Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

rachel rose


interview by DONATIEN GRAU
all artwork by RACHEL ROSE

the art of installation as an isolated space for an abundance of visual, sensual, and emotional experiences that no other place in the world can offer, traversed by crosscurrents of stories, memories, and political issues, yet protected from the abuse of power.

DONATIEN GRAU — Your work often deals with issues of space, of continuum, of creating a space. How do you see the position of the island, as both a space that is separate from the mainland and a space for potential experimentation?
RACHEL ROSE — There’s a parallel between the structure of a film that has a beginning and an end, and the geography of an island — because, in both, you’re always aware that there are edges. It’s very different from being landlocked, where the limits are fuzzy.

DONATIEN GRAU — The fact that it seems to be limited, or at least has borders, raises the question of what can happen with it and its relation to reality overall. That’s also something that’s very potent in your own work, the structure that allows for experimentation, changes in our perception of reality, changes in the perception of how we see the world.
RACHEL ROSE — One thing that comes to mind in recent cultural memory, when you think about the concept of experimentation and spatiality on an island in storytelling, is Damon Lindelof’s show Lost. I only saw a few episodes recently, but it’s about a bunch of characters whose plane crashes on an island. And on this island, all kinds of mysteries unfold. The storylines reference everything from Gothic ghost stories to sci-fi alternative space-time continuums. The show feels like a stream of consciousness, a dream; there are so many twists per beat, you never know exactly where you are. What makes an artwork successful in any form is that it feels like a dream, and Lost literalizes the connection between limits and dreaming in the form of the island.

DONATIEN GRAU — When I watched your video installation Enclosure, there was a feeling of this world that you were entering, of a space that you could recognize and not recognize at the same time. I also feel the same, looking at your sculptures.
RACHEL ROSE — One of the reasons I made Enclosure was because it was this potent moment in the history of capitalism: this emergence of cash linked to the destruction of the landscape, the breaking up of the commons, and the introduction of privatized space, a new kind of privatized space. Because none of us were ever really there, all period pieces are always explicitly a dream. Thinking about Enclosure was a way in which I could dream of the present through this transposition into another site. I need tangible, real materials to dream. The sculptures you’re referring to are composed of just rocks and glass. They are an attempt to merge two forms that seem different, but are actually already inherently connected. They’re both rock because glass is literally just sand, pulverized rock.

DONATIEN GRAU — I remember being really struck by the physicality of them. The rock and the glass are connected, but then you also see the differences. The fact that they are together, that they coexist, makes you think about each of them differently.
RACHEL ROSE — Editing can do it, too. In Lake Valley, an animation I made that was presented at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, or in another film I made seven years ago called Palisades in Palisades, I used trompe l’œil to edit. It’s a painting technique, but I was applying it to editing: you think you’re in a trash bag, but as the camera pulls out of the trash bag, you’re actually inside an animal’s stomach, and then as you come out of that, you realize that the animal is in a painting, and that that painting is of two men standing in the exact place 300 years ago, where the trash bag now lies on the ground. This cyclical linking of materials that seemingly don’t belong — a painting, a trash bag, and the formal technique of trompe l’oeil in editing — these sculptures are, in a way, trying to do that materially.

DONATIEN GRAU — That, for me, is also how you deal with exhibition spaces: creating these connections.
RACHEL ROSE — I always feel a responsibility to think about it because, otherwise, why show art? In thinking about how our bodies are meeting the screen, absorbing the sound, it requires thinking about artificiality, the natural, scale, and texture. This is one of the things that I think art and the art institution specifically can offer that there is no other place in the world for: this kind of suturing between what you’re experiencing virtually, visually, and what your body is doing. There’s just no other opportunity for that. A movie theater doesn’t do that. Netflix on your computer doesn’t do that.

DONATIEN GRAU — If you’re in that space experiencing that, you are in the space of oneness, and then you have the rest of the world. And I think this presence in that space, the experience of it, is radically different from being in the world.
RACHEL ROSE — Just like an island.

DONATIEN GRAU — When I saw your Serpentine show, I felt like I was entering a space that had to do with the film, but also with the space per se.
RACHEL ROSE — In the Serpentine show, I included the work I just mentioned, Palisades in Palisades. The Palisades is an area just 10 minutes outside of New York City. It’s this 200-million-year-old cliff that, incidentally, was the site of the Battle of Fort Lee during the American Revolutionary War. And it was also where the American film industry began. Before there was Hollywood, there was Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the Palisades are. Actually, the term “cliff-hanger” originated from one of the first serial films, created in 1914, which was shot on those exact cliffs. Showing that work at the Serpentine was crazy because the Serpentine was an artillery storage base for British troops during the war. So, it was a strange thing, where I made this work that takes place in another park in America, but here it was inside a place literally and materially connected to the same moment and place.

