Petah Coyne

Jan 3, 2018 2:17AM

Interview with an Artist Petah Coyne

According to related interviews, you always talk about the connection between Japanese literature and your works, and we know this can be attributed to your affection toward it. As an army brat, you probably spent most of the time traveling around the world with your family; at the same time, the experience lived in Hawaii has a great influence on you. What do you think is the main reason that you love Japanese literature and culture? Could you name some of the writers you admire for?

Growing up a great part of my childhood was spent moving every 6 months; my formative years however, from age 4 to 7, were spent living in a Japanese neighborhood in Hawaii. Living immersed in the culture for three and a half years, it had an enormous impact on my psyche. The neighborhood and culture were so welcoming that it became my first real home. Later, after settling in New York I received a Fellowship through the Asian Cultural Council in 1992/1993 for a 6-month residency in Japan. I spent the residency immersing myself in Japanese literature, exploring the country, and observing everything I possibly could about the culture. This became one of the most significant residencies I ever had and was ultimately life changing.

Untitled #1017 (Raphaelite Feet Dancing, The Debs Series), 2001, Silver gelatin print,
18 1/2 x 38 inches, Edition 6 of 7

My artistic practice has since been greatly influenced by Japanese culture, history, poetry and symbolism. Since the residency I have referenced a number of Japanese authors and filmmakers as inspiration - from Kazuo Ishiguro, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, to Yasunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami, and Sawako Ariyoshi. The historic 11th century novel, The Tale of Gengji, which I first read in the 1980s, also had a great influence on my art, both as a work of art and in the inspiration it provided to dig deeper into the history, politics and culture of Japan. Artworks from my oeuvre such as The Unconsoled, Eguchi’s Ghost and Spring Snow, have direct references in their titles to Japanese books and culture, while other works indirectly reference Japanese history and practice.

The influence of the East has also extended into my practice through the Chinese culture. My first experience with Chinese culture was on an early childhood trip through Russia in the 1960s. We were traveling when we deboarded the train and walked into Inner Mongolia until we came upon a small remote Mongolian tribe. Their shock and bewilderment upon our arrival was evident but their hospitality was amazing. From then on I became enthralled with the unique culture of China. My parents took frequent trips to China throughout my childhood and I would ask them to bring me a temple figure from each trip. They were male wooden figures often depicting gods from different temples they visited throughout China. My fascination for Chinese culture extended also to Chinese poetry, history, ideology, art and literature. Among the books I revere are The Dream of the Red Chamber, Red Sorghum, Wild Swans, Soul Man, Waiting, and Raise the Red Lantern.

Untitled #1010 (Three Women Dancing: Can-Can, The Debs Series), 2001, Silver gelatin print
7 1⁄4 x 11 inches, Edition 1 of 7 with 3 APs

Over the years, I have continued to incorporate many concepts from both Japanese and Chinese culture with those of my own background to create works that convey the importance of a wide range of topics, from the personal and religious to gender-driven political issues and the beauty of literature and art.

Untitled #1045 (Flower Center, Clara Series), 2000, Silver gelatin print, 29 7/8 x 29 7/8 inches / 34 1/8 x 34 1/8x 1 inches (Hand-made frame), Edition 1 of  7

Most people appreciate and are curious about your sculptures; however, it seems that there are more unsolved mysteries about the photography pieces. Your photography usually depicts the soft texture and its fluidity cloth or fabric has. In addition, you try to focus on a close-up shot that almost approach the ground (especially in Bridal, Debs, and Clara series) in order to record a bride’s or a dancer’s body track when moving. What do the characters of brides and dancers mean to you? And why you choose feet rather than hands, faces, or bodies to interact with fabric? Is it thinkable for us to regard this as an extension of the influence upon feminism?

