Sculptures as a visualization of parallel worlds
Conversation between Sabine Schaschl and Julie Hayward while walking through the “Subliminal” exhibition (Projektraum Victor Bucher, Vienna, 2014)

SSCH: We’re here in your exhibition titled “Subliminal”, standing in front of the sculpture Let’s dance. In this piece, two rings, over which a kind of curtain has been tossed, touch. I immediately thought that the sculpture is doing a sort of performance and at the same time addressing the performance itself and the stage. At the same time, there is the question as to what is happening behind the curtain and what could emerge from behind it. The sculpture thus very strongly activates the imagination, fantasy and associative faculties, touching a psychological component in our perception. Even in your earlier works this was an important element. To what extent can you control such associations and how these are triggered in the viewer?

JH: People viewing the works have very different associations. The sculptures are developed from drawings in which structures or forms consisting of various familiar elements emerge but at the same time also give shape to something new that cannot be clearly described. Everyone interprets the piece through his or her own history. No clear-cut interpretation is possible and it is also not intended. Of course the work also resembles a curtain but for me there is another association that would be more immediate. Let’s dance is a further development of previous drawings and sculptures in which such puddle formations appear, as for instance, in the work I wanna go home. Here, too, it is about an outer layer that remains, sticking to the ground in a kind of puddle. What was essential seems to be already gone here. In Catch me if you can, the puddle looks like a skin in which there is something living. A massive bracket stands for the attempt to hold this something, to bring it under control, but this is impossible. Here it is about something that happens on a level that is invisible to us, on a level that is often psychological.

SSCH: What appears to be a puddle as a piece of skin that leaves its original state and temporarily assumes a different form?

JH: For me in Let’s dance it looks as if this membrane or skin were being lifted by a force, brought into a form. And it is kept in this form by the rings. What would happen if the rings were not there – would everything then collapse? What would happen if there were not the massive bracket holding the two rings together – do they only hold each other and can these beings only be held up by virtue of the fact that they are connected to each other? Screwed together in a relatively brutal way?

SSCH: The theme of balance also relates to the piece. If one part were to be missing from the total structure, the work would not only look different but would also probably not be coherent.

JH: Yes, every detail is important, I really stick to the drawing on which the piece is based. When I do this, the sculptures also usually work. The association with balance, with equilibrium is interesting, because it is a recurring theme in the pieces. For instance, in Aequilibration, which with its stacked biomorphic wheels looks like a biological structure. Aequilibration has something very wobbly about it. The piece is about attaining a state of equilibrium on a psychological level. Equilibrium seems to be only a transitional moment leading to disequilibrium. Equilibrium is also a theme in the sculpture Ohne Titel (untitled) here in the exhibition. Even though it stands here now with its very massive presence, the sculpture can be very easily thrown off kilter, but then again it quickly finds its balance again. Even in Let’s dance the individual parts would most likely topple over, if it weren’t for the support of the bracket. It is different in the pieces of I wanna go home which seems as if it will soon topple over, or Home on Legs which stands on very wobbly legs.

SSCH: Is this balance, the exploration of a balance, something that you seek out for the thematic and formal composition of your works? And what is it that interests you about this subject?

JH: I am not just interested in the subject in individual pieces but also with regard to their arrangement and installation – that is, how the works relate to each other, complement each other or compensate each other. In the exhibition titled “Aequilibration” the subject of balance is addressed on two levels, thematically and in the arrangement. For the piece Aequilibration after which the exhibition is named, I developed the hanging piece titled Pounding Flow. Aequilibration had been created first, as a piece commissioned for the exhibition “Biomorph” that took place at the Kunsthaus Graz. Later I developed a separate exhibition around this work. As the name “pounding flow” says, you pound something in a flowing way. The piece resembles a war machine from a science fiction film, conveying, for me, something aggressive. It is the exact opposite of Aequilibration, which describes this search for an equilibrium, this fragility, which also symbolizes a psychological state. The term “aequilibration”, written in German with “Ae”, stems from psychology, and it is a phenomenon that Jean Piaget studied. This desire to be in a state of equilibrium is an illusion, since it is something that is constantly changing. Being in an equilibrium is always a brief interim state. Pounding Flow embodies a power that always works against it and can also throw someone off course. In most exhibitions it is so that I put together pieces that relate to each other and thus tell a sort of story. Here in the “Subliminal” exhibition, there is a juxtaposition of a rather fragile, moving sculpture and a massive, static-rigid sculpture.

