whitehot | April 2011, Interview with Lina Tharsing
Interview with Lina Tharsing
Lina Tharsing: Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History proclaims, “The viewer of a habitat group diorama is able to travel not only across continents, but also, in some cases, through time.” We can view habitats that are thousands of miles away and environments that were destroyed long ago through complex constructions that employ false perspective and curved painted backdrops to trick the viewer into believing he is looking through a window to the natural world. The artist Luc Tuymans used the diorama to talk about his native Belgium’s colonial past in Central Africa and Hiroshi Sugimoto demonstrated the camera’s ability to eliminate all perspective and create reality from fiction. Tharsing employs these spaces to address the complexities of perception, blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality and speaking to the inherent tensions embodied by those environments. From a distance, the paintings can be perceived as natural landscapes, but upon closer inspection, the structures of a re-constructed nature become evident: artificial light, painted backdrops and visible reflections. Tharsing's paintings, like the dioramas that inspired them, manipulate our perception of reality and force us to question our own place within the confines of time and space.
I spoke with Tharsing over coffee the day after her opening at Institute 193.
Phillip March Jones: This is the first major show of your work in your hometown – how do you think it was received?
Lina Tharsing: I was really happy with the response. I was worried that people would only be interested in the animals themselves and not the ideas behind the paintings, but so many people came up to me during the show and wanted to talk to me about their reactions to the work. They wanted to explore their ideas with me. It was really satisfying.
Jones: On that note, you told me that you wanted to call the show “Its not about animals...”
Tharsing: Yes. [laughing] The animals were really an afterthought. The original paintings were of forests and jungles – mysterious environments. I realized I needed to include animals so that people could fully enter the paintings. I wanted the viewer to have the experience of being a voyeur, which required a subject. Animals in dioramas are also intended to be the ultimate representation of the majestic quality of nature. They are always presented in the most powerful, dignified stance.
Jones: That’s true – they are always presented as dignified creatures, but they are also dead, having been killed for our entertainment, no?
Tharsing: These things are created to educate us about a natural world that is disappearing all around us. The dioramas become substitutions for the real world.
Jones: How did you decide to explore the diorama in the first place?
Tharsing: The initial idea didn’t come from visits to museums. I was trying to combine two previous bodies of work into one. I had done a series of mixed media pieces called Experiments in Visual Science, showing how our perception of the physical environment could be easily changed using simple techniques and materials. The other body of work was a series of forest paintings that felt dreamy and spacious and drew the viewer into the work employing false perspective. The first painting in this new series depicted the corner of a room with views into two windows containing trees and plants. I decided that by constructing a room with two different contained environments, I could lead the viewer into a space that could embody the tension between what is natural and what is constructed. Having completed several small paintings, I realized that I was actually painting the interior of a natural history museum.
Jones: Once you decided to do this series – where did you go to collect the images? What kind of research went into the project?
Tharsing: I first photographed the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, but I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for at that point. Later, I started mining Flickr for images of dioramas across the world. For every three hundred images, I would find one that I could use. I would import the image into Photoshop and alter the color and composition into something that worked for me.
Jones: Some of the paintings have the feeling of Polaroid film, where does your choice of color and effect originate?
Tharsing: Each painting is a reaction to the previous one and each should embody a different feeling or experience. The light in each piece represents a unique space. Disney Light has the tone of a Disney film-still, circa 1940. It’s very saturated. Stalking is based on a photograph I took at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I used a flash, because I wanted to indicate another layer of replication or construction. The color of the plants and grass are blown-out, reflecting the brightness of the flash.
Jones: Your previous work contains lots of raw materials and mixed media elements, but the paintings in this series are refined works painted in oil. Why did you choose to paint these instead of using another medium?
Tharsing: When I began talking to other artists about my ideas, lots of people suggested that I create installations around the material, but that was never the point for me. I didn’t want to recreate something that was already successful. I wanted to capture the feeling of actually being there. Photography has a certain truth to it. Paintings lie. In photographs, things feel documented, but paintings can’t help but be symbolic. They always look like representations of something else. My paintings in this series are essentially representations of representations.
Jones: So what’s next?
Tharsing: I don’t really know. The dioramas have proven to be a rich source of ideas. I will continue to work with this imagery for a while, but the ideas will evolve and change. The last painting I completed was of a natural history museum where all the cases are empty.
Jones: Did you run out of things to paint?
Tharsing: No, I just got sick of painting animals. [laughing]
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