Vlatka Horvat. Photo: Tim Etchells.
by VERONICA SIMPSON
Vlatka Horvat’s practice involves working with self-imposed restrictions, so it is no surprise that, when the global pandemic forced us all to stay put, she soon evolved a proposition for this restrictive situation. The results are on display at PEER in east London, in a show called By Hand, On Foot. Although she has exhibited widely across Europe and the US, this is her first solo show in London.
Central to the exhibition is an epic series, To See Stars Over Mountains (2021), which consists of 365 works on paper, one produced for every day of 2021. Starting in the intense, five-month UK lockdown from January to May 2021, Horvat photographed what she saw on her daily walks around her neighbourhood in east London, and continued, expanding her landscape as opportunities opened up. She then put these photographs through a process of transformation through collaging, erasing, cutting or graffitiing. The results are sometimes surreal, often humorous, and pique your imagination in a way that reveals new potential, new relationships and character in the urban landscape. All 365 images will be shown, in sections proceeding chronologically through the eight-week exhibition.
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021 (1 March). Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
Alongside these images is a site-responsive sculptural installation, What’s on the Ground and What’s in the Sky? (2022), as well as Horvat’s 2021 film Until the Last of Our Labours Is Done (2021), filmed on the same urban landscapes that occupy her photographs.
Horvat was born in 1974 in Croatia, moving to the US when she was a teenager, where she stayed for 20 years. She now lives in London. She started out in performance before moving into visual arts (she has a BA in theatre from Columbia College Chicago, an MA in performance studies from Northwestern University and a PhD from Roehampton University, London). So, it is natural that her work is grounded in that sense of the body and its relationship to its surroundings. This she explores at different scales and in a variety of forms, in two and three dimensions, using improvisatory and ordinary materials and techniques – cutting, folding, dismantling, stacking, reconfiguring and layering. Her practice is redolent of resourcefulness, observation and imagination. She has said: “The body, objects and materials in my work tend to be treated as vulnerable propositions, caught in the dynamic processes of their own multiplication and fragmentation.”
She has performed and exhibited widely, including at the London International Festival of Theatre, Kaaistudio’s in Brussels, Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, Fondation Cartier in Paris, and at MoMA PS1, New York. She currently teaches fine art at Central Saint Martins.
Horvat spoke to Studio International at the start of By Hand, On Foot.
Veronica Simpson: The work To See Stars Over Mountains, reimagines your daily landscape over the course of an entire year. Was this driven by a need to bear witness to the restrictions of the pandemic, or did it start out as something more playful – or even out of boredom?
Vlatka Horvat: Well, it started the year before, the year in which we first were in lockdown. I found, as did many other people, a lot of my life had shifted online. I was teaching online – of the projects that didn’t get cancelled, some got reimagined as online digital projects - so I was spending a lot of time in front of my screen. I was lucky in that I could reorganise my life and work in such a way, but what was becoming frustrating was that it felt like it was not real life, it was all screen life. So, before 2021 started, I knew I wanted to do something that would take up a whole year, but that would very definitively take me away from the screen every day and involve making something with my hands. The second thing is that, in the lockdown, many of us started making new routines and new habits. For me and my partner, one of them was that we went for marathon walks; it was like the gift of the pandemic because we’d never had this time together before, as we both travelled a lot.
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021 (19 October). Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
It was nice to come up with a project that was already embedded in the everyday, in what I was already doing, so it wasn’t like an activity that lived in some other sort of realm, but it was really intertwined and mixed in with daily life. Those two things combined were what gave rise to the project. The walking was already happening, but now with the addition that I was looking at the landscape with a slightly different eye because I was also taking pictures, and then looking at them again when I came home from the walk. Prior to this project, very often when I’d work with spaces or locations or images, I would work with what was already there and think about how I could extend and amplify that. That became my approach and guiding principle for the project. How can I transform what I see in my everyday but using this logic of amplifying what’s already there - forcing myself to look very closely while I’m walking but also while I’m looking at the image, to find some detail or some element or some interesting lines or some strange interplay of colour and light. What is already there that I can then repeat or mirror or morph in some way, or counter?
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021 (13 April). Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
VS: That sense of close observational practice - a close looking but also a celebration of the everyday – really comes across. These images and interventions work so well, precisely because it could be any park, any suburb, any unremarkable urban environment.
VH: I’m glad you use the word unremarkable because that was very important. When I was looking and deciding what to take pictures of, I wasn’t looking for something that was already extraordinary. I do also take those kinds of pictures, of street interventions and strange kinds of spatial dysfunction in the urban landscape that we all bear witness to on a daily basis, but I was very determined that I was not doing that, I was just taking pictures of the unremarkable, the everyday, the ordinary. That emphasis of looking and looking again was something I was guided by - a desire to see and re-see, to challenge myself to not think that I’d seen it already, but to look again. And I was interested in these two kinds of looking. There’s the way we look at the world that we occupy when in motion, moving through a landscape. It’s a particular kind of looking that comes from your presence as a body moving through four-dimensional space. Then there’s looking at the world once it’s become an image. With those two kinds of looking, there is at the heart of it some desire to see what you’ve missed or to see it differently.
