A change of skin: in conversation with Bianca Bondi
A change of skin: in conversation with Bianca Bondi by Paulius Andriuškevičius
Paulius Andriuškevičius: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up, why and how did you get interested in art? I read that you went to art school wanting to be a gallerist; how did you end up becoming an artist?
Bianca Bondi: My intentions were actually to eventually run an art institution. I felt that in order to defend art, first, I needed to understand what it is to become an artist. Attending art school in Johannesburg, where I am from, whether you want to become an art historian or an artist, it’s the same university curriculum anyway. A series of events led me to Paris at the end of my second year and I left my family and friends behind. I wanted to be in a city where I felt art was taken more seriously. It wasn’t easy; I worked side jobs after school, at weekends and over school holidays so I could stay there. In my final year of art school in Paris, I had an epiphany and realised that I would miss creating and so, after graduating, I signed up for art classes with the city council to specialise in sculpture and to maintain a schedule for creating art. That first year, I worked even harder than before. This was 2012.
PA: Transformation seems to be one of the key motifs of your practice. Not only the objects within the works are in a perpetual state of transformation but the installations themselves are active agents of transformation, altering the white cube environment and with it, the viewer’s perception of the real. To create these surreal atmospheres, you target multiple senses by introducing sounds and smells like you recently did in The Daydream (2021) at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. How do you envision your works to be experienced? What are your goals when creating these environments?
BB: I am trying to encourage an experience that goes beyond the visual. More interesting to me than the final artwork is the process of its continuation led by the materials themselves. For the LILITH installation, there are about 700 kilograms of salt present in a small room. The windows allow for direct sunlight throughout most of the day. Bearing in mind that we are heading into summer and with the climate catastrophe, the entire planet is heating so what direct effect will this salt and heat have on the bodies that enter this room? There are a few containers of tinted salt water throughout the scene. Perhaps the coloured water will separate into multiple shades upon changing states, perhaps not. The liquid should also begin reacting with the vegetation or anything else that happens to fall into the pond (spiders, dust…), crystallising these elements and eventually transforming them into relics. Capillary action could form from the vines that dip into the ponds or perhaps the accumulation could start to produce coral-like formations along the surfaces of the various objects where they encounter the fine salt. There are a few possibilities but whatever happens, it will appear as a series of discrete events and only really be noticed should one document the process over time or compare the start to the end. As the spectator, you recognise the part-fiction element but then, there is something very real and very much anchored in the present that is taking place. Perhaps my goal is to show that all changes start small and that the most important transformation is something innate and rather intimate.
PA: Bird bones, a crystal ball, copper coins, untreated beeswax, organic herbs, natural vegetation, holy water from Lourdes, an animal’s jawbone, fertility crops, an incandescent light bulb, synthetic hair, edible flowers, neon and even a replica of a crystallised whale skeleton appear in your works. Where do these strange objects and materials come from, what are their stories and messages, and how do you source them?
BB: The spaces in which the works are to exist inspire the stories that lead me to select my materials. I especially like to use elements that can break down, dissolve or accumulate matter otherwise—for example, through crystallisation—but then eventually crumble, thus going from a liquid to a solid to dust. Using ‘sensitive’ matter to speak about concepts related to death, rebirth and energy transferral just makes sense and I find the flux of materials very liberating.
PA: One material that is predominant in your installations is salt. In your works, one finds salt crystals shaped like corals growing from weathered objects, blankets of snowy powder-like salt framing man-made objects as well as colourful ponds engirdled with thick salt crusts. It is a substance that is associated with erosion yet in your works, it is often a binding agent that connects different elements of the work into a unified essence. It metaphorically cleanses the works creating an impression of sterility. It also brings a whiff of death with it, perhaps that is why the vegetation surrounded by it looks so strikingly alive. Can you talk about salt in your installations: how did it begin to make its way into your work, and what are its roles and potential readings?
BB: In 2011, I was part of a residency program in Bandjoun Station, Cameroon. This trip was primordial in connecting the dots for me; in the jungle just beyond our walls, there were heaps of salt—wax and chicken feathers too. It was the first time I had been able to witness another culture practice rituals and honour their ancestors outside of my books and my own practice of magic. I could completely relate and what I saw resonated deeply. The various events I experienced while in Cameroon such as an animal sacrifice, partaking in a traditional funeral, visiting witchdoctors and witnessing multiple sites of ritual consolidated and enriched my belief system in ways that would ripple throughout the coming years.
