MAPPING THE BODY

A Conversation with Artists Eloise Fornieles and Robyn Benson

Introduction by Karina Vahitova
Interview by by Siena Oristaglio
Cover image by David Birkin
Eloise Fornieles was one of the first artists who came to mind when we began IMMATERIAL’s featured long durational works project. After familiarizing myself with her body of work, my mind kept returning to the same image of the artist — one that evoked within me a sadness that I had never experienced any of her performances in person. The image shows Fornieles standing inside a white boat with a blue rim. Both the artist and the ship look lost: she, holding a disheveled sail pole and staring into the distance and the boat, dislocated to a gallery space, resting atop an expanse of salt. The image didn't leave my mind for months, nor did the sense of silence and stillness that came with it. I was lucky to have received the ephemera of this performance by way of her careful documentation.

In this work, titled “From the Deep Waters of Sleep” (2007), Fornieles spent 72 sleepless hours exploring the concept of loss in collaboration with her audience. During those hours in the boat, Fornieles herself became a vessel, receiving written messages from her audience on the subject of bereavement and broadcasting them through the language of morse code. Through pieces like these, Fornieles uses long durational work as a tool for understanding humanity — her art being as much research as it is performance.

I feel a similar silence and stillness when viewing the visual artworks of Robyn Benson, a researcher who uses sculpture as an outlet for explorations of physics and mathematics. Though their approaches may differ, both Fornieles and Benson experience deep curiosity as the primary driving force behind their work. MAI's Siena Oristaglio interviewed these two artists on a mid-July afternoon in London while I waited in New York City, eager to find out what transpired.


"Senescence" (2007), Eloise Fornieles. Photograph by David Birkin

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Do you remember the first time that you created a work of performance art?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: That’s a difficult question to answer because, as a kid, I was always making little performances to present to my parents and my friends. There’s something very primitive about performance — it’s an instinct. It’s a way of learning. That was the main thing for me at the beginning and still is the main thing for me now. My motivation with performance has always been to learn and to follow my curiosity about people. I think this is something that’s very instinctive to kids.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Absolutely. You’ve done this series of long durational performances. What drew you to start working with extended periods of time?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Actually, there are two branches here. First, I realized I needed more time with people. In a one-on-one performance, you need time with the person to actually engage and create some temporary bond. In those cases, I always let the person determine how long that will be because I think it’s important for them to feel somewhat in control. Second, I think my physical understanding of myself and my body requires time. It takes time to test my boundaries and find out what I’m capable of.

 

There’s something very primitive about performance — it’s an instinct. It’s a way of learning. 

— Eloise Fornieles

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: To really come up against your physical limits.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes. Also, mentally, you access something through long durational works that you can’t otherwise. There’s something about being incredibly present that I find easier to access through these types of works.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: We featured your work “From the Deep Waters of Sleep” (2007) a while ago. I’d love to hear you describe that piece and the process of creating it.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: That piece included fifteen tons of salt in the gallery so, in a way, it started before it really started, if that makes sense. We had to physically lift all of this salt up from the first floor and there was no elevator, so we were carrying all the bags up into the space. Bringing in the boat was also challenging. Then it was 72 hours without sleep, which was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically. I found it quite difficult. There were moments when I caught myself nodding off and I really had to muster the willpower to stay awake.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: You were fighting with biology.

 

"From the Deep Waters of Sleep" (2007), Eloise Fornieles. Photograph by David Birkin

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes, basically. Then people came into the space and gave me messages that I then translated into Morse code and sent out — to no one, really. Every day was different. At the start, it was very communal: people were talking to each other and to me and there was a real sense of storytelling and shared experience. Over time, possibly because my emotional state changed so much with the lack of sleep, the audience members became almost like little lifeboats. Having a new contact with somebody sustained me. I asked people to write to me about loss, and this could be interpreted in any way — it could be, “I lost my keys” or “I lost somebody important.” The less I slept the more emotionally raw I became, so the effect of absorbing those stories became more and more emotionally intense.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Did you prepare mentally and physically for the work? Other than bringing the salt and the boat into the gallery, were there other preparations?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Before performances, I exercise more than I normally do, I don’t drink, I try to look after myself as much as I can and build a physical stamina, but for that piece I didn’t test myself beforehand.

 

Over time, possibly because my emotional state changed so much with the lack of sleep, the audience members became almost like little lifeboats. Having a new contact with somebody sustained me. 

