Ahead of Christchurch artist Shannon Williamson’s exhibition ‘Collective Sigh’ at City Art Depot, she discussed her body of work with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston. Through a mixture of both rhythmic and chaotic pencil marks on paper Williamson has created a collection of abstract drawings, at times more akin to sheet music than her typical cartographic and anatomical style. Her abstract drawings are pseudo-maps of bodily experience in navigating spaces of anxiety in this year of bated breath. ‘Collective Sigh’ opens Tuesday the 1st of December at 5.30pm and runs through to the 21st of December.
Cameron Ralston: Your works often have a strong interconnecting theme or principal you’re investigating or an area you’re researching. Is there a thread that ties these works together?
Shannon Williamson: You’re right, I do usually follow a few trajectories of one thread. And I’ve done that again for these works. The original ideas I was playing with ended up being shaped and molded by the things we were going through with Covid-19, the lockdowns and this shared experience of massive global uncertainty – shared in a way that’s so much bigger than I’ve experienced in my life. I think of these works as being in three separate series: the large scale Damocles works; the smallest sort of A4 works which are more direct responses to our lockdown situation and the barriers around touch and human contact; and the medium-size works which the show draws its title from which are about that feeling of waiting, holding your breath and then exhaling when things feel like they’re going to be okay – they’re based on that sensation of breathing and obviously we’re also thinking about breathing in different ways now since Covid-19. I didn’t really want to make works about the lockdown and Covid-19 but it was such a present thing. I actually had to repurpose my paper; the materials were what I had in my house because we couldn’t get supplies so it has been really informed by that. I guess that’s the common thread, but they’re all slightly different takes on it.
‘Collective sigh (inhale) i’, Shannon Williamson, mixed media on paper, 415x295mm, 2020
Is the ‘sigh’ a sigh of relief? A sigh can have so many meanings – a sigh of exhaustion, letting go, contentedness, anger.
It’s all those things. And that’s why the title kept coming back to me. It’s that sigh of relief when it looked like we were doing really well compared to the rest of the world or when we felt like the first wave was over. But then it’s that sigh when another case pops up and it’s like, here we go again. It’s that build-up and release from the positive and negative of the experiences we’re going through.
Some of the works do have a bit more of a fractured or chaotic feel to them than previous pieces. Is that a direct response to those feelings of uncertainty?
Yeah, a lot of my work comes from a bit of a place of anxiety, a fractured space, and not knowing how to reconcile feelings and sensations. So yes, they do come from that feeling of not being able to grasp what direction you’re going in in life and how the world’s going to look. But they also are fractured bodily experiences. Going back to the first question you asked about common threads, the common thread in this work, as in much of my work, is based on the body and sensations of the body and how we experience our world and the things that come at us day to day, week to week through our body’s response to those things. There is definitely a much more chaotic and fractured sense on a fear of sickness level but I also had some personal turmoil while making these works where I had to reflect on my body and situation in a different way. There has been a bit of reconciling what I thought my future was going to be like and what my body is going to be. They are uncomfortable works for me because I hadn’t come to a resolution by the time I finished making these works. So, there’s a discomfort in there about where the body is going.
Have you come to a resolution since?
The Covid-19 global pandemic stuff is still obviously unresolved. But the personal stuff is resolved and the ‘Damocles’ works are way more about the personal stuff than the smaller ones. The elements in these – take what you will by looking at them – are symbols for parts of the female body. There are female pelvises; elliptical shapes which to me can symbolise elements of the reproductive system; concentric circles which are more ovarian egg-like or like nipples and belly buttons. So, ellipses and circles stand in for bodies which there are layers of, particularly in these works.
It’s like a visual language that you’ve used before. Are there new elements that you’ve put into these works or are you more playing with the forms you’ve used before?
It’s hashing over forms that I’ve used before but in different arrangements because I’m processing different experiences, feelings and reservations. This use of a falling curtain of darkness that’s just starting to creep in is different to anything I’ve done before. That’s where the Damocles stuff comes from – to me there’s this sense of entropy where stuff can be so intense and busy.
‘Damocles i’, Shannon Williamson, pencil and charcoal on paper, diptych, 700x1000mm, 2020
Can you explain the Damocles reference?