Brides, debutantes, and young women were selected as a means to depict the evolution of a woman’s life, and the psychological experiences she undergoes at various stages. For example, a young bride is typically at one of the biggest transitions she will make in her life. I strove to capture this experience, one that is full of a range of both spoken and unspoken emotions and feelings. I asked recent brides to appear in their wedding dress, without shoes, and to express themselves through their body, which often resulted in dance. As the photographer, and a middle aged woman, I added my own conceptions as I looked from my present point of view back onto my youth and visions of being a bride; just as the Japanese author Yukio Mishima reflected back on his life in the masterful novel Spring Snow. The resulting photographs become a mixture of psychological and emotional experiences expressed by the young woman, myself, and ultimately the viewer and his/her perception.

Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08

Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08,
136 x 109 x 121 inches

Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-08

In the Bridal and the Debs series, the photographs are often close-up moments, such as blurred and abstracted images of their bare feet or the sumptuous material of the dress. The depiction of bare feet was meant as a catalyst to allow freedom of expression. The decadent fabric of the dress and the rustling motion of the pleats and folds recall the infinite folds that became the hallmark of expression in the Baroque period. Both feet and fabric are depicted in an instant of suspended motion and emotion. As a woman artist my work will incorporate feminism and the feminine subject, and is a theme that recurs frequently throughout my oeuvre. This is not necessarily always a conscious decision.

Specially formulated wax, silk flower, vintage Italian doily, glass vitrine, feathers, silk ribbons, 12 x 12 x 9 inches

There are always some artists who experience pains and struggles when they change their mediums. Compared to sculptures, photography should be a faster way for you to create. How do you consider the creating process between sculptures and photography? Does the speed of creating makes works’ conception different? If it does, then what is the effect?

My photography practice is shot on 35 mm film; it is not a fast medium, or at least not to digital standards. Photography, like my sculpture, is very captivated by the process. The ritual of shooting numerous rolls of film, the process of selecting a minute number of images, making test prints, and ultimately producing silver gelatin prints is an extremely laborious, time consuming and expensive process. I consider the process and the selection of images an integral part of my photography practice, and there are mounds of film rolls that do not develop into prints; the ratio of film shot to film kept is significantly high.

The focal point of my photography is perpetual movement, personal relationships and capturing the fleeting moments in life. I utilize two different methods when I shoot film. I venture out with loads of film and actively look for interesting subjects, which is how the running monks and carnival scenes were created. The other method I utilize is to pre-set a stage in my studio for a specific conceived idea; this is how I achieved the beautiful details depicted in the Bridal and Debs series. Both methods are then followed by the same selection and printing process until the final work is produced.

Untitled #1378, ( ZELDA FITZGERALD, Alabama Slammer Series), 1997-2013, 206.2x 90.8x 90.8cm

Untitled #1378

All works exhibiting in gallery are silver gelatin print, which is an old way to take pictures. Silver gelatin print can make photos more stereoscopic; moreover, the image may be various in accordance with different developing process, which strengthens theirs uniqueness and scarceness. And we know all of these are impossible for digital cameras to achieve. Do you think that technology and contents have a close relationship with each other? What will you take photos with digital cameras in 21st century? Or, if we had used digital cameras in nineties, would you choose the same characters and themes to press camera shutters?

If digital photography had existed in the nineties I may have enjoyed working with the medium. My photographs were shot using either homemade pinhole cameras, or a Zeiss Ikon camera. I love the concept of making and shooting with my own cameras, utilizing slow exposures, and experimenting with various lenses from the Zeiss Ikon on one of my homemade pinhole cameras. The pinhole camera does not have a viewfinder, so I did not always know what image I would end up with. This method created so many interesting images and effects such as in the Carnival and 4th of July series. After a rigorous selection process I would print using full negative images without any editing.    

Medium and technology can affect a photographic work; however, the most important factor in my photography is the emotional pitch of the work, not the technology. I am interested in the psychological thought, the emotions evoked in an image, and the impact of the relationship among the subject, photographer, and viewer.

Another relationship that is important in my photographic process is the one created between my sculptures and photography when exhibited together. This interaction or dialogue that forms between a sculpture and photograph is unique, and at home I will often pair a sculpture in front of a photograph to contemplate this dialogue.