DONATIEN GRAU — That also reminds me of Enclosure: we think of the notion of the island, and the relation of the island in space and geography, but you can also think of it in relation to time. And that, for me, is what your work does. You take something that is like an island off the mainland of narrative history.
RACHEL ROSE — Enclosure is a good example of that. I feel like one of the underlying most tragic things about capitalism in the way we live now is the loss of common space. We basically don’t have any. Technically, the street is the one common space we still have because parks have never really been common spaces. Making Enclosure was about exploring how and when we lost common space. It was a moment in which land was privatized, the landscape was broken up and made into “islands,” in the sense that borders limit space now, suffocating the fluid animism of the forest into transactional cash. Enclosure shows the death of magic, and the destruction of the landscape linked to the privatization and cutting off and limiting of space.

DONATIEN GRAU — There’s a famous quote by Plato that says that philosophy — meaning thought or art — is the daughter of wonder. That it comes from wonder. That is also something your work relates to.
RACHEL ROSE — In a work, first and foremost, everything should be narratively sound in story, and from there, wonder can develop. All art needs a story, and where the story sits in relationship to the thing you’re absorbing is up for grabs. Sometimes, the story is the story of the artist or the story of the movement, but there’s always a story. Sometimes, the story is 100% fully inside the work itself. I think one of the things that making films can offer is the succinctness of putting the story in the work.

DONATIEN GRAU — And what’s the story for you?
RACHEL ROSE — To write a story, I read a bunch, research, then write an actual script, put it together, shoot it, edit it, try to make it clear. For me, the story is about the hard work of making feelings and states of being — of wonder — accessible.

DONATIEN GRAU — I want to ask you about the notion of utopia: obviously, the first utopia was an island. Is it something you’re interested in, that you care about, or is it an idea that you don’t really relate to?
RACHEL ROSE — My friend, the writer Elvia Wilk, wrote a book recently called Oval, which is about a dystopia. At one of her book launches, she was being interviewed and said something so succinct and true: that dystopias and utopias, we live in them now, they’re all around us. Neither is an “other” place. Both are here now.

DONATIEN GRAU — So, do you believe in the blending of reality and utopia? The whole point of a utopia is that it’s in another space. Do you believe that there is no such a thing as a form of solidified utopia, and that there are actually utopic aspects in life?
RACHEL ROSE — Yeah, I think that.

DONATIEN GRAU — There’s a beautiful quote by Michel Foucault, who said that utopias comfort us, and heterotopias discomfort us. That, for me, captures what you’re talking about.
RACHEL ROSE — Actually, I was thinking a lot about heterotopias when I was making Lake Valley, specifically. An example of a heterotopia is a ship: it’s always in motion, never in one place or another, but you can still be within it, inside it, it’s still real — “a place without a place.” When I was making Lake Valley, I wanted to make a heterotypic world, where no surface ever is what it seems. The story takes place in this mundane suburban American house, but every surface — the walls, the food, the characters — is made out of unexpected surfaces. The pasta is actually angel hair, the water is actually ocean waves, and the floor is actually paper. The sound of the animal stretching on the ground is actually the sound of me taking off my jacket, but I fold it over. So, you’re never anywhere.

DONATIEN GRAU — Which is a guiding principle of your work. I remember seeing the piece you made with the Camargue horse. There’s this complete blending of something that is there and something that is not. And that is the space that you’ve been working on consistently.
RACHEL ROSE — One model for that space is the fairy tale. I think about fairy tales a lot because they rest on such steady feelings that are grounded, familiar, and real to us. And yet, when you read, think about, or watch a fairy tale, you have the feeling of being lifted or of floating away from reality, while simultaneously being confronted with archetypes that are deep within all of us. So, I feel like the fairy tale is maybe a good story parallel to the physical examples of heterotopia.

DONATIEN GRAU — When I first saw the series of works you made based on the egg form, I knew, of course, that there was something related to your biography. But, somehow, it also struck me as being a symbolic, universal form. Something that pertained to how we live in the world: the egg being closed, being a form, being open, having something come out of it. That also, for me, has a connection to the island, with the egg being the form of symbolic unity. I would be interested in hearing you talk about it, in relation to the notion of the island.
RACHEL ROSE — When I was thinking about becoming pregnant with my daughter, Eden (speaking of utopias and dystopias), I was learning all about ovulation, and I was struck by two very strange facts about the mother’s eggs that we all come from. When the egg is getting ready to be released through the ovary, it grows and grows but can only pop through when the pineal gland in the brain signals it to pop. The pineal gland is in the back of your brain: Descartes talked about it as being where your soul lives. It has a lot of unknown functions in the brain, to this day. There’s actually an extremely rare disorder, in which the pineal gland doesn’t tell the egg to pop, and there’s no way to fix that. I was interested in the fact that this beginning action of life is actually related to the mother’s soul, in a physical way. And when baby girls are born, they have all the eggs for their whole lifetime in them already, which means that when she is inside her mother, like when I was carrying Eden, her mother is carrying half of all of her potential grandchildren, too. This kind of Russian-doll material reality to the beginning of life explicitly shows how indefinable our borders are as bodies — when do we actually spring to life? Did my great-granddaughter’s life begin when I was pregnant with Eden a year-and-a-half ago? Maybe when a baby is born — a body independent from its mother, in the open air — that’s the beginning of its island time.



All artwork copyright the artist, courtesy of the artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Pilar Corrias, London.

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

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