Xaviera Simmons cannot be defined as simply a photographer, performer or sculptor—she is all of these things and more. Through her photography, sculpture, performance art, and video and sound installations, she examines culture, memory, and experience. Simmons is also interested in the cyclic nature of history, especially that of landscapes. Her work has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and is part of private collections at Deutsche Bank, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and many others. This week, Rowanne Dean sat down with Simmons to discuss her use of different media, her childhood in New York City, and what we can look forward to seeing from her in 2015.
Your work often spans different mediums—what draws you to a certain way of making art? Do you have a favorite medium or a comfort zone? Are there techniques that you approach with more hesitation?
For me, it’s a circular feeling in a way. It’s like I give attention to one medium, and then the next medium feels like it needs attention, and that’s just been an evolving practice that has to do with my interests. Looking at objects, looking at art, looking at design, looking at culture, fashion, film and then kind of feeling what medium feels right to respond to that “looking” that I’m doing. That’s kind of how I started. At this point I don’t have a favorite—I mean, I would like to work in all the mediums all the time, but I can’t because I myself have to be concentrating, depending on projects or ideas. So I tend to go in and out of different mediums depending on the subject or idea.
Do you have any examples of moments where you really felt like a certain idea had to connect to a certain medium?
I spent a year in the MoMA Library doing research for a performance project, and before that I had been in Sri Lanka for another two months, and I had been working with a contemporary artists’ group there, and I was thinking about language and thinking about performance and thinking about text. Everything snowballs—when I was thinking about language and text in Sri Lanka, that led me to do a research-based performance project at the archives in the Museum of Modern Art where I was thinking about the political implications of the collection and the museum itself and the engagement of artists and art forms in museums. And then that led me to wanting to get back into my studio and bringing all those pieces together. And then that led me to making a piece for the Aldrich Museum last year that was engaging with text and sound and a cultural inspiration base. And so it all kind of snowballs—right now, because I spent so much time performing last year, I’m really interested in making works that are tactile. Looking at works, looking at text again—thinking about sculpture and language and text and how to make things three-dimensional and also thinking again about photographs and film. Right now I’m in a moment of rebirth and investigation, and then that will lead to output. That’s how my studio practice is and how I put things together.
How did growing up in New York influence your development as an artist? What is it like to engage with the city now that you’re “established” and working with places like the MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem?
Yeah, it’s interesting! I’ve lived a long time in New York. I love to travel all over the world, and it’s interesting to see New York evolve, and also to see art in general evolve into a very popular space. Right now, I feel like the art world or the art scene or art objects themselves are much more popular than they’ve ever been. I remember, growing up, there obviously weren’t tons of galleries. I was exposed to visual art at a really young age going to the Met with my family and then also going on my own going to the Studio Museum later on in my teens. And those shows had real impact because there weren’t as many exhibitions. There was no Chelsea when I was growing up, there was no SoHo. And I was too young to really know where to go or what to do—I was really looking at museums. And now there’s so many places to view art–so many different expressions–that it’s daunting on some ends but very invigorating on the other, because there’s a lot of disciplines that come. You’re not just looking at classical art; you’re looking at experimental and classical, and you’re mixing those ideas together to make your own artwork.
Your work often engages with the physical landscape and making geographical journeys. I also read that you traced the route of Atlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks, which is super cool. The idea of a journey is a very traditional narrative, but you seem to rewrite and re-engage with this concept. Do you find value in transforming or reframing traditional ideas?
I think, especially earlier on in my practice, I found a lot of value in inserting characters into landscapes where I felt like there weren’t characters that I wanted see. I was populating these landscapes with characters that I felt were missing from the whole genre. Now I’m really interested in present and future ideas, so that’s pushing me in a different way. Like I’m not as excited about nostalgia. Living in the now, yesterday is gone, and so there’s always some slippage between now and yesterday—you’re always going to be in some kind of nostalgia because you’re dealing with materials that you can’t quite shape and shift in the moment and make them present unless it’s a performance. And even then, if I’m writing a performance form, by the time I perform it, a lot of the time my ideas will have shifted. I’ll have seen or experienced things that will change the way I view the world or my practice in the studio or art making in general.
So I feel like I’m always battling—not battling, but I’m always trying to negotiate my engagement with the past, but then obviously right now my engagement with the present. I’m not rewriting anything, I don’t want to rewrite. I want to open up, so that’s where I’m at now—constantly trying to open up. I think that’s why my practice shifts so much. I’m always annulling to make the practice open up even more, make the language required to construct things open up even more.
I’m really curious about your typographic works, like A Thicket of These and On the Tidal Line. Their titles suggest something visual and spatial, but the pieces themselves are works on a blank backdrop. Is there an intention to have the viewer imagine a visual for themselves based on the words? Were you imagining space, but intentionally not giving it to us or creating it?
I like the idea of the viewer imagining a space given all the information that’s in the text, that are in the piece of sculpture. So for me, those types of pieces, those sculptural text pieces, they really feel for me like photographs or film. Linked together, there’s a tactile sense of them, the weight of them; the images and the words bleed together to construct a vision or a landscape or a film or a photograph or an image that you can bring together if you have the wherewithal to strategically hear the language—let the words envelop you and let the language fall on you. Then you receive the benefits of the piece.
What projects are you currently working on? Anything exciting coming for 2015?
I just finished a project that I’m really proud of at the High Line called Pier 54, and it’s a group show of all women using piers on the High Line as sites for a reinterpretation and engagement of a piece that was shown in the late ’60s or early ’70s. And then I’m really excited because I’m premiering two films, video works. And I’m also in the studio right now researching and making films and videos and photographs. I’m really excited for research, this is where I feel most fertile—when I’m researching and thinking about my practice and looking at other artists and challenging myself to step up to my own plate. Step up to the plate of my peers, step up to the plate of people whose work I respect and whose work I want to be in conversation with. So right now, I’m kind of boxing with myself to get myself to step up to my own next level in my work. And I think that’s a constant for artists, I would hope.