Published  06/06/2024

Dominique White – interview: ‘I do everything the wrong way’

Dominique White – interview: ‘I do everything the wrong way’

Ahead of her Whitechapel Gallery commission, the winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women talks about manufacturing, mythology and submerging work underwater

Dominique White in her studio in Todi during her Italian residency, 2024. Photo: Zouhair Bellahmar.


“I am obsessed with fire and destroying things,” says Dominique White. She is in her studio in Todi, a hill town in Umbria nestled among rolling green slopes. Inside, the ceiling is painted with a verdant fresco of flora. On the ground is a sprawl of rusted iron and contorted ropes. In an adjoining room, White has created a mood board of photographs, texts and drawings. “I would say I am a hoarder of images,” she says. Tools are everywhere, from pegs and scissors to more heavy-duty objects. A door covered in black powder leads to what White calls her “murder room”, where she works with highly volatile charcoal. During a recent project in Germany, the charcoal dust entered her lungs and made her ill. She has twice set a studio on fire.

White’s practice often takes the form of huge, freestanding sculptures created from nautical debris such as ropes, sails and chains. It is informed by history and literature as well as music, from the aquatic Afrofuturism of Drexciya to the apocalyptic rap of early Busta Rhymes. But her work also has a bracing physicality. Her sculptures grow to interact with, and even redefine, the space they occupy. The arduous processes of their creation is visible in their worn, exhausting forms. White uses techniques that chip and graze her own flesh. She soaks things in acid and sets them on fire. “I work my ideas into what can physically be made without killing me or collapsing on itself,” she explains. “I’m probably not going to be able to use my right hand in 10 years.”

Dominique White during her Italian residency at Metalserbatoi S.N.C., Todi. 2023. Photo: TIWI.

White is in Umbria to complete Deadweight, a new commission. It is the product of a six-month residency across Italy, an award for winning the 9th Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Deadweight will be exhibited this July in the Whitechapel Gallery before travelling to Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia. It will mark White’s first solo exhibition at a major London institution. Her residency took in Agnone, home of the world’s oldest foundry; Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Columbus; and Nemi, site of the emperor Caligula’s now-destroyed pleasure ships. In Umbria, she spent time at Metalserbatoi, a carbon and stainless-steel manufacturer that previously worked with the late sculptor Beverly Pepper.

Deadweight is a nautical term signifying the total weight of cargo a ship can carry. White’s work is in part a response to the Zong massacre of 1781, in which more than 130 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard by traders, ostensibly for an insurance claim. White came across the story in theorist Katherine McKittrick’s book Dear Science. McKittrick, explains White, “talks about blackness as a corrupt algorithm, which is never allowed to fully live or exist within the system of society”. Deadweight aims to show what might happen if this disruptive force took hold of the ship and forced it to eternally sink.

Details of the work of Dominique White, in her studio in Todi during her Italian residency, 2024. Photo: Zouhair Bellahmar.

The residency allowed her to realise a long-held ambition to sink the work into the sea. The components of Deadweight were placed underwater in Genoa for a month. “When they arrived, they were coated in rust and the whole studio fucking stank.” The process engaged with the history of shipwrecks and injected a new element of uncertainty into White’s work. “The colour has started to mutate. These blues and purples have started to come through, and there are pockets where the iron has already started to disintegrate. It’s really Romantic – or Romantic chaos.”

Studio International spoke with White in Todi about welding, nomadism and the future of museums.

Joe Lloyd: How long have you been in Todi, and how did you find working at Metalserbatoi?

Dominique White: I’ve been here a little over two months. It was the final site. Which kind of made sense. After collecting all these sketches, it was time to bring these ideas back to life. The premise of the models came from me in the studio working furiously, and then Michele [Ciribifera, of Metalsrbatoi] saying: “I’m going to make a physical object now, let’s see how it goes.”

I was in the foundry pretty much daily. Which was a super funny experience because it’s a macho place. Even the toilets are just men’s toilets. There are no women that work there. It was kind of strange in the beginning, because I think they were just like: “What is this woman doing here?” And then, as soon as I started working, they were like: “OK, she is capable.” They were like: “You can weld.” It was quite a fun experience. But a hot experience as well. It was the height of summer, 30, 40 degrees. And you’re covered in leather so you don’t set fire to yourself, and you’re cooking under the outfit. But it was great fun.

Dominique White during her Italian residency at Metalserbatoi S.N.C., Todi. 2023. Photo: TIWI.