The way we think of Damocles is the sword dangling over the head ready to drop at any minute. In the way we use it today it’s that foreboding sense that something is about to end. But like all my work I come from a position where things that you could think of as negative or scary, I don’t think of as being that bad. It’s almost like a relieving dwarfing of humanness. We think we’re in control of so many things which we’re not and that’s good, we’re quite tiny on the scale of all the things that happen. Which takes us nicely back to the pandemic – we’re just tiny things trying to survive. So, there’s a flip side of Damocles where, yes, it’s a foreboding but there’s also a release in that everything is going to come to an end anyway.
Do the works help you process things that are going on?
That’s why I make work. I’ve been through phases of thinking I’ll take a break from artmaking, but I can’t function without it, it’s a mental health thing. It’s definitely a way of processing. I don’t know whether it’s my style changing or getting older or playing with new ideas more confidently, but I’ve really been enjoying a more abstract approach to processing my ideas. I feel it like a rhythm as opposed to, for example, having an idea about the body that I try to illustrate through representing bodies. I’m enjoying tapping into those sensations and then translating them onto the page. You can see lots of repetition and lines – it’s a flow which is hard to describe but it’s like a beat.
Is it reflected in the way you draw or make marks on the paper? Is it rhythmic when you’re doing it?
Yes. I use a mixture of freehand and stencilling. The hairy stubbly areas are like a rhythm with a pencil, I break a lot of leads because I’m just smacking the paper. Then scribbly bits are more a dump then a flick movement. It’s also quite feverish when I work with the stencil to make little dot clusters. It doesn’t take long to draw a dot with a stencil and I never know quite how big that space is going to be, I just know when to stop because the rhythm stops and I’ll need to move to a different area. It’s very intuitive.
Do you have an initial idea or plan when beginning the works? When I look at them, I see an underlying framework or structure that you might be building off.
You’re exactly right, I do often start with a sketch. Sometimes it can be as simple as a rectangular shape that I sketch out which I’ll then do darker and lighter spots on with a few circles and lines just to feel like this is where I’m going to be. I do follow them, but I don’t constrict myself to those. The sketch sets up the composition, so I know where I’m going with my darks and my lights, the more quiet and the more busy spaces. I often work to the same composition – my bottom left-hand corner is busier and then it stretches out into quieter space. I don’t know why; it just feels right.
‘Touch study x’, Shannon Williamson, pencil on paper, 275x210mm, 2020
Is the negative space just as important as the space that you’ve filled in?
If you look at the small scale ‘Touch study’ and ‘Touch topography’ works, negative space plays a huge role. We’re talking about the space between bodies when bodies are absent –the absence is kind of the point. Everything that comes between the bodies is a landscape but you don’t know where it is.
You’re dealing also with mapping again here. What draws you to these?
Aesthetically I love looking at maps. I used to do a lot of hiking and looking at topographical maps, I love all the delicate lines which you can get so much out of. I love how we can condense landscape and earth into a series of lines to understand volume. I think it’s an interesting concept to translate into abstract drawing.
Returning to the time when you made the works, how much was the work influenced by having a child at home with you?
The lockdown and having a child came together quite constrictingly because I’ve been able to pick up my practice a lot since my kid has been old enough to be at kindergarten. And then during lockdown kindys weren’t an option so I had to do a lot my work with her around which I personally find really difficult to do. She’s a really creative little artist herself so there’s no way for me to work without her being involved. I actually had to do a few preliminary works on the larger scale with her as my assistant – as I worked on one side I didn’t realise the other side was being worked on in felt pen. They would have been cool at another time but that wasn’t my vision. So, the lockdown was a lot busier for me, I didn’t get the headspace I usually would, though we did find a nice flow in drawing around our hands and colouring in the negative space together which is where some of these ideas for the smaller scale works came from.
Is the diptych form something that’s really important to the work?
Yes, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. I keep coming back to this idea of two hemispheres. Two hemispheres come up in the body regularly. But also emotionally most people sit in two minds about most things and we have conflicts internally, sometimes it’s the rub between those which gives us our best ideas or our motivation. I’ve always wanted to make work that explores that without being prescriptive. Then also being very conscious in the back of my mind – going from my art life to my motherhood. There’s all these big ideas about pairs in companionship and whether you can have something that creates tension or fluidity and a bigger experience. It naturally leant itself to these works. The diptych works were originally one piece of paper which I’ve cut in half, so the separation is a deliberate move. I wanted them to be created as one and then taken apart and displayed as these different hemispheres.
