Saskia Bunce-Rath graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury in 2018. As an artist and poet, she explores mood and quasi-narratives through her depictions of ethereal creatures wandering in imagined lands. She mixes text and painterly compositions to further deepen her unearthly atmospheres. Texture, surreality and definition is built into her works through a bright use of textiles and thread. Cameron Ralston talked to Saskia Bunce-Rath ahead of her exhibition Should we run to the lake made of shining stones? at City Art Depot 6–26 August.
Cameron: In your 2018 exhibition at City Art Depot I am near the forest, but never in it you said you presented ‘a potential future where humankind has perished and only strange half spirits remain.’ Are you representing the same hypothetical spaces in these new works? Or is there a shared narrative that links the works together?
Saskia: No. I feel like in this show I’ve gone in the opposite direction in my head. I’ve gone back, not to the dawn of time but to the beginning of something, the beginning of an idea or a feeling. I feel like my work is about what I’ve been thinking about or what’s been happening in my life. So, this exhibition is more about my relationship and love – this birth of a new feeling but also tying it back to a more primal instinct. Which is why in the work should we run to the lake made of shining stones? should I take off my second skin, for example, the figures have become more animalistic, running across a landscape instead of standing softly as they have been in the past.
‘should we run to the lake made of shining stones? should I take off my second skin’, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 2019
Yes, you seem to have reduced the works down, which fits in with that idea of a genesis or origination of something. Your previous exhibition would have followed things in your personal life, layered into a different world as well?
That show was about a waiting feeling for me. The figures were quite static and most often by themselves. In these works something more is happening, something has developed, and I’m moving forward rather than having a stationary, meditative moment within the artwork.
How does the title for this exhibition, Should we run to the lake made of shining stones?, fit into your personal connection to this world?
The title for the exhibition is a shortened version of should we run to the lake made of shining stones? should I take off my second skin. That’s just about shedding something. You’re right in that I’m taking my personal experiences and feelings and transforming them into this iconography and world that I’ve created for myself in the artworks. But these aren’t directly, narratively carrying on from my last show.
You include poetry with each artwork. Do you use this as a way of giving viewers more insight into that world?
Yes, well the poems are often stuff I’ve overheard, a little snippet from something I’ve read, or a phrase that begins resonating in my mind which I’ll take and then expand upon. But the poems and titles aren’t meant to be very obvious. They’re not meant to explain anything but to add this other layer which makes you consider or think a little bit more about what you’re looking at.
In some ways it makes the works even more mysterious than what they are at face value. The works have something of a mythical quality to them in the way that you depict the characters and present scenes, as if taken from a tale. Are you borrowing or taking inspiration from any particular realm of mythology? Previously you’d mentioned the Egyptian dog-headed figure Anubis.
I had also talked about Steiner theory, which is what I looked at while studying for my Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury. I went to the (Rudolf) Steiner School as a child and they give you a 101 on mythology, which stuck in my mind. Also, when I was growing up my mum was obsessed with fairy tales, she’d read us all types, so I feel like it originates in my childhood.
Where did you produce these works?
From my bedroom – my bed studio. People often ask me if I have a studio but I’m too poor. If I was making big paintings or something that merited renting a space, then I would, but right now it doesn’t.
You’re working part-time as well?
I work four days a week so 20–30 hours in customer service, I’ve been there for nearly a year. I also volunteer at a library.
Curation of colour is quite integral to the works. Where are you sourcing your threads from?
If I need a very specific colour I’ll buy it from Spotlight but sometimes I’ll go on Trade Me and find people selling collections that are, for example, from their grandma or they’ve decided to try embroidery and given up so they put bunches of it on there for quite cheap. I have quite the monster pile on my desk at the moment. It’s good though because I can pull out whatever colour I need.
How did you make the transition from painting to embroidery during your Masters in painting?
I started off painting at the beginning and had been experimenting doing embroidery in my free time. Just little things like on bags or patches. One day I ended up making a bigger one and brought it into one of my crits and everyone was like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool!’ I found I really enjoy doing it and it lends a differentness to painting.
