Interview between Carine Zaayman and Theresa-Anne Mackintosh

C:
I would like to know some more about the background to this exhibition. After ‘Jackie the Kid’, what aspects of the exhibition did you feel you wanted to continue with? There seems some similarity in the imagery, but with some clear differences, can you expand on how this body of work is related to, and of course, moving beyond your previous exhibitions?

T-A:
I am interested in the private human condition and the nuances that constitute living. Tina (the main character in ‘Jackie The Kid’) epitomizes human resolve. ‘Jackie the Kid’ focused on that primary concern and not on secondary complications e.g. the adversity my hero might have to endure. I am aware that these private states are not entirely independent constructions. We are all catalysts for each other. Each influences the next, voluntarily or not. In ‘Menagerie’ I want to build on that platform and explore secondary levels.

The show deals with social narratives and interrelations between members of a close group. It touches on the psychoanalytical thrust within small-scale domestic environments and concerns the intricacies and intimacies of a nuclear unit. The narrative aims to take it a little further by bringing in contrary dimensions, to recognise disruptive obstacles that might challenge optimistic resolve. One then asks, how do the characters deal with those circumstances; how do they sustain their levels of optimism? I’m not saying there is a defined grand obstacle, but perhaps within the group’s associations there might be secondary components that are maybe flawed, defective or challenging – just human really.

C:
There is a recurrence of the image of birds, especially young birds. They seem to reference a particular state of being that is fragile and vulnerable, but in a way freer to move, more difficult to tie down. What do you think about their presence in your work?

T-A:
Funny that we should talk about birds... While driving home after a sculpture viewing on a very busy road at 5:30 in the afternoon, I noticed this kiewiet hurrying over the road. It hesitated and moved a few paces back and then forward, and I was baffled as to why it wasn’t more aware of road hazards! Why didn’t it just fly over the road? I then noticed three metres behind it the other parent following and in between was a tiny kiewiet. They needed to cross the road and their ‘obstacle’ was their baby. Their ‘no flight plan’ and dangerously slow pace was explained. Those parents were incredibly brave. I braked immediately and hooted hysterically to alert other motorists to the goings on. No one seemed to notice until I hooted. Fortunately the cars slowed down and the group scurried across. I think everyone was wondering, who is this freak of nature (referring to me)! I couldn’t handle a kiewiet death on my hands!

I find baby birds intriguing, especially the days after birth and the first weeks that follow. They are alien and foreign in form, almost reptilian. They are not cuddly like bunnies. There’s a cerebral perspective to the relationship between a human and a bird. Baby birds look so strange when they start out. They need to grow into themselves. When we think of birds we think of the freedom and the flight and the doves and seagulls, we don’t really think about the blob beginnings with bulbous crops and floppy bodies from where they begin. There is a duality in their being – their will to survive is so strong and at the same time they are so terribly fragile and weak. They are entirely dependent entitles when starting out. Perhaps seeing them so fragile exacerbates the duality in knowing what they will become. They’re a bit like human babies.

C:
Apart from the birds, there are also many references to animals, and especially caged animals. Is there a sense of the out-of-place, and the restricted in this body of work?

T-A:
I don’t want to pin them down too specifically but these animals have featured in the lives of Tiger and Tim, perhaps as pets, or they reference a situation where these animals have crossed their paths. These images expose a sensitivity towards animals. On a practical level they need to be caged, be they pet birds or circus animals. On a metaphorical level perhaps they speak of caging something that comes from the wild, trying to pin it down, capture it, hold it; trying to hold on to something that is slipping away? Perhaps it is about wanting to protect and nurture something? For me these images have a sinister still quality, and some a distinct sad overtone with a sense of loss or losing something.

C:
One thing that strikes me about this exhibition is the many smiles. In ‘Jackie the Kid’ eyes seemed to be the dominant feature. These sculptures seem less morbid in a way, but those smiles are disconcerting. Was it a conscious decision to have this motif of almost manic smiles?

T-A:
It is interesting that you make mention of the smiles. I find the whole phenomenon of displaying emotion digitally via emoticons fascinating. Just off the topic, they say a lot of road rage happens because one is not afforded the opportunity to see and gauge responses of the perpetrator (isn’t the idiot in the other car always the perpetrator!). They say the opportunity to ‘make right’, with an apologetic expression and a quick reciprocal acceptance does not occur because cars form barriers that prevent this from happening. If someone bumps into you in a shopping aisle, everything is resolved very quickly and without incident. I think the point I’m making is that humans need to share emotion; and that is a reassuring realisation.

At the time I started to explore a smiley face, I was experiencing something in my personal life that was very sad. I remember thinking of emoticons and the world’s conception of what a smiley face represents. It’s a bit like a Nike logo – you know what it’s about. I thought about the irony of painting a ‘smiley face’ while feeling so terribly sad. I wanted to try it and see if one could read the sadness through the smile. I hope it is read with a serious tone. The eyes are deliberately unemotional, almost mathematical in proportion and delivery. I needed to counteract the force of how a smile is read. For me there is a vacancy and a sadness in those ‘smiles’. I read a seriousness but also a degree of tenderness, a dignified handling if you will. I hope the viewer reads them with the same poignant gravity and not as ‘Disney smiles’.