‘Damocles ii’, Shannon Williamson, pencil and charcoal on paper, diptych, 700x1000mm, 2020
The borders on your work are always present – is there any meaning ascribed to them?
No, I just like the way it looks. I love the way charcoal and pencil look when there are gradations against white. It’s sharp, it’s tidy and when there is so much chaos and scrappiness I like that juxtaposition. It’s an aesthetic choice. I had a lot of fun making them, it was a real relief from everything going on. Then eventually when kindy was back I could really get stuck into finishing them.
It’s certainly been interesting hearing the varied responses artists have had to the lockdown. Some felt their practice was relatively unaffected where others felt it changed a lot.
It was actually a very peaceful time for me in lots of ways and I was not negatively affected. The works are more thinking about how everybody in the world is going through this on a different level and that was moving for me. It wasn’t so much that I was struggling or I’m scared of being sick. It was a tapping into everyone’s feelings.
How do you tap into that public consciousness? Is it through talking to people, a feeling you’re get, the news?
I religiously listen to news from around the world and I like listening to other people’s voices. I have lots of friends in other countries and we had a lot of Zoom conversations with people in Melbourne and America. But a lot of it comes from the news and then coming up with my own thoughts – if I was in that situation, how would I feel? So it’s slightly fictional.
‘Collective sigh (exhale) ii’, Shannon Williamson, mixed media on paper, 415x295mm, 2020
How do you know when a piece is finished? Do you ever feel you go too far?
I just sort of know. And yeah, I do, but I don’t think I did in these works. I’m getting better at knowing when to stop. Often I’ll get to point of not knowing what to do next, so I’ll put that work aside and come back to it after working on other pieces.
It must take a while to work through large pieces like these then?
It does, I worked on some of these large ones for months. A lot of my working time is negative space. It’s sitting there and looking and looking and looking. I’m being a bit over the top, but I’ll maybe sit there for an hour then do a few dots. The sitting and looking is a big part of it – I’m not continually making marks. Some of the line work takes forever – it can take a long time to get the small clusters of horizontal lines lined up and exactly the width and distance apart that I want.
With using the bodily elements you referred to before, are you picking things deliberately and ordering them in the way you would a map.
Yes, more or less. With the Damocles works at least they do follow a pattern, like the two sides of the pelvis, then there are ideas of where things might fit in relation to that. And also relating to the cycles of the female body, how there’s a rise and a fall of various bits and pieces. So, I am thinking of those things you might expect in your own body and whether they are happening or not. The works talk about rhythm in that way.
‘Damocles iii’, Shannon Williamson, pencil and charcoal on paper, diptych, 700x1000mm, 2020
Are you hoping to elicit a bodily response with the works?
That would be nice and I hope that happens. I feel when I talk to people about my work they usually do get that. But firstly, because they’re so abstract and secondly, because they’re so subjective I think for me to hang its value or worth on someone else’s experiences is too fraught. Like I said before, they’re a way of processing. You know if you can name a feeling, find a word for it, you can feel a bit more peace. I feel I’m like that with my works. If I can find a map for a feeling or discomfort I have, I think, ‘Cool, I can put that to the side now.’ They’re not so much about getting something from someone but trying to get my feelings mapped out. I don’t expect a cis male to look at this and get any of those things I just talked about because they don’t have female reproductive organs but I think men should be allowed to access these and the rhythm of these and maybe respond to some of the bodily elements in their own way. So, it’s open for interpretations. I think that’s why I like working abstract more and more as well. For a long time I did a lot of stuff that was representational of my own body and that does limit how people can access the works. I think people can read maps and rhythms, get a different vibe from it.
It’s interesting how much viewers can read into the works. I know some artists are resistant to divulging any of what their abstract marks might mean. Do you have any of that conflict?
I do. Like I was saying, a lot of these are symbols for the female and reproductive system. I don’t know why but sometimes I think is that going to creep people out? Does someone want to know that there are cervixes all over this picture? They are abstract though, they come from me but I give them away. I don’t want to be saying, ‘This represents this exactly.’ Like I was thinking about heart beats in the two finger smudges and the pairs of circles but in those I was also thinking about the sinking down of breath. They have multiple purposes and I want people to be able to translate their own feelings onto my work.