There’s a movement and texture in the works that is achieved in a different way to paint. People enjoy the amount of detail you get in the works, some of which comes from it being a tactile material.
People like that they can see how much time and effort I put into the artworks as well. I think it makes people appreciate them more.
It does take a lot of skill to make these works too. I guess because these embroideries have a strong attachment to craft. Painting has that too but a lot of the public view it as being something that can be picked up quickly.
People who think that are just wrong.
It absolutely is wrong but there is a bias which comes when people look at art. Especially with abstract art like these.
As I’ve found out, abstract art is one of the hardest things to do. Yet people are often like, ‘My kid could do that.’
‘the ones inside you are gathering bones’, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 2019
Can you give me any insight into the meanings behind particular works, such as the more isolated scenes with the mountain or lone characters?
the ones inside you are gathering bones was inspired by one of my favourite movies, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s a musical with a song in it called The Origin of Love, which refers to a Greek myth where humans used to be joined together with two faces and so on, then the gods out of jealousy came down and cut them in half to punish them and so you spend the rest of your life looking for your other half, hence The Origin of Love.
In this one over here, storms shine on, we sure do use the time, I was looking at abstract paintings by Hilma af Klint because I watched that movie Personal Shopper a few years ago and there’s a scene in which the main character is looking through her artworks. I found myself quite taken with them.
‘storms shine on, we sure do use the time’, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 2019
I feel there’s a lot of myths about giants forming landscapes, often becoming the land themselves. Does that play into this work, ‘I die in a cold morning, dew, dew, dew on fur’?
Yes, that was one of the earlier works I did. It was based on a painting I presented at the Arts Centre last year on one of the printed outdoor billboards. I really liked it so I turned it into an embroidery. I’ve changed the title and the poem from what it was originally and added in this ghost figure.
What prompted the changes?
The poem originally was quite twee, or pleasant, but when I finished making it as an embroidery rather than a painting I thought there’s something a bit more sinister going on in it for me personally.
‘I die in a cold morning, dew, dew, dew on fur’, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 2019
You use a lot of personal pronouns, like ‘I’ or ‘we’, in the titles and accompanying poems. Is that referring to you specifically or to a character in the artwork?
It’s referring to the viewer. When they’re reading the title, I want them to be put in the mindset of it being themselves that they’re reading about.
I still feel there’s a bit of an apocalyptic feel in the works. Especially in lines like ‘I can eat everything’.
Isn’t life a little bit apocalyptic? People often say things like, ‘Saskia, your art, your writing, it’s a bit creepy, a little bit disturbing.’ I don’t mean for it to be, it’s just what’s coming out I guess.
I think things are a bit disturbed in the world at the moment. I’m not sure if they ever stopped being disturbed and I think people identify with that feeling.
I think when you’re making stuff from your personal life you’re going to be emulating the feeling of your environment and society at the time, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Even if you’re trying consciously to make happy, positive stuff, that would be a reaction to negativity.
‘I’m grinning, I’m grinning’, embroidery thread on calico fabric, 2019
Do you get much feedback on your work?
I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a hermit mode this year. I haven’t really talked to anyone about art or my artwork.
Do you think that being out of the university environment contributes to that?
Definitely. I’ve been adjusting to life outside of fine arts and working in a customer service job meeting different kinds of people I’ve never encountered before. I put images online but the feedback I get is usually just things like ‘heartface emoji’. No ruthless deconstruction like I’m used to.
Yes, outside of that critique structure things can become a bit blurrier. Unless your work is reviewed or written about you often don’t get that outside in-depth response.
But it’s also quite freeing. I can do whatever the hell I want. Now I’ve reached this point I hope people like it – I suppose we’ll see.
I think that’s enough questions from me, is there anything more that you’d like people to know about the works?
Hmm, no. I want to keep it as mysterious as possible. I feel like I’ve already given you too much.