SSCH: So it has to do with bringing the pieces into a balanced state, their being placed in a mise-en-scène. For me the staged quality of Let’s dance is an observation that won’t let go of me. The sculpture also has something extremely corporeal about it. It engages the viewer in a psychological sense. For sure this has to do with its size, but also with the aspect of movement, which is influenced by the way the rings are placed and the curtain or skin structure placed above it. The fact that two corresponding forms are in a dialogue with each other reinforces the impression of movement.

JH: For me it is interesting that you are addressing the stage because no one has seen it like that until now. But it is true, the works have always been staged. And movement also plays an important role.

SSCH: Even Ohne Titel, the second sculpture of yours here in the exhibition seems to have an inherent movement – this time I would describe this as a “rocking motion”. Can you say something about how you conceive movement or what the association of sculpture with movement means for you?

JH: Many of my works allow for an association with movement or a process, or a process of production. That is something I already noticed in earlier pieces. They seem to be like an individual still from a film or like frozen phases in a series of movements where one immediately begins to continue thinking about the movement or the process or rather, one is almost compelled to reflect on what is happening here or will happen here. As a result of the issues that arise here, one immediately engages with the work psychologically, as you already said at the outset. I thus made this short, funny video Suck which can also be seen in the exhibition.

SSCH: In this video you bring one of your sculptures into motion by means of computer animation. This certainly has something to do with Pygmalion, who succeeds with the help of the gods in bringing his sculpture come to life. Do you see this as a way to breathe life into your sculptures?

JH: This is an older video and it is the only one I made. The sculpture Suck tries again and again to hold onto something by means of motion. I found the video fitting in connection with this exhibition, since here, too, this comic dimension appears which is a part of all the pieces. Moreover, the trashy aspect of the way it is made stands in stark opposition to the sculptures that are extremely refined in terms of their production.

SSCH: In any case the video certainly shows that you allow for humour.

JH: Yes, most certainly! Humour is an absolutely essential aspect of my work. I find humour enormously important for getting some distance to this seriousness that tends towards the existential and that these works in part have on an emotional level.

SSCH: What immediately captivates about your piece Ohne Titel is that it appears to have a corporeal effect.

JH: That also has to do with size. In these sculptures of mine, this is also essential. It is something that I have selected deliberately. I spend quite a long time working on the size until it is really just right.

SSCH: Much about the effect of the sculpture is related to the question of size. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?

JH: The size always relates to the human body. In my case, there is initially always a drawing. I then make a small model, also a cardboard model in order to find the right size. Here in the sculpture Ohne Titel the upper opening has been placed at eye level, while in Aequilibration it is the girth of the arm. The pieces Shelter and Home on Legs are based on my own body size – I would fit into both of them. That is perhaps a formal aspect but it is very important in the way they are perceived, since this is how the sculptures assume something “human”. The drawings, by contrast, are not all accurate in terms of perspective, and very often one sees them from above – I don’t really know why this is the case. This must have something to do with sculptural perception, with three-dimensional thought, this way of drawing. And for me it is simply important, as here in the piece Let’s dance, that I have this overview also in sculpture. As soon as you make the sculpture a bit higher, the overview is cut off. You can no longer get into it, as one could say figuratively speaking.

SSCH: So the process from the idea to the sculpture proceeds via three steps: drawing, model and formal execution of the sculpture?

JH: Drawing, a small model, and most recently there is also always a cardboard model. I used to produce a scale drawing of the original drawing by means of a very old-fashioned grid system so as to bring it into a dimension where I could imagine it as a sculpture. There were two large cardboard models of the piece Ohne Titel, in one case a bit too small and in another case a bit too high. The exact size is also significant in such a massive sculpture.

SSCH: The drawings give the impression of having sprung up from ideas that are already very clearly defined. Is there still something like sketches in which a form is developed?

