INTERVIEW: Diana Shpungin

1664 Sundays, Diana Shpungin, 2011

photograph by Etienne Frossard

 

Diana Shpungin was born in Riga, Latvia, in what was then the Soviet Union, but has since lived in Moscow, Vienna, Rome and New York City, her current location. I caught up with her about her latest exhibition, (Untitled) Portrait of Dad (Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, May 22 – July 3 2011) – a show that was simultaneously a memorial to her deceased father, and a wider, metaphysical exploration of death.

Interview by Ashitha Nagesh

 

The title of your recent exhibition, (Untitled) Portrait of Dad, refers unambiguously to the portraiture work of the late Félix González-Torres. How strong would you say his influence has been upon your work?

Yes indeed, the reference was a consciously direct one to one of my favorite works, Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Dad)”. I changed the placement of the parenthesis, shifting the emphasis to read “(Untitled) Portrait of Dad”. The titles of the specific works in the exhibition are all so very particular that I wanted the overarching title of the show to be more general and open ended, but also making my admiration for González-Torres known. The title, as general as it is, encompassed everything I wanted to say and reference.

The show of course is influenced by the work, life, death and “after death” of my father, but I also look at it as a respectful nod to the life and work of González-Torres. While my father had a profound influence on me personally, González-Torres had a profound affect on how I look at and approach artmaking. In a way, this show was the first time I allowed myself to really explore that correlation so directly.

I have always been an enthusiast of minimalism but González-Torres took it to a new place and fused it with the personal. He was able, with a small thoughtful gesture and with seemingly flawless decision-making, to key into a sublime something so powerful and significant. An artwork (an inanimate object) that is able to communicate a gesture that resonates with myself and so many others. His work is both personal and political, but it does not scream at you, it speaks softly, it can engage you deeply if you give it the time. It is in the subtlety of the poetic gesture where I think the strength in his work lies and brings out an empathetic quality in me that few works have before or since. It is that elusive feeling I am after with my works, that sensation, that intangible something...

This quote by Félix González-Torres has always resonated with me, and I often cite it when I asked why I am an artist, I especially like the “good purpose” part:

"Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that's why I made works of art. "  Félix González-Torres

 

Your entire body of works, from your earlier video piece from the end of the earth to bring you my love to your most recent pieces in (Untitled), seem to be preoccupied with time and the inevitable limitations of it. González-Torres once said, “Time is something that scares me…”. How would you describe your own relationship with time? Is it something that scares or inspires you? Or both?

I am not absolutely sure if “time scares me.” Existence sometimes confuses me, but perhaps that is a comparable thing? Time is necessary, time is a given and time is enigmatic, that much I know.

But I also think time is relevant, sometimes events seem to go by so fast, other times they last what seems to be forever. I suppose when we fear something time creeps up on us more quickly. The notion of time being both so ambiguous and finite is definitely scary (especially if you think about it for too long). I think whenever you are surrounded by illness and the possibility of death; time is certainly at its scariest. This perhaps in varied ways González-Torres and I have in common.

The limitations of time stem in our great desire yet failed ability to pause and control it at our whim.  I certainly have not found a way to pause time yet (other than in my work) so perhaps that is one reason why I make art and in that sense time inspires me. The work is the only place where I can at least metaphorically fuck with time. Whether that be by conceptual reference, physical process or merging time and space as video can so often poignantly do.

   

Your pieces explore the relationship between time and distance –focusing both on the finite and infinite aspects of both. In from the end of the earth to bring you my love, distance is a tangible, measurable thing – ‘the end of the earth’ being a physical place on the map – whilst time seems to be on a constant loop, sunrise – sunset – sunrise – sunset, and so on, all over the world. In contrast, your more recent works seem to invert this; I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping and A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting, for example, highlight the limited nature of our time, along with the immeasurable possibilities of space – metaphysically speaking. What influenced this inversion? Was there a change in perspective for you?