My inspiration to use salt in my art practise finds its roots in what I had been experimenting with in magic since childhood. In the majority of spiritual and religious practices, the very first gesture involves salt. In Wicca, this is closing the circle and banishing bad energy. In the Catholic Church, it takes on the form of holy water and the sign of the cross. In Cameroon, I was reconnected with this idea of salt not only as a portal between the physical and astral planes but also as a substitute for that which exists but cannot be explained. When I use salt in my artworks, it can be as simple as just a handful of local commercial salt or salt from a sacred site but there have also been times when I have used six tonnes of salt. Most often, salt makes its appearance in my practice in the form of salt water. Salt water is of course synonymous with the ability to heal; the amniotic fluid we grew in is 0.9% saline, the same percentage as what is needed in our bodily fluids to maintain correct function throughout our lives. Salt is essential for life and water often represents spirit. I like the symbology of the two combined and how context-sensitive, mutable and in-the-present they are as substances.
Since salt dissolves in water but may later precipitate out as new crystals, salt symbolises both the body and its rebirth, resurrection and immortality. It is a symbol of the alchemical process of things being broken down into their individual elements, purified and re-integrated into the whole. But even salt on its own is never neutral. It is hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb any moisture from the air and retain it. Similarly, salt will attract and kill off bacteria, neutralise most toxins and purify its surroundings both on the physical and spiritual planes. Salt represents preservation, warding off negative energies and spirits, it cleans wounds… But what I really appreciate and the metaphor I like to accentuate is how salt is so discreet and humble that it’s on every table and yet, this element is so incredibly versatile and powerful that we couldn’t be here without it.
PA: Let’s come back to LILITH, your first-ever installation in Lithuania. The location that you and curator Tautvydas Urbelis chose is an unusual one, a forgotten Vilnius building complex with a colourful past, not known as a cultural venue nowadays. Tautvydas mentioned how the former sewing factory ‘Lelija’ exists in this temporal zone between the past, present and future. It was once considered an industrial gem that was shown to the country’s prominent guests but today, it lingers partly abandoned—besides the few workers still coming in every day to make textiles. Then there is the future: starting this year, Lelija will be gradually transformed into a modern hub housing hundreds of start-ups, creatives and tech people. It is interesting how these ideas of temporality and change, concepts so prevalent in your artworks, are embedded in the building you’re using as a venue. Can you talk more about the relationship between Lilith and Lelija?
BB: When visiting the venue, I have to admit that I was a bit overwhelmed by the various spaces and possibilities for housing my artwork. After interviewing the director, it became clear to me that the story of Lelija can take endless directions. I think it’s important to trust one’s instincts and follow the signs in order to tell the right story for the present. So that’s what I did, I followed the signs that led me to the medical room. A room that was rumoured to tell more than the objects initially led me to believe. I appreciated the opportunity to take on the role of a detective while building up the installation and to embrace the mysteries that will remain only known to the room itself.
This medical room, which has been shut since 2018, once housed three doctors, a gynaecologist being one of them. Most of the equipment and even medicine were left behind next to blank admin forms, outdated books, unopened apparatus and disintegrating plastics… This was two years pre-COVID, which is also interesting because you notice the lack of signs telling you to wear a mask and so on. I tried to leave things as I found them where I could, simultaneously accessing as many vessels for salt water as possible to encourage the effects of humidity and material transformation.
Besides the peculiarity of being one of the few discarded spaces to still harbour such a quantity of objects as ‘living’ testaments, my main attraction to the room was the symbol of the snake. There are snakes painted on the windowpanes, they are peeling off and very haggard looking but around three o’clock in the afternoon, their shadow appears very strongly across the room dividers. The transient streaking a bolder imprint across the scene than the physical original. The snake is of course synonymous with the duality of medicine, to harm or heal, and also representative of Lilith… To quote Susan Scotts, Jungian analyst and author of ‘In Praise of Lilith, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and Other Stories’: ‘[Lilith] challenged the patriarchal view that women were to be “obedient” […] There was a no more symbolic way than to put on a new skin and arrive as a serpent, the wisest of the creatures. She would live life in abandon but not in abandonment […] That which can kill can also cure. Bringing Lilith out of the shadows and acknowledging all sides of her is a step towards healing and wholeness.’. Keeping in mind the historical time frame of this building’s existence as a factory—1946 to the present day—this medical room struck me as the heart of a women’s factory so fittingly called Lelija.
