Saskia Bunce-Rath is a Christchurch based artist and poet who tells stories full of surreal myth and mystery crossed with her personal life through her bold embroidery thread. Ahead of her upcoming exhibition ‘we bled on the grass but we didn’t wake’ Bunce-Rath discussed her artworks with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston.
An accompanying text to the exhibition by Saskia Bunce-Rath is also available to read in this edition.
Text by Saskia Bunce-Rath
The snow dogs plume down from the sky and eat away all of the grasslands where the smallest gem people live in their quiet homes // the dogs roam the earth in giant white swathes // they eat away at it all // sometimes I see them sleeping on the very tops of the dry yellow hills that encroach on the horizons of the empty city // they are snow and we are snow // we try and catch them in our heavy palms // we are white with it // I say to you that we are brave to be wondering in this particular universe // where the sun is so small // I keep three knives hidden by my ribcage // just in case // and when I am reincarnated I charge into the black empty sky and live where the world is quiet and my neighbours are only gas giants light years away // and I dare you to touch me here // where all the particles are quiet and the softest shades of purple.
Saskia Bunce-Rath interview with Cameron Ralston
‘three faded stars and Venus glowing dimly in the sky, I wake up’, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 242x194mm, 2021
Cameron Ralston: Do these works have a shared story or narrative?
Saskia Bunce-Rath: Yes. Do you ever go on Reddit? Last year I found this Reddit page called r/collapse which is about the impending doom of our civilisation due to things like climate change, political instability, et cetera. So, I got stuck doomscrolling, reading about how the world is going to end in ten/twenty years. Bringing it back to the artwork, these are my imagined post-climate change disaster futures, where these beings are wandering in this reformed, remade landscape. I was also tying it back to things I was looking at last year: paganism, wicca, spiritual religious mythology icons. So, I have nods to that in this new world order.
For your 2019 exhibition ‘Should we run to the lake made of shining stones?’, you talked about the artworks representing the origin of a civilisation, pre-humans.
Yes! But now I’ve gone the other way – into the future. But I still think some of these are half-formed worlds. Some of the titles are reflective of that too. I was thinking more about the titles in relation to the works this time. There are more overt nods to my ideas around the work than I had done previously. The title of the show ‘we bled on the grass but we didn’t wake’ is about ominous bad things happening and being unaware of it.
Oblivious? But not you of course, because you’ve been doomscrolling.
I don’t know if you’ve done this but you doomscroll, then you get freaked out because your brain can’t handle it, so it suppresses it. It’s like thinking about your death. You can only think about it for so long before your brain says, ‘No, we’re not doing that anymore.’
I was going to ask if you had moved away from dark and moody themes but I guess not…
I perceive it as a hopeful future. Some of the scenarios I was reading about runaway climate change include the whole earth being incinerated. So, this is a positive outcome.
Is part of this bleak future you’ve created a reaction to the bleak year we’ve had last year?
Yeah, it definitely could be. I think I said previously that whatever I’m making is kind of a reflection on what’s going on in my life. So, I’m sure it was in some regard.
‘they’re screaming until it snows’, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 275x224mm, 2021
You’ve mentioned before that you want the viewer to take on the personal pronouns in the titles and become part of the work. Is that still happening here?
I think so, definitely. The titles are still mysterious, hard to unpack, and adding the personal pronouns hopefully involves you more in wanting to think about it. I named them all quite weirdly so I can remember which ones they are. This one is titled they’re screaming until it snows.
There’s definitely a climate change link in that one.
I felt like the work was almost too pleasant, so I wanted to put something more sinister with it. But for me it still feels positive overall.
The first work I saw was this one – feeling pearly feathers growing under my shoulder blades. The title has a transformational positive vibe and the character in the work is exploding with bright colours. It’s an interesting balance between dark themes and bright colours.
Sometimes I’ll try to not use those colours, but it’s impossible. They always come in somehow.
‘feeling pearly feathers grow under my shoulder blades’, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 230x180mm, 2021
I’m interested in the difference you see in how you approach a work using embroidery as opposed to essentially the same image painted. Is there a way that the works translate differently through the material?
I had to answer a similar question recently about the embroidery medium versus different mediums. I came up with a frustrating answer. Painting and drawing can be so freeing and the act of painting feels more artistic somehow. With these, they’re very laborious, doing the same motion again and again. It takes a very long time and it can be very frustrating. But in the end that satisfaction of having created can be more satisfying. Putting in the labour can be a good experience as well. I think people respond to that level of tangible effort being evident in something.
Where do you source these frames?
I usually go to Habitat for Humanity. They have a good selection of frames. I also get most of my threads second hand off TradeMe.
Do you look for frames that fit works you’ve made?
I do try different frames on different artworks. With these ones I’ve tried them in various different frames to see which one I thought worked the best. But obviously I’m limited by the selection of frames that I’ve purchased. I enjoy how they look. I can’t say there’s any deep conceptual meaning behind them but I feel like they fit with the aesthetic of what I’m doing.
There’s also something nice about using discarded things if the work is about the inevitable destruction of humanity through capitalism. Is being environmentally conscious about the materials you use to make art important to the work?
I try to be environmentally conscious, plant-based vegan, things like that. I’m that weird flatmate that goes through the recycling bin and takes out things that aren’t supposed to be in there. I am definitely happy with that being connected with my artwork but the works aren’t about that. It’s just how I live my life so that’s how I’m choosing to make and frame them.
‘something else, a shiver in the fabric of the air’, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 200x148mm, 2021
Have you changed anything about the way you make these since the last body of work?
Maybe not from the group show but the one before that I was definitely using thicker thread. So, with embroidery thread you’ve got six strands, I was using three or four but now I’ve gone down to two or one, which refines the detail and adds more time. The only one in this show which uses thicker thread is feeling pearly feathers grow under my shoulder blades.
I was looking back at my old artwork and thinking that I want to refine them more somehow. Though I wasn’t thinking about it consciously when I was making them, they do reference back to previous artworks that I’ve made. This one – I can hear them talking through the mist and I know I’m not meant to, but I dance anyway – reminded me of the character standing in front of the blue sky in I’m grinning, I’m grinning, and this one – something else, a shiver in the fabric of the air of the bunny in the green field – in I am not snow today.
These mountains have come up in your works previously too.
The origin of these mountains is funny as well. My year eleven art class teacher was obsessed with Bill Hammond so we painted Bill Hammond mountains for three months. How I ended up painting them then is how they’ve ended up here. They’re slopey, white on top…
‘running through the long fever green grasses, sky and skin smear’, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 205x145mm, 2021
Why do you think you’ve been referencing back?
I think it’s just pushing these characters and this world along further. There isn’t one long cohesive narrative going through the works, but they’re all in conversation with each other.