Sara VanDerBeek: Photographs Become Sculptures Become Photographs

Sourced from her experiences, Sara VanDerBeek’s sculptures are often as fleeting as the memories she strives to recall. The artist has a habit of destroying her assemblages upon completion—that is, after she has had the opportunity to photograph them. We had a chance to speak with VanDerBeek about the use of photography in her practice, and the inspiration for her projects.

Artsy: What role does photography play in your practice? And how has your personal history influenced the medium(s) you use?

Sara VanDerBeek: Photography is important to every stage of my process. Equally so, a photographic perspective informs much of my approach to my work. I begin new works by either looking at images in books, magazines or online during research or more and more frequently by photographing sites, spaces, situations, objects, or individuals of interest. I try to visit a site multiple times if possible, photographing from various perspectives and shooting many more images than needed to ensure I have a lot of negatives to work with. Then throughout the course of a production process I will edit down the images to a focused group. Simultaneously I am using the images in the studio as a starting point for building and designing sculptures in response to the images I have captured. Sometimes, I then set something up in the studio that I photograph as well, and when installing a show will mix in studio-based images with images I have captured in various locations. From my experience of working with a camera, I think a lot about the installation of an exhibition. When I am installing both images and objects in a space I think about certain views and perspectives and think about the context of the exhibition space—its proportions and scale—and consider the overall space as a framing mechanism, much like the camera’s viewfinder, in which to view works.

Artsy: Have particular locations or subjects inspired your sculptures? Where do you source your materials?

SV: The way I structure or organize the forms I make or photograph comes out of an attempt to translate an experience into an image or an object, or to conflate the two processes. I strive to physically realize something that is ephemeral or fleeting while also trying to make something that is solid, like plaster, more transformative. It can be something actual that is pictured in an image, or it can be a memory of an event that directs my work. Something found by chance or something very choreographed like a still life in my studio or the dancers I worked with for a recent series can serve as a starting point for my work. Cities which have experienced historic events that have not only impacted the local community but also our larger culture continue to be sources of inspiration and spaces for exploration with my camera, such as New Orleans, Detroit, and Los Angeles. I am excited about upcoming projects in both Cleveland and Baltimore. Recently, I have been very inspired during trips to Paris, Rome and Naples to photograph classical and Neoclassical sculptures in various museums in those cities. The Farnese collection in the National Archeological Museum in Naples was particularly inspiring to me. They have incredible large-scale classical female figures that originally adorned the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. I get ideas for materials from these places too. My use of plaster, concrete and wood in the sculptures that I am making for my upcoming show at Metro Pictures is inspired by the use of these materials in ancient sculptures and architecture.

Artsy: In the past, you have dismantled your sculptures as soon as they were photographed. Recently, however, you have preserved the sculptures and displayed them alongside the photographs. Can you talk about your reasoning for both?

SV: In earlier works, I enjoyed building things to be photographed, and thinking about the camera’s view as I was making the assemblages and sculptures. I liked the imaginary space of the studio, creating tableaus and working with found imagery and collage to create images that were somewhere between real and imagined. At that time, I was based much more solely in the studio. I had taken images in the past in locations but it wasn’t until I created “A Composition for Detroit” where I used a mix of images I shot in Detroit along with found and studio based imagery that I began to explore further different ways and means of working and more specifically of creating an image. I really enjoy how expansive contemporary photography can be and I try to continue to expand my practice. Now that I am showing sculptures as well as images, the relationship between the two has changed. I am interested in the space in between the objects and the images. They are connected and created in response to each other—more often the sculptures are created in response to the images—but there are also disconnects and I like that at times there is a close and easily discernible relationship between the images and the sculptures and that at other times there is a slight discordance.

Artsy: We’re fans of your “Western Costumes” series. Can you tell us about the inspiration or source behind this series and your processes in making these works?

SV: I photographed that series at Western Costume in Burbank, California. I did so as part of a residency leading into a project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Western Costume is the longest operating costume house in Hollywood, and I was photographing in the warehouse in the main floor in the section of women’s costumes from the early 20th century. These costumes are used primarily for back-of-camera performers, and over the course of their use have become marked by the various people who have worn them. I went in close with my camera to focus on the details within the surface of these garments. I used existing light when photographing them, and as they fell in and out of the darkness of the warehouse, the costumes felt spectral, and ghost-like, the figures within them were both present and absent. This shifting of states, a continual movement back and forth from presence and absence was an overall inspiration for my installation at the Hammer. That project included two images from the “Western Costume” series.

Artsy: Can you talk briefly about your upcoming show at Metro Pictures?

SV: When I was photographing classical sculptures in Europe, I thought about how in their original state, painted in strong colors, these objects were a meeting of image and form. They are sculptures, but they were in ancient times also a means of communication. The commonly reproduced poses, faces and adornments were symbolic of certain ideals and ideas that the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome wanted to communicate to all strata of their society. I also enjoyed that Roman art appropriated earlier Greek forms and translated them into their own visual language. Additionally, the sculptures were in a way photographic in their multiplicity. I saw the action of capturing them in their current state—now nearly white, emblematic of a universal standard of beauty, and arranged strikingly in museums—as a meeting of times, and, a part of the larger continuum of our understanding of the body as something that is actual and also very abstract. I am printing my images of the classical sculptures with very strong colors to speak to their earlier painted states. I am addressing both the body and this meeting of past and present in different ways throughout the show. I am going to show sculptures and photographs. Each room in the gallery will have a different arrangement of images and objects.

Sara VanDerBeek’s first solo exhibition with Metro Pictures will be on view May 2 – June 8, 2013.

Portrait courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

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