interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
In 1991, the British multimedia artist Katerina Jebb was struck by a car while crossing the street in Paris. The accident left her right arm paralyzed. No longer able to hold a camera, she began making self-portraits with machines, primarily a high-resolution scanner. It is a testament to her resourcefulness that her creative output has expanded to include film and sculpture in addition to camera-less photography. Her new film work will be shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this September. Entitled Ten Billion Illuminating Spirits Now Playing at a Cinema Near You, is part of The Impossible Wardrobe project in collaboration with Olivier Saillard of Musée Galliera Paris and the Festival of Autumn.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You recently made a film for Comme des Garçons in which you feature a pianist who is 98 years old.
KATERINA JEBB — Yes. It’s Madeleine Malraux, a great lady who was married to the French novelist, art theorist, and Minister for Cultural Affairs André Malraux. She has a quality you can’t even speak about. You just have to spend three minutes with her and you’ll know it. Sometimes, talking and explaining and trying to find words for feelings is in itself destructive to the beauty of creativity. It doesn’t make sense for me to name something because the feeling is stronger than words can ever be. The film is not only a portrait; it shows a world that is in the process of disappearing. It’s a rare world. I like things that are unknown. I’m driven by obscurity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What makes her obscure; she doesn’t play anymore?
KATERINA JEBB — No, she does play. She just played at Le Chateau D’Arcangues a month ago. It’s a hidden world, though. I always think I’m not really of my time. And so when I enter into her time, I feel like I belong more to the period. I’ve always had the sense of being dislocated.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You film her face, her hands, her playing the piano, her talking. She has a clear voice and is very articulate. She’s very modern in a way.
KATERINA JEBB — Very modern and lucid. There’s a psychoanalytical concept about being a whole, pure self, and she’s pretty much that. Sometimes you meet people on your travels like that. I know a few. What’s interesting about human interaction is getting close to someone who’s nearly the whole self.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So this is a portrait of the artist?
KATERINA JEBB — Well, all portraits by an artist are a portrait of the artist.
The painter Gericault, when he was in the hospital, made them bring him a mirror so he could paint himself in a battered state. I mean, how can you not? Anyone who’s an artist, photographer, musician — you have to. It’s all about you, but then you pervert it or distort it by pretending it could be about someone else. How can it not be so? Otherwise you’d have a huge hole in yourself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you research your films? Because this is not exactly a documentary, it’s something else.
KATERINA JEBB — Just by intuition. I don’t conceptualize or plan too much.
I usually make it up as I go along. This is what I think I do, but, in fact, I spend years thinking about what I may make in the future. I read a lot. When I edit, I throw things in, to create chaos, abstraction. Editing is the work. Trying to understand what you would like to say or suggest with these few seconds of pixelated matter. But film is a different thing; you’re working with chemistry and soul.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was this film of the pianist digital?
KATERINA JEBB — Yes. The new project that I’m working on is shot on 35mm film. The difference between digital and film is the difference between going to JFK Airport and a small landing strip in Hawaii. You have to be pragmatic when employing film, which I’m not. So the discipline needed for me to go against my nature is very interesting artistically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What project did you shoot on 35mm film?
KATERINA JEBB — Ten Billion Illuminating Spirits for the Festival of Autumn. The heroine of the film is Tilda Swinton, who is about as illuminated as anyone can be. We worked in the archives of the Musée Galliera, with the possessions of Napoleon, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt. Schiaparelli’s own clothes, an outfit that somebody fought a duel in.
OLIVIER ZAHM — She wears all these clothes?
KATERINA JEBB — No, she can’t wear them. No one can ever wear them again. The moment they enter into the museum you can’t put your hand in a glove, forget it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So what happens in the film?
KATERINA JEBB — Tilda Swinton is in a municipal parking lot that’s been converted into a storage space for the museum’s hundreds and thousands of costumes. She exists in a strange space and nothing is explained. It is an imaginative work, spare and economical. She looks at the clothes, she holds them in her arms, she can interact with them, but she cannot ever wear them. That’s why we called it “The Impossible Wardrobe.” It’s not a narrative work, it’s an improbable concept. She will make a live performance with the pieces, which Olivier Saillard directed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about the advertising you did for Comme des Garçons perfume.
KATERINA JEBB — Well it’s a work of satire, it’s a mash-up, like a lot of my work. The music is a satire of Smack My Bitch Up by Prodigy. It is the antithesis of a pefume ad. The bottle itself is filmed spinning on a scanner, there is a river flowing and there are voices, a woman’s voice announces, “My husband ran off with his lover.” I recorded some voiceovers a few years ago because I was obsessed with the screenplay of the film Network. The male voice is the speech of Arthur Jensen, the chairman of the TV channel. He says “There is no democracy, there is no America, there is only AT&T, IBM, and Pacific Bell. These are the nations of the world today.” Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, it was his masterpiece. The whole script, if you read it from beginning to end, is a magnificent work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And maybe it’s the truth as well?
KATERINA JEBB — Yeah, I think it’s the truth. How much will we let ourselves be stripped of our individuality? How much will we take? I’m English, and it was always okay to be different. We don’t have to conform. But the system is closing in on us with control by fear. The tactics came from America to Europe. Your child comes home from school at age seven with a paper saying how to behave in case of a terrorist attack. I mean, I don’t really want my nine-year-old to be thinking, “They’re coming to get us.” I think that we’re becoming lost in a complex era in time and that buying is not the ultimate solution to finding one’s place in society. At the same time, I have to continue and, as I’m naturally an optimist, I try not to listen to the polemic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your art you combine sound, music, and photography in an intellectual and modern way. Do you preserve your optimism through beauty?