JH: As for the drawings, since I have already made so many of them, it now happens that when I begin to draw, things that strike me as uninteresting appear first. Then there is the point where something – whatever it is – takes hold, be it concentration or the fact of being in a certain moment. Then new elements appear which I find exciting. The drawings in which something I do not yet know come to the surface interest me. I then place a sheet on top of another one, take up these parts and continue to elaborate them. Sometimes the drawing is there right away, sometimes it is a process but it does not have the lightness that it appears to have. There are many sketches that I throw away.

SSCH: The piece Ohne Titel consists of two parts – there is a smaller work consisting of a number of pieces that is related to the large sculpture.

JH: These parts are also already lying there next to it in the drawing. For me it was clear then that it would look as if the parts had been punched from this form. So no matter how you look at it, whether these are now faces, various identities – if I describe it this way it almost becomes too simple for me. [laughs]

SSCH: For me it is more of a corporeal sensation of “head”, I don’t mean a fully shaped, figurative face. When I look at these two sculptures then I immediately sense a relation to my head and concentrate for a moment on my head without seeing any faces there. And when one speaks about the body zone of the sculpture I immediately extend my hands to express how I perceive the volume of the sculpture. There is thus a brief moment echoing physical perception. In a certain sense, it is as with Maria Lassnig’s paintings which underscore what it perceives in corporeal terms.

JH: For me the reference to Maria Lassnig is really lovely, because I am a big fan of her work and I have of course spent time studying it. In Maria Lassnig, in addition to formal issues, conveying emotions also has a lot to do with colour – in her work every colour stands for a certain feeling or emotion. I, too, have often thought whether there is a parallel here but on a formal level. She was a painter and I am a sculptress. I hardly use any colours, many of my recent pieces are black or skin-coloured. Conveying emotions for me takes place mainly via the form, the size, the surfaces and the way the works are arranged so that they relate to each other. Colour also plays a role here but more by way of the alleged material and what associations this material allows.

SSCH: In your exhibition you also included a photograph that depicts a wrapped tree. Here the connection to the body immediately becomes clear – one thinks of bound feet and can even recognize something resembling a supporting leg and a free leg.

JH: Recently I have produced a new photo series with found sculptures or installations that in the broadest sense also have to do with the sculptural gaze. In this photograph about which we just speaking I was able to create an associative link to the work Let’s dance. Given the fact that Let’s dance also has something heavy, something that resembles rubber, in addition to the references to puddles, they look like they first want to dance but at the same time they remain glued to the ground. The tree trunks look like a supporting leg and a free leg and I have associated the pieces of cloth wrapped around them with ballet tights or leg warmers. The “legs” look as if they could begin to move at any moment, but they cannot, since they are tied to the ground. – Relating to this, I would like to show you a wall drawing in the foyer, since it could also create another link … In several sculptures, this box form appeared, for instance, in TV-Baby. This box form is, however, always outsourced, and it is as if this outsourced form, in addition to the biomorphic one, symbolizes a structure. In this drawing here you can only see the boxes and a connection that is very loose. Normally, there is a biomorphic form there and a very rigid brace to maintain the form or perhaps to give it structure.

SSCH: I would like to once again come back to the role of photographs in your work. You often integrate photographs in your exhibitions so as to show a thematic connection with the sculptures. I asked myself whether in each group of works you move subject into everyday life as it were, and when you find an analogy you use it as a kind of sketch and later integrate it into the piece. The photographs thus dock onto the real world while the sculptures represent a sublimated form of them. Can you elaborate a bit more on this connection between real world and the one in which your sculptures find their form of manifestation or existence?

