Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini
Following the interview with Joanna Rajkowska, here you can find my conversation with Cecilia Bonilla, the second artist behind the exhibition A Tourist in Other People’s Reality currently on show at the Vestry House Museum (London). Within the exhibition catalogue, we are publishing a conversation that aims at excavating the work produced for the exhibition, while here, the focus is on Cecilia Bonilla’s practice in general – her working methodology, her approach to the Vestry House Museum collection as well as to ideas of memory and ‘the archive’.
AF: In the exhibition A Tourist in Other People’s Reality you have collaborated with two other artists, Sława Harasymovicz and Joanna Rajkowska. Together, you have explored the Vestry House Museum, and, in particular, its archive, producing an exhibition inspired by the venue. Could you tell me about what motivated you to take part in this project?
CB: Sława first got in touch with the museum as she knew that they were interested in artist’s working with the archive. Initially we were both interested in working with the museum’s collection of donated photographs. I had never produced work from archival material before so I was keen to explore how my current practice would respond to this material.
AF: Looking at the different strategies put into play in the exhibition, I felt that you had more of a visual approach to the archive. For instance, Harasymovicz’s approach was that of meticulous research, while Rajkowska’s was more of an embodied, instinctive reaction to the space. Can you expand on this?
CB: I have often explored commercially related mass-produced material in my current practice. Frequently, the visual material itself triggers initial responses and ideas for work to be made. Most of my research is done later, after initial ideas have been conceived. It is a back and forth process; I make, then I research, then I make more and so on. I would probably not have agreed to work on this project if a visual archive did not exist. The scrapbooks for example, that I used as inspiration for METRO, Wednesday May 29th, are based on visual material; the way these were constructed and the material used, informed the work that I produced for the exhibition.
AF: As you said, this was the first time you worked with archival material. So, I am very interested in the process that led you to produce the collage piece METRO, Wednesday May 29th. What was your initial reaction to the collection and the site? What was the point of origin of your research and how did it progress and merge with your own working methodology?
CB: At first I couldn’t find anything to cling on to, then I kept on looking and digging into the Museum’s Archive and I came across a series of 1st and 2nd World War scrapbooks that caught my attention, perhaps because of a similarity to my own collages. The scrapbooks were composed of mass-produced images that had been assembled to create personal narratives. However, I was still struggling as I would have had to reproduce the material in order to manipulate it. Then, as I was sitting in a café I found a copy of METRO newspaper in the bin. It suddenly made sense: I was going to work with newspaper. Newspaper information and images are so closely related to the present, yet they almost instantly become part of the past.
Apart form a previous project, for which I used book plates from a vintage interior decoration book, I generally work with current material. At the same time, newspaper is something that instantly becomes archival. It has such a short lifespan. The newspaper that I chose to work with, was already in the bin even though it was from that same day. I did not intend to rescue it, but I do like using material that has no more value or use for anyone.
AF: Alongside METRO, Wednesday May 29th you have decided to display a specific spread from a scrapbook that you found in the archive. What led you to choose this particular spread out of the many you found in the archive?
CB: It was because of the way the images were combined: two images related to the war on the left and a frozen waterfall covered the right page. I felt that it was a sidetrack from the main focus of the scrapbook – the war – and this was perhaps a relief for me, because I am not so interested in just exploring historical events. I was searching for the more ‘superfluous’ elements, yet, for me the most significant. I thought that the waterfall detracted from the historical facts and this created a very personal, visually poetic, narrative.
AF: How do you see this project in relation to archival practices in general?
CB: I have mixed feelings about the idea of digging into the past of people who have had terrible lives. We -the artists – were tourists in other people’s reality, as the title of the exhibition suggests. I’m not sure how ‘ethical’ this is. I think that there is a morbid fascination with the ordeal of other’s. In that respect I had very mixed feelings about researching the history of the workhouse. I wondered: why are we doing this? Is it okay? Who is it for? What is this going to bring to the present?
I was very conscious, as Joanna’s and Sława’s works evolved, that the exhibition had to be anchored in the present. I did not want it to fall into a ‘vintage state’, verging towards the nostalgic. I wanted to make a point that this work has been made here and now, from a present perspective. I was very keen on departing from traditional approaches to history and the archive. I wanted to, clearly, yet subjectively, link the past with the present through the work made.
To find out more about the artist, visit Cecilia Bonilla’s website.