KATERINA JEBB — Yes beauty is the ultimate escape. I try not to be nostalgic but it’s impossible. I read T.S. Eliot or Aldous Huxley, writers I love and who make me escape myself. I wish I had lived in California with Huxley. If I have regrets, it’s that I wasn’t at a Doors concert. I’m interested in abstract impossibilities. Emptiness. We don’t have to capture everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it fair to say, however, that in contrast to this idea of freedom there can be a sense of rigidity in your photography?
KATERINA JEBB — It may appear clinical because I let the scanner decide. I like to let the object tell me what to do. I’m working with a machine, but I believe in metaphysical realms so I have to be pliable. I’m trying to put myself in a reflective relationship with a machine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What machine?
KATERINA JEBB — The scanner. It’s just a conduit, a helper, a nice little electronic medium to help me draw a picture, but it still holds energy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you use a scanner like a camera?
KATERINA JEBB — Yes, because I couldn’t hold a camera. In 1991, when I was hit by a car, they had to cut my clothes off me, I was unconscious. I was in the hospital for a long time. After that, I couldn’t move my arm or hold a camera. Anyway, I’m not really a proper photographer. I know what an F-stop is. I know what depth of field is. I know the basic rudimentary principles, but if I was with someone who was really interested in technology and cameras, I’d fall asleep. I’m interested in what you put in that frame. I couldn’t give a damn — I’d take a picture with a vacuum cleaner if that were possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why is it so difficult to define your work?
KATERINA JEBB — Reticence. I have never wanted to be seen. I came from a family where I wasn’t nurtured to be an artist. It wasn’t a natural thing to happen.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was your family like?
KATERINA JEBB — Quite eclectic, mixed up, full of paradoxes, full of religion, and I don’t know if I believe in anything. My father was rather eccentric.
My mother very disciplined. I went to a very strict convent school. I was indoctrinated with religion, Greek mythology, and Latin.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a good education.
KATERINA JEBB — Yeah. There was a sense of beauty through classical studies. But it wasn’t a place for me to be an artist. I went to drama school. I studied dramatic art, rather fittingly. When my parents divorced there was mayhem in the house. My twin sister was growing marijuana plants and my mother was watering them thinking they were radish plants. There was no real guidance. So for me to become an artist and figure out how I might be creative was a trip. I was not prepared for life in a traditional sense. I did not feel like an adult until I had my children.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But now you are able to do so many things.
KATERINA JEBB — Yes, possibly. When you put it all together it makes sense. My work is highly self-analytical. You have to have a vague knowledge of what’s been before and what’s coming after. Remember Baldessari?
He said something like, “A good artist hides his tracks.” I like the opposite: you show your tracks. But I love him. I say that in a good way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Today artists have become so professional.
KATERINA JEBB — Marketing. It’s like “Supersize Me!” If you buy this one, then you can have that one free. Maybe I’m not rich and famous because I don’t agree to strip myself and be remade. Who I am — flawed or beautiful or moody or temperamental or whatever — is wholly me. And I can’t debase myself. Is that the right word?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Compromise?
KATERINA JEBB — No, I can compromise for my children. If I had to work in a gallery or shop to make everything work for my children, I’d totally do what I had to do. But where expressing something possibly interesting is concerned, you could say a sentence that’s beautiful and flowing and inspiring, or you could say a sentence that’s full of clichés. I prefer to write a beautiful sentence rather than one that’s been dumbed down.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your work is not sexual or erotic, but would you say there’s a lot of femininity in it?
KATERINA JEBB — My work in the past has been, but we all go through that phase. No, I think gender has really got nothing to do with it. You just work with what you’ve got. You work with your senses. And if yours are the sensations of a woman, then you just use those.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s something delicate about it.
KATERINA JEBB — You have to listen. It’s not a head-on collision. That’s why I like the work of Guy de Cointet. It’s so complicated and difficult to understand. Not that I intentionally want to create anything that’s difficult to understand, but I naturally arrive at work that could seem to be so.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that snobbish?
KATERINA JEBB — No, not at all. I’m the opposite of a snob. I’m anti-elitist. You could give me 50 cents and I could make something.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But there’s something a bit aristocratic in art in which there are no clues.
KATERINA JEBB — Yeah, but with all the artists that I really like, there’s usually a hidden conversation going on. The conceptual artists from the ’60s and ’70s — Robert Barry, for example — were using language and invisibility. Before them was Alphonse Allais. A work of his from 1883 called First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow consists of a plain white sheet of Bristol paper on to which he composed the words that became the work. It’s a conceptual work before Duchamp. He did a lot of really interesting work. He was a humorist, a player in the Incoherents movement. This kind of work is obscure. I relate to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But at the same time, you’re open to working in fashion.
KATERINA JEBB — I can be. It depends who’s asking. It can be very time-consuming — and underpaid — working for magazines. I prefer to do more of less. If I think it will be a throwaway I will generally decline. There is a whole world of bad graphic design and I don’t like taking the risk. I wish I could find a way to work more easily in fashion. I work on projects with Comme des Garçons or Acne Paper because there’s a mutual respect.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They give you a lot of freedom.
KATERINA JEBB — Exactly. But if I was given a normal job in fashion that’s tightly structured, that would be confusing for me, and I wouldn’t understand why they only want the top layer. A psychoanalyst told me that images consist of predominantly two-dimensional planes. But sometimes an image can take the viewer deeper into the third dimension. This is probably what I look for and idealize. I want to confuse myself in the midst of making something, which thus allows me to feel liberated from the emotion that generated the work.
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