JH: For me the sculptures do not just move in the realms of art, they are very real for me. [laughs] That is something I live with and what is part of my life. Over time I have developed a formal language, or it is simply there, depending on how you want to see it – but this reality is just as present. Also the parallel world that you describe is something that exists even if it is not visible. The sculptures are like a visualization. Of course, never without ambiguity for something specific – but they do describe something for me, something that I am engaged with. It is not that there is a subject, which I approach but rather so that everything begins with a drawing. When I develop the work, I do not know initially what it actually is. There is a drawing that interests me for some reason or I find fascinating, and I notice that it must be something that really engages me at the moment – and perhaps not just me. Sometimes I think that this transcends the personal realm. The pool from which all of these shapes come – the forms out of which the sculptures are composed – is in my view generally rooted in the unconscious. When I develop a piece, I think about what there actually is – and at some point, when I give it a title, which is important, I look for it or try to explain it. Then there’s the point where the title is very clear for me and then I sometimes read up on the subject – as, for instance, in Aequilibration. Then comes the point where I think, yes, that describes precisely what the work represents for me. This point where it starts to unravel is a crucial experience and a necessity, since it is not exactly pleasant to carry all of this around in me in an unravelled state. It is as if you bring form to something, it faces you clearly, you think about it and then you can put it away and take some distance from it. Here, humour also plays a significant role. The process is the same when I develop further works to go along with it. I don’t sit down and think what I could do but rather look into my archives of drawings, which is quite extensive. The photos then evolve independently of this. Perhaps because of the selective perception they have something to do with the subject I am presently engaged with. Sometimes there are photos that I believe relate to the subject of the exhibition in a formal way or on an emotional level and develop the theme on yet another level.

SSCH: Something I would like to address is the precision with which you conceive and then implement your works. Do you have an idea, a theme that engages you, do you reflect on the various ways to implement it and decide by means of an exact reflection how to actually implement it the right way?

JH: My work begins not with the idea, as we have already discussed, but with the drawing. Thanks to the drawing I have access to unconscious levels that I cannot imagine and to which I don’t even have access to in dreams – I have never seen any of these forms in any of my dreams. I find that interesting. There must be a certain level where everything that one assimilates is stored in forms and imagery. I picture this to be like an alphabet on a pictorial level. I must cite Jan Starobinski here – he claimed that psychic automatism is a possible way to access thoughts in their primal state. So what engages me is already latently present here, and at a certain point of concentration this can shape a line into an image by way of drawing. It is actually like a language in its own right, which I first had to learn to understand. Already in the drawing I can clearly recognize what the work is going to look like, and also sense the material. When I then proceed to implement it, it is a tedious process. First come the various models about which we spoke. Then I develop a shape in its original size, create negatives and laminate the raw body and, last not least, laminate the surface to go with it. The surface says a whole lot, whether it is lacquer, synthetic leather or a soft surface after all – or simply one that is only an optically soft in a deceptive sense. Recently the surface has often become reduced to a layer of black lacquer that looks like rubber. It is a separate discipline to apply this lacquer so that it really looks like rubber. Furthermore, each connection has to be consistent – whether a screw is recessed or not or whether a link is visible or not – and the way something hangs. Every detail is important.

SSCH: For a while it can be seen that there is greater reduction and compression in the visual idiom you use. The sculptures are more minimal in their formal implementation and less narrative.

JH: That’s also how I see it. What I observe is what happens in the drawing. You also know the earlier drawings – they were very narrative and playful. The longer I do this, the simpler the forms become and the more reduced the drawings. I used to often omit quite a bit when developing the sculpture from the drawing, leaving out some elements of the drawing. At the time I thought it could be interesting to develop entire installations, environments out of this, but I didn’t implement this idea. In the meantime the drawings have very much become reduced to a self-contained form – and this without any intention on my part.

SSCH: In the pieces Kitzelkorsett (tickle corset) and Home on Legs, for instance, the reduction that I alluded to is formulated very well. The physical component is also very pronounced. In one moment, the body seems to be captivated as by a corset, and in Home on Legs the corporeal element is accentuated in the form of architecture or of a shelter. The theme of the body is like a red thread that runs through your entire oeuvre.

JH: This box on the legs is actually the most confining space surrounding me when I am lying on my side. It’s about the idea of place to take refuge to. It is of course small and tight and it also has holes. In one’s imagination one could reach into it. The work has a lot to do with boundaries, delineation and retreat – but it’s on very wobbly legs. The pieces are not conceived with the intention of really being used.

