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Preserving—Yet Corroding: An Interview with Sara Jimenez

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

Working alone or in collaborations, Sara Jimenez observes how things come together and fall apart both in the world and in our bodies. Using natural materials like salt and rust, she creates visual metaphors for these psychological processes. On entering her studio Winter Workspace studio, I had to pick my way through spools of cable, over masses of foliage and by an undulating paper-form coated in salt crystals. So I naturally started our conversation with a simple question.

David Xu Borgonjon: What are you working on here?

Sara Jimenez: Right now, I’m using the compost found materials and materials like rust and salt to transform my studio space.

DXB: How did you get interested in these materials? Salt and rust both color the surface of things and change their structure. Why are you using them?

SJ: I was searching for materials suited to creating some kind of visual metaphor around the elusive nature of memory. I started collecting found objects from abandoned sites, and they were all covered in rust because of the humidity. So I started bringing them into my studio, and I became really interested in these natural processes that change the physical properties of objects

DXB: These processes aren’t just visual, they’re physical.

SJ: Right. Salt, in particular, can be used as a preservative, but it’s also a corrosive material. It created these unexpected stains in the studio [when I began to work with it]. And those unintentional stains are what I came to really enjoy. I thought I knew what it was doing, but the aftereffects would always surprise me. It was like a memory that would come unbidden to me. I’d clean the studio, but the next day stains would be appearing everywhere.

DXB: When you talk about memory, do you mean memory in the abstract, or specific experiences you have had, or that people you know have had?

SJ: They started with particular memories around my family of origin, especially my relationship to my grandmother. I started thinking about this physical space as well as this cultural and emotional gap between us, from where she was in the Philippines. Even though we share genes, there’s this distance. When I go there [to the Philippines], I don’t speak the language, and I don’t know the nuances of the culture. So, what are the gaps between second-generation experience here [in the United States] and the place of origin? How is it possible to recall a place when you’re unfamiliar with that country?

DXB: Some of what you’re talking about, the memories of others, might also be called history. Is there a difference for you between memory and history?

SJ: History is complicated, it’s based on multiple experiences that are recalled and recorded. I guess I’m interested in very particular, personal histories that are not recorded for mainstream consumption.

DXB: In some ways, I feel the immigrant experience is heavily retold for mainstream consumption: it’s a basic Hollywood plot, the story of fitting in after moving from a different place.

SJ: Through visual art, I’m not interested in writing a history. I want to create visual metaphors that address the psychological and spiritual sense of feeling apart from a culture. It’s about not having a fixed set of origins, attempting to create one’s own sense of belonging, rather than telling a very specific tale of immigration.

Most of the time I’m not using specific cultural references. Instead, I use natural processes and chemical reactions to express a psychological or interior process. I like the idea of things falling apart, followed by the attempt to put them back together. Or time passing and the attempt to gain some control over that inevitability of mortality. A lot of my materials are addressing that need.

DXB: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your influences.

SJ: A lot of my influences come from nature itself, visiting and photographing natural processes in the city or upstate. I might look at how water shapes wood or soil over time, leaving its marks and traces.

And Ernesto Pujol, one of my teachers, made performances that were about endurance and being in the body for a long period of time—24 hours, for instance. Also, I look closely at people like Eva Hesse and Janine Antoni, who use interesting materials as visual metaphors for concepts they find engaging.

DXB: Can we talk more about your idea of nature? It strikes me that you mentioned both natural processes in the city and wilder areas. Is nature ever pure, or is there always a cigarette butt in the park, metaphorically speaking?

SJ: When I say nature, I think of the trips I’ve gone on to remove distractions and see things that I normally wouldn’t pay attention to. But, for example, when I take pictures in the city, they’re not postcard images of nature. There are processes beyond our control, like rust stains down the wall on the subway platform, or the salt stains on sidewalks, or the crumbling brick of abandoned buildings, with boards and scaffolding trying to hold them together or prevent decay.

DXB: Can you talk about how you think about the body? I know that because of its scale, your work has a very physical feeling, and that you also do performances.

SJ: Yeah, though I’m not working on a specific piece right now. I’m interested in the aging of the body and the inevitability of the physical shift of the body over time. When I was in the Philippines this Christmas, I visited a nursing home to interview some women about their experience of being three or four decades older than me. We don’t have full control over how the body shifts over time. With a lot of the materials, I just start a process that then continues on its own, like spilling something on paper. That’s not fixed, it’s changing. If the installation stayed up over a year, the paper might rot, the salt crystals might change.

DXB: They age disastrously, but also gracefully. I feel like there’s an implied symmetry between the artwork and the human body. Is that fair?

SJ: I would say that’s valid. It is only in the last six months that I’ve started making these larger, more sculptural pieces that are falling apart. I do see them as bodies that change, fall apart, come back together. With my current project, as soon as I touch it, it falls apart if it’s wet. But once the water evaporates, it takes on a fixed shape. So in shaping a form there’s a tension between fixing it into a solid and keeping it fluid and malleable.

DXB: You’re also a very active performance artist. Can you talk about that, maybe in relation to your workshop?

SJ: I work often with Kaitlynn Redell as a collaborator. We create these amorphous bodysuits out of fabric and make videos of our movements in them. We just did one where she filmed herself in a suit in Los Angeles and I filmed myself in Coney Island at sunrise. They’re overlapped so that you can’t tell who’s Kaitlynn and who’s Sara, just as how at dawn you don’t notice the transition from night to day.

For Saturday, it’s a performance workshop for people who have never done it. So we’ll use sensory-based exercises to explore the site of Wave Hill. Because I think that there’s a way to experience it that’s not through tours or views; with these physical parameters it’ll be different.

DXB: Give us an example. Or do you want to keep it secret?

SJ: [Laughs.] Well, yes! But there will be a drawing exercise with a partner, some walking exercises, but none of it will be alone or onstage.

DXB: So, no karaoke? 

SJ: You could, if you wanted to!

Jimenez will lead a series of exercises allowing you to experience Wave Hill anew and explore your own body’s potential in the tradition of performance art on Saturday, March 14. Beginners are more than welcome.

Pictured above: Sara Jimenez, Rise and Fall, 2013. Horse hair, fabric, wax, salt crystals, silk. 8 x 2 x 5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

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