BY HER OWN MOVEMENT
Four questions to Sonja Thomsen
curated by Angelica Rivetti
1. Browsing through your book “You will find it where it is: a reader”, you are immediately struck by the strong analogies between the shapes deriving from the mathematical curve of Agnesi – which for you becomes an almost obsessive point of origin for the artistic process that derives from it – and those of the oculus and the womb. In this there is also an extremely interesting aspect: the erroneous translation of the “Curve of Agnesi” in “Witch of Agnesi” that refers to the stereotypes with which many women were identified for centuries as witches (negative and dangerous figures) and therefore stigmatized and persecuted because they were different, according to moral, social and aesthetic conventions based on an exclusively male thought. Can you tell us more about how your artistic process fits in between all these elements?
Buckminster Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s grand nephew) uses the term the geometry of thought. I’ve always loved this term- ideas construct form. Our mind time travels and can leap from abstract to analytic thought. At least mine often does. As a young woman studying biology in school I was trained to think about a complex system via a simple diagram. I think this is one reason that this (Maria Agnesi’s) mathematical model – a bell curve – became a referent of the body – an eye and a womb. Throughout my artistic career I have experienced the micro aggressions of misogyny – as a student, as an academic and an artist mother. So there is my own reflection held in this form. Within my curve the persistence of the line as it moves over and around the circle/void is something I find power in. How is knowing experienced? What do we learn from what is seen, what is visible- via the eye. What are the multiplicities of knowledge held in our body- in my body? In my womb? WHAT IS FELT but not spoken. I think here I start to intersect with Cixous’ idea that woman must write herself into the world and into history.
The last thing I wanted to mention about the curve form that I interpret into my mobile, the circle becomes a helix- this helix connects to the reaching backward and forward in time – as I point to different generations of women in my book. Time is seen as a spiral rather than anything linear. The helix also connects to the narrative around genetic research in the last two decades. This knowledge creation by the scientific community marks my time. As a student of science at the end of the 20th century this was cutting edge science- mapping the genome. As you know there is also a private conversation about loss held in the book. I lost my brother, my only sibling, my person, suddenly in 2015. He was a seemingly healthy 27 year old man with an unknown genetic heart disease. This helix form connects personally to this genetic narrative held in my family’s bodies.
2. What role do geometric and sculptural figures (especially triangular ones) play for you in your artistic research and personal experience, and how have the works of the intellectual artists Lucia Moholy and Maria Nordman influenced you in this sense?
These answers may overlap here in this discussion. Triangles are about relations. Light triangulates as it refracts. Triangles have a multiplicity of possible forms. A square, a circle are fixed but for their scale. Triangles can create complex stable forms.
Women too hold multiplicities.
Both Lucia Moholy and Maria Nordman’s artistic practice looms large in my own imagining/working- due in large part to their yet to be written legacies. Due to the recent 100 year anniversary of the Bauhaus Lucia has had more additions to the scholarship around her work. Maria Nordman, age 78, living in Southern California- her work is due for a retrospective- several of her peers have received recent comprehensive surveys. She just had a lovely exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, Both of these women and their work have a direct relationship with light, with the experience of light.
Both have written themselves- using language to create space. Maria Nordmans artist publications are lovely layered works. (Halfway through the final edit of my book I was able to visit her books and I was moved by the serendipity of our use of vellum and layering forms.) Nordman’s layering of language is a beautiful thing to experience in her books. Lucia wrote one of the first histories of photography and her corrective essay – Marginal Notes: Documentary Absurdities from 1972 illuminates the complexity of her contributions to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s early formation.
Both women have a complex relationship to photography. Lucia’s glass negatives being stolen from her (not returned) which changed the course of her career. Maria Nordman’s site specific installations were often not photographed, prioritizing the experience of the work itself rather than its document. This creates a challenge in studying her practice, and has affected the ways art history has miscategorized her as a part of the American West Light & Space Movement. She identifies as a sculptor and conceptual artist working independent of that movement.
This show holds several new sculptures. My series of mobiles, titled ‘weight of possibility,’ are an experiment with balance, lightness and line. They breathe and shift in the space. It’s important for me that they are installed in proximity to a surface that catches their shadow.
3. Light – intended both as a reflection on surfaces and as a real material able to model geometric shapes – is the other great protagonist of your story and of the exhibition. In this sense, Wolfgang Goethe and his “Theory of Colours” – linked to the psychological aspects that revolve around the chromatic sphere – which you say you got to know thanks to the writer Margaret Fuller, comes into play. Can you tell us more about the installation aspect, linked precisely to the importance of the modulation of light and chromatic reflections within the exhibition spaces of Fonderia?