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021 (8 November). Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
The first six months of the project is really the same walk. It’s the same landscape, the same field and the same unremarkable housing blocks at the end of it, because, for the first six months in 2021, I wasn’t going outside my neighbourhood. It was almost an attempt at exhausting a place: you’re trying to look at different vantage points, from different angles, as if you hadn’t seen it before. That game of “as if” is something I enjoy. To ask: what is it today, and in these particular weather conditions? It becomes almost like a game of call and response with my own repeated looking and my own reimagining of it. From day to day, there are little conversations that have developed from something I might have done yesterday and that gives rise to another idea the next day.
VS: I was also going for long walks in my neighbourhood and found so many things I had never discovered before. As did so many people. It’s fascinating, in a culture that so favours variety and spectacle, how much you can find in the same scenery, when you really take the time to look.
VH: Yes, it’s true. I find that also with the interventions I was doing on these photographs: I like sometimes to do the obvious, because when you exhaust the obvious you might then go somewhere you weren’t expecting to go. I think that if you allow yourself more variety, then you never exhaust anything. You stay in this register that’s known. That’s why I like working with self-imposed restrictions.
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021 (11 January). Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
VS: How much were your interventions inspired by the mood of the day – for example, a volcano on a skatepark could represent frustration or anger?
VH: That’s an interesting question. It’s not something I think about very much. I’m sure that does come into play but perhaps more in an unconscious way. There’s joy in responding to what I can see in the image. I feel very much in tune with that energy or emotion, if you will. I see something and think, that could be a volcano and that could be exciting. I am endlessly amused by what I think are quite stupid findings in this process. Maybe it’s a way of countering the mood of the day by projecting some colour into it. I think that is going on, but I don’t quite clock it while I’m working on it.
Vlatka Horvat. To See Stars over Mountains, 2021. Collage and drawing on inkjet photo print. A series of 365 works on paper. Copyright the artist.
VS: So, when the tower blocks sprout arms it’s not because you’re feeling oppressed by modernist housing design?
VH: I like playing this game of assigning a sort of subjectivity to inanimate things. It’s almost like looking at them and thinking: what would they want to be doing here? In my practice overall, I use that strategy quite a lot: if I’m standing in a room or in a gallery or a city or a public space, I try to get a feel for the room or the space and think, what does the room want? I think the same with images and objects, and I find that quite a generative process. There, it was a joy of realising: “Oh, you can just extend the windows beyond the confines of the building and then they become like arms.” So, a formal decision becomes a narrative reading.
VS: So, these arms are waving, not looming?
VH: I think there is a thing in the project overall, as a collection of images, there is quite often an attempt to get out of the image – so many ladders and pathways. So much of it is about escape, trying to get out of the frame. A building with waving arms may be calling for attention or may be in distress or trying to fly away, but there is a sense of trying to get out of the place. I’m interested in that, in the sense that, in my work, I’m always interested in relation to the place, and maybe a “stuckness” that comes with that - the dual pull, wanting to be grounded in a place and wanting to leave.
VS: As the series progresses, the techniques change. It goes through scrawling graffiti with felt-tips, to collaging and then scraping away of imagery. I wondered if you ran out of inspiration at any point, if you were evolving your techniques as you went along or if this is very much part of your practice?
VH: Some of the strategies come from the image. The scraping came from the fog. Buildings were slightly illegible in the fog, so you’re not sure if they’re there or not there. That’s where the scraping, the erasing came from. Some of them do come from, I guess, a bit of a repertoire of moves I have been working with, one of which is this interest in reorganising spatially what’s there. I’m quite interested in how you can open up spaces of fiction or how you can disrupt narrative or social relations by reorganising space … It’s a hint of proposing a change to social order by moving things around.
Vlatka Horvat. Until the Last of Our Labours Is Done, 2021. Screengrab from video, 25 min. Copyright the artist.
VS: That improvisatory spirit with everyday materials is also very much the theme of the film (Until the Last of Our Labours Is Done (2021). I love the use of seemingly found things as a source of play. All these adults, moving planks and hoses around, have that intense absorption of a three-year-old with a pile of sand and some cups. It’s delightful seeing adults exhibiting that degree of absorption and imagination.
VH: I’m a fan of restrictions. There is something very generative when working with a limited scope or limited resources. It’s also a real thing - economy of means and making do with what’s in hand – that reflects what we’re dealing with in our lives and in our work. I’m interested in the reality of the restrictions but also with the metaphorical potential of it, that idea of doing lots with little. I’m interested in that elevated level of content. I’m drawn to foolhardiness, drawn to the stupidity of what you sometimes come up with when you don’t have everything at your disposal. In that piece, I maybe go back to that thing of stuckness and mobility. These performers are moving objects in ways that give static objects mobility – rolling, pushing, sliding. It’s almost like lo-fi puppetry. I was interested in how the interaction between the human body and an object alters the object’s condition and the way the body moves through landscape, and, of course, the relationship to landscape.
