Conversation with Cruise, September 2008

Wilma Cruise stopped by the Montebello Design Centre in Cape Town to check on her show at David Krut Publishing: Fine Art & Books. Jacqueline Nurse took the opportunity to speak the artist about her work.

JACQUELINE NURSE: What I want to ask you about, specifically, is the body and your concerns with the body because I believe that the body has been a concern of yours for a while…

WILMA CRUISE: Yes, all the time, always.

JN: …and you previously only worked with sculpture. I thought that would be a good way to engage with the body because it’s very physical – the making of the sculpture – but now, in your works on paper, it comes up again and again…are your concerns the same in sculpture as they are on paper?

WC: Yes, I see them as absolutely inseparable because that dichotomy between sculpture and paper is something that is in the public eye, as it were, but it’s never been in my practice because I’ve always written and drawn along with the sculpture. I don’t do a drawing for a sculpture, but I do drawings and writings to access the ideas of a sculpture. I might make a sculpture and then when it’s finished I will start drawing it or writing about it, so there’s always this interaction between the work in two dimensions and the work in three dimensions. There’s this absolutely intimate relationship between them, so the concerns are the same. The only difference, when it appears on paper are the actual words – I love words and I love text. In all my drawings, in all my prints, the text is often foregrounded and those are the kinds of ideas that I would use for the sculpture. So conceptually they’re the same.

JN: That’s an interesting connection to words because I was thinking of our connection to “literature” – when I say literature, I mean literature in the broader, or in a more personal, sense. We all read, whatever it is we’re reading – it may not be Ulysses, it might just be the newspaper – there’s an idea that we understand ourselves and the world around us through the stories that we tell about ourselves and the stories that we read, and that’s how we access our understanding of the world. This is not necessarily the feeling that we get about the world, but our understanding – here articulation is important. When you bring that back to the body, it becomes a very interesting concept, I think, because we live out of our bodies, but we battle to understand our bodies because we have to articulate something in order to understand it.

WC: Well, talking about ‘the body is language’ or the body as language, it’s very much a Kristevan viewpoint. Look, I don’t pretend to understand the French psycholanalytic feminists that well, but there’re certain things that resonate with me when they talk – Helen Cisoux, for example. They talk about a pre-language, a sort of infantile language, or a language that precedes the cerebral, and that has always been the part that I’m very interested in. The kind of information being conveyed to people…we all know it – you talked about Gerhard Schoeman [presenting his paper at the SAVAH conference] just now, and not being able to access his words because his persona sort of interfered too much with it, because he was possibly signalling something there, and you were listening to that and you weren’t listening to the words coming out of his mouth. There’s often a disjunction – people’s bodies might be saying one thing, but what’s coming out of their mouths might be saying another thing, and it’s that body language that I’m interested in. I often called it the gap between – the space between bodies becomes pregnant with meaning and a kind of language.

JN: Kristeva called that pre-language state the ‘semiotic’ order; what Kristeva called the semiotic order and the symbolic order – when the child learns language and moves from the universe of the mother into the symbolic order, the universe of the father, patriarchy – Lacan differentiated between those two with his idea of the mirror phase – when the body looks at itself and realises that it is in a world that is ‘other’ to it. The body then becomes highly politicised – our relationships with our bodies, and our relationships between bodies – because of the language that’s hanging in the space between ourselves.

WC: As much as one can make those ideas visual, that is in effect what I try to do with my sculpture. And in order to make those things visual, I’ve got to erase the normal conventions of expression, such as the mouth, the eyes, the arms, the hands. So I try to make manifest the very tension in the body, I try to create a tension between two figures that stand in relationship to each other…

JN:…without being able to see or speak…

WC: Yes, so a viewer can come along, almost as an outsider, and see the bodies and say, ‘The body is saying something.’ Very often they don’t know what they’re [the bodies] saying, I don’t often know what it’s saying because I try to work with the pre-linguistic state – to use Freudian terms, an unconscious state – and to access those things which almost, by definition, are not accessible. So there is this essential contradiction in my work.

JN: And the tension between the text in the work, the pieces of text, and the blocking out of the eyes or dislocation…I mean, in the big prints that are up at the moment, the main figure is completely isolated from the things around it, the palm tree, or the bird, the other figure in the bottom who is offering something. All those things are connected to each other because they’re in the same composition, but they’re also completely isolated from each other…what’s your take on isolation?