Light is my material.
As photographers we are taught to sculpt with light.
Light is key.
Light allows seeing, seeing is one way of knowing.
Light is color.
Human vision and color perception is fascinating. The disagreement around color perception between Newton and Goethe is key to my explorations around knowing – the false dichotomy of objective science and subjectivity of poetry. Newton named the rainbow – ROYGBIV – because of his own subjectivity and interest in the seven harmonies in music. Goethe tries to identify and define the complexities held in the transitions of six (symmetrical) colors – the psychology of color. Goethe’s diagrams in the book are mesmerizing. As I was learning more about Margaret Fuller I was fascinated to find that she was responsible for translating much of Goethe’s work for the American New England Intelligentsia. Her translations opened the door to being seen as a writer & journalist herself. Access not granted for many women in the 1800s in America.
I introduce my practice to people by saying that I choreograph light in image, object and architecture to make space for wonder. Light dancing within the space as well as held in the image is important to me. It activates a particular location of seeing that opens up to discovery. Light is my medium and light opens up scales of thinking. Photons move at the speed of light and do not accumulate mass. The largest mass in our solar system – the sun is ancient. How do we hold these two scales of thinking in simultaneity?
The quote by Frank Wilczek on the back of my book reads “You as a human are nothing but particles and light. And you as a human are thinking and feeling. Two different worlds that are hard to understand in simultaneity.”
4. The title of the exhibition “By her own movement” comes from an essay of feminist criticism by the writer and theorist Hélène Cixous entitled “Laugh of Medusa” (1975). according to which the woman is faced with a choice: to remain trapped in her own body by a pre-constituted and phallogocentric language (to quote the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigary who brought feminist studies on a further level) that does not allow her to express herself, or to decide to use her own movement and her own body as a new means of expressive communication.
Can you better describe your relationship with feminist theory and what are the relations between Cixous’ thought, Maria Agnesi’s figure and your artistic practice in relation to the will to give life (through this exhibition) to a sort of new post-patriarchal visual imaginary?
My relationship to feminist theory is ongoing. The Cixous text though – it landed directly in my body the first time I read it. I want to pull in a few quotes from her essay “Laugh of the Medusa.” The essay starts with
I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text-as into the world and into history-by her own movement.
Who was Medusa? Cixous is not writing of Medusa’s pain but of her laugh, her joy embodied. One of the (roman) narratives of Medusa is that she was the beautiful daughter of Athena who was raped by Poseidon, god of the sea. Athena turns her into Medusa – head of snakes whose eyes turn all to stone. Perseus beheads Medusa while she is pregnant with Poseidon’s child. As she is beheaded – Pegasus emerges from her body.
By her own movement – women must write herself – outside of patriarchy. How do we do this? With the knowledge held in our bodies. The video piece in the exhibition “Tethered to you” The viewer sees my hands busily performing a “magic” trick where a cut doubled mobius creates two interlinked circles. The audio of this piece is initially the birds singing outside my studio window but soon transitions to the weeping calls from my young son waking from his nap. This video was made 10 years ago. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I did not feel an ache in my chest from his crying. Our bodies hold so much knowledge. My experience as a mother, a daughter, a sister sit within each gesture in this show.
I write this as a woman, toward women… But first it must be said that in spite of the enormity of the repression that has kept them in the “dark” -that dark which people have been trying to make them accept as their attribute-there is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman. What they have in common I will say. But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes-any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible.
This refusal of a notion of a universal woman is so powerful. The women I point to in the book are white European/American women. As I was looking for them by moving around the men the western canon – Margaret Fuller around Buckminster Fuller, Lucia Moholy around Lazlo Moholy Nagy and Maria Nordman around Robert Irwin (incorrectly categorized as a light and space artist) The feminist text I have most been moved by is writing by women such as Helene Cixous, a french Algerian woman. I often return to bell hooks, Audre Lorde & Adrian Piper, their writing of women is spacious and complex. I am trying to locate my position while being inspired by all of these women.
I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow
This is exactly how I felt reading this text and rereading this text. Liberated, empowered women empower other women. This is something I hope to make space for in the work. To build post patriarchal futures will take all of our collective imagination. I am interested in making space for that process to evolve where forms shift, light moves us and we learn from one another.
Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word “silence,” the one that, aiming for the impossible, stops short before the word “impossible” and writes it as “the end.”
I think I will conclude with a few other quotes by the women held in my book – You will find it where it is: a reader. This book holds many of my core questions and I use it to seed many installations like it did here at Fonderia 20.9. What a joy it has been to work with all of you. Thank you for sharing your space with me.