Rachel Busby talks to Traction Magazine
following her Autumn 2014 residency in Buenos Aires.
You spent time living and working in Buenos Aires in October 2014 on the URRA Project Residency.
Can you talk a little about this project?
The residency was an extraordinary opportunity for me to work around 15 other international based artists for a month. I was at a cross roads in both my personal life and practice and I really needed a break from my day to day and this was a very loud wake up call for me to shake things up.
My work is very much intrinsically intertwined with my emotions – it was a beautiful thing to finally scratch that nagging itch.
I always wanted to go to Latin America, it I was my first time and it didn’t disappoint. Two thirds of the artists on the residency were Latin American. It was a pleasure to observe everyone’s approaches to their work and get a greater understanding of the people behind their practice. Over time, it all made sense. I loved the people, the experience and by all accounts it was a wrench to come home.
On arrival, we were handed old noika “brick” phones loaded with telephone numbers of all the other artists on the residency, the URRA organisers, taxis etc. We were charged for texts, but phone calls were free. If that wasn’t a massive hint of how it was going to be.. well. Lets say, we were all up for it. The residency was full on, it wasn’t a case of being left to your own devices and see you in a month. As a group – the dynamics were great.
We had our own apartments within the same building and a shared studio space a few miles away. You could take things at your own pace. We weren’t expected to make finished works. It was a time for absorbing the city, its culture and its people. It was about exchanges, dialogue and networking with the other URRA artists as well as local artists, curators, gallerists and collectors.
It was out of the ordinary, an intensive period and I enjoyed it all - especially the simpler aspects of being around other artists 24/ 7. The casual nature of slipping in and out of conversations around our practice and lives. Breakfast, taxi, bus journeys, walks to the studio, nights out were different every time. I just loved that aspect of it.
When writing about your travelling and your return to the UK, you speak of the confusion of being between two places, anchored at neither. How has this feeling of displacement figured in your artwork and artistic practice?
This question is my new holy grail! Its everything to me and has become the premises for my new body of work. Previous work was to do with memories, but the Buenos Aires experience was about absorbing the present. I had no connection to the place and it was all new. Gladly, I didn’t have any thing to go on, so no preconceptions. It felt right to absorb, reflect and look at the world in a more generalised way. Let the whole experience wash over me.
For some time, I had wanted to address not having my previous work being associated with location. It was never about that, but I understand it was easy to categorise it in this way. I don’t like to be pigeon holed into any particular area although that’s a ridiculous thing to say, because we can’t help ourselves in labelling everything.
Living out of a suitcase, I started to question what I missed, if anything. Questioned my life back “home”. The familiarities, the sense of security I had nurtured behind the façades of comfort. Before Buenos Aires, the certainties, for me, weren’t certain any more, but sitting outside of myself looking back in give me the confirmation of what I already knew.
So I’m in this new country, trying to figure it out. And I realise that I just have to be. I’m living in the present and my future I know will not be the life that I left behind. I started to see I was going on a journey and this journey is how I now view my practice. I am open towards it. Its on the move and like a spin of coin can change its course. I like the double edge nature – exciting but a dauting challenge at the same time.
With this freedom, I needed to grasp onto something familiar as a starting point. A special aspect of rural living is a clear night sky. I grew up with this, and never tire of it. I used to watch the constellations move across the sky, it was like my time keeper. For this body of work, I am using the southern constellation as my bridge. Even though I didn’t get to see a night sky in BA, its quite strange looking at the southern skies, its really disorientating seeing it upside down.
Another grasp at the familiarity, or not so, was the plant life in Buenos Aires. It fascinated me from day one. Very striking and sub tropical. In some areas of the city, the foliage from the trees and the roots determined everything, taking over walls, buildings, pavement, streets. It was wonderful to see, especially in a city where we are more keen to keep nature back.
It was a constant reminder that I was far away from home. I adored this. Like a marker. They could be in no other place, apart from roughly this latitude.
I started to look more in the metaphor of tress – the concept of a tree of life used in biology, religion, philosophy, and mythology - symbolism for growth, revival and life.
