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Field Notes in Morocco: An Interview with Michelle Stuart

Before the opening of Wave Hill’s fall exhibitions this weekend—with a reception in Glyndor Gallery at 2PM on Saturday afternoon—Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, interviewed artist Michelle Stuart about her practice in relation to Wave Hill’s new group show this fall, Field Notes.

Featuring works by Matthew Friday, David McQueen and Michelle Stuart, Field Notes explores the idea of observation, notation and recollection as central to the artistic practice, crossing multiple fields of interest and study. For over four decades, Michelle Stuart has been engaged in land-art through her large-scale earth works and earth rubbings. A pioneer of non-traditional materials, her works have ranged in medium and form, from monumental pieces to small objects that resemble cultural artifacts. Through her love of archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, botany, biology, literature, history, travel and exploration, she has created an extensive, multifaceted practice. For Field Notes, Stuart presents photographs and drawings from visits to Morocco in the 1980s.  The drawings have never been shown in the United States; Yasmine: Maroc Notebook (2015) was created for this exhibition.Field one and two

Danni Shen: How do travel, observation, natural history and archaeology inspire your work and process?

Michelle Stuart: I have always been deeply moved, and thus inspired, by the study of virtually every subject. I research almost everything I do and everywhere I go, immersing myself as much as possible. Interestingly, I often do research after I go to a place, not just before. I do some preliminary research beforehand so that I know where I want to go and what not to miss, but afterward I have all these questions about the culture and history of the place. It’s only then that I can ask myself questions that I couldn’t have asked before, such as what is the history of the people I encountered, or why the buildings looked the way they did.

DS: Yasmine: Maroc Notebook includes photographs you took during your trip to Morocco in the 1980s. Where does the title come from? What were you doing in Morocco, and what impelled you to create this piece?

MS: Yasmine is the name of a woman in the piece, and the photographs are the observations of an outsider. The best answer to your last question would be the same: I was observing the otherness of a culture. The work is a memory of Morocco. I could have done it any number of different ways, corresponding to my memories of Morocco; this was one of those ways. My curiosity was first piqued by The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, which I found profound and mysterious. The book wasn’t exactly about Morocco, but rather an encounter with self, place and desire, and I thought that to be the best reason to go to a place: to find out what it holds. I traveled to Morocco three times, essentially alone each time: first in 1980 to the more Europeanized north, then in 1982 and 1983 to the south and west. Each stay spanned several months.Stuart_Yasmine-Maroc-Notebook

DS: You have described a moment in a Moroccan bathhouse as “Orientalist time that I could never recapture.” Could you talk more about your notion of “Orientalist time”, and how being a traveling outsider informs the creation of your work?

MS: Orientalism is a term used by art historians for the depictions of Eastern subjects by Western artists, mostly of the Middle East. I was thinking about all the artists—from Delacroix to Géricault, to Matisse, to artists of the present day—and even some writers—from Coleridge (in his poem “Kubla Khan”) to Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel, T. E. Lawrence, Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs—who depicted in their work what they imagined was the exotic Middle East, from harems to opium dens. For me, being an outsider is very important: you don’t have a groove or a preconceived agenda; everything is new.

DS: What is the relationship between your photographs and drawings? 

MS: Both the drawings and the photographs convey the way I see the world, and the way I want to use each medium to share what I see—and even to see it differently myself. A drawing is not like a photograph: a photograph is your view of something, a captured moment. But a drawing is a learning process on the part of the artist. When you’re working on a drawing, it starts making itself. It isn’t just what you’re looking at. Everything you draw is unique and a kind of search, a process of discovery. Ultimately, over time, both the drawings and photographs become figments of memory. The actual memories then fade into sensations such as involuntary tastes and fragrances that remind one of a place.


Field Notes will be on view in Glyndor Gallery through Sunday, November 29, 2015.

Michelle Stuart’s work can be seen in the Whitney Museum of Art’s exhibition America is Hard to See, and is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis. In 2000, Wave Hill showed a selection of her works in the exhibition Abundant Invention. Stuart studied in Mexico, France, and at The New School for Social Research in New York.

Pictured above:
Michelle Stuart, Morocco, 1982. Courtesy the Artist
Michelle Stuart, Yasmine: Maroc Notebook, eleven photographs. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
Michelle Stuart, Abdelouahed, 1982. Graphite, muslin-mounted rag paper, green watercolor. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects


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