In conversation with Anita Glesta
We talked with Anita Glesta, multi-disciplinary artist, about everything from soup to the biology of the human body to global connectivity.
Anita, I'm so happy to be doing this with you. I think this is great and I so admired you for all these years and some of the projects that we've worked on in the past like Watershed (2017) and am really excited about your new direction that you have extended Watershed (2017) into and the video work that you've been working on with the brain and the heart, which we will talk about in a few minutes. But as an artist representing many different art disciplines, I'd love to talk about what you're creating in the kitchen right now as another outlet for your creativity and how does the Coronavirus crisis affect your art process and expression today?
WATERSHED (2017) video of 80' sidewalk projection moving image installation in Red Hook Brooklyn to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Super Storm Sandy
Great question, Marjorie, and it's a pleasure to be speaking with you. Thank you for giving the opportunity to merge cooking with the making of art, which are both obviously creative disciplines. As a multimedia artist, my base as an artist has been painting and drawing, but recently has such an enormous kinship to cooking. Everybody knows that there is this relationship. But to be more explicit of how and why I can refer to my own experience as an artist working in these fields...
My whole life I've painted since I was a little girl and over the course of a lifetime, it's expanded into many other ways of using my hands–my sense of texture, my sense of smell and all those essential sensory experiences.
Once in my life, I took a course in sculpture, in carving and it was marble sculpture. It was the only time as an artist with a lifetime of "being that artist" in school– I was always the artist as it has come to me naturally. But, that one moment I actually did so poorly that I failed carving. I bring that up because I also remember another sculpture teacher (at that time I was building armatures with clay) who said there are two different kinds of sculptors. There are those who put on and there are those who take away. Obviously I'm the put on person and there is such a correlation between painting and the using of variety of mediums, which I do. And by the way, I do make sculpture in addition to video and painting and everything else, but it's completely akin to what one does in the kitchen, which is really all about the sense of smell, the visual, the texture, and even more encompassing is the creative act of knowing how to put it all together. That’s something I've always done, and it's really fun. It's also really therapeutic in this time. So that was a very long winded answer, but that's the relationship I see.
Heart Sandwich 2020, Still from video SECOND BRAIN 9"x12"
And, and how do you feel when you're in the kitchen? Why are you creating whatever you're making? What are those feelings like while you're doing it? Are you not only using your hands and your senses, but is your mind also working along with this?
2016 photo credit: Manolo Martez
It's an interesting question Marjorie actually because it does go to how the brain works. So you know how the brain works when you doodle and how the brain works when you chop onions maybe are very similar. But, on another level, what I feel when I'm doing this work is that I'm giving... This is why I don't even call it work, it's giving. It's a wonderful, delightful feeling that is therapeutic because I can actually do things with my hands and look, feel, and smell.
But the outcome of cooking is so much more immediate than actually making art because I'm making this for my loved ones and I'm sharing it and that's a really, really wonderful and gratifying feeling.
PULSE 2018 multi media installation for group show "Intersections", Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beijing, China
Well, I can personally say that I've been to a number of your dinner parties and not only do you create something fantastic in terms of the edible side of it, but also the visual side, the environment that you create to share this wonderful meal is also very important. That was one of the tie-ins that I think is so interesting in terms of being an artist and also being a creator in the kitchen. But you take that one step further and visually make it so pleasing.. is that intuitive in you that you just make that happen or is that something that you really think about when you're putting it out on the plate and then you're creating that wonderful table, and all the colors... which is so much part of your painting process and your thinking.
Drawing of fish for WATERSHED, 2017 charcoal 52"x 78", FISH FOR ENSOR 2016, oil on canvas 48"x80"
Thank you for that first of all and it probably is both of those things, but I'm not conscious of either of them because it's so reflexive in me since I've been doing it my whole life. But you did make me think about something else, which is the importance of dinners, dinner parties and social gatherings. I think that also has a direct correlation to how I had been working as an artist, which in the last 25 years has been in the public. There is something about being able to give through this (my art and my cooking) and share that that drives me away from the isolation of just being an artist alone in the studio. You know, both forms or platforms, if you will, are opportunities to share and give an experience with a group, which otherwise I don't do because then I am spending a lot of time by myself. So it's a really immediate and wonderful way of having my creativity experienced in such a direct way.