— Eloise Fornieles

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So you didn’t attempt to alter your sleep cycle?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: No. I just made sure I was sleeping properly. For that piece, the only other preparation was learning Morse code. That was really interesting because I got to talk to older members of my family about how they used it and the methods they applied to learn the code.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Members of your family have used Morse code? For what purpose?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes, my grandfather and his brother were in the Second World War and they used it — my grandfather’s brother, particularly, in the navy. He tells a story of how, to help speed the process of learning, they sent other soldiers dirty messages, which would give them more incentive to learn. [Laughs.] It apparently worked.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Of course. [Laughs.] Why did you choose to interpret messages of loss in this way?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I think of Morse as a lost language. It’s something that was commonly used and really important for a period in history that then became gradually redundant. The loss of language just seemed to make sense to me — it fit into the whole theme of the work.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: It also works well with the boat imagery. I was curious about your choice of the boat. You said that your grandfather and his brother were war veterans. Were they both in the navy?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: My grandfather's brother was in the navy, but I was also looking at Bas Jan Ader’s work “In Search of the Miraculous” (1975) and how he had died. Actually, the person that struck me the most in this history was his mother — she wrote this incredible poem about the moment when she realized he was dead. She just woke up one day and knew he was gone. She had also been through the Second World War and her husband had helped Jews during that period and had been shot because of this. She wrote a book about the experience, which sadly isn't translated into English, but I hope one day it will be. It really struck me that she was a person who had lost her husband and her son. There's such strength and endurance in living after those types of experiences.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I remember reading this in your description of the piece. Were audience members aware of that backstory?

 

He tells a story of how, to help speed the process of learning, they sent other soldiers dirty messages, which would give them more incentive to learn. [Laughs.] It apparently worked.

— Eloise Fornieles

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I certainly mention the poem and that bit of the story, but I don't think you necessarily need to know it to relate to the idea of being lost at sea and to the vulnerability you feel when you realize you are on your own.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I agree. I actually came across that work in my research when I had just lost someone very close to me. I was moved by the piece as a way of understanding loss, and I connect with the idea of living after loss as a durational process. Were you dealing with issues of loss in your own life that translated into this performance or were you more interested in absorbing those experiences from your audience?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I certainly have had experiences of loss but actually, in this case, it was more about other people. It was about trying to understand. There’s also something about cradling people — creating a space for other people to reflect and to make of the work what they will. That was my relationship to it, personally.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Why did you use salt in this piece?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Salt has many connotations, but I was actually thinking more about the idea of being somewhat stranded. A boat in salt can't go anywhere. And it evokes the salt content of seawater, obviously. I'm interested in what happens when you’re physically active but not going anywhere — because, mentally, you are going somewhere. It's a physical action but a mental journey.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Another piece of yours that also contained a boat was “Celestial Body” (2010).

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes, that was three years later. Boats just keep recurring to me — they’re just constantly in my imagination. There's something about them that describes the body. They're simple forms but at the same time symbolically very complex.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: “Celestial Body” also involved the public giving you messages. Can you describe that piece?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I was suspended above what was originally a court space, so the boat was very high up in the air. The people who came were below me and they were encouraged to write about an experience that they wanted to express or hadn't expressed and I would translate those messages from English into Spanish. Originally, my family was from Spain, and then they immigrated to Argentina. When my father left Argentina in the 1970s, he didn't ever go back. He stayed in England for a long time, and he never spoke in Spanish with us. There’s something about different languages that allows you to access concepts in different ways. There was a dislocation that I was trying to bridge with this piece, and so I would attempt to translate these messages. It was something again about lost language — or rather — a language that I had never known.

 

 

"Celestial Body" (2010), Eloise Fornieles. Photograph by David Birkin

 


ELOISE FORNIELES: I was suspended above what was originally a court space, so the boat was very high up in the air. The people who came were below me and they were encouraged to write about an experience that they wanted to express or hadn't expressed and I would translate those messages from English into Spanish. Originally, my family was from Spain, and then they immigrated to Argentina. When my father left Argentina in the 1970s, he didn't ever go back. He stayed in England for a long time, and he never spoke in Spanish with us. There’s something about different languages that allows you to access concepts in different ways. There was a dislocation that I was trying to bridge with this piece, and so I would attempt to translate these messages. It was something again about lost language — or rather — a language that I had never known.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: A language that’s lost from one generation to the next. It must be strange knowing that someone that you love has a whole other way of understanding the world that you don't have access to.


ELOISE FORNIELES: My father is always saying, “Monolingualism is curable.” [Laughs.] “Go and learn it!” Unfortunately, I am terrible at languages.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So, you were translating, and the people who were writing those messages had the understanding that you were going to take these messages on a journey after the fact.


ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes. Though the journey still hasn't happened, I still have all of the messages. The journey will be a boat journey from Spain to Argentina, where I will throw the messages in the water.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: When do you plan to complete it?


ELOISE FORNIELES: When I have the funding. It's that awful situation of always trying to raise money to execute your ideas.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Would you use the same boat?


ELOISE FORNIELES: No. [Laughs.]


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: It doesn't look safe.


