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Translations / Transactions: In Conversation with Autumn Ahn


 Studio Portrait (Autumn Ahn), NYC 2014 Photo Credit: Jonas Gustavsson

Translations / Transactions: In Conversation with Autumn Ahn


Autumn Ahn is sitting pensively and collecting her thoughts as we converse at a cafe in Chelsea, New York City. We are discussing aspects of her systematic research-based practice and her considerable emphasis on identity and ritual. Ahn exudes a calm aura, the staggered silences of her pauses marking the moments between rapid, staccato responses on topics ranging from mythology to marking space, both virtually and in real-time.

Ahn’s practice spans time-based media and installation art, forming visual documents that record journeys through space and site-specific sound landscapes. Her process is often laborious and hinges delicately on memory, self-recognition and totems of objectivity. This conversation took place on the heels of recent projects including Echo for the White Roof Project’s art installation/auction “Reflecting Our City”, her virtual performance "the space of all functions"[1] as part of the WRONG Biennale (hosted and coordinated by the embassy site, gallery Space Debris) continuing through Jan 31, 2016, and her performance participation in the ICA’s Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 currently on view in Boston.

Audra Lambert- Looking at Echo, your installation for White Roof Project, I was interested in the link between the natural materials you worked with and the natural resources and energy conservation White Roof works to protect.

Autumn Ahn- Today natural material is more precious than ever. The choreography series (from which Echo was derived) was created because I was looking for ways to create archaeological landscapes, documents that have an archaeological history, so the pressing of these prints transfers a live moment to this space. The use of the paper is a preference in terms of the way it receives my ink.

AL- So it’s more about the use of these materials as a tool.

AA- Yes, the same way that Google hangouts is a reference to what we have access to today. The paper itself is quite precious the same way that natural elements are. It is rarefied because of how it is made--of mulberry fiber, (so it) takes weeks to make. This process references the icon of naturality.

AL-  Materiality and physical presence play an important role in your work. As a two part question:  what factors do you consider when choosing the materials you work with and how do you choose how you occupy space in a physical, versus virtual, way?

AA- This is specifically addressing a certain part of my practice--when in virtual space, that space can occupy any space. The presence of any physicality in the use of a virtual medium is going to present questions about objecthood, including my body. This creates a space where my body becomes physical material as much as a pomegranate, a piece of paper, ink..these things are referencing the recreation of an ephemeral moment and allowing..

AL- Allowing..a point of access?

AA- No, they create a hierarchy of how you can read what happens; the use of these objects is not only because they allow a transaction to happen--this is where time becomes an element or an identity. The materials themselves give you access to that, and more importantly, they create a beginning and an end.

AL- So a series of markers?

AA- Yes; in that way the occupation of the space is negotiable; for example, when you consider the possibility of projected space one can see many things… one can see the result of which, from where, you are being projected (that being the first consideration.)

Baigner (performance, Paris, 2013, KSAT) Photo Credit: Quentin Crestinu

AL- So seeing the process as well.

AA-The process  is inevitably seen because of the liveness. The connectivity of two points creates a fluid portal between both spaces, and in doing so, the consideration of "here" or "there" becomes suspended. 

AL- Ok.

AA- The difference between the project at STREAM gallery, where I was technically staying in the gallery space for an extended period of days: [in that case] those two worlds collided because it was public and virtual. In my project with WRONG Bienale I am only being projected, and so the occupation of space becomes specific; more clearly as one would read a two dimensional language if I was there physically.

The question is, is it real performance? Because I’m moving, because of time, and without the secondary/physical space being there does the secondary self count? Presenting this question as: Does it count as a live image? Is this a way to consider that in-between space? So we’ll see.

Ultimately the piece is an altar piece.

AL- Your works often emphasize site-specificity, such as your piece for the AIDS Action committee for Miami Art Basel in  2014, What do you consider when choosing the environments you work within, whether for that project or your Voy(age)ur series? How are these sites crucial to the realization of each piece?

AA- The sites themselves are oftentimes circumstantial; they are circumstantial to context.

AL- The way you respond to them is so metered and well thought out..

AA- It must be in order for it to read clearly. Architectural and volumetric space are really important elements to consider. They create a foundation and a structure for the reading of the movement or the changes that happen within that space. The piece in Miami was considered as much as the sonic landscape I created for the radio because you’re occupying a living environment and so Miami in itself was [in the same way] related to an abstract idea and through the presence of this body of water. It presented a poetic opportunity to use the materiality of the water as a living landscape to be immersed in. The image itself existed within the boundaries of that liquid and the time imposed on that event.

Untitled (Chamber) (performance, Miami, 2014, AIDS Action & Alter Projects) Photo Credit: Dillon Buss

AL- For example with the pool: would you see the water as a medium or a part of the content?