JL: Your practice involves so many arduous, dangerous processes. What is the importance of working hands-on?

DW: I just love making. I love expressing myself with objects. And I love learning. I’m a geek for learning random ass methods of working. And I am really anti mass production of objects. I think then you’ve lost the soul of objects. So, I really want objects to feel like they come from my hand.

JL: I was thinking earlier about a very different artistic practice that engages with underwater excavation, Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which seems the antithesis of your work.

DW: That whole exhibition, where he allegedly sank the wreck off the coast, and he hadn’t, he just had them painted to look like they’d be covered in shells or something. It was super bizarre. I hated that exhibition. As soon as I said: “Look, it’s imperative that I sink the work authentically off the coast”, people asked: “Like Damien Hirst?” And I told them: “He didn’t do it! It was fake!”

JL: You sank the work in Genoa: the home of Christopher Columbus.

DW: It was bizarre that it ended up there. All the waters around Italy are so heavily protected. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for years, but the hurdles you have to jump … Even just to access them, Genoa’s dock is completely inaccessible, it’s completely private. So, you can’t even walk down there and call for someone. You have to know a friend of a friend.

To end up doing it off the coast of Genoa is wild, given its history. When I arrived, I had forgotten that Columbus was Genoese and not Spanish, because everything always associates his voyages with Spain. When you walk around, there are huge statues of him, and roads named after him. The first room in the nautical museum has his ashes in it. I’ve seen him in so many different nautical museums, and you kind of forget that he was a real person from an actual place. Because everyone tries to claim him. I think when I was in Greece people said: “Yeah, he was Greek.” Based on what! It’s super bizarre.

Dominique White during her Italian residency at Galata Museo del Mare, Genoa, 2023. Ph. TIWI.

JL: He doesn’t seem to have been re-evaluated as much as one would expect.

DW: Yes, and even though he was a really shit navigator. He was just a scammer! Let’s be real: “I’m going to go and find Japan.” And he ended up in the West Indies. Also, how nautical navigation started relying on the stars, but he couldn’t do it, so ended up in the wrong place.

JL: Are you mostly based in Marseille?

DW: I pay my taxes in France. But someone recently asked me where I lived. And I realised, kind of nowhere. Throughout the heights of the pandemic, I was driven by work, so it was wherever I was installing. A lot of the time it’s easier to produce in the country. So, I spent a few months in Switzerland, and a few in Norway, and I ended up being very nomadic. Which I hope is slowing now because I’m actually very tired. Not having a sofa to go back to is quite a weird position to put yourself in.

JL: It must be difficult to move your materials around.

DW: Yes, and it’s not a cheap venture. It’s very laborious and quite harmful to your body. Most of the time I will land in a country, sleep for 10 hours and then be like: “I now have to do an impossible production in an impossible amount of time. For example, my production should take me three or four months to do, but I’m doing it in three, four weeks. It means a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of overworking your brain and just pushing everything to the limit. It’s not a very sustainable way of working. But it’s also the way I have to navigate the art world in order to maintain a life.

JL: How do you manifest theory in your sculptures?

DW: I guess they just all kind of blend into each other. I’m always reading something, and always collecting references, just like on my phone, on my computer, in my sketchbook. And they sometimes just click. Sometimes theory makes sense through the act of creation. The same with music. I listen to a lot of music when I’m producing. Not just as a background noise, but as something that feeds into the influences or the theory, and they become a symbiosis of production and world-making.

Dominique White during her Italian residency at Campane Marinelli, 2023. Photo: Le Iridi Digitali.

Usually, I’ll come across maybe a specific visual reference that triggers something in the brain, and I’ll do some sketches from that. And then there will be other references that loop into that. And sometimes it will click with something that I’m reading, and yeah it works.

JL: And how closely do your finished works resemble the sketches?

DW: They’re usually very true sketches, which sounds kind of impossible given the way I do produce. People are like: “That doesn’t make any sense!” It’s such a chaotic way of producing but there is an order in the chaos that I understand. So, they always start with models or sketches, and weirdly enough end up looking like them even though it’s a destructive way of working.

JL: Your sculptures stand on their own weight, without support or plinths. Why?

DW: I just really hate the language of the museum. I really hate this idea of preservation and eternity within objects. Because I feel like you kind of sterilise the object. Look at the objects in the display cabinet over there [gestures to glass-fronted cabinet full of craft objects and souvenirs]. They lose any sense of storytelling or soul that they originally had. And museum objects are so taken out of context that you cannot tell what they are, or what they are for. And that has influenced the way I view the presentation of exhibitions. I want them to almost disrupt the space a lot of the time. I sometimes make structural engineers a bit nervous when I’m like: “What load bearing is your ceiling?” and they’re like: “Why?”

