A conversation with Shannon Williamson, July 2016
15 August · Katrina
City Art Depot: Can you tell us a little about your background, as an artist?
Shannon Williamson: I finished my studies at the University of Canterbury in 2009. I had a studio in Christchurch but soon after the earthquakes I moved to Australia. I had applied for a residency with a group called Symbiotica that pairs artists with scientists to work on collaborative projects. I have always been interested in the body and in drawing, using line as a way to describe the body but in very different dynamic ways, so I was really interested in seeing if I could expand on that in a scientific way. My proposal was to look at sleep science, the study of sleep through the monitoring of the brain, heart and respiratory activity through a series of electrodes that creates lines on a computer that you can then be trained to interpret and read. I wanted to use sleep science technologies to investigate the body and to give me a new dimension on how to look at drawing.
CAD: And that proposal was accepted?
SW: As artists we were saying science is interesting for aesthetic reasons and as metaphors for philosophical questions as opposed to finding out truths. I think the scientists found that very airy fairy but they liked the idea of the project. They said you can come in, observe sleep studies and look at some of the data. But I wanted to do my own studies and for that you have to be a trained sleep scientist. So I trained to be sleep scientist. I moved to Perth but instead of doing the residency I studied sleep science for the year. After that I ended up working as a sleep scientist and having my arts practice on the side.
CAD: But there was a crossover?
SW: Absolutely. The scientific way of observing and working with the body and my own drawing practice really came together. I was always an observer of the body in a very distant way, through magazines and the internet – then suddenly in my job I was very intimate with other people’s bodies so my work started responding to that. A big part of sleep is circadian rhythms and other cycles that regulate our general functioning. I became very interested in cycles – synchrony and asynchrony as a means to feel very good about yourself or very bad about yourself if things are out of sync.
CAD: How did this experience feed into this particular “body” of work?’
SW: Some are more figurative, some are more abstract, but they are all investigations into how to navigate this very intimate and personal space that we can’t access – our internal self. We are so close with our bodies yet we can’t access these things or control them a lot of the time. This body of work responds to that lack of control, to the anxieties and fears around not being able to control our own internal workings. If you are healthy you think everything is fine, nothing can go wrong, then suddenly you get a sign or a test that says things are going to be very different for you and that alienates you from yourself. The quite colourful figurative ones, Hypochondriac I and II, were the starting points – that feeling you get when something is up but you are not quite sure what. Then a doctor says we think it might be this and as soon as someone plants that in your head your entire sensory experience becomes hyperbolic – you are suddenly hearing every twitch and every creak. I have a very synaesthetic relationship to my bodily experience – when I feel something or experience something in my physical being I interpret it as series of colour or abstract shapes. I think we all experience our visceral-ness and body experience as colour and interlocking shapes. Hypochondriac I and II are manifestations of those hyperbolic sensitivities to the body. So the tempo of the works is based on those emotional responses – they are metaphors for the emotional fallout or response to something going on physically.
CAD: And the vibrancy of the colour?
SW: The colour plans were very basic then I elaborated on them – there was a real happiness coming through. So while the subject is one of anxiety the application of colour and the process of work was an elevation of anxiety. The rainbow is a symbol for hope, the calm after the storm. For me the rainbow was this beautifully pre-made structure for me to fill with colour without thinking of the concept behind it.
CAD: There’s a lot of layering, especially in the larger works – how does that come about?
SW: At this time I was collecting a lot of information about my own body and writing it down. I’d get new results so I’d cross out the old ones and write down the new information – that was really therapeutic. Things aren’t static, things are constantly in flux. In that same way I decided to paint over some older drawings and rework my new story on top. It was quite nice to sacrifice those old ideas and thoughts but they were never sacrificed completely – when the paint dries and absorbs into the paper you get fragments of those moments of who you used to be coming back and together they form a new set of ideas which you wouldn’t have thought of if they hadn’t been lingering in the background. Going through this process has made me think of drawing as a time-keeping device, a way of marking passages of time – a kind of mapping. I didn’t want to get rid of everything – I didn’t want it to be a clean slate every time. We are a collection of our experiences.
CAD: So they are very inward-looking, emotionally and physically.
SW: Previously I focussed on the relationship between the carer and patient, or between myself and my partner when we were working shift work and our entire relationship was based on traces we’d leave in the house for each other. Here I’ve come back to the relationship between the self and the body and that lack of control when you feel you should have so much control.
CAD: As well as the layering there is a strong diagrammatic process underway – a nod to scientific representations of the body?
SW: Yes. Working with people with sleep apnoea, a lot of my work is data interpretation. I spend a lot of time looking at graphs and balancing that with how people’s bodies are responding and what can I do to make them respond better to the therapy. Graphing the body as a means of care is quite an interesting approach. You get all these numbers and then you can map the body through this information. It is quite bizarre that you can reduce your body down to a system of numbers that you can then turn into graphs or other things. When you are trying to transcribe quantitative information on the body it’s easy to get locked in to focusing on representation through diagrams but if you let yourself have a more emotional response you can let things play out – that is where the formal artistic thinking of composition, space and placement comes in and stops it from being diagrammatic or too prescriptive to become more artistic. So you are fragmenting the body, translating the body then reinterpreting the body through line which is what I have always been doing through art.
CAD: You prefer to work on paper?
SW: I find paper is much more akin to how I feel about the body. Oil on canvas doesn’t have the immediacy, fluidity and absorbency I feel the body needs – the canvas distances me from the subject. Drawing, watercolour and gouache are immediate. I like working with watercolour and Gouache. Gouache in particular has that fluidity but it can also be very strong and powerful and can mask things out like a skin.
CAD: Can you explain the title of this exhibition?
SW: The name of the sleep therapy I work with is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. Even before I started any work I wanted to make a series called Continuous Positive – about the relationship between me and the people I work with. The title was conceived of at a time when I needed money to make art, so I needed a job, but I needed time to make art which was hard with a day job – I had to be continuously positive about my practice. The continuous aspect also speaks to the layering process in the work which is a continuous building up and sloughing off of things. A process which is akin to what the body does all the time.
CAD: And repetition?
SW: There is a lot of repetition of dots and circular motifs. For me this speaks to a kind vibration you get in your body when things aren’t completely resolved. With repetition of these elements the works are not ever complete. Looking at them I can’t think of one thing I would add or take away, which is a nice place to be, but they are not complete in the way a literal representation of a body is complete. They stay open ended. They are open for other people to bring their body and their experience to it.
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