Absolutely, the work surely encompasses time and space in varied ways; concrete physical remoteness, emotional detachment, and the intangible metaphysical void. There was no change in perspective or specific inversion between the pieces - more specifically the methods used relate to the specific conceptual content and subjects tackled within each of the works. Both are about types of longing and intangibilities, loss vs. love, the dead vs. the living etc...

From an ongoing series entitled “The Geographic Fates”, the dual channel video work “From The End Of The Earth To Bring You My Love” is about communication, human relationships, love, desire and the enormity of what we know and experience. I wanted to take the conventionally beautiful symbol of the sunset/sunrise and find a kind of truth in it. Two people being in two precise points, as far away as achievable from one another on earth, would still be able to communicate by ways of our natural world without the interference of technology - a sort of grand, yet simple gesture if you will.

The works in “(Untitled) Portrait of Dad” also relate to time and distance but in this instance examining ideas of death, mourning and memory. The intangibility of death is often explained by means of religion in various cultures and death is often depicted in war films or in the media as remote and impersonal, in horror films as gloomy, morose or campy. I wanted to explore this without delving into the specificity of religion, or focusing on the cold, morbid or stereotypically “dark” depictions we are familiar with and I did not want to avoid the known reality of death, glazing it over to make myself or the viewer comfortable. Instead I utilized personal familiarity, cultural mores and taboos, with a dash of the supernatural and superstitious.

The sculpture “I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping” relates to a phrase my father spoke to me on many occasions, however I chose the phrase for the work because in an ironic manner it speaks of our inability to speak ill of the dead due to cultural appropriateness. When you are “sleeping” (or dead) I especially love you - a life is glamorized, we speak only of the good times, obituaries and eulogies seldom contain a disapproving word. We often have a selective memory of those we lose.

I am interested in what encompasses our “known” time on earth. And with the understanding that I probably will not find out more than the average human, my work is counter-productively trying to attain this knowledge anyway.

 

I found 1664 Sundays very interesting; it highlights the relative shortness, and the limitations of our shared experiences. Considering the personal nature of the subject, how did you feel whilst constructing this work?

The title “1664 Sundays” refers to the amount of Sundays my father and I lived in common, from my date of birth to his death. When I calculated the days, it certainly seemed like an alarmingly short amount of time.  So yes, by summing it up in a succinct figure, the lack of time we have alive and/or together with another person is relatively limited, are days literally numbered. Our experiences with people can be fleeting. The memory is all that can be sustained, although that can be fractured, selective or relatively hazy.

In “1664 Sundays” the viewers receiving of the recipe bag and taking of potatoes referenced González-Torres piles and stacks. With González-Torres it is like taking from the body itself, with “1664 Sundays” the potato pile references more of a burial mound, but of living things that keep growing and have the possibility of survival. The pile becomes a memorial to a story, a shared overlap of time and experience and a particular place in history. And if one so chooses they can take the potatoes home with them and cook my father’s recipe - again counter-productively reliving an experience in a secluded intangible way. The work always maintains this peculiar condition of longing.

 

1664 Sundays both reduces this shared experience of time to something mundane and everyday, and simultaneously invests this ordinary object (the potato) with a deeply personal significance. In a way, it is attempting to physically represent something that goes beyond human visualization – time spent with loved ones. What does the potato signify for you? Is it a purely personal symbol of your father’s potato recipe and potato-selling on the USSR black market, or is it a wider comment on Soviet culture and its own subsequent death?

Much of my work can have varied layered, cyclical, dualistic and serendipitous connotations. I love how one object can hold several meanings, some even contradictory, some seemingly non-connected but actually linked by way of an odd coincidence or fate if you will. In this case, the personal, the art historical and the politically and geographically historical.

That being said, the potato is emblematic of a number of functions. The potato was a bonding symbol between my father and I, by way of his potato recipe he cooked for me both as a child and when I would visit him as an adult. It was the only thing I would eat that he prepared, and it was how we found common ground.

