Friday, October 8, 2010

Making a Link: Q&A with El Anatsui Out in Today's Post

I'm quite excited about the El Anatsui retrospective that's on here in Toronto at the ROM right now--Anatsui's sculptures, which bind together often-discarded materials like bottlecaps and milk-can lids, are stunning. So I was excited to get the chance to chat with the Nigerian-based artist when he was in town for his exhibition preview last week. Our condensed exchange, out in today's Post, focuses on the way that Anatsui tends to include others or reference others in his practice--so much so that he talks about his students' works in his lectures and says he would like to collaborate with non-art professionals in future. To me this also reflects his material practice of bringing overlooked items together. Here's an excerpt from our Q&A:

Q Last year when you gave a public lecture in Toronto, you started by showing some artworks created by your students. No other artist of your stature does this. Why did you?

A Because I've spent most of my career teaching and, at times, students' work is very strong -- strong inspiration to me. They come up with solutions that you have not thought about. It's not that they inspire me to work exactly like them, but they inspire me to search deeper.

Q That "searching deeper" also relates to something you said last year -- that you still don't feel you've reached the level of your own art heroes, that you still feel a need to get better. So here we are at your 40-year retrospective. Do you still feel the need to improve?

A I still feel the same thing. The nature of the profession is that you never get satisfied with what you have done. There are always new things beckoning at you -- vaguely, from a distance.

Q What's beckoning to you right now?

A I said "vaguely." Ha! If you can name what is beckoning, then it doesn't become interesting.

He was a fun person to speak with. The show, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, will open there next year and then go on a US tour. You can read more of the Q&A here.

(Image of El Anatsui's 2007 Venice Biennale installation from Newsgrist/Robert Goldwater Library)


Anonymous said...

another of my favorite artists & once again my timing is so off in being in toronto can't they put these on in the summer when i visit???!---will be there in spirit :)-C

Ingrid Mida said...

I admire his work so much. It gave me shivers when I saw it for the first time in New York a few years ago. However, I cannot stop thinking about one part of your Q&A in which he suggested that if an artist works in more than one medium, he/she is flitting around. "If you pick a medium or a process, you (must) stay with it for a long time."
I am an artist that works in a variety of mediums. And there are hugely successful artists/designers who have done so in the past including Leonardo da Vincci, Picasso, Degas, Cecil Beaton, Karl Lagerfeld, Damien Hirst.
As an arts reviewer, what is your take on this? Should an artist stick to one medium or not?

Leah Sandals said...

Hi guys,

Thanks for your comments.

I think your question is a very valid one, Ingrid. I just didn't happen to ask it myself due to time constraints and general direction of the interview.

I think art (like life) is a realm where a lot of seemingly contradictory truisms can apply. And people themselves can be contradictory, right? Anatsui says he actually hadn't intended to continue working with bottlecaps, but he did, and so maybe it's a little bit of hindsight being 20/20 there, or self rationalization. He obviously has worked in a range of media so can't completely adhere to that statement himself! Still, the message about the possibilities of commitment is appreciated.

Your comment reminded me of a book with a lot of these contradictory trusims about art. The book is called Art and Fear and is well worth a read.

Ingrid Mida said...

Hi Leah,
I came back to read your answer to my question. I've read that book but perhaps I need to read it again....

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Ingrid,

Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner.

I think the question of whether it's okay to change media could have been pushed harder in the interview. I just chose not to pursue it.

I guess what I was trying to say is that from my perspective, both things are true--commitment can yield beneficial results, but so can switching it up when the timing is appropriate. Anatsui's own career reflects this. So I guess that's what I mean by contradictory things being true.

The reason Art and Fear came to mind is there's a great anecdote in there about how focusing on quantity of production can actually improve one's progress sometimes more so than focusing on quality of production. But at the same time, of course, it's not a bad thing to be sensitive to quality in one's work. Both things can be true--again, hence my thought about the book. Or I guess there's a lot in there too about master-still-being-student, but master-still-being-teacher-of-student. Guess I should reread it too!

Ingrid Mida said...

Hi Leah,
As you can tell by my revisiting this topic, it is still on my mind! I went to see the exhibition yesterday and I laughed when I saw the range of mediums on exhibit. Besides his wall-hangings, he also engages in drawings, painting and sculpture. I think that is definitive proof that he contradicted himself.
And yes the quantity versus quality is one of the best parts of that book.