#49: Saskia Bunce-Rath & Christiane Shortal

15th Feb 2022

Saskia Bunce-Rath and Christiane Shortal are both Christchurch-based artists working in drawn and embroidered mediums. Each creates worlds and mythologies in their works which explore narratives that intersect with their personal lives and interests. They also share a flat, both making their art from home. in the fading realm/first spill is the first exhibition at City Art Depot for 2022. Ahead of this, both artists sat down for a quick interview with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. in the fading realm/first spill opens 5.30pm Tuesday 15 February and runs through to 7 March 2022.

Cameron Ralston: Are these bodies of works related to each other?

Saskia Bunce-Rath: We were working on our own projects but in the same room. We were talking about how there are similar themes going on – sort of alien landscapes. Then we also have our crossover artworks where we gave each other a sketch which we used as inspiration for new work. We were also both looking at medieval art and depictions of fight scenes for a while.

CR: I can see the fight scenes quite clearly in your work Christie, but where does it come into your pieces Saskia?

SBR: I tried to do a fight scene but it wasn’t flowing compositionally so took more from depictions of ancient landscapes. I think I was more inspired by Christie’s previous artworks and taking my art into a more alien realm or landscape which I hadn’t really done previously. So some of these have two planets in the sky and arcs of lightning frozen inside of men has this massive being touching the planet.

CR: Both your exhibitions in 2021 explored dark themes. Saskia, you talked about existential doom and the world ending. And Christie, you talked about things in your personal and work life going poorly – the characters then representing yourself. You have both previously talked about the works being abstractions of your own individual experiences. Is that something you’re still exploring with these artworks?

arcs of lightning frozen inside of men, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 215x165mm, 2022

SBR: It’s hard not to be preoccupied with those feelings. I remember last time you thought that was kind of depressing and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s depressing’– this is my imagined future. Harkening back to creationism and the primordial world – things being made again. Christie and I watched a Happy Science cult documentary and they have an animated indoctrination film. We tried watching that film but didn’t get the whole way thought it. The idea was that aliens from Venus had come to Earth and made a new life here. The film was full of really intense imagery of Venus which I think got me to think about other planets, worlds and possible futures. Not that I am condoning this cult in any way – they are entirely messed up.

CR: What about you Christie?

Christiane Shortal: I was thinking about that primordial creationism as well. I love the weird very physical creation of gods in stories, like gods being born from cosmic eggs. I wanted these characters to feel like ominous, monstrous gods that have an implied and interesting creation story.

The scapegoat, Christiane Shortal, embroidery thread on cotton, lycra and felt, 460x370mm, 2022

CR: Do you still see yourself in the works? For example, last exhibition you saw yourself being surveilled in your personal life and that came through into the works through figures being watched over by alien creatures. Do you similarly see yourself in combat here?

CS: I think, whether you like it or not, things that you are attracted to come through in your work because of your own personal experiences. I wanted to challenge myself by doing more active scenes. I think a lot of my art is quite still. I like that about medieval art, that everything is so stactic but also in action and it somehow makes the gore really palatable. So I wanted to do the same with my works.

I definitely had another crazy year though.

CR: If the art is a reflection of yourself, and you were challenged, you would expect your art to be challenging.

CS: Yeah, it felt good having something to focus on. There’s something cathartic about doing fight scenes as well.

CR: Do you find making your work cathartic as well Saskia?

SBR: Umm, I’m not using it to release a negative emotion. But maybe these little scenes are escapes or windows to other realms, other planets. I know some people find them creepy but I find them quite peaceful.

CS: Now that I’m looking at our works together, they both feel like creation stories.

SBR: Maybe my climate change dread and depicting the future has moved on and now we’ve moved to alien planets.

CS: Do you think about things like terraforming other planets?

SBR: Yes, it’s on my to-do list, haha. There’s been a lot of sci-fi happening in the flat, so it’s been permeating my thoughts. I think knowing that we would be showing together, I wanted to take inspiration from your art.

CS: Well I did embroidery so I’m definitely taking one out of your book. It was hard, definitely took so long, it was a trial at times.

SBR: It was interesting how differently we approached the same medium. Christie is so particular with how she uses the thread and will take so long working on one little thing whereas I feel like I’m frantically working.

CS: You have a rhythm going on that I can hear. It’s a real punching, over and over.

flames burning at the heels of your feet, Saskia Bunce-Rath, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 205x155mm, 2022

CR: It speaks to the end result. Your works, Saskia, have quite a lot of movement in the way that you use the built up thread, where Christie’s works prioritise fine line – similar to the drawings of last year.

SBR: I wish I could be that particular, but it’s not in my nature.

CS: I’m not a perfectionist in my normal life, I’m quite messy. But it annoys me so much when art looks unfinished so I have to get to the end no matter what.

SBR: It’s funny that we were both freaking out over our borders not looking right. But then Lukas, who lives with us, comes over and says it looks great, you’re beating yourself up over nothing.

CS: I almost had a panic attack over one of the corners and had to iron it out because I thought it was wonky. But Lukas came over and was like, ‘It looks fine’. They’re our angel.

CR: Have you found that the dynamic of working together has made it easier to achieve the final body of work?

