By Nora Ashwood (A’23)
Do you think your process informs the final appearance of your work or do you think you choose a process appropriate to the look you’re going for?
Bri Al-Bahish: I think my process definitely informs the final appearance. There are certain “looks” that I go for, but I guess when I see one, I immediately associate that look with a process for creating it. They become essentially inseparable to me.
Bri Al-Bahish’s work exists in the grey area, in the loss of connection and in the combinations of the surreal real that make no sense and the real surreal that make sense. Berry pie and a crucifixion surrounded by astronauts. Surgery and call girls. What is the relationship between them, or, is the questioning itself what ties them all together into unraveling wonderment? Like poems, her pieces share the perplexing plight of the use and non-use of meaning. In the same way that poems use the language we use to communicate meaning to not directly communicate meaning, her pieces pull at us to interpret them because they use a language of elements that we constantly place meaning on (fabric in fine art, photography and documentation, gold…) but before we can even attempt to make sense of them, they dissolve into themselves. Her amalgamations of cloth, photos, wax, glue, gold leaf, and thread are as difficult to contain in a single description as they are to contain within a single medium. Instead, morphemes. They cannot be further divided. They are the essence of their process. The square root of exactly what they look like.
What do you think of the debate about using “craft” materials in “fine art”?
Al-Bahish: I don’t really understand why there is a debate. Material is subject matter to me. I guess craft is more associated with function, but most “fine art” is like the illusion of function, so they don’t seem that dissimilar to me.
How do you choose the images you work with?
Al-Bahish: I don’t really choose images to go with certain ideas. It’s the image first and then the piece. I’ve always had a strong response to images and photographs, and some inspire me to make work. There are some that I’m still drawn to, but for whatever reason don’t inspire a piece and don’t make me want to recontextualize them. These I just collect.
Do you have a reason for leaving the modes of attaching (stitching, gluing) on the outside rather than keeping them hidden?
Al-Bahish: There are many easier and less visible ways to attach things without stitching everything. Because I get so much out of my process, it is important for me to make it clear, visually, that I had one. It becomes part of the image and the piece.
Everything serves two roles. The lacework and the cloth in Lace are at once exactly what they are (function, finishing touches on Miss Havisham’s gown, table cloths) and substrates (the see-through, diaphanous backgrounds and the relationship of imagery on fabric (Robert Rauschenberg’s Ringer State (Hoarfrost Edition) or Miriam Schapiro and the P&D movement)). The positive/negative of the lace detailing and the texture of the weave become graphic elements as much as the images upon them. Despite physical malleability, the cloth is not a passive surface like a blank sheet of paper, instead, it has strong connotations and begs you to ask technical questions. Does it lay flat? Does it hang? Is it wearable? Is it fragile? Above all, it is tangible, you understand the way the material feels because our bodies are in constant contact with it. We are clothed in it every day and then suddenly it changes its role into something to be looked at– not worn, not touched. Lace pushes and pulls at our senses as we attempt to choose between feeling it and seeing it.
The photographs exist both in their original form (as something to search and find meaning in/a picture is worth a thousand words/a tool for understanding and presenting information) and as images abstracted in the context of the whole piece, they become nonrepresentational visual elements that create color relationships and contrasts. Their structures are mirrored in the compositions (in Boobs, the panels of photos and the sections partitioned off by stitching and cloth). The photos have a presence equally as palpable as the three-dimensional materials.
The stitching and glue are as much visual elements as they are processes of adhering. The stitching forms the borders and the relationships, but not continuously, so that each overlapping element relays intention. The thread is pink, it is white on black, it is black on yellow, it stands out, it is what it is and not simply a technique.
The glue and gold leaf are similar in that they both look like afterthoughts. Not in a negative way but in a gilding-the-lily/finishing touch/aha-now-it-is-done! kind of way. They seem to serve a purpose despite their gaudiness. While gold is always superficial, the glue is transformed into appearing so only through excessive, and obviously no longer functional, overuse: the glue excretes from people’s mouths in Boobs; the gold leaves a trail around the main elements in Pie… They serve as reminders that even though the photographs appear to project out into the viewer’s space they are, nevertheless, flat. As the top layer, the glue and gold leaf reinforce the layers of surface and through their dimensionality, they flatten everything else.
The conflict between the photographs and the gold and the glue is further intensified by the fact that both the gold and the glue refuse to be photographed. What the digital space leaves out– gold is never one color, glue looks wet even once it has dried, our mind fills in. And yet, the photographs are twice represented, twice documented, twice taken from this world and twice turned into a flat, frozen moment and still they do not require any further imagination. Suddenly, the photographs in Al-Bahish’s work seem the most real, and all the glue and lace and everything else seem only to be records of the real.
The complexities of what can be digitally represented and what cannot be are intensified by the fact that we are starting another semester of only seeing each other’s work online through photos or videos. Do our sculptures now have to be photographable? And does that privilege photography over other mediums or does it have a reverse effect and will photography lose its power by constantly serving as a record of other mediums? Is the final piece a photograph or merely the documentation of an object? And is documentation ever “merely’ anything? We go most of our lives seeing art in photos (the Mona Lisa, nearly everything that we study in art history) so why does it seem sad or unjust or less real to critique our work through photos? In On Photography Susan Sontag states that “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs– especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past– are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.” Perhaps photography has to be the attainable when our desire for pre-COVID “normal” (or the vanished past) is not enhanced by distance.
Do you think of your pieces as being sculptural? Or do you think the fact that they are all on a flat substrate prevents them from being such?
Al-Bahish: I ask myself this question a lot because I’m often asked what type of art I make and I don’t know if I should say that I make textiles, or collages, or sculptures. The only way I can really explain it is to say that I make objects. Like I said before, I don’t take photographs really, but I think in images. I see what I make ultimately as things that could be photographed, as if they were made to simply exist. Because of this, it really makes no difference to me if the piece is completely three-dimensional or not, because whenever I recall the piece, it comes to my mind like a photograph would. It’s like I made this piece and it took so long, and it only feels resolved when I can reduce it to one quick image in my head.
Bri Al-Bahish’s process and understanding of her own work (how they exist simultaneously as made objects and, in her mind’s eye, as photographs) has altered the way I feel about this coming year of remote learning. The art-making process will still be all our own, but photography will become the determining step toward completion. Only now will we be able to see our finished work through the eyes of everyone else. “And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality” (Jean Baudrillard).