AA- A medium. My body would not have floated without that liquid... the motion that happened was [due to] the pool; it’s not content. The whole experience is content.

AL- The end result being the content.

AA- The reading of it is the content. The present visitor can take [this] away, so I create these landscapes for them to push and pull and absorb and project.

AL- [With] the water...it seems in a lot of your works you prefer to leave things open-ended and allow a certain amount of subjectivity for the viewer; the water [seems like] a nice way for you to be able to do that..

AA- There was a beautiful coalescence of all these ideas that revolve around suspension and immersion and physical space; liquid being a very iconic reference in mythology. I’m looking to those things to extract these references in order to understand my space and to make those choices.

AL- Often your practice touches on themes of religion, mythology,  spirituality and the metaphysical. Can you explain the significance of those themes in how you approach new works?

AA- The mythologies have always been an underlying influence in how I structure my thoughts and the visual theme of information that I’m seeing--my research. That can include things like poetry and various data-even internet feeds and scrolling, all of these behavioral patterns must be systematically read in some way for my body or visual material to then translate them. The mythology and religion serve as a hierarchy to create a literacy and therefore allow an openness to what material can be.

AL-  In your video Half when you have [artist Amanda Antunes] with you, it seems like a ritual application of the paint that you are both performing.

AA- It is; it was ritualistic in terms of how we approach beauty and how we consume ourselves with those images in mind. So metaphorically the image of this ritual action creates the image of reflection. I’m loosely referencing tropes, from ghost stories... this action references so many things throughout history and the way we translate a fleeting experience. When I am using materials like pomegranate (ink) and gold, these are very symbolic choices because of what one can take away from that object, from that material. For example, the pomegranate is an iconic image in Greek mythology referencing Demeter, whose daughter is Persephone and as Persephone left..

Sous Vide (performance, Paris, 2014, Atelier 0fr. ) Photo credit: Camille McQuat

AL-..for the underworld..

AA- As she was taken, this tragedy is the trigger for the changing of our seasons. So this fruit being used is also subversively changing the landscape of my volumetric, site specific space in entering the body of the performance.

AL- So in referencing this like a tragedy, or even a trauma, would you say this is integral to the use of this myth and this ritualistic action?

AA- In what way?

AL- When you have actions where you’re re-creating and using these materials, it seems to have an emotional component- is this a positive or a negative?

AA- It’s not those things, it’s an anchor.

AL- As in an anchor for the actions?

AA- An anchor for the actions.

AL-You don’t want it to have any emotional load.

AA- No..

AL-Do you want the viewer to reference their own experience ? You leave it very open..

AA- It’s as much an anchor for me as a trigger for those who come across it, but it’s not presented in a way that I want a viewer to say “that’s a pomegranate” - you see its juice, which can be read as ink, or as random dried dirt: you don’t know what it is.

AL-It’s a natural material as well.

AA-That’s why I use it: because of its transformation, and the ambiguity creates the access from our collective memory.

AL- When I was seeking out what themes remained consistent throughout your work-such as tragedy, trauma and loss - you also reference a lot in terms of memory, as with your series Basement Nymphs: can you speak to how you access memory?

AA: Loss is a reference to a past state versus a present state. It’s a reference to time. Memory is a natural database of narratives and references to biographies, and the interesting connection being that once we have entered a present state the past state all becomes this mythology…. so what is it that we understand really about those spaces and how we translate those spaces, which are in fact synapses between changing identities? 

Autumn Patricia Ahn // resides in NYC. born, Philadelphia, 1986, Boston University 

With performance, and installation, live streams and other media, Ahn investigates ephemeral and temporal spaces. Seeking the images of anecdotal identities (such as cadence, time, and emotion), she creates conditional hierarchies to map past and present systems, and the synapses between them.

Ahn has lived & exhibited internationally in museums, galleries, alternative spaces, hotels, showrooms, at events, private collections and more. She gives lectures, teaches and collaborates.Her work can be seen as part of the WRONG Biennale network via embassy site Space Debris in Istanbul, TR. Her video work "Narcissus & Echo" is on view in the gallery through Nov 20 and the online presentation will run through January 2016. After being invited to perform a reconstruction of John Cage's "Theatre Piece No. 1" at the ICA Boston for their Black Mountain College Exhibition, Ahn is currently based in her studio in Brooklyn, NY preparing for online performance interventions to take place through December and some new large paper work. WM

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is an arts writer and independent curator pursuing an M.A., Modern/Contemporary Art History at City College of New York - CUNY. Audra has curated interdisciplinary exhibits involving painting, performance, new media and installation art in New York City. She previously served as Project Coordinator for More Art, a socially engaged nonprofit based in NYC, and she has contributed to Art Nerd NY, Artefuse, and Examiner.com, among others.

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