SBR: I feel like it was fun going through the process at the same time. Like we’d alternate being down about the work and then the other would help and remind you it’s just part of how making art happens and we’ll come out the other end and be happy. We were definitely affirming each other.

CS: I think it was good having the pressure of seeing Saskia working. It made me feel like I should be working. You would have Catan breaks and I would have Stardew Valley breaks, do some embroidery then play a game for a little bit and feel guilty if we got sidetracked for too long. 

CR: It’s interesting that you were also consuming other media outside your art at the same time and often together. So you end up coming from a place of similar influences – you talked about watching a lot of sci-fi.

SBR: We’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica. 

CS: And we also saw the new Dune which was really great. My partner is really into sci-fi and it’s kind of rubbing off on me. You and I have a medieval and sci-fi mix I think.

CR: The objects of the artworks have a lot of craft elements which come from long histories, but the imagery feels quite fresh and sci-fi. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

CS: I like doing medieval poses but then using childish colours. I use a lot of primary school colours. 

CR: The colours don’t come across as childish to me.

SBR: Yeah, I feel like you’ve been very particular about your colours. I remember you in the fabric store selecting all your very slightly different fabrics, I feel like you were very considered.

CR: Do you share materials?

SBR: Sometimes. I have a mad stash.

CS: But I feel like we use quite different colours in our works.

SBR: Like you use a green that I’ve never touched.

CS: Yeah, you use more of a nature-y colour.

CR: Even though you both use different colours et cetera, the works still feel quite cohesive.

SBR: There’s definitely a strong relationship between them but different at the same time.

CS: I didn’t foresee the colours working so well together. I’m definitely not as much of a green person, most of them are more blue. 

The contender, Christiane Shortal, embroidery thread on cotton, lycra and felt, 180x145mm, 2022

CR: You’ve talked a bit about the fight scenes but tell me about the smaller works. How do these fit in?

CS: They have a relationship to the large works through being masks. I think I do things pretty intuitively and then go back and research, then realise what I was grasping at. In a lot of old theatre – be it Korean, Japanese, Greek – there is this idea of stock characters which are archetypes that represent different things to the audience, so they know what role they are playing based on the signifier of their mask. Before I started this series, I was really inspired by an artwork at a Korean restaurant which was like a big tablet but had a lot of masks on it with lots of different variations in facial features. 

My relationship with my family sort of broke down at the start of this year and I realised that since childhood I was never allowed to be myself. It’s very cliched but I was encouraged to wear different faces for different situations. I watched this Jim Carrey interview a while ago and he was talking about masks and how people that wear masks can’t stand it when you’re not wearing a mask as well. That stuck with me because I was always told to hide my emotions growing up. 

SBR: If these are representative of you, are you the giant god wearing the mask or are you being attacked? Or maybe you’re both?

CS: I am both. I was thinking about that a lot. I know my parents probably see me as this scary thing. But I’m also the other person, worrying that I’m wrong and that I’m the bad person in the situation. Reminding yourself that you’re not the bad person in a situation and it’s not your fault is quite a journey. It’s kind of a relief when you break up with a toxic relationship but at the same time it’s very sad. I was thinking about how you can have a cult within a family and you become enmeshed in certain roles. As soon as you try step out of that role they pull you back in and you can’t escape that unless you remove yourself from the fabric that’s been woven. I don’t mind oversharing.

CR: Looking at the works, you can see your feelings coming through. When we’ve talked in the past, Saskia, you’ve had a push and pull about how much you want to tell people about the works and how much you want them to find within the works.

SBR: I guess the thing about an artwork, is that it’s an artwork for a reason. If it could have been a story or a poem I would have written it down. So there is stuff going on that I couldn’t explain with words anyway. They’re a little part of my soul.

CS: Why did you choose to add borders to some of these works? I feel like that’s different to other works you’ve done.

SBR: In that Jess Johnson workshop we went to, we did drawings with grids and she said, ‘First thing is to put on a border.’ I was thinking about that months and months later.

CS: It’s like we’re in a jungle and looking through at the scenes.

SBR: I was interested by your titles, because they sound like tarot card names. But they’re also Myers-Briggs personality types right? I’m pretty sure my one was the mediator.

CS: I was looking up different theatre masks or stock characters and then I came up with some but needed a couple more so went to Myers-Briggs, haha. 

The mediator, Christiane Shortal, embroidery thread on cotton, lycra and felt, 180x145mm, 2022

CR: The title for the show in the fading realm/first spill – does that refer to individual bodies of work or are they meant to come together somehow?

SBR: I think they are meant to work together which is why we put the slash there. I came up with the first part and Christie with the second.

CS: We weren’t sure how to merge a title together, because you have your distinct style of writing Saskia. 

CR: I feel like we’re reaching a conclusion here, do you have anything you’d like to add?

CS: I feel like we’ve talked a lot about our worries or struggles I want to finish with something positive. There’s this philosopher Alan Watts who talks about the big bang and how we’re all still a continuation of that, still evolving as a human race which also makes us connected to this moment we’re descended from. So even though we’re talking about destruction of the world or relationships…

SBR: Destruction can be creation?

CS: There’s still something to celebrate in humanity. We’re destructive, but also constructive. There’s hope we’ll sort this out.

SBR: There’s hope on Venus!