Winnie Herbstein

Within your practice, I feel I am being let in on a process where you can be seen thinking or working your way through a topic in a multitude of different ways, including observation, dialogue, text and object making. Please can you talk a little about this idea of ‘working or thinking through’ as an artistic process?

I’ll start by talking a little about story telling in relation to my work and then maybe that will smooth some things out. There’s a lot of stuff kicking about, so I guess this opens it up a little. Everyone likes a good story anyway.

I like to think that the artwork and its research sit together. Between them they take up the stance of a storyteller, right there on the stage, speaking with all the imperfections of an orator. A pause, image falls away to blank screen and somebody leaves the room. Behind the scenes, sentences are relayed luxuriously and scribbled out. Through research I work out what it is I can say, unraveling and re-raveling knots. The less abstract it is, the more vulnerable it becomes. I’m aware that I’m in the privileged position of being allowed to speak to you with my own voice, although sometimes I speak it with an accent.

Installation view: And so, in silence (The March To Mexico) - 2015

Installation view: And so, in silence (The March To Mexico) – 2015

I take the stories of others and just like my ancestors did, I re-tell them. Putting other’s language into another’s body and wondering which is history and which myth? This is a violent act and I understand that. I think about the ability of our law to dismiss oral histories in favour of those that read and write. That begins to tell a tale.

As does ethnographic film, that genre that tries and fails to do what documentary doesn’t – to comment in neutrality. Napoleon Chagnon’s 1975 film ‘The Ax Fight’ is a particular exemplar of this. Here the image, the written word and the spoken voice mingle on the screen. He plays the same sequence three times over and at each instance arrives at a new interpretation: -

‘First impressions can be mistaken. When the fight first started, one informant told us that it was about incest. However, subsequent work with other informants revealed that the fight stemmed from quite a different cause’

Whilst Chagnon insists on trying to translate the story of the Amazonian Yanomami into Western experience, for me this short film illustrates the absurdity in that. It is still confined to that camera angle, those subtitles, this voice and in amongst it all, white man and his technology continue to capture and dislocate.

Still from: And so, in silence (The March To Mexico) - 2015

Still from: And so, in silence (The March To Mexico) – 2015

And when I talk of stories I don’t just refer to those embroiled in words, written and spoken. Images and objects are wrapped up in their own tales; gestures and hesitations, architectural features and communal spaces all carry narratives that shuffle and shift in front of their audience.

Often though, it is the more physical element of a work that is the first to fall into place, I find that side of things quite a relief. These materials come together through observation; show home flats, military festivals and Mexican markets all speak their own languages of display. I enjoy manipulating these or at least borrowing from them and really everything informs the other.

So at the end, I fear what we’re left with is just another unsure assemblage. The story peters out; it speaks in tongues and doesn’t really understand itself. At best it leaves you guessing. It knots up, becomes background noise, disappears into storage. Although it never claims to be neutral.

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