Dominique White, The domination of Nothing, 2023. Wrought iron (rusted), sisal, destroyed sail, mahogany (burnt), high volatile charcoal. Courtesy the artist and Veda. Photo: Volker Renner.

JL: The purpose of the museum is currently under scrutiny. What do you think the museum of the future will – or should – look like? 

DW: I don’t really know. I feel they do remove objects from my context so severely that they lose complete power, and therefore, as time goes on, they lose all meaning completely. They just become objects that you gawp at for a microsecond before moving on. Or you photograph the object, but the glare of the glass prevents you from seeing it properly.

I don’t think they execute the purpose that we think they do. They execute the purpose that they are made for: hoarding objects and wealth. They don’t really preserve anything a lot of the time. I mean, there was that guy from the British Museum selling antiquities on eBay. They don’t preserve culture, they don’t preserve objects or history. If anything, they rewrite history a lot of the time. Sometimes you see question marks when they’re like: “Is this a staff?” And you don’t know. You’re just guessing what these objects are. But they’re going to maintain this approach because that’s what they’ve been built on and how they’ve existed for so long.

Dominique White, The domination of Nothing (detail), 2023. Wrought iron (rusted), sisal, destroyed sail, mahogany (burnt), high volatile charcoal. Courtesy the artist and Veda. Photo: Volker Renner.

JL: How do you want people to respond to your works when they are installed in a museum or gallery?

DW: Not in a rigid way. There are usually such contrasting responses to my work. Some people really enjoy being around it, to sit and ponder and want to spend time with it. And others really can’t be near it, and don’t like it. They might not know why they don’t like it, but don’t want to be near. I guess I want people to not think of them as art objects but as scenes or acts, or something to almost interact with – but maybe don’t actually interact with it, because you might harm yourself. But I think, yes, removing this idea of it being an art object that should be on a plinth or elevated to your view. You have to move with the work. And a lot of the time the work occupies space in a way that one isn’t used to. It is so simple, but I think we have it ingrained in us to view an object in a certain way, like how museums elevate them.

JL: Deadweight will travel to Britain and be exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery. Is it difficult to create work for a faraway space?

DW: It will be challenging because it’s a protected building. I’ve had to interact with that before, when it’s so specific. You can touch this bit of brick, but not that bit of brick. So, it’s been a little challenging. Because, usually, I do interact directly with the architecture of the space, but in this case I’m not allowed to. So, it has to be almost like a dance that the objects have to do with the space. I have the pieces of paper from Whitechapel’s tech team, which explain how wide the doors are and how big the crates and works can be. I hope I’ve made the right calculations!

Dominique White, The dethroning of the Human (detail). 2023. Wrought iron, kaolin, destroyed sail, rope, high volatile charcoal. Courtesy the artist and Veda. Photo: Volker Renner.

JL: What purpose do you think mythologies have for people today?

DW: I see mythology as basically pure storytelling. It’s not necessarily rooted in fact, or like what is considered fact or recorded history. So, they kind of become these like nonsensical, intangible things where the imagination can really run wild. It’s like: “Actually, was there a many-headed beast?” We don’t even know. We’re going to say no because we don’t have any facts to support that, basically, but there was probably something that happened where the story emerged from, right? There must have been a weird animal or beast.

I love myths and legends and stories that are told, especially verbally, that mutate with time. Even at the end of the myth of the Hydra, there’s the official ending and then there are alternative endings where there is like one head that is eternal. It’s just buried under a rock, waiting to emerge again, and sprout heads and terrorise people. I think it’s something that is not antithetical to our understanding of ways of living, history and society, but is outside of it. It sounds silly, but also it can be a little bit scary at times.

And I think there was something found in the sea that was so terrifying people stopped looking. For example, there are all those Vantablack sea creatures that they found, and we don’t know how they’re formed. And we just found them by accident, because we just chucked a net down there. We can’t really measure the sea. And how we compute life on land shouldn’t be applied to the sea, or to space. We often hear that we’ve found a planet that could support life. But we haven’t – we’ve found one that can support our understanding of life as it can exist. Most of these planets could have life on that we just can’t detect.

Dominique White: Deadweight will be at Whitechapel Gallery, London, from 2 July to 15 September, before travelling to Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia.

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