The potato also relates to my father’s story-telling (a dying act in itself) of the “old country” and of his trading fifteen tons of potatoes for his first car, a Soviet made Volga. The potato behaves as an icon of that time period of black market culture, my father used the potato akin to currency, the story indicative of a time and place far away, only directly familiar to a relative few left among the living.

And lastly, the potato had strong significance in not just Soviet times, but to this day in Russian (and much of Eastern European) culture. A diet staple often referred to as “second bread”, it has sustained many people during grain shortages in very difficult times. 

Being born in a country under Soviet Rule, it was difficult to grasp the enormity of what that life was like then because of my young age. My family immigrated to the United States when I was about four years old so my memories are really based in my fathers story telling, family albums and old books we had around the home. The linkage of ideas goes through a type of hand me down translation. Again, it took me utilizing the potato recipe (a very personal ordinary thing) to get down to the inherent political significance in that common food source.

 

Could you explain the meaning of the chair in A Fixed Space Reserved for the Haunting? Does it have personal significance, or a wider symbolism?

I really consider my work to have both personal significance and a wider symbolism. Of course much of my work comes from deeply personal themes, but these themes are also very universal. I translate my experiences visually by finding formal elements and signifiers that may have more open ended and relatable content to others.

Regarding the personal, I am really interested in what we as a culture or society deem to be “personal” or even “too personal”. I always find it hard to really delve into a subject unless it becomes real and tangible for me. For example, I, as many, could easily glaze over and become numb to the convention within media, like the monotonous repetition of a newscast, a tragedy summed up in a CNN news crawl for example. Until a story is told in a personal empathetic way it is hard to grasp the reality of a situation.

Regarding the sculpture “A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting”, my father was a physician and would repair items around the home with the means of his profession, --domestic objects like chairs, tables, lamps, rugs, walls and also trees in the garden.

This chair is left empty and with one leg broken signifying the lack of repair due a person’s loss. So the chair is not repaired or “fixed” as the title suggests, but rather “fixed” in space awaiting an implausible return. The chair no longer functions for the living - one would fall if they sat down and would be stained by the graphite pencil which is methodically hand coated over the entire surface. The use of graphite pencil in my work functions a bit like a ghost in itself, an impermanent medium, the prospect of erasure always evident.

Importantly, the sculpture and the title stem from one of many family superstitions of having a guest or loved one sit briefly in a chair before departing a home so they will surely return safely again. My father had me do this whenever I would visit his house. After doing some recent research I found the superstition has gone through many varied/morphed versions, but all are rooted in Eastern European culture from Pre-Christian times.

 

In A Fixed Space…, by blanking out the personal details from the obituaries you generalize death, which seems to contradict the rest of the exhibition, which is a very personal and specific exploration of grief. Was this your intention? Could you tell us a bit more about why you chose to do this?

Yes, underneath the chair sits a stack of New York Times obituaries with pertinent information methodically censored; -all names, dates, places etc. have been blacked out, the stack wrapped akin to a cast relating to my fathers methods in medicine. The stack although formally looks like it might be holding up the chair, is not upon closer inspection (another way of suggesting longing through the formal tension).

With the partial concealment of the obituaries, what you end up getting is this very generic, humdrum commemoration that can apply to almost anyone. Once more, yes the show is rooted in the personal, but it all speaks of the cultural ways we do or do not handle death. The chair in A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting” was metaphorically made for my father, but it could certainly be related to anyone whom has passed.

Much like “I Especially Love You When You Are Sleeping”, another aspect of A Fixed Space Reserved For The Haunting” is the notion of selective memory (or maybe just selective public sharing) when it comes to death and separation. It was worthy of noting that in all of the many hundreds if not thousands of obituaries I read, not a one had a negative word to say about any of the deceased. As a whole, I was not interested in presenting an all-out sentimental memorial of my father with this exhibition, rather simply using my experience with his death as the catalyst to getting a minute bit closer to understanding what it is that mortality and memory really is and how it functions.