In anticipation of the November 16th Sobey Art Award announcement, ARTINFO Canada begins a series of interviews with the shortlisted nominees. Beginning with the East, we sat down with the Halifax-based Conceptual and audio artist Eleanor King, who, in addition to directing the famed site of East coast Conceptualism, the Anna Leonowens Gallery, and teaching media arts at NSCAD University, brings a particular musicality to her practice. Having participated in bands like the Just Barelys, the Got to Get Got, and the newly formed all-female project, Wet Denim, King brings audio and music ephemera to her site-specific installations and events using provisional materials and improvisational methods. "I always liked the idea of communicating what it is to be inside a band, that particular sound and feeling within it," she explains of her recent installation at MOCCA.
King reports to us that she has, as a result of the nomination, been awarded a solo exhibition at the South Alberta Art Gallery, early next year.
Let’s begin with the exhibition that just opened at MOCCA, featuring the Sobey shortlist artists. How did you feel being installed alongside the other Sobey Art Award nominees?
It was excellent. The Sobey award experience can be exciting, but anxiety-inducing, to say the least. But the staff at MOCCA were incredibly supportive and professional, and, as an artist making decisions onsite -- in some ways treating the gallery as my studio in a labor-intensive installation process -- it was really great to have support like that from the gallery itself.
In terms of working alongside the other artists, everyone was awesome. We all feel really lucky to be part of this exhibition. All the artists there got along and were genuinely good people -- there were no divas or prima donnas … unless it was me [laughter]. Also, the actual exhibition works really well, which is lucky, because it’s not a curated show in the traditional sense. With this group, we have very different working practices but similar concerns. The exhibition on the whole is a strong show.
What do you perceive the connections to be among the various nominees?
The relationship to the everyday is quite apparent; the provisional use of materials, the things that are at hand; and the assemblage aesthetic, the way we utilize materials. There are also aesthetic and formal considerations that I think were pretty accidental. If you stand on one side of the gallery and look at the corridor along Gareth Moore and Derek Sullivan and my work, it’s formally very beautiful altogether. There’s a color palette that’s working, and a unity of materials.
Do you attribute this commonality to an emergent trend or agenda in contemporary practice?
Maybe it does point to a zeitgeist. For me at least, I want to make do with the things at hand. When I first started working in this particular way, it was because I didn’t want to make anything new in the world. That seems to be a concern we all share.
Can you describe your work included in this show?
There are four pieces, including two large columns that run floor-to-ceiling. One is a column of drums, a stack of kit drums from the bass drum to the rack tom. That piece is called “Endless Practice,” a nod to “Endless Column,” but also to my own life and experience as a drummer, and the relationship of music to art. There’s a sound component as well: speakers embedded in the bass drum that have an audio track of me practicing beats and fills. It’s recorded in such a way that the sound is meant to be muffled, so that there’s an auditory illusion in the gallery. The sound comes from the stack, but sounds like it’s coming from the basement. This connects to my interest in the internal experience of being in a band, rather than outside of it. That particular experience of sound.
That column is bookended by another column of vinyl LPs, about 1300 records. Both those pieces leave the integrity of the original objects intact -- all the records are still playable. There’s just a small hole in the sleeve of the record for a structural piece of aircraft cable running to the ceiling. The sleeves are ordered by color, so there’s the appearance of a rainbow gradient. It’s a heavy thing, but there’s a lyricism about it as well. It came out of another body of work that was trying to find new uses for obsolete media, taking something useless and making it architectural or decorative, but leaving the objects still useable.
In between the columns, there’s a drawing directly on the wall, which also references the records. I wanted to express the same repetition of form, excess, and pattern, but more ephemeral (and easier to ship across the country). The drawing was made by tracing the shape of a record, then sharpening the pencil, again and again and again, reproducing the same gradient by running out of a color and moving onto another color.
Obviously, being in Halifax, working in subtly Conceptual media, and directing the historic site of the Anna Leonowens Gallery, you have a certain context. Are you responding to that history of East coast Conceptualism?
John Baldessari’s “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” was made here, at the lithography workshop. And as the director of the Anna Leonowens Gallery, I am the custodian of that work. Most certainly that piece, and Sol LeWitt’s, Gerald Ferguson, Gary Neil Kennedy, and the professors of that era are a huge influence on me. In contrast to those works, I’ve been conceiving of my work as Conceptual formalism, because I’m seeing it become more and more beautiful. Beauty was something the Conceptual artists didn’t care about -- they were more interested in an anti-aesthetic, an uncommodifiability. But I think the work that I make is more playful, and has a sense of humor, which sometimes the Conceptualists had … and sometimes they didn’t.
In the 2010 edition of Halifax Nuit Blanche you were exhibited alongside Michael Fernandes. Being saddled up with that Conceptual history as it ages in Halifax, how do you see its legacy forming?
Fernandes is a dear friend of mine, and I’m endlessly inspired by him because he’s so slippery. He has no particular “thing.” Sometimes he’s putting a banana in the window of a commercial gallery; other times he’s doing performances or making objects. In Mass MOCA’s “Oh Canada” show, he has an archer shooting arrows into the wall. I think, as a young artist, my peers who were becoming successful were becoming so because they did have a “thing,” a technique or style or method that worked, and so they were picked up and disseminated for that. It took a long time for me; I struggled with that, in terms of “what is my thing?” I was jealous of people who could go into the studio and know what they were going to make. I was always working project to project, and whenever I got too wrapped up in that, I thought of Fernandes. No one expects him to have a thing!
Are Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller an influence on you use of audio?
They were, particularly in my early development. I saw a piece of Janet’s in 2000, a video walk that really blew my mind. Certainly since then I’ve worked with my partner, Steven Kelly, to do similar sound walks, though not in the same narrative fashion that they often use, but more of an abstract soundscape. But I love the “Forty Part Motet”; it has this sonic fullness that can only really be experienced in the moment. When I did that piece at Nuit Blanche [“Freshwater Brook”], with sound coming out of multiple channels, it wasn’t a multi-part piece -- it was about seeing how just sending one signal to multiple speakers affects the space, and how multifaceted a sound can be under those circumstances.
How do you think this nomination changes the game for you?
It’s a great experience for me. It’s been a real boon to be nominated, even at the long-list stage, and to have my practice validated. Particularly being on the East coast, it feels like nobody knows what we’re doing out here. So being recognized in Toronto has already done good things for my career.
I don’t have personal relationships with any of the Sobey curators, and so my selection was really based on the work. With the exhibition in Toronto, I was focused on making the best impression that I could, because I knew everyone and his dog was going to see this exhibition. Tons of people have already seen it and already know me as an artist. It’s a huge experience, and I’m grateful.