re left with is pleasure. I don’t feel like it is really being honest or really dealing with the truth of the nature of reality to try and escape or avoid the darkness and pain. It’s like an inoculation maybe.

It’s true that the only way you can release something is to fully experience it. But I think it is a totally enlightened pursuit to believe that you can have gone through everything and are only left with pleasure. That’s what I mean by saying that that is what religious leaders aspire to.

It isn’t only pleasure, but basically the world is an infinitely rich and complex situation. There’s nothing that you can think to look for that you wouldn’t be able to find somewhere. When you kind of cut your teeth and get used to the tragedy and messiness and pain of existence and what it is to be a human. When you boil that down you see that what you are is a creature. You are a body in the world. And you can move around. And just the fact of being a physical thing in this physical space. We are information processing machines. And there’s so much information. Just the mere fact of being is completely delightful because we are of material in material. My work is about objects and materials and what it means to be a material.

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