Interviews

Artists Pick Artists: Susan Morris

Smashed window resembling one of Morris' reoccurring motifs, the spider web.
Smashed window resembling one of Morris’s recurring motifs, the spider web (notice the cat’s reflection)

Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.

We take for granted who we are. That is, we assume without reflection what a “self” is and that we all have one. Shouldn’t a selfie stick and Facebook page be enough to clear that up? David Hume might complicate the issue by suggesting that the self is a mere bundle of perceptions and experiences without any unity, without cohesion or center. In philosophy this is a problem of “personal identity.” How might an artist invest herself in a question of this sort? For one artist, the answer is very carefully. 

Susan Morris takes self-inventory — tracks the “I” — by actively collecting traces of herself through records of several kinds, and by several means. Painter Clive Hodgson recommended Morris for this interview series by saying, “I recognize in her work a rather unwitting, incoherent, and impressionable self.”

I was able to visit both Morris and Hodgson two weeks ago, on the same day, as they are located close along one of London’s canals. The three of us talked about a variety of subjects, most memorably the struggle of being an artist, and it’s only now that I’m back in New York that the most remarkable thing has struck me — how thoroughly divergent their works are from each other.

Hodgson is a painter’s painter, working loosely, lightly, and with what seems like great speed, followed by a process of ruthlessly editing what he’s made, hanging on his wall only what survives. Even then the pieces’ existences feel under threat. Morris is a conceptually oriented artist, accumulating the materials of her work over months and years in a detached and methodical way, producing her art and hanging on the wall an unedited tapestry of her life.

*   *   *

Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?

Susan Morris: At school I’d retreat to the art room where the teacher, Mr. J, played records. When Bowie released Station to Station, it stayed on the turntable for weeks. “Don’t listen to the words,” Mr. J would say, as he put on “Golden Years” again. “Listen to what’s going on with the backing track.”

I guess this attuned me to the undercurrent or underneath of things that, while being an integral part of the overall fabric, somehow float outside of it too. Typographical rivers in printed text, for example, or the optical ‘glitter’ across an image.

Susan Morris, "Untitled_(Light Exposure 2010 - 2012)" [Detail], 2014, Tapestry: Acrylic and linen yarn, 360 x 155cm 
Susan Morris, “Untitled_(Light Exposure 2010 – 2012)” (detail) (2014), tapestry: acrylic and linen yarn, 360 x 155 cm

RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?

SM: I’m interested in the sudden loss of selfhood that, as Roland Barthes has suggested, can be triggered by a photograph. Ann Banfield’s ideas about how novelistic sentence structure changed after the invention of photography have been central to my thinking. These “unspeakable sentences” that leave out the “I” operate in the same way as a photograph does — not because of what is pictured, but in what is reproduced, the presence of an absence.

I thought that a connection might be made between the glitter or undertow that had first attracted me to certain art forms and these gaps in memory, or blanking. Something survives from this drop out of the self, which registers as a kind of agitation: the “pressure of the unspeakable,” as Barthes puts it, “which wants to be spoken.” But how to make a mark that coincides with headlessness?

Throughout 2011, I kept a kind of diary using an app on my phone which allowed me to collect, by photographing, scanning, writing, or recording, anything that caught my attention every day throughout the entire year. Material from external sources, such as newspapers, advertisements, snatches of music or conversation overheard in public spaces, etc., were prioritized over internal commentary or personal opinion.

The time I bought my lunch, what I ate, where, and who served me were also being recorded, or tracked, in receipts. These accumulated alongside all those other printed records automatically generated on an average day, such as parking tickets, cashpoint slips, etc. Once added to the diary, these items begin to take on a voice of their own, actually narrating my existence for me. “I” am reduced to the scribble on the dotted line, the scratched-out day on the parking permit, or the name on an order of food. The diary thus becomes closer to a form of automatic writing or involuntary literature, with the first person constantly invaded, interrupted, or replaced by multiple other “I”s from elsewhere.

When I started this “diary project,” the plan was to bring everything together as a kind of novel — in the mold of Ulysses or Tristram Shandy. However, the sheer amount of accumulated material has produced a projected set of 12 books, which I am still in the process of completing.

Susan Morris, "Spread from the 'Diary Project' (a work in progress)", 2011-current, Paperback book, 13 x 21 cm, One of a planned set of 12 books (7 completed)
Susan Morris, “Spread from the ‘Diary Project’ (a work in progress)” (2011–ongoing), paperback book, 13 x 21 cm, one of a planned set of 12 books (7 completed)

Involuntary writing has its equivalent in automatic drawing. Since 2005, I’ve been recording my sleep/wake patterns using a device called an Actiwatch, which is worn on the wrist. Jacquard loom technology converts the data directly into a corresponding choice of colored yarn, to make large tapestries with each minute of each year represented by a single weft thread.