PA: Since your works are living organisms, do you ever see them in gendered terms? How would you describe LILITH?
BB: LILITH, much like the namesake, incarnates in a breakaway from convention, in the freedom to choose one’s path but also as a mother figure of other independent beings. All of which I find fitting for the positioning of such a space in time. I agree with the idea of gender being a fluid concept on a spectrum and that all elements encompass an anima or animus, to borrow the terms from Carl Jung, a simultaneous masculine and feminine energy. One of the most complicated things to do is to allow ‘objects’ and matter to just be rather than anthropomorphise them. I read a wonderful text, ‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake, and I’ll share an extract with you:
‘The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of the Great Plains region of the United States, observes that the indigenous Potawatomi language is rich in verb forms that attribute aliveness to the more-than-human world. The word for hill, for example, is a verb: “to be a hill”. Hills are always in the process of hilling, they are actively being hills. Equipped with this “grammar of animacy”, it is possible to talk about the life of other organisms without either reducing them to an “it”, or borrowing concepts traditionally reserved for humans. By contrast, in English, writes Kimmerer, there is no way to recognise the “simple existence of another living being”. If you’re not a human subject, by default you’re an inanimate object: an “it”, a “mere thing”. If you repurpose a human concept to help make sense of the life of a non-human organism, you’ve stumbled into the trap of anthropomorphism. Use “it”, and you’ve objectified the organism, and fallen into a different kind of trap.’.
PA: The room that you installed your work in was originally a place where medical examinations and procedures were held. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe it is the first time you’ve delved into the domain of Western medicine, I mean in the way that you’ve occupied a space that was used for medical purposes. Naturally, in this space, there are many objects that associate, reference and represent the human body such as kidney-shaped vessels, medical instruments for probing the body, instructional placards showing human body parts and a body of literature on natural and man-made remedies. I might add that your installations always have this uncanny feeling that someone has left the scene only moments ago (yet at the same time the wear and tear of objects seem to indicate that the works have been abandoned for a long time). This makes me think about the bodies that were passing through this transitional space. How do you entwine this bodily context in your installation? Thinking about wellness and illness, life and death, how does that transpire in this particular arrangement?
BB: I wouldn’t say that this piece is about Western medicine but more about general healing. Healing from past wounds, from invisible wounds, and possibly physical ones. Through Rugilė [Miliukaitė] from Rupert, I learned about salt room therapy or halotherapy treatment, quite common across the Baltics as an alternative method for healing all sorts of ailments such as lung problems, psoriasis, allergies and so on. In my practice, I have commented on the healing properties of extreme quantities of salt in prior works such as in Busan, South Korea, with The Antechamber (Tundra Swan) in 2020; the room harboured six tonnes of salt. Here, it felt all the more appropriate, with the summer heat directly shining on this white space for hours on end, the humidity generated and also keeping in mind the role of this specific room in its past life. On hot days, this room and its 680 kilograms of salt should have an actual healing effect on its visitors. A full circle homage to wellness before a new start and a very different life, a change of skin.
PA: My last question is more of a routine one. Can you talk about your future plans: where are you heading next, what type of projects are you embarking on, and what kinds of materials, ideas and spaces are you looking to explore?
BB: The opening of my next project opening will be on June 25th at 91530 Le Marais, France. It will be the first official collaboration with my partner; a large-scale installation with salt-thriving rose gold bacteria and the sound and smell of nearby horses. Other future plans are two climate-based group shows in Venice and Delft:
08.07.22 PLANET B: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE NEW SUBLIME (Charles Darwin and the coral reefs), cur. Nicolas Bourriaud, Venice, Italy.
09.07.22 CLIMATE OF CONCERN: Burning out in the age of fossil expressionism, Radius Centre for Art and Ecology, Delft, the Netherlands.
These will be followed by both the activation of a Wiccan altar and an immersive floral scene for Scrying in institutional group shows in France. In October, I will be presenting my vitrine works which are « living still lives » in group shows at Rudolfinum in Prague and Villa Olmo in Como, Italy.
Bianca Bondi exhibition ‘Lilith’ took place 26 May- 2 July 2022 at former sewing factory ‘Lelija’, Vilnius.
Image: Bianca Bondi by Evgenia Levin