ELOISE FORNIELES: I love boats, but I know nothing about them. Technically, that is.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I have seen that you have collaborated with other performers and artists. What is your experience with collaboration and what do you feel it adds to your practice?


 

The Oyster Bar (2006), Eloise Fornieles. Photograph by David Birkin

 

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I love it. Partly because it means that I get to make a piece that I would never think of on my own. It's such an exciting thing. I've been really lucky in that I don't think I've had a bad experience collaborating with anyone. Maybe that's because I tend to collaborate with my closest people or people whose work I love. I like the way that they think and I know they'll bring out something in me that I can't do on my own.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you ever collaborated with someone over a long period of time?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Yes, my friend Kate Hawkins. We’ve collaborated for over ten years. She recently retired from performance, which I'm very sad about. Apparently, I'm allowed to ask her out from retirement if I need to, [laughs] but she's sort of focusing on painting. And my brother as well. And my sister. We all kind of work together.

 

I'm interested in what happens when you’re physically active but not going anywhere — because, mentally, you are going somewhere. It's a physical action but mental journey.

— Eloise Fornieles

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you ever collaborated with someone wildly outside of the realm you work in?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I've worked with some designers and musicians, but never outside of the artistic umbrella — but I definitely would be excited to.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Whenever we have people whose works we love, we sometimes ask, "Would it be okay with you, if we meet someone we think you should talk to, to introduce you, just to have a conversation?” We like to connect the dots and see what comes from it. We actually have Robyn Benson, our current Tumblr curator, here now. I’d like to introduce you two.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Absolutely.

 

[Siena leaves the room and reenters with Robyn.]

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Eloise, this is Robyn.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: I was just looking at your work on the Tumblr page. It's beautiful.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: When I planned these two meetings, they were two hours apart, so I thought you wouldn’t meet, but I like it when this kind of thing happens. Robyn, coincidentally, you said you were working on a boat-related project. Can you describe that?

 

ROBYN BENSON: So, there are three of us and we're all quite researched-based. It turns out that we've all been looking at the buoyancy of boats so we decided to co-create a piece that shows how buoyancy works and how different boats are structured. There are things called "bulbous bows" and elements added to the structure of a boat to lower the center of balance to make it more buoyant. We're looking at diagrams, basically, trying to compile a lot of research in a book format. We're not quite sure how it's going to look yet, but we're drawing diagrams and bringing these ideas together so that people can understand them.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Do you do work as a collective?

 

ROBYN BENSON: No, we're all recent graduates. I only graduated twelve months ago, so it's come about from just meeting and being interested in each other's work, talking about physics. There are two artists I’ve known for a while but just found this common focus to team up with and collaborate on.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: So exciting.

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yeah, it's great at this stage, as well, because we’re all trying to find ways to progress and continue our work.

 

"Geometric Body" (2012) video still, Eloise Fornieles

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I noticed that you, Eloise, had a piece on your website called “Geometric Body” (2012). I thought, “This looks like the research Robyn was doing around diagrams and bodies.” [Shows Eloise’s website.] This piece contains geometric figures transposed onto the body. It’s a video piece. Can you describe it?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: It's interesting that you brought this up because, you know when you start scratching at the surface of something and you haven't developed it as much as you want to? I was planning on making these little videos, as a way of mimicking nature or mimicking form. It's quite an informal sketch — trying to dismantle the body and recreate something out of the pieces. These stills are taken from when you're plotting something in Final Cut. You have these tools that are basically a mathematical way of mapping the body. This is probably a sketch for something I will develop.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: An hour before you arrived, Robyn and I were talking about geometrical shapes and bodies because Robyn has been researching dance diagrams that end up as mathematical maps of bodies in space.

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: There's another piece I did, “The Marks She Made” (2011) that's not performative, but rather looks at Conchita Cintron, the bullfighter. There are these diagrams that you get from bullfighting which mark out the motions and the series of physical actions that they might go through — probably very similar to what you were looking at with dancers. I was watching an interview with Barbara Hepworth and there was a point in the video where she was striking the paper with thick chalk and making these beautiful drawings. Her mark-making was so aggressive and so precise and so knowing. It just made sense for me to put these two women together. The marks made here are from her drawings. For me, they describe physical movement so eloquently.

 

"The Marks She Made" (2011), Eloise Fornieles


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I haven't seen this work by Barbara Hepworth.


ELOISE FORNIELES: She's mostly known for sculpture but she's also done some amazing drawings. If you get the chance on your next trip, they just opened a Barbara Hepworth Tate museum in Wakefield. She died in her studio — she was smoking in bed and fell asleep with her cigarette and the whole thing went up. They created a museum in her honor. She's a contemporary of Henry Moore. There's a brilliant story: they had an argument about who made the first hole through a sculpture, was it Moore or was it Hepworth?