WC: Well, it’s quite funny, in very many ways I’m an existentialist. It’s perhaps a little unfashionable a notion to take – it was very much the fashionable notion to take in the mid-twentieth century – but my father was a philosopher and he was an existentialist and this kind of notion of man / woman being alone in space; you are being in the world and you are isolated. There is nothing there to support you: there is no god, there is no patriarchy, there’s no law, there’s no rule. An existentialist is isolated and has to be in the world and – not the word they would use – negotiate themselves in the world. So I try and find a correlative of that sense of isolation in my work. So there’s the figure – it’s alone and you are alone and those things that have meaning to me, in my isolation, like the palm tree of my childhood. That atavistic figure – I don’t know where it came from – presenting Ponte Towers. It’s the Johannesburg landscape – at the bottom of the figure are mine dumps, perhaps, or the Free State landscape where my Granny lived. So I think then that that’s what it’s about.

JN: So, do you think then that perhaps ‘dislocation’ is more appropriate than isolation? Because – well, this is my opinion – I don’t know whether isolation is possible, because we live in such a network of things. We communicate with each other when we communicate with ourselves. That’s the kind of space we exist in, so we can’t fundamentally be isolated, but we are dislocated all the time.

WC: No, I don’t think I would use the word ‘dislocation’; I would definitely use ‘isolation’ because it’s a state of consciousness. In this case, isolation would definitely be a state of consciousness. It’s the state of being isolated, of being alone. It’s very much something I feel quite powerfully. I mean, I’m social being – as you well know, I don’t have difficulty [with that] – but my sense of consciousness is of me being alone and isolated.

JN: And what about alienation?

WC: Well, you’ll have to tell me what you think…

JN: Well, thinking about language and the body, and then thinking about the body and the landscape and language and how, because our bodies become politicised by the language that we use to try and understand them, our bodies become like landscapes – the landscape that we try to name and take possession of and fit. We try to fit into our own bodies and fit in with other people’s bodies in the same way that we try to make the land what we want it to be for our ‘comfortable’ existence. This often means that we then become alienated from the landscape. Our possession of it means that we become alienated: we want to build a house on it, we want to put up a telephone wire and after time possession, these things that we’ve done to try and make ourselves feel in control and more comfortable, removes us from such an extent from the land that we want to be a part of that we are then alienated by the very systems of signification that we apply to try and help ourselves.

WC: Yes, I think if I had to shift into another thing that is quite close to my heart: it’s that sense of connection with the natural order of things, with the landscape and particularly with animal life and if I think in terms of those concerns, yes. I would agree with the concept of alienation. Perhaps it’s not quite the word I would’ve used, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment. But yes, there’s a sense of not linking, and it comes back to the kind of communication again. We have become almost dominated by the word or dominated by the cerebral or, if you’re feminist, dominated by the patriarchal, structured systems of language and we’re not linking in to landscape, not linking into the natural order, not linking into animals, we’re not listening.  That is the point: we’re not listening to those pre-linguistic signals. We have – and that is the word – alienated ourselves from those kinds of communication systems.

JN: So, do you think that it would be possible to get back to a non-linear, non-patriarchal, semiotic order? How would it we negotiate ourselves around that?

WC: I think that’s the role of the artist, really. I don’t’ think it is possible to get back to it, I think the thing to do is to have it in parallel. I think I’m too much a thinker, too much a rationalist to say, ‘Throw it out! Chuck out disciplined thinking!’ No, not at all. I would very much argue against sloppy thinking and sloppy words and sloppy everything else. So I don’t think it’s ‘Get back to,’ so much as ‘Be aware of.’ I don’t think the two have to have stand in opposition to each other and that’s where I separate from more radical feminists, who would argue for that – I mean argue very cogently with words, for that.

JN: Yes, interesting irony, that. So, in that sense, they operate in some kind of dialectic cycle of progression. Blake also touched on that – in a very different way – that the one thing cannot exist without the other. It’s not a simple matter of moving from one state into another and remaining there because they’re not necessarily binary opposites, they’re not necessarily structured in a linear way.

WC: Yes, I like that. I like that very much. Absolutely. In my two-dimensional work the word becomes manifest, the structured word becomes manifest, and the word is actually my attempt to make manifest to myself – not necessarily to the viewers – ‘What is that about? What is that work that I have made?’ And you’ll often see that words have a stream of consciousness feeling about them because they come spontaneously. I write quite a lot of poetry and the poems – I’ve probably written about 50 poems in a period of 7 or 8 years – spring to my head ready made. If they don’t come ready made, they don’t work. It is quite extraordinary how that works.