VS: Did the idea for the film emerge from the photography?
VH: The idea for the film came out of what was going to be a live durational performance. A festival in Hannover commissioned me in 2020 to do a live, six-hour long performance with six dancers, who would be using this similar idea of moving down a very long stage … with objects. Then the festival couldn’t happen because of the lockdown: it got postponed several times, then cancelled. And I had this commission that I was trying to hold on to and I said: “Would you be open to the possibility that, instead of a live performance, I rethink this as a short film?” So, I ended up making a film, which was great, so I could look at the ideas I had for live performance and rethink it through the lens of a different medium. When we embarked on it, it was actually very quick. We only had a month to do it, and we shot it in a week.
VS: In the interim you had been making your work in the park. I would love to know to what extent that rich conversation you had been having with the urban environment inspired this film.
VH: When I said, OK let me make a film, I had no idea where I would make it. It was still the lockdown, it was in May last year. So, it had to be outside. My first thought was to do it in Hackney Marshes. The cinematographer Hugo Glendinning and I and some performers spent a day messing around in the Marshes with a few objects, and I looked at the footage and it wasn’t right, it was too legible. It was where all the football pitches are - there are about 20 different goals - so a lot of the activity felt almost like sports training. I didn’t want that reading being imposed on it. I thought that, actually, I just wanted to go back to my park. That film is shot in the same place where I’d been walking. That was such an advantage, in a way: I already had five months of looking at this place every day. So, by the time we were shooting I had so many locations in my mind where I wanted to shoot scenes. I had already practised looking at it from different angles and vantage points. I knew places that, if you weren’t walking there every day, you probably wouldn’t know about. I knew the nooks and crannies. And then, because we didn’t know what the weather was going to be like, [the narrative] also becomes a conversation with nature. One day was spectacularly windy, and it just added this element of nature, this force of the wind, which the performers were visibly going against. In the end, nature became much more in the foreground - that third presence.
Installation view, Vlatka Horvat: By Hand, On Foot, PEER London. Photo: Stephen White & Co.
VS: Tell me about the sculptures in the show – they represent your first opportunity to work outside your environment, in a site-responsive way, for at least two years.
VH: I wanted the second room to be presenting this walking, collaging project (the transformed photos) with a single horizon line where you go around the room in a circle. The first room had to be in my mind a denser environment that you then traverse to get to the clearing of the horizon line. That was what was in my mind. I’m very interested in the edges of space, edges of the image, ladders and lines, paths trying to get beyond the boundaries of the image. I take a similar approach to three-dimensional space, always trying to make a problem of the room, or a problem of the built environment. When I was standing in the room thinking, I was looking at the windows looking out on the street, and how dominant that is for that particular space. I wanted to work with that relation of inside and outside. All the sculptural pieces in the room are an attempt to remake elements that are on the other side of the window. The little triangular felt pieces are responding to the roofs, and the squiggly spiral forms are responding to the spiral-shaped bike racks outside the gallery. I’m interested in pretending that the wall isn’t there. But because I’m working with cheap, ubiquitous, pathetic materials like cardboard, sticks and sponge, there is that deliberate kind of inadequate attempt to remake the image of what’s on the other side of the window. I also wanted it to be an environment in its own right. It’s a place that you have to navigate with your own body.
Vlatka Horvat. Reinforcements, 2016. Installation, dimensions variable. Copyright the artist.
That piece is called What’s on the Ground and What’s in the Sky. It’s an invitation to the viewer, an emphasis on really looking and not taking for granted what you see and what’s around you. There’s an invitation to reposition yourself in relation to these obstacles, to reframe what you see through these apertures, and a desire to take a measure of the space. I’m always, when I work sculpturally, trying to think how I can make the viewer actively engage with their own presence in space.
Installation view, Vlatka Horvat: By Hand, On Foot, PEER London. Photo: Stephen White & Co.
VS: It has clearly added up to the most intense, year-long artist-in-residence project. What do you feel the impact has been on the work you want to make next or how you work as an artist?
VH: Yeah, I think that sort of intertwining the work and the practice in everyday life is something that had to a degree always been how I worked, but it has become very much the way of working during lockdown. At the moment, I don’t have a studio in London so I work from my house. All the work has to be entangled in my everyday life. That again is a restriction, but I work with that. It’s always a question of how to circumvent that or how to expand the possibility of how you can make ambitious work that is still something from the place where you live. This was also a great opportunity to make a book. I want to make more films, more books. It was quite an opening up of my practice.
My background is performance and I stumbled into art practice almost by chance. There are these kinds of moments in the way that you work that aren’t planned - they happen as expansions. This introduction for me into moving image and books as a form has been really exciting.
• Vlatka Horvat: By Hand, On Foot is at PEER, London, until 2 April 2022.
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