The Actiwatch also records ambient light levels. You can clearly see sun up /sun down plus seasonal light changes across each recorded year. You can also see the impact of artificial light, which intrudes ever more deeply into the parts of our lives which previously remained hidden, private. The Jacquard loom was the first invention to mechanize labor, working faster and for longer than a human could. Punch cards used by the loom evolved into the zeros and ones of computer technology. So there’s a connection between the Jacquard loom and technologies that drive productivity and monitor efficiency — at the expense, perhaps, of human life. Jacquard technology thus becomes an appropriate medium for works that trace a bodily unconscious that isn’t easily regulated by clock or calendrical time but instead goes its own, rather more unruly, way.

Digital technology allows me to capture data that has a direct physical relation to its referent — in other words, to make a mark that is also an indexical sign. But what the data tracks is peculiar, because it has no precise location. Movement — restlessness, for example — comes from nowhere in particular; its cause and motivation cannot be pinned down. In addition, and unlike other media, the output of a digital recording is arbitrary — data can be visualized in many different ways. This makes it interesting, because it reflects the nebulous and migratory character of the thing being captured.

"Untitled_(Activity and Light 2010 - 2012)", 2014, Tapestry: Silk and wool yarn, 589 x 155cm
Susan Morris, “Untitled_(Activity and Light 2010 – 2012)” (2014), tapestry: silk and wool yarn, 589 x 155 cm

RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?

SM: I’m very interested in Wolfgang Tillmans at the moment. It took me a long time to realize what he was doing, but when I suddenly got it — at a Maureen Paley show in 2008, and later at his 2010 Serpentine Galleries exhibition — it was quite a shock. Moyra Davey has also been very influential, especially since my friend, the artist Deirdre O’Dwyer, gave me Davey’s book The Problem of Reading.

The tapestries draw on two other artworks: John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) and Dürer‘s “Dream Vision” (1525). Boetti is big with me. Roland Barthes is so deep under my skin that the syntax of his later writings are probably part of my genetic make-up. I’m also too far gone in psychoanalytic (Lacanian) theory for anyone to save me now.

My hero is James Joyce. When Stephen from Portrait is forced to speak English, his “soul frets in the shadow” of the oppressors’ language. But this fretting, this agitation, might be precisely where the thing-that-is-not-the-“I” resides — a site of disturbance, rebellion, or resistance. To fret is to embellish, make patterns; the fret on a musical instrument produces different notes. With his fret-work Joyce took English and used it to speak Irish — Finnegans Wake must be read aloud to be “heard.”

Susan Morris, "SunDial:NightWatch_Sleep/Wake_2010-2014", 2015, Digital drawing for tapestry, 1440 pixels x 1826 pixels (one pixel for each minute of the five years recorded) 
Susan Morris, “SunDial:NightWatch_Sleep/Wake_2010-2014” (2015), digital drawing for tapestry, 1440 pixels x 1826 pixels (one pixel for each minute of the five years recorded)

RC: What challenges are unique to your process?

The challenge is to keep going, because I get nothing for ages! But only by allowing the material to accumulate over extended time periods can the thing I’m interested in write or draw itself.

This year I am completing two triptychs made over a 10-year period, one generated from samples of newspaper reportage, the other consisting of numbers drawn from environmental statistics. I’m using words to try and stage what can’t be spoken, and numbers to draw attention to things that can’t be counted.

I also need to work out how to exhibit the diary, a set of books to be read. The image from the project shown here, for instance, represents a single spread of thousands … I may be slipping off the edge of art (see definition of that, below).

RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?

SM: Albrecht Dürer’s “Dream Vision” (1525).

Albrecht Dürer, "Dream Vision" (1525), watercolor on paper, 30 x 43 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Albrecht Dürer, “Dream Vision” (1525), watercolor on paper, 30 x 43 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (image via Wikimedia Commons)

RC: So what is art anyway?

SM: I had to Google that:

art1

ɑːt/

noun

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Susan Morris, "Untitled_(Light Exposure 2010 - 2012)", 2014, Tapestry: Acrylic and linen yarn, 360 x 155cm 
Susan Morris, “Untitled_(Light Exposure 2010 – 2012)” (2014), tapestry: acrylic and linen yarn, 360 x 155 cm

RC: Who should be interviewed next?

SM: Mathew Hale. It’s possible that he, like Joyce, is a “fretter,” giving voice to unconscious thought. When I was a kid and got something wrong, my mum would always say, crossly, ‘You’re putting two and two together and making five!’ Given that I myself was one of five children, I couldn’t help but think … well … That’s the kind of thing I mean about Hale’s work.

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