I can hear people go, "mm," "yum" and exclaim which they don't generally with my work, nor do I really expect that. But for a dinner party, I do expect it and I do love it when people love my food!
Self portrait 2014, (Collection Virginia Rouse, Sydney, Australia) ink on paper, Heart Sandwich 2020, Still from video SECOND BRAIN 9"x12"
Well what's wonderful about you Anita is you get very animated when you're around people and they savor every taste, and I've experienced the ambience... I think it's wonderful.
We're all obviously dealing with this health crisis and what's happening and this is something that's going to be going on for, could be months yet. Anita, where are you now in what you're creating and how has this impacted some of your thinking and your work? I'd love you to talk a little about your present work and some of the incredible animation and video work that you're doing now. What is your thinking on that and where would you like to see it go?
CARDIAC HARMONIUM 2019 Multi channel video, Dimensions variable
For the last few years since I experienced my own personal cardiac event– which fortunately, I am fine now. It made me think a lot about what we don't know about our internal selves. Again, that strange enigmatic connection between the brain and the heart and then even more recently, doctors are paying attention to what we don't know about our endocrine systems, hormones and guts.
I don't pretend to be a doctor or know very much at all about this except for the experience that I had, which inspired me to think about how to bring that, what is inside to the outside and make other people aware of how we all share the same internal organs, no matter who we are on the outside, what our skin is, what our propensity for doing one thing or another is. The internal structure is virtually identical.
The differences are of course male and female. It is what is really nuanced in these neurons, these connections, the wiring– that differentiates us from one another and of course the genes. So I find it endlessly fascinating and have been subsequently, from my experience in the hospital, recorded the various cardiograms and other kinds of MRIs and so forth and incorporated them into the work. But also in the videos, I move more and more to incorporating how I have worked as a painter, particularly as a child with inks, and animating it. I've been integrating these into a lot of the moving images that I make and also using some of the works on paper that I turn into animation as drawings in themselves.
WATERY ORGANS 2020 Still from video SECOND BRAIN 9"x12"
In answer to how this corresponds to the moment in which we're living– well, boy does it ever because...
Suddenly our entire humanity, our global sea of human beings are simultaneously being afflicted or threatened by a virus or the entrance of a foreign body, a piece of spit entering into our system and being a very destructive force. It's fascinating both as a physiologic phenomenon and also as a behavioral psychological one where we're all having to rethink our political and social experience right now.
TSUNAMI LUNG image 2020 Still from video Tsunami Lung and INTESTINE DRAWING 2020 still from video Second Brain
Having looked at your videos and seeing the progression over the last couple of years, I mean you've taken on some very important issue. Initially, for example, you did a major Census Project, which I thought was very interesting– dealing with numbers and you also did a very big thing for Washington. Then you went on to do Watershed, which was all about climate change and how we're all affected by that and how you were able to galvanize a community utilizing that project. And now, which is so interesting when I thought about how I wanted Art W and Women We Create to say something about what we're going through, I thought about all the artists I know globally and Anita, you were the one that I wanted to start this with because I really felt that your video and animation is so important. It is so relevant to what we're dealing with today because we are all dealing with our own feelings–how our heart and our brain are connected, how the environment affects that. The way you have utilized your painting aspect to it, the watercolors, the beauty of that and connecting those senses together I think is very powerful. And then adding on the use of music, the use of voice, the use of poems, that just takes it to another level. So I hope that when everybody sees this work, it will have the same impact that I found it had for me.
TSUNAMI LUNG, Video, 2020
Well, thank you again. I don't know what to say that except that I hope I can only make it better and more effective, but thank you for being moved by it. I hope that I'm able to affect a personal experience with the work that I am doing and which I plan to do more of. Actually, I am doing it right now from my little office in the Hudson Valley. So it's an interesting time to be working.
I would love for you to just talk a little about the Corona butterfly and what your thinking was with that, and how what we're going through impacted this final video (see below).