C:
You have chosen to include photographs in the digital prints. Can you tell me some more about where these are sourced from?

T-A:
Photographs have an alluring quality, one is always drawn to people in photographs, who are they, do I know anyone, what is it about? Older photographs tend to heighten this phenomenon even more. I recall seeing an Egyptian artefact show a few years back and was intrigued by all the ‘visible facts’. I remember the sense of being a keen investigative observer; having the ‘outcome’ of things in front of me but not the direct connective opportunity to source information from the people who had constructed it; having visual clues, but not the authors of the ‘story’. I think that might be why old photographs are so mesmerizing.

I would like the viewer of this show to experience that same voyeuristic investigative compulsion. I want a sense of emotional detachment in the viewer’s process, (examining something that possibly came from a very emotional source). Naturally their emotional neurons will kick in and they will make their own assumptions. Who knows, they might come from an emotional starting point themselves. One is not sure who is represented in these photographs? Is it literal, are they ancestral? Is it symbolic, why are there cut-outs over the faces? Are they there to protect? Do they function as masks? Are they there out of desire to be something, to be something else? The viewer is not sure. I like that uncertainty.

C:
There seems to be a highly ‘finished’, clean and slick aesthetic to your work. It is as though it is somewhere between the simplicity of childhood imagery and high-tech design style. Can you expand more on this?

T-A:
I don’t think all my work is clean and slick, but some of it is. Starting points are sometimes very messy! I think often it comes down to the simplicity of form for me, just keeping the essence and getting rid of all the unnecessary extras.

C:
The main characters of the sculptures, Tiger, Tim, Budgie, Sugar and Lamb – a couple of them have no arms. In some of the prints, there are figures with other kinds of ‘amputations’. Is this a significant part of your narrative?

T-A:
This is not induced consciously. Very often it’s pointed out to me after the fact. I think you’ve in fact pointed out missing sensory organs in the past. I don’t read them as not having certain parts. As I’ve indicated, I am not consciously aware of it while I am creating the work. When a drawing happens, it just happens, and I don’t want to think about it too much. The way I experience the sculptures is complete. One doesn’t read Tiger and Tim as armless, you don’t ‘notice’ it really? You don’t ‘pick it up’ as them lacking something? (Well I don’t at any rate). They somehow don’t read as defective bodies. My focus is on the totality of the form and everything seems to balance out, so one feels comfortable with them somehow.

C:
The title of your show, ‘Menagerie’, suggests that you are interested in the idea of a collection. However, you have also mentioned that this show contains a narrative of sorts. Can you tell me more about the narrative?

T-A:
I’m not sure if the cast (Tiger, Tim, Budgie, Sugar and Lamb) are the ménage or in fact themselves the menagerie? Tennessee Williams comes to mind. I love the complexity of the interrelations between the players. Like Lara’s glass ensemble I too recognize each one’s individual charm and also their fragile natures. As part of the group, their existence and the way they are perceived is something completely different, a bit like individuals of bygone circus days.

The trapeze artist, the clown, the lion tamer, the ring master, each has their individual space in the light, their private time, but require the structure of the circus body to have it fully realized. On their own, they might not shine as brightly. I think of their dependence, their vulnerable status alone and also the intrinsic bond their union forms. My little menagerie reminds me of one of those china-cast nativity figurine groups, with mary and joseph and the baby jesus in the manger, with the sheep and all the animals in the humble stable. It appears as if they would weather any storm. Everyone seems happy and life is blissful.

C:
The sculptures are to my mind powerful presences. Yet the process of their making is not evident in the final product, as they are almost hermetic. What is involved in their making?

T-A:
Hermetic, that’s interesting, maybe they’re a tighter group than I imagined! Perhaps they are protective of their secrets. There is definitely something compelling in the process of making sculptures, it is very much a metamorphic process. I have seen these small birds with their bulbous crops. The original drawing from where they start are as important as the final pieces because that is where their essence if defined and locked in.

I try to emulate the vision that started as a crude drawing, to capture in form what started as a two-dimensional sentiment. For me it’s not only about imitating a shape or form though, it’s also about conveying the feeling and spirit of something; trying to capture the personalities in a way. It starts with the drawing, I then feel out the form and I do this by making small models. I tweak as I go along, and this bird develops. I then produce the final master at the correct scale and they are cast in fibreglass and then colour sprayed.

C:
You seem at ease with a number of different media. In this exhibition there are digital prints, sculptures and photography. Do you see this kind of versatility as a necessary attribute in contemporary art? Is it something that is part of your personal vision and process?

T-A:
I enjoy working from different platforms. I get bored doing the same thing all the time. I do however like to sustain all media I employ in my oeuvre. Perhaps I work cyclically. I also enjoy the variation that different media exert on the actual product. I love the fact though that the ideas are the same, like a piece of meat, you’ve got a slab of fillet, you’ve got the same piece of meat, only you put it through a mincer and then you’ve got a patty. It’s still meat in the end. I don’t think it is important at all to utilize different media. I think it’s important to do what you feel comfortable with.