Friday, 11 September 2009

Interview with Lillian Wilkie

(from ("Dresden I - IX") © Lillian Wilkie

Ahead of her exhibition opening on Tuesday at Camden’s Monkey Chews, I talked to Lillian Wilkie about her explorative urban environment project Dresden I – IX.

Michael Duggleby: Your most recent project, Dresden I – IX is about to be exhibited at Monkey Chews in Camden. How was the series created? Could you tell me a little bit about the process you go through?

Lillian Wilkie: Most of my works are inspired by uncanny or coincidental links in whatever reading or research I happen to be doing. Dresden and its history were often referenced in the texts I studied for my dissertation on WG Sebald and post-Holocaust German literature, and are widely discussed in his essay ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’. Further links to Dresden came up during a walking project I simultaneously undertook based on my great-grandmother’s death during a German zeppelin attack on London during the First World War.
Out of curiosity I took myself on a short break to Dresden and immediately felt that I should make a piece of work on the city. After a further two trips there, and much reading about its history both during the war and back to its origins as a priory and its epoch as the capital of Saxony, I developed a process of plotting a walk based on pieces of information I had gathered. The walks could be informed by a piece of text, a poem or eyewitness account, or simply just a conversation, and each sought to uncover a different layer of the city’s complex history. The walks were documented through not just photographs but also audio recordings, short films and considerable annotation, and I used the wide range of material I had gathered to structure the books. Altogether I visited the Dresden four times, each time staying in the same hostel in the Neustadt, providing a constant to help me plot my various courses.

(from ("Dresden I - IX") © Lillian Wilkie

MD: In your artist statement you reference the Situationist International’s theory of Dérive. In what way has the Situationsist International movement informed this work?

LW: For some time now I have been focusing on the act of perambulation as an investigative and artistic tool, and I have touched on the ideas of a number of 20th century art movements, such as the Land Artists of the 1960’s and 70’s and indeed the Situationists and the theories of Debord. I have in turn been hugely inspired by modern-day writers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self who are still championing psychogeographical study and producing beautiful and eye-opening writing on walking and the experience of the modern city. I have however made a departure from the concept of dérive in my recent work; rather than a playful and detached encounter with the city my walks are carefully plotted, having fixed start and finish points and a more-or-less set course. Naturally this was not always stuck to, and I let myself be open to psychogeographical intervention, but it was important to me to have a series of rules and constants to work with that could help to structure my final piece.

MD: Dresden I – IX is largely a landscape without people. Why did you choose not to photograph the people in these environments?

LW: Excluding the human figure from the frame is predominantly a subconscious act for me. The way humans interact with their environment was not the focus of this work; I was searching the urban landscape for ghostly traces of human activity, for scars, for signifiers, for suggestions. When people do appear in my images they are usually very small. Their presence seems significant whilst at the same time their ambiguity and size within the frame strips them of identity or any connection to a particular time or place, leaving the viewer to construct a narrative.

(from ("Dresden I - IX") © Lillian Wilkie

MD: What brought the project to a close, how did you know when it was finished?

LW: This project had quite a set structure. One of my influences for its format was, again, something I was reading, an article about Greek archaeology which set off a series of uncanny associations in my mind. I began to research Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist and eccentric from Pomerania who was a great fan of Homer and believed very much in the historic reality of places in his poems. Throughout the 1870’s he conducted a series of excavations at Hissarlik in Turkey believing to have located the site of ancient Troy. Modern day archaeologists doubt the existence of the city, but what Schliemann did find was nine layers of a mysterious settlement, each exposing traces of violent destruction. The links with Dresden, which itself has seen more than its fair share of violence throughout the ages, influenced my decision to create nine walks, and thus nine books, based on nine different sedimentary ‘layers’. The project concluded once all the walks had been completed and the material edited and processed.
However, due to the mixed media nature of the material, I would like to think this project has a fluid lifespan, and could be exhibited in a number of different ways, such as an audio-visual piece or as a short film.

MD: Would you say books are the medium most suited to your work?

LW: Right now it’s the medium I am most excited to work with. Creating photobooks allows me to combine my love of image-making with craft and design. I have a deep interest in books, in paper and printing, and I take a great deal of satisfaction from exploring and experimenting with different cloths, papers and ribbon as well as considering font and layout, bringing together a number of different elements to create a one-off photographic object. I also like the idea of creating books about walks, the connection between footsteps and turning pages, and the concept of the book as a journey or path in itself.

(from ("Dresden I - IX") © Lillian Wilkie

MD: How do you present this work in a gallery setting, what is the size of the prints?

LW: So far I have exhibited the books alongside nine small 5”x7” prints, one taken from each of the books, together with a computer showing the books in digital format so the viewer can ‘flick’ through all the pages at their leisure. However as I mentioned before I intend for the work to be displayed in a number of different mediums and formats, and hope in the future to edit together a more immersive audio-visual installation using the material I gathered along the walks.

MD: When people look at your images, do you think it will be clear to the viewer what you thoughts are?

LW: Suggestion and metaphor are used quite a lot in my work. Had I left out the accompanying texts, just titling my recent work ‘Dresden’ would have played on people’s associations and assumptions and a sense of loss or trauma is likely to have pervaded the series. However, whilst I don’t like to spoon-feed my audience, I like to make my premise clear; each book ends with details of the walk and any reference material used. The images themselves are supported by or contrast with the text, creating a dialogue with I hope conveys some of my thoughts to the reader. People approach work like this in different ways though, and its reception will vary person to person depending on their own awareness of Dresden’s history and their attitudes towards its destruction.

(from ("Dresden I - IX") © Lillian Wilkie

MD: Would you describe your work as personal?

LW: Yes. Despite my obvious concentration on histories and the experiences of others, my images also record my own personal journey, and in Dresden I - IX I put this across in the texts accompanying the images. Whilst some texts focus on historical accounts or hard geographical science, others take the form of diary entries, personal reflections or transcriptions of audio recordings written in the first person. These emphasise a unique perspective and the meditative and mnemonic aspect of journeying. Christopher C. Gregory-Guider calls this ‘autobiogeography’, and its something I’m fascinated with – the idea of landscape and its traversal as a portrait or self-portrait.

MD: What are you working on at the moment, what is informing your current work?

LW: Right now I’m concentrating on smaller projects. Dresden I – IX was quite an intense experience and it can be difficult to keep momentum after completing something like that. I’m beginning to put together a small handmade book which documents the 12-hour night train journey from Berlin to Paris, a trip that rounded off my travels this summer. I aim to create a number of smaller editions of handmade, low budget books based on individual journeys or walks, improving my binding skills and pushing myself in terms of design and layout.

Lillian Wilkie Graduated from University of Westminster in 2009 with BA (hons) Photographic Arts

Her exhibition Dresden I – IX will be showing at Monkey Chews in Camden from Tuesday 15 September for 4 weeks.

See more of her work here

1 comment:

Zahra said...

A pleasure to read. The photobooks are something to be proud about, capturing the city of Dresden beautifully.