For our upcoming ART PAPERS LIVE event, taking place on Saturday, January 9 at 11AM, we are excited to welcome artist Bethany Collins for a conversation with Pulitzer Prize winning Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. The conversation, What the Body Can Say, is an opportunity to learn more about Bethany Collins and her work, since she will be back at the BMA in April 2016 as our inaugural lobby projects artist.
I recently spoke with Bethany to learn more about her practice, the importance of language in her art, and what it means for her to create art back in her home state, after working across the country.
Wassan Al-Khudhairi: As Holland Cotter noted in the New York Times, “language itself, viewed as intrinsically racialized, is Bethany Collins’s primary material.” Can you speak more about your fascination with language and what its presence, or absence, in your work means?
Bethany Collins: Lately, I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates dispatches from France published in the Atlantic a couple years ago, as Coates was attempting to master the language. In dispatch #13, Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French, he writes “I understand why people see places without knowing any language—indeed if you waited on fluency, most of us would never see anything. But knowing even the rudiments of language is so transformative, it makes the city four dimensional. And, for me, struggling with the language is part of the act of seeing the place.”
All of my work concerns issues around race, identity, and language. Language as both material and prism, through which I’ve found I can best interrogate the former two. Because language, as an extension of us collectively, is infinitely full of the possibility to communicate and connect. And yet, as an extension of us, words fail. Language will fail. And sifting, struggling through that duality of the potential of language feels like necessary work.
WAK: During ART PAPERS LIVE at the BMA, you will be engaged in a conversation with Pulitzer Prize- winning Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. What do you hope to discuss in that conversation, considering you both rely so heavily on language in your artistic practices?
BC: Natasha and I met because of a show I was in at the Atlanta airport in 2012, which she saw while passing through and sent me a lovely email. It’s not often you get an email from the Poet Laureate. And I had been listening to her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air over and over again, captivated by the way she crafts language both in her writing and the way she speaks of her writing. And what I sense in both of our practices is this question of how to make sense. How to make sense and find meaning when not only the subject which eludes you is obscured, but the methods to understand that subject are obscured, as well? Erasure then becomes both theme and tactic—to worry the text or the surface and to uncover meaning.
WAK: When describing your art, you explain how you explore the “possibility of multiple meanings, dual perceptions, and limitlessness in the seemingly binary.” From where does this intrigue with duality, depth, and challenging the “seemingly binary” stem?
BC: My Contronym series of works on paper is a recent example of this struggle with the binary. Contronyms are words which contain their own opposite meaning. For example, “quiddity” is defined “as the essence, the essential quality of a thing.” And “a trifling nothing.” Somehow, over time, the term has evolved to contain its own contradiction. Not to mention, it seems as if the opposing definitions of “quiddity” could easily be speaking to race—it’s everything and it’s nothing. And, while I believe in the ability of language to communicate the most incongruous thoughts, contronyms simply make no sense. This most fundamental incongruity is the place I work from. My work is often an attempt to clarify to mesh together sense and nonsense.
WAK: You were born in Montgomery, AL and now reside in Atlanta. You are coming back to Alabama for two reasons, both for our ART PAPERS LIVE event and to be the BMA’s inaugural lobby projects artist. For your lobby projects installation, you are making your works at University of Alabama at Birmingham. What does it mean to you to be back in your home state, creating your art locally and working with the Birmingham community?
BC: I grew up in Montgomery—visiting the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the Birmingham Museum of Art equally—and have since based my studio practice in Atlanta. The past two years though have been filled to the brim with residencies, traveling and setting up temporary studios in new cities. Yet, regardless of the city—from New York to Omaha to Miami— my work remains very much rooted here and in the history of this particular place. So, to be making the work at the site from which it comes, brings a kind clarity that’s often elusive. And to be collaborating with the BMA and UAB—who have been incredibly supportive and crucial to the project—is just more than a good homecoming.