CORONA BUTTERFLY 2020 multi-channel video
So I began Corona butterfly probably three or four weeks ago before the virus hit New York. I have a very good friend in Italy who, towards the end of February, beginning of March, was really bombarding me with the horrible impact of the virus there. She was scaring the crap out of me, but I knew that it was forthcoming. I knew we were going to be getting something. So this information came at a time a little bit before everyone was hit with it in New York. I thought about what it means to have a foreign body or foreign substance entering into our system. I thought it would be kind of nice to think of a butterfly entering through an ear rather than spittle entrances although I might actually do that next. But the butterfly was nice because it flies through the system. In this animation, the butterfly is flying through our system and it eventuates in the lungs. But I didn't want this to be completely morbid.
I wanted this to also be about a celebration of our internal systems and to offer hope. That's why I incorporated a beautiful passage of music, which is Beethoven's piano concerto "Opus 23." So in all of the work that I'm doing, I tried to make it a balance of the positive with the negative.
What was it about this particular piece that made you be motivated to combine that with your beautiful video?
Well, some times things happen, and very often magically, when one is making art. In this particular case, there was maybe 10 seconds of a piece of very remote piece of music that I heard in the background of a radio. It was one of those things. It happened to have been when I was working with my wonderful assistant who is of the age where I could just say, "Hey Ben, what was that piece of music and sound (using an app)?" And there it was– a very small passage in this larger concerto, but in that small passage it felt like it would have worked beautifully with this. And it really, really did. The time of it fit right into the animation that I had already created and it really does carry you, and float. It lets that butterfly float through the whole message to the body.
PULSE 2018 (dimensions variable)
Having curated a lot of different international art fairs and also looking at a variety of work in different areas... I find when I look at your work that I think of two artists in particular that's work is similar to what you're doing, but taking it to the next generation. The first one–I'd be curious if you can see the connection– is Helen Frankenthaler. The reason I think of her is her stain paintings that she does and how she uses the beautiful thinned down paint. I know you use water colors, but there's a similarity in terms of what you've created, however you're using in the background and juxtaposing it with the brain. There is something there. And then of course, somebody who comes to mind and I know you and I talked about, is William Kentridge. He is so wonderful at telling stories and in a way that is what you are doing.
Well that's a really interesting perceptive Marjorie, and when you think about combining the two, there certainly are truths in both of those. It's very interesting to me because since I was a kid, I had a real relationship with Helen Frankenthaler that was not a positive one. In fact, I like very much her spills, but I hated, really hated the fact that she was so decorative and so pretty. She symbolized to me or epitomized a kind of privilege that I actually felt repugnant. That was the definition of a love hate relationship for me, because the beauty of her work in certain ways I found offensive. But I also deeply understood it and felt it. Maybe that's why I had such anger towards it? In Kentridge's work actually there is much more, as you said, storytelling. In his case, the story usually refers to social justice and in that sense, the two of them couldn't be more opposite. His influence may be in my work, but I've never thought about it that way. So there you go, Marjorie. Thank you. Maybe that is an integration because I never have allowed myself to just do pretty work ever, ever, ever. Though, I certainly know I'm able to do it. I'm finding that animation, doing this work is able to integrate both sides of my work, of who I am rather as an artist.
I think that is something extremely relevant and very poignant. On that note, I'm going to leave this discussion. I think there is so much more that can be taken from your work and I hope that we see more incredible video and animation that comes out of you. What I think is so incredible is this realization that this medium has the ability to really tell a story and tell a story in a very poignant and relevant way. I think you've really done that, Anita. So thank you.
Thanks Marjorie, and you know, I just want to add one thing and that is that the entire time I've been here in a week and I plan to continue this for the next few weeks. I have chicken soup happening on the stove and this is not an old genetic thing passed on to me from my mother, because she is the opposite of the Jewish mother. Somewhere out there I've inherited this, and it's bringing out the Jewish mother in me. There's gotta be some kind of preventive Jewish penicillin in having chicken soup going on the stove always and every time I heat it up I put in those leafy vegetables and leafy greens to keep it happening. So there's not so much current talk right now about preventative measures that one can take in this epidemic and certainly it won't fight the virus, but it can't hurt!
All works can be seen at Anita Glesta's website: www.anitaglesta.com