Where's the frame
April 14, 2023 3:28 PM
Theresa Weber is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptual multi-media installations are a blend of personal, cultural and historical references that reflect her approach to identity as a fluid and ever-changing network. wtf? had the pleasure of visiting Theresa in her studio to talk about her creative process and delve into the different philosophies that influence her work.
As we stand before her works presented in the exhibition space of the RCA, Theresa takes me through the main concepts she explores. We start with her Social Bodies, which she created as a collaborative installation with fellow RCA artist Maria Positano. In the works Theresa created, hanging from the ceiling, you can see sculptural work, pieces of her own clothing and other kinds of fabric, twisted and turned, interwoven with clips, rings, hair extensions, hand-sculpted modelling clay and other ornaments. By combining her own clothing pieces and cutting them up, and entangling them with other ornaments, she opens it up. Some of them are wearable as costumes as well. ‘They become a network,’ in this way, she looks ‘at the body as a network’.
The materials that she uses all bear significance. ‘I started collecting all these materials and little details, like cheap materials that you find, but they're like very culturally loaded and started to work with them,’ she explains.
While the composition of each piece is complex, there is a sense of equality between the different parts. ‘It’s non-hierarchical; all elements are just as important as the others'. The way you understand these culturally loaded ornaments will depend on your context.
Referring to some materials she uses, like nail extensions and hair extensions, she shows the social constructibility of it, ‘These feminine attributes in Caribbean culture are decoded as strong, while in white feminism it has been looked down upon'. She works with these references and transforms them. ‘I want to reinvent specific traditions and make them something new. Making it open and infinite, not definite answers, a suggestion, observations, a feeling'.
In this way, her artworks offer a radical and pluralistic perspective, critically examining the concepts of race and class while seeking to broaden our understanding of identity as a fluid and ever-changing network. As her work deals with the constructability of identity and the possibility for more fluidity, we talk about Judith Butler's groundbreaking contributions to the notion that identity is not something that has inherent truth and is not fixed. ‘Judith Butler was helpful for me in the sense that it helped me understand the complexity within identity,’ she makes clear, ‘but I transferred it to my understanding of cultural identity.’
However, she clarifies that her biggest influence comes from another thinker, Édouard Glissant, a philosopher from the Caribbean island Martinique. She expands on how his chaos theory is a key concept that is deeply relevant to her practice, particularly in her exploration of cultural hybridity and fluidity. It’s the idea that chaos, or the state of constant change and transformation, is an essential part of the creolisation process, which refers to the mixing and blending of cultures that occurs through migration, colonialism, and globalisation. In her practice, Theresa engages with this idea of chaos by creating collaged arrangements of cultural material that are fluid and unfixed. By weaving together different elements, including personal materials and referencing different underrepresented parts of history and culturally charged materials, Theresa opens up a space for new possibilities. She subverts a less restricted, close-ended approach to identity. creating traces that are intuitive, fragile, and ambivalent, showing how identity is something that’s a network: complex and fluid and open to change.
The connection to Glissant is a personal one: ‘Growing up in Germany, part Jamaican, I was feeling very isolated’, she reveals, ‘Glissant’s work spoke to me because it s about individuality, re-invention, and traces of traditions for yourself'.
Moving over to her studio, we talk about another series of works she has been working on since 2020. Like the previous work we discussed, she has created complex compositions with different elements and patterns, with their own system and logic. The works are sculptural but wall based and all have the same dimensions of 2 meters by 160 cm. She explains that as she is 164 cm tall, the artwork relates to her body. ‘It’s about mapping out my body, but also being body extensions. I want to create landscapes that are intuitive and emotional, and work as archives'.
In these works, she uses acrylic paste or silicone, starts with a grid, and then continuously breaks it up, creating a playful, sculptural mosaic. ‘I like the direct process - open gesture - repeat this movement, it becomes a ritual, creating these patterns, my own universe'. I tell her how they remind me of playdoh and growing up in the 90s, and makes clear that that’s intentional and that they are supposed to feel nostalgic.
The works have an intense black colour in the background, which is of interest to the artist, ‘it refers to the Blackness of being the source of everything and the idea of dark spaces being fruitful instead of scary.’ Expressing her fascination with it, she says ‘Infinity, the deep sea, the soil, it’s all a beautiful mystery that cannot be fully understood, but this unknown is a creative space for invention. The unknown, the absent, and the gap offer a creative space for filling and healing, and the work is about exploring this uncomfortable feeling of not knowing and accepting it’.
The works in this series are loaded with specific personal references, and in the same way how she uses personal clothing as material in her Social Bodies, there is an autobiographical quality to her work. For example, you can see her fingerprints in the silicone she has incorporated. ‘But it’s about opening it up and extending it’. On top of this, there are references to history and research, and all together, the works function as an archive as well.
For example, she included prints of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. In Title, she has included a picture of a stone sculpture of the goddess, and she shed light on how she embodies a wide range of concepts. ‘Ishtar takes three forms. She is the goddess of love and sexuality, and thus, fertility; she is responsible for all life, but she is never a Mother goddess. As the goddess of war, she is often shown bearing arms and has the ability to transform and appear as male or female'. This is significant to her because ‘Mythological figures are allowed to be complex and unfixed. I think that might be a timeless desire to be that way'.
While we continue to discuss her wall-based work, she expands on another important recurring reference in her wall-based work: Ludwig van Beethoven’s death mask in different pieces. She’s included this because, in recent years, there have been debates among scholars (and on social media) that the German composer Beethoven might have been biracial. ‘It’s a process of Afro-German history and Afor-German archive and the whitewashing of history'.
This idea ties into her practice as it adds an extra layer of complexity to her exploration of cultural hybridity and fluidity and raises questions about how our understanding of identity and cultural heritage is shaped by historical narratives and power structures.
In the lecture performance Moonlight Sonata, performed recently at South London Gallery for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2022, she explored the theory in another way. In this performance, she delivered a text based on her writing that was recorded in the studio about the idea that Beethoven might have been Black. The performance was a collaboration with her friend and sound artist Nathanael Amadou, who included a few cuttings of a phone call with Joy Yaa Kincaid. Wearing her Social Bodies as a costume connected this performance even deeper to her overall practice and extending it even further.
All of the works should be considered in combination with each other. ‘Like a mosaic - it’s not about each individual piece, it’s about keeping on extending it, creating a pattern in the space, making a physical space that is complex and entangled'. Her work is a fascinating challenge to the notion of identity as a fixed and unchangeable concept. Instead, she presents identity as a fluid and ever-changing network of cultural material that is open to interpretation. Theresa’s work invites us to reconsider our understanding of identity and cultural hybridity, offering a new perspective that is open-ended, pluralistic, and interconnected.