Kerri Reid visited by Jesse Birch First installment

Kerri Reid

Hi Kerri,
It’s really nice to see your current working space, but before we go into the specific details, I think it could be useful to start with the last time I saw your studio, which was when you were in your final preparations for your graduating exhibition as a student at Emily Carr Institute in 2003. Since then your work has developed a great deal, but I thought your works then had a resonating sensibility, which made them complete standouts for me in that year’s ECIAD grad show.

Could you describe the works that you presented then, and how they might relate your current practice? To me notions of camouflage, mimesis, discovery and labour that were central to my reading of your early works are very much still present in your practice, would you agree with this?

I think the works you must be thinking of were my piece “Wicker Support”, where I wove wicker support beams to go alongside the actual wooden support beams in the gallery space, and “Portrait of my Studio as a Doormat”, where I wove a doormat out of sisal that completely covered my studio. The ideas you mentioned in your reading of those pieces aren’t exactly what I was thinking of at the time, though they’re related and I certainly wouldn’t object to that sort of interpretation … well, labour was very much on my mind, actually.

That work came directly out of the years I spent living on a Gulf Island before going back to school to complete my BFA. While living on Saltspring I worked as a farmer and learned all sorts of things that are necessary – and some that aren’t – when raising sheep, goats, llamas, and chickens, so I helped shear and inoculate the sheep, and then I also learned how to spin wool and weave baskets, that sort of thing. When I had moved to the island my experience with animals was limited to that of having had a cat, so when I moved back to the city after farming I had a much greater appreciation for all that goes into the production of very basic things.

That’s when I started taking note of all the discarded hand made objects I that I come across as I go about my daily life in the city. Both of those pieces that were in my grad show were inspired by a photo I took of a discarded doormat. It was a very tired looking old thing, totally worn away, and was laid out on top of a bunch of garbage in a trash bin. But it was also being used as an improvised lid for the trash, sort of pinning the rest of the rubbish down, and I thought it had a lot of pathos – this is what was on my mind when I made those works, which I saw as paradoxical monuments.

My current work is still very much coming from the same place and set of interests, but I’m working more directly with my source material now. At a certain point I realized that I kept going back to the photos I was taking of discarded hand made objects and finding those photos more interesting than the pieces I was making based on them, so I started exploring different ways of having a more direct material engagement with the things I was documenting. So where I once would observe a broken and discarded item on the side of the street, take a picture of it, and then make some sort of object inspired by it, I am now picking that item up and taking it back to my studio with me. And for the last couple of years a big part of that process has been restorative in nature, either by actually fixing the object, or by symbolically restoring its value in its broken form by making broken copies of it, or both.

Kerri Reid In the pictures I have seen of your current space, your work appears to be spread out around your studio like shards emanating from a stellar explosion that has engulfed its dependent surroundings. How do you conceive of the fragment in relation to the whole art object? It seems like within your recent work there is a dialectic hovering between the broken thing and the utilitarian potentiality of its originary form. Can you explain your practice in general, and more specifically comment on the desire to work with things that might seem useless to many people?

Kerri Reid Well, my studio often feels like some kind of explosion has happened in it, but my explanation/description is far less poetic than yours — I’m just a mess.

I have a lot of stuff pinned up on the walls and stacked up on shelves as reminders of the various phases of each piece that I’m working on. I tend to reverse my logic fairly often and seem to need visual references to sort out where I’m at with each piece and where it can still go. When most of my art was away in Vancouver I found it hard to get work done in my empty studio; it’s not that I enjoy clutter — really, I don’t — I just need to see all the pieces in order to figure out the puzzle, so to speak … plus I just don’t have anywhere else to put all these things … but I could really use a bigger space.

In any case, regarding the idea of the fragment, my starting point is often literally just that, and my methodology is generally restorative in nature. Because of my interest in the arbitration of values my restorative gestures can be literal, as in fixing or completing the fragment, or symbolic, as in attempting to assert the value of the piece in its fragmented form.