SSCH: You spoke about “reaching in” to it, which brings us to the subject of feel. In some of your sculptures you can actually put your hand into them, but usually you feel the desire to touch the sculptures and you can only do that in your mind.

JH: You are not allowed to touch the sculptures. It is also about my wanting to keep the viewer in suspense, not revealing whether something is soft or hard – which can often not be deciphered optically and one is not allowed to reach in. One exception is the piece Phobic, which was conceived to also function for the blind. Phobic is a piece that was commissioned by the Admont Monastary. Other artists, such as Baumann, Kienzer, Hahnenkamp, Reiterer and Trummer as well as many others, have created works for this special collection which in the meantime is one of the largest in this field. In Phobic I really reduced the form so that it can be experienced more by means of touch. I also found a lacquer that has a rubbery feel to it. In the other objects that you are not allowed to touch, the surface often resembles rubber, but here it is only a layer which gives you the feeling of rubber when you touch it. The funny thing about Phobic is also that when you approach it, it begins to tremble from a certain distance. It looks very simple but it involves an intricate technique – within the outer layer there is once again this elliptic shape at a certain distance which is clad with rubber and plush. When you reach into it, you cannot see anything because it is dark and black, you touch the hairs and then there is this frightening moment.

SSCH: This desire for tangible experience is evoked in several sculptures by the material used. I remember the pieces made with plush or fur.

JH: In Pounding Flow I used felt to underscore the black, which absorbs all light. Then you don’t see any sort of lacquer, you simply stare into the dark. This is also the case in the piece I wanna go home. It’s true, in the past I often used plush, also in the pieces Kitzelkorsett and Home on legs. The work Bound Slippers is also covered with plush; however, that is already visible in the drawing, there are all these small hairs that have been added to the drawing. Synthetic leather is also often used to underscore an organic impression.

SSCH: It’s an interesting aspect that you use a tactile surface to accentuate the colour and surface appearance. A three-dimensional surface has, as we know, more spatial depth and as such also has a different colour effect.

JH: Sometimes the pieces are actually soft on the surface, as in the piece Shelter or Pooped where the surface makes you think of orthopaedic aids. In Pooped the material that covers the foam rubber resembles children’s tights. Here it is about a visual feel but it also has to do with the associations that materials – or what seems to be a certain material – evoke in combination with the form.

SSCH: Let’s address the psychological aspect again. I think one could say your sculptures not only trigger physical sensations in the viewer but also psychological ones, that push themselves sometimes more, sometimes less into the foreground. This lets me think of one of the most fantastic artists of the 20th and 21st century – Louise Bourgeois. Here I am less interested in citing formal or compositional similarities than in thematic ones. Louise Bourgeois translated her difficult relationship to her father, and, more generally speaking, the relationship between men and women, in a very personal way in sculpture and also broke taboos in the process. I think that this exploration of psychological aspects also plays a role in your sculptures. How do you see the difference between Louise Bourgeois and your works?

JH: The works do not have so much in common in formal terms. I think that in her case the personal dimension is really a subject and it is something that she elaborates on precisely, relating it to personal experiences. Her themes, of course, also have something more universal, since what she addresses is something many people are familiar with. In my work there is also the personal dimension but it is not addressed as such. The thoughts, memories that arise while I am working are things that I partly keep to myself. I don’t address them because it would become too intimate for me and would develope in a direction that I do not want. I would prefer to express things in a more general way. Even if I can clearly recognize something personal in my work and am also very strongly moved by it, for me, once it has has been given its form, the work loses its personal character from a certain point on. I don’t seek form by wanting to make something on a certain theme. Rather the theme simply emerges by itself. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am connected to a kind of morphogenetic field, which functions as a kind of universal memory. It is thus never entirely without ambiguity. The personal dimension is perhaps once again broken by humour. There is a humorous aspect in Louise Bourgeois’ pieces but they are also very serious. For me, it is of course also serious, but I don’t always want it to be like that to such a degree. I also need distance to be able to endure this. I must be able to engage but also to disengage as well while I am drawing. The danger is always there: if you are really only inside of it all, you may end up going crazy.

SSCH: The distance one has to one’s own work is important to be able to also lose yourself in it again. Thank you for this really informative conversation.