With the trees and constellations, I see these as indicators for time, history and location. But also something quite solid. Reassuring. These are like the backbone to my many of my paintings that like to keep coming back to.
Since my return from Argentina, I am focusing on some key people in my life at the moment. Four to be exact. Four very important people in my life, whether I like this or not. It neatly rounds up my past, my present and future.
Each person has a distinct connection with me, very much different from each other. The combination is peculiar, but this is my life and as I mentioned I’m stepping outside of myself, but only just.
Each person, in my practise has become more like an installation of references and ideas – a body of work in its own right. I’m experimenting with each one. Some characthers don’t involve conventional painting.
Tell us about your ‘Pareidolia’ series from 2013. Your work here responds to a particular psychological phenomenon. Do groups of your works often stem from one idea or concept in this way?
Returning to a place that you thought you left behind isn’t how you expect it to be. I thought I’d be reminiscent and was disappointed that it just wasn’t like it for me. Life just moves on. The person I was then, the circumstances and the where I am today, there is no comparison. This is obviously good, But I must have had a yearning to escape back into my old world.
I started to think about the place. The placement of ourselves. How time and history are so much more prevalent in a rural environment. I spent a lot of time under the night sky, and how this never changes. And from there, as mentioned before, the constellation is the core from which all works came from.
I started to pull out some very random thoughts – they were like little gems. Not so much the event, but the fact that I had really forgotten about an event and it would flash back to me. The memory was so vivid. I wanted to really hold onto it. Capture that. I look back now and I feel its more to do with a twisted nostalgia. I say twisted because I do remember being really frustrated living in Wales and the grass was definitely greener else where.
I do have a terrible memory, never one for dates etc. – so I’m recording something down. Plus, actually the memory is usually quite humorous and then you remember the time around that memory.
Like a key opening the door – I’m travelling back in time. I suppose I want to enjoy my life. Be humbled. I used to think this was a terrible draw back in my character, to be humble but now I’m fine with it.
The titles to some of your paintings - such as ‘Sunday afternoon, Anna described the film “Carrie” in such detail, I never had to watch it - we were learning to roller skate at the time’ reference specific experiences or memories. Is it important to you that the viewer is aware of the work in this context?
No not really. I treat each work differently. It absolutely depends on the actual making of the painting. Like I say, It all depends which side of the bed I got out of. Some works are screaming out for such a title, others are more cagey and I tend to play with interpretations of symbols and double meanings. When I’m working on a piece, a title or two are milling around.
For “Carrie” I was very certain of the title. The title came first. I was actually using the title to describe my painting process – the swirling of the roller blades in a confined space. The colour of the roller blades, a bit of blood. The grey concrete of the lane. Its all there. I remember this like yesterday. I suppose I want to share this with you, brag about my clarity of memory haha!
With all my work, I see it as a story. I’d like to consider myself as a storyteller more so than a painter.
What is coming up for you in the next few months?
Painting wise, I’m putting into practice the research from BA and the circumstances of my return back to Wales - moving forward. I’m moving away from what I entrepet a static approach to painting – I have this urgency, yet a peculiar calmness in my life now and I feel its feeding through in the work. I keep stripping it all away, the works are becoming more transparent and translucent in quality. This is how I feel in my personal life – living my life in public so to speak.
There is an ambivalence to the new works, which is perhaps an interesting contradiction as these new works are much more thought out than previous works. I don’t paint and arrive at a conclusion, its pretty much pre-determined. I like the directness, it feeds more into my personality. I think I’m becoming more honest, understanding my weaknesses and building on the strengths. I’m involved in a fabulous painting show curated by Day + Gluckman – Material Tension which opens the 4th March at Collyer Bristow Gallery, London.
There is a big project in the pipe line , involving many moving parts with other artists. The fat lady isn’t singing on the funding aspect of it… yet, so I really can’t say a word. But if it happens, its not too far away in time. Fingers double crossed because this is what I’d love to sing and dance about.