But it sometimes seems as though these attempts need to be situated within the context of my whole project for that shift in values to take place. So if I just showed one of my replicas of, say, a broken teacup, it might be of interest in a variety of ways, but I think the effort to insist on its value could easily get lost. The “whole art object” is, for me, the entire body of work, from my initial encounter with the broken object, to my continued material engagement with the object in my studio, and finally to my re-insertion of the object into the larger world(s) of objects, be it in the gallery, the curbside economy, and/or on eBay.

So each fragment is important all on its own, but ultimately I like to make the whole story of each object available to viewers, at least at some point. I’ll sometimes withhold certain bits of information, like about what I’m doing on eBay, because I want to see if I can actually sell these things without people having prior knowledge of my project. And I think the fact that I’ll often follow a particular logic to the point of being absurd makes it so that I have to be careful about how I present all that information.

Like the booklet I made of faxes I’ve sent to various manufacturers to see if they can repair these broken things and/or replicated them in their broken states — I worry that on their own those faxes might seem like I’m making fun of the manufacturers, which is very far from my intention. But, if shown in the context of all the other work I’ve done with the objects, I think my gesture makes more sense and can be read as sincere, albeit absurd.

As for my reasons for working with useless objects, that goes back to my interest in the arbitration of values, specifically under the terms and conditions of capitalism. I was thinking of reification and how we seem to take our cues for how we treat people from our relationships with objects, and my reaction to that condition is to suggest that if that’s the case then maybe we should start treating even the most mundane objects with a great deal of care. So broken objects are, for me, analogous to the people who aren’t seen as valuable in our society — people who don’t produce or consume “enough”.

Kerri Reid Is your approach to reification related to the care you take in documenting things? To be more specific, it is obvious that documentation is an essential part of your process for much of your work, but in some instances (the faxes for example) you meticulously draw, rather than photograph the object. Can you talk more about this process, and what role drawing plays in your work in general?

Sure — I actually always photograph the objects to begin with as I like to remember where they were found, and I also find the care that seemed to go into situating some of the objects on the street pretty interesting. A strangely high percentage of the objects I’ve found were arranged under trees, and last year I saw three TV’s thrown out under trees in one week.

The drawings came about for practical reasons initially, though I realize they seem excessive and not-at-all practical now. Still, I wanted to approach some manufacturers to learn more about how these objects were made, and to see if there was anyone at the level of industry who was willing or able to repair them and/or replicate them. A bunch of the people I looked up and called asked for faxes, which I thought was really great because faxing is already a fairly antiquated technology and so suits my subject.

But a lot of the photos I took weren’t detailed enough for a manufacturer to get an idea of what I was talking about, so I just started faxing drawings to them. Only one person ever said yes (and the cost was way more than I could afford), but most never got back to me. A few people who did send a response would say things like “sorry, no, we can’t help you with this project, but thanks for the drawing”, which made me really happy. As I mentioned, I had been worried that my faxes would be interpreted by the people receiving them as some sort of joke at best or accusation at worst, which isn’t the case; though I am very much against the shoddy craftsmanship and planned obsolescence that is responsible for so much of what I see discarded on the streets, obviously it’s not the fault of the workers and managers who are likely receiving my faxes.

I really was hoping to enter into a dialogue with industry about how these useless things could be given a new life, but even though that didn’t really happen I was glad that someone on the other end of the fax machine was enjoying my drawing. It’s my new favourite way of disseminating art, and this has led to more and more elaborate drawings for my faxes — pointillism seems to show up really nicely via fax. (Seriously, you should let me know if you have access for a fax machine.)

So my original “practical” use of drawing is basically out the window, and you’re right, it has become much more about drawing as a means of illustrating the time, care, and attention that originally went into these things when they were made that I’m hoping to put back into them now.


End of first installment

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