Saturday, 15 August 2009

Serena Korda talks to Rachel Potts at the Royal College of Art about her recent MA show, Building the Matterhorn

RP: You wouldn’t necessarily think you were a printmaking student.

SK: I didn’t do printmaking before I came here, but I was drawn to the democratic nature of self-publishing. The book really brought the films in the show together, and there’s a lot of my family in it.

RP: It’s about where things come from isn’t it?

SK: Yes, history and autobiography are a big part of the work. The first film I made here was from footage of my father doing handstands in front of another woman; a crazy ‘how to flirt’ film. The up and down motif was there, and I became obsessed with this idea of digging a hole.

RP: Why?

SK: I was referring back to, and almost respectfully parodying, art from the 1970s; ‘men digging holes’, and the history of women digging holes. It was strange; I realised I was digging myself a hole, a self-burial, but at the same time creating a mountain. I also became interested in Speaker’s Corner, seeing people get up onto these crazy platforms and spout rubbish. There’s a conversation in the book between myself and one speaker talking about a David-Ike-reptile idea of survival and morality.

I was obsessing about digging a hole, so I dug one in my cousin’s back garden, and it became quite theatrical and Beckett-like. It had the potential to call people towards it, inverting the idea of being raised up on something; it was just as attention grabbing and absurd as getting up on a ladder.

I was also interested in female explorers of the 19th century, and the piece retells the history of the American mountaineer Annie Smith Peck. Her writing, among other female writing of the time, has a really interesting humility to it; an admittance of failure. She painted a moustache on her balaclava, and in my eyes she’s very feminist. She employed two men to help her climb a mountain in Peru in 1908. One of the men stalled her all the way and ruined any chance of her recording the trip, eventually unchaining himself and going to the summit before her. She admits all this, and although in terms of recording and proof, it was a failure, she obviously did it. That’s that interesting thing about recording, history, and authenticity.

RP: Is the voiceover on the film from her writing?

SK: Yes it’s her account of the climb edited. I also became really interested in the Matterhorn, which Peck had previously climbed. The peak is often the only part that gets completed in representation, and it’s the only goal. The imagery in the film comes from the building of the Disneyland Matterhorn in 1951 and I wanted to repossess that imagery. I like the idea of breaking down illusions and peeling back layers. Mountain climbing is inspired by a desire to conquer nature and replicating this in a theme park is a similar attempt or aspiration, and a ridiculous one too. The hole-digging has a more obvious kind of futility, but they reflect each other.

RP: The film also shows this really nerdy-boy exploit.

SK: Yes, I was very much playing on the amateurism of it, the hobbyist, railway-model-making nerd. It also references Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that obsession of a vision; Richard Dreyfuss repeatedly building a mountain in his room.

RP: The objects, like the cupboard for your earlier Library of Secrets and the TV cabinet in your degree show, are beautiful retro objects.

SK: I design them and make them all with a cabinet-maker, they’re not bought even though they look like it. I want that slippage with the work. It harks back to this idea of objects possessing a history or life, being imbued with time. They’re talismans.

That’s my next project. I went to Paris and discovered this old puppet theatre, preserved in time, which also acted as a metaphor for my desire to communicate through gesture on a very basic level, after doing my Art on the Underground project which was very cerebral. I became obsessed with the idea of seeing backstage and I want to do a series of live events based around puppetry and showing how it works.

RP: The educational side to the video in your MA show was interesting – it was almost like you were playing at being an educator.

SK: I was an arts educator for about 6 years before I did this MA and it’s inherent to me. Knowledge is power and I always want to be learning and then sharing that. But I was definitely playing on that in a funny way.

RP: I suppose the difference between the RCA show and your earlier work was that you weren’t there, the audience couldn’t give anything back.

SK: I sat there quite a lot and observed how people interacted with it. The live event element of my work is really important, but in coming here, I wanted to realise how it could exist on its own beyond that moment, without me being present.

RP: There is a very English humour in your work, do you think this puppet project will have a similar humour?

SK: They’ve definitely got a humorous side to them, but I really want to tap into their horrible, dark strangeness too. Humour is a useful tool for touching on the serious. Digging a hole is quite absurd and weird, as is the religious madness of the speakers in the book. And it is quite a dark place, Speaker’s Corner, although you’re laughing at people, there are racist comments being spouted. There’s something very political about many of the things I do although it’s not overt.

RP: Do you want to give the viewer a pleasurable experience?

SK: Yes, the Art on the Underground crossword project definitely was pure entertainment. But I hope people feel there’s a critical element as well as a playfulness. Aesthetics are important to me, I used 16mm because I wanted the film in my show to look like a children’s TV program. It’s about appropriating something in order to then tell a story, using aesthetics to lull you into a sense of comfort. Someone thought one of my films was from the 1940s. They didn’t realise it was me, which is like the cabinet looking like something I found, like being a time traveller.

RP: How much of that do you think is conscious - the style of your work? You seem to have an interest in style.

SK: It’s quite funny how I do dress, I have the look of a 1940s or 1950s person. It’s not really conscious. I have tried to look more contemporary. I find nostalgia a useful tool. It can be a really dangerous one and there’s always a tussle, but it’s inherent in my work. One criticism that’s been given to me is that I over-design things. Maybe they’ll get a bit messier. But I think there will still be that element of play and pleasure.

RP: And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that?

SK: It’s something I have to negotiate, nostalgia, creating a world, they’re all things I enjoy doing, but maybe I enjoy them too much.

RP: I think that’s interesting, perhaps you should enjoy making things.

SK: I think you should too. I go through fazes of having a really good answer for using nostalgia. One of them is autobiographical. My father is a holocaust survivor, and he’s 83. I’ve grown up with older things around me. That sense of my father’s very important story and passing that on to future generations relates to the educational and the nostalgic in what I’m doing. Reminding people about something they might forget is really pertinent to me.

RP: Are you looking affectionately at old ways of thinking, for example, the idea of mountains being mystical and unknown, something to ‘conquer’?

SK: I am really interested in abandoned histories. My sister’s a scientist and we’ve been having an argument about immortality, trying to cure aging and evolving into a species that wouldn’t need to reproduce. It seems so anti-human, like science-fiction and I think that’s so apocalyptic and frightening and would never happen. But people said that in the past, and it happened, so it’s important to realise how things change at a certain rate, and how we think we’ve got an amazing knowledge of the world, yet we can still be asked questions that challenge our perception of the future.

Serena Korda’s MA show is currently being exhibited as part of Start Point 2009 in the Czech Republic.

The Library of Secrets will be at New Art Gallery, Walsall from 1 October - 29 November 2009.

Serena will be doing a series of events at Museum 52 from 10 September 2009.