Sadie Murdoch is an artist working in photography and archival images and is a lecturer in fine art at Goldsmiths University. In her work, Murdoch explores the eradication of female protagonists in modern art, often using her body to insert female protagonists back into the narrative to continue the dialogue and address new questions. Here Sadie Murdoch answers our WIA Q&A.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Sadie Murdoch: Looking at some high res scans I had made of a pack of Novosti Press Agency Soviet-era colour slides depicting “Moscow – a Hero City”. My grandfather brought them back from the USSR, after a visit there in 1972. They are ‘approved’ photographs of landmarks and monuments in Moscow and are covered in dust, which I retained as part of the scanning process.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
SM: It usually starts with a photograph. I work with archival images from the 20th Century; the 20th Century brought me into the world, and I presume the 21st will dispose of me… These archival elements represent bodies, or parts thereof, that are designated as ‘female’. Amongst these images, there is also photographic material relating to interiors or the things used to cover, veil, and distort both.
I am always looking for something in the archival photograph which I imagine was not intended by the original photographer; something unstated or unseen. I work with fragments of the unrecognisable and unidentified, signs of the lost and ruined, which are enlarged, cropped, duplicated and re-photographed. I have used digital and analogue photographic processes, as well as drawing in inks and watercolour, as means by which to interpret these photographic documents.
As part of my working method, I often use my body as a kind of ‘prop’, and explore a space where the real and the archival are merged by the photographic register. For example, As Given 6 (2013) is from a series of colour photographs in which my hand appears to probe and caress the sculptures made by Marcel Duchamp, which were intimately connected to the construction of his Etant donnés (1946-1966). In this series, enlarged black and white photographic reproductions of archival images of these sculptures are photographed in conjunction with parts of my own body, layered with cosmetics, in order to approximate the appearance of black and white photography without digital manipulation. The corporeal reality of my physical body ‘animates’ the archival, and my hands and legs appear as historical material, in a reciprocal exchange.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
SM: In my head and on the floor of my studio. I like the horizontal space to lay out images, as it is a less ‘fixed’ space then the walls.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
SM: SSS-MM, my solo exhibition at the Museum Haus Konstruktiv in Zürich in 2016, which was accompanied by my artist book, Omnipulsepunslide, published by Artphilein Editions. The exhibition was curated by Sabine Schaschl, the director of the Museum, who was a real pleasure to work with.
The exhibition included photographs and photographic montages in which my body, and body parts, appeared in conjunction with archival images, objects and interior spaces relating to women involved in the New York and Zürich Dada and Constructivist movements.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
SM: My mother and my grandfather, who both encouraged me.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
SM: A new series of photographs where I use the work of artist and author Unica Zürn as a thematic resource. Together with her collaborations with her lover Hans Bellmer, it is Zürn’s drawings and anagrammatic poetry which I find most fascinating. I have been thinking for a while about the correlation between the form of the anagram and the photograph. Letters in an anagram have a shifting and sliding effect on the processes of signification, an almost liquid mobility. Correspondingly, individual photographs can generate an anagrammatic ‘sub world’, in which parts can be conjoined with the connective tissue of a visual syntax. Flickering with life, photographic fragments often seem ‘animated’.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
SM: I like listening to the radio best, as I am not in charge of the playlist. Radio 3’s Late Junction is good for late night studio activity. Otherwise, at the moment it is the Deep Throat Choir and the Birthday Party.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
SM: The way in which photographic archives can be ‘inhabited’, through forms of translation which are digital, material and spatial. And that the codes and conventions of ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ emerge from the repression of subversive counter-narratives, of gender, power and desire.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
SM: How we construct and are constructed by, our encounter with the archival.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
SM: The photographic image as inherently ‘unstable’. The camera lens functions as type of cropping device in itself, which delivers us into the world of the partial and fragmentary. As a sign it could be said to ‘imply’ the re-arranging and conjoining of images of the world, generating the formal devices of collage and montage.
In the ink and watercolour drawings, I engage processes of colour reversal – essentially I try to imagine the ‘negative’ version of the image, whilst focussing on the original, so light areas become dark and vice versa, the results of which I then re-photograph and present as archival prints in their negative formats. So the final photograph arising from this process appears as a photo ‘positive’. The drawings are often presented alongside their inverted photographic formats.
Photographic processes of inversion are important to me; spectral after-image and primary material record of an event, the photographic negative is ambivalent in its indexical relationship to the visible world and to ideas of the past, present and future. Although a mirror of its positive counterpart, the negative re-arranges the tonal ‘characters’, producing an image that is recognisable but hard to discern, legible but with a reconfigured meaning. In addition to its material function as a precursor of the printed image, the negative also ‘suggests’ a future event; it holds a prescient quality. The photographic negative reveals a pivotal function of photography itself. Through reproduction, reversal and duplication, the visible and legible are reconfigured, dislocating our reading of time and place, illusion and ontological fact. Photography ‘shuffles’ the past, present and future, its grammar and syntax opening up an anagrammatic space, which is essential to my approach to image making.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
SM: A camera and a pair of scissors.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
SM: Selfless acts and moments of collective resistance. And things just done for the pure hell of it.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
SM: Without being essentialist, I think that a type of ‘female gaze’ operates in my my work. This way of seeing, which is also a feedback loop, re-routes the mechanisms by which certain photographs frame and produce the gendered body.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
SM: The Store X, 180 the Strand.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
SM: Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-90.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
SM: See below.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
SM: It has to be Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour.
SM: Any grey, and any red.