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: This idea of "Who had the first hole?" is kind of amazing. I have to look up this debate because I didn't know about it.


ELOISE FORNIELES: I mean, I'm gunning for Hepworth, obviously. [Laughs.]


ROBYN BENSON: It's a completely different type of hole.


Her mark-making was so aggressive and so precise and so knowing. It just made sense for me to put these two women together. 

— Eloise Fornieles


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: It's fascinating to see how these works are perceived and who tries to claim ownership over the original concepts. I love this idea, though, “Who had the first hole?” The first woman, probably! [All laugh.]


ELOISE FORNIELES: Don't get me started!


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Robyn, can I show Eloise the dance diagrams? [Pulls up the drawings.]


Rudolf Von Laban, Choreutics, an “analysis of forms in movement." The three plans From: Danse et architecture. Nouvelle de danse 42/43.  

Rudolf von Laban’s research, from his Labanotation method, eventually became the standard system of notation to analyze and record any human motion on paper. Image via Abitare

ROBYN BENSON: This is the first dance notation theory done by Rudolf Von Laban. There’s a whole dance theory based on this idea. He built geometric structures for dancers to move inside, analysing and measuring the movement of the body. He created drawings that showed the relationship between the shape and body, this is how dance citations are done now, but it was the first theorized way of doing it i think.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Eloise, we were just talking about the research on Morse code that you did for your piece in “From the Deep Waters of Sleep.” How much research do you typically do for your works?

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: From my own personal experience, the more I know about something, the more I get out of it. It doesn't even necessarily have to be explained or present in the piece, but I like to know that it's in there as some sort of layer that may or may not be recognized. Similarly, you can make something and someone can come from a completely different history or context and bring something to the work that you would never see. I love that about artworks, and research is just a joyful thing to do. I think that it's always present but not always seen.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Robyn, you don't do performance-based work, but your sculptures perform, in a sense. The systems that you create are contingent on one another.

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes, they're always acting on and balancing each other.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Robyn's sculptures are based on forces and are never fixed. [Pulls up images of Robyn's sculptures “2 Circles”, 2014.]

 

"2 Circles" (Installation for Glasgow Open House Art Festival) (2014), Robyn Benson

 

ROBYN BENSON: These are plastic rods that screw together,  so you can add them to one another. I've got maybe ninety feet of this stuff. It loses tension the bigger you make it, so here, they're just sitting in a stairwell in Glasgow where I did a show. That shape happens all the way down the stairwell — it’s a repeating space. If you put five of those rods into that space, it would be exactly the same shape. If you look at it, you can see that it's not a trick.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: If you use your physics intuition … If you have physics intuition. [Laughs.]

 

ELOISE FORNIELES: Wonderful. This is such a good discussion to have by that sculpture. [Points outside to the Fischli/Weiss sculpture, Rock on top of another rock.”]

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: It's true.

 

ROBYN BENSON: Perfect.



Eloise Fornieles' practice is predominantly performance based, using video, photography and the spoken word to readdress the way in which live performative acts are documented and received by secondary audiences. Her investigation into personal human connections is framed within a broader overview of the relationship between body and environment, and the individual’s place within society. Fornieles’ work creates a space for contemplation, whilst her own emphasis on physical endurance provides a backdrop for a more visceral understanding of the body as material and its capabilities. Engaging with strands of mythology, ritual and storytelling, and often depicting animals, she teases out the symbolic resonances that hold meaning within our everyday social interactions. After a BA in Fine Art at Kingston University, London, Fornieles graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2006 with an MFA in Fine Art Media. Selected exhibitions include Their Wonderlands, Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham; On and On, La Casa Encendida, Madrid; Natural Wonders: New Art from London, Babakov Art Projects, Moscow; Fashion in Film Festival, Tate Modern, London; Carrion, Haunch of Venison, Berlin; and Eternal Sea, Eternal Sky at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, supported by Art Production Fund. Fornieles was selected for the Artsadmin Bursary award 2013.
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Robyn Benson (b. 1990) lives and works in Edinburgh, UK. Benson graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2013 and has since been involved in numerous national and international shows including '27062014’, Architectural Uncomfortable Workshop, Budapest (2014); ‘Design Assumptions and actual outcomes’ as part of Glasgow Open House Festival (2014), ‘Night Lights’ as part of Leith Late, Edinburgh, (2014); ‘Salonely’, Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh, (2013). In 2013 Benson produced her first solo exhibition, 'In Principle', at the Andrew Grant Gallery, Edinburgh. Currently Benson is undergoing a 12-month Graduate Studio Bursary Award at St Margaret's House in Edinburgh (2013–14), developing her work on self-sufficient structures, culminating in a solo show in 2015. The artist will also be participating in the Hospitalfields Graduate Residency, Scotland (October 2014). See her website, main blog, research blog.