Sara Angelucci is a Toronto-based, multi-disciplinary artist. Through her art practice, Angelucci explores how we, as people, relate to one another and to the environment. Her projects make connections between legacy, identity, and accountability in deceptively beautiful ways that provoke contemplation.
The following Q&A touches on Angelucci’s creative process, the use of music in her work, her interest in vernacular photography, and an announcement about a major new installation project scheduled for 2017.
–Craig D’Arville, COO, FFOTOIMAGE
FFOTOIMAGE: These photo-based works from Arboretum are components of a larger project. As a multi-disciplinary artist, you make use of all the media and technologies available to you — ranging from antique, mass-produced paper ephemera; film and video; computer-rendered, photo-based work; live performance; and the latest methods of reproduction available through 3D printing. How do these elements come together in your practice?
Sara Angelucci: Although I am a photo-based artist, and this is my primary medium (and often where my projects begin) my work is conceptually driven, so I seek out the medium that I feel will best express my ideas. I have been working in a multi-disciplinary fashion since I was an undergraduate student — so there is nothing new in this. However, I would say music and sound have had a more primary place in my work in the past few years. I am never drawn to technology for its own sake (i.e. 3D printing). What draws me to one way of working or another is its expressive potential and the way the medium itself speaks to the ideas. In the case of the 3D printed Ivory-billed woodpecker for example, I wanted to create a “tree” out of Singer sewing machines and this technology allowed me to create an almost exact replica of this extinct bird that I could then position on top of the sculpture. The ROM had a mounted specimen that they allowed me to photograph for this purpose. I also love the idea that although it is a sculpture it is also a photograph.
FF: The fragility of symbiosis is a recurring theme in your work — the interdependence of humans and nature, as well as the power dynamics at play within society. How does working with paper ephemera, the artifacts of long-dead people, succeed as such an effective metaphor for ecology?
SA: We are part of nature and the animal kingdom, and as humans we are all connected. This is both a scientific fact but also an existential belief, but we rarely see ourselves that way and it’s hugely problematic for us as a species and the planet itself. I have been collecting old photographs for many years. I am inexplicably drawn to them. I find many old portraits I discover to be beautiful and haunting. And there’s also something powerful in holding the image of someone in my hand I know is long gone — and wondering about them. Who were they? What were their lives like? I had the same inexplicable sad feeling when I was at the ROM looking at extinct birds. So perhaps putting them together is a simple gesture, but when I did it, it seemed to make sense as a way of expressing our connectedness. The result was both startling and strange and it made people really look and wonder. I think if an image makes people consider these ideas then it’s successful in some way.
FF: With the cabinet cards that are used as one of the inspirations forArboretum, can you address the sense of false documentary, or the constructing of an idealized history, that is being referenced there?
SA: If you really examine a cabinet card studio portrait it’s falseness becomes glaringly apparent. The painted backdrop is selected for its ability to position the figure in some kind of narrative frame. The figure’s pose is often stiff and artificial and of a selective type. And of course, people are dressed in their best clothes. Often such images are taken on special occasions (wedding portrait) or at a certain stage in a person’s life. In spite of all this, sometimes the elements coalesce to create something quite beautiful.
In the Arboretum series I sought out cabinet cards with painted forest backdrops. I see the trees that I photographed (which are in the foreground and encompassing the figure) as reclaiming their rightful place in the nature/human balance. The figure is still visible but now it is interwoven and part of the landscape. The fact that the figure is becoming a tree or is integrated with the tree also gives character to the tree as well. For example in Sister Elms, it’s possible that these trees (like the women posing for the image) are indeed sisters. I have been reading this fantastic book by German forester Peter Wohlleben entitled The Secret Life of Trees where he describes how trees are connected in what he would describe as family relationships. He talks about how they communicate, and how they physically support one another through their roots systems. After reading his book you look at the forest in a whole other way and I see more links between us than ever before.
FF: Your fascination with cartes-de-visite suggests that you yourself are a collector of specimens and artifacts — a cataloguer — much like the scientists and explorers who sourced the now-endangered and extinct birds that are the subjects of Aviary. Can you talk about the cataloguing instinct in the context of that body of work and its related programming?
SA: I do collect cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, but also tin types. My collecting impetus is collecting as source material so aesthetics play a major role. I’m not a rigorous cataloguer or one who has to have everything or every type. I look for a certain quality of backdrop or quality of sitter. It’s a very intuitive process. Sometimes I buy things without having any idea what I might do with it — but I just know I have to have it.
What started off the process of working or transforming these found images was the project The Anonymous Chorus. I was on a residency and I had brought a number of found photographs with me. I began to think about the fact that all of these people who were once loved, were once someone’s sister or wife, someone’s brother or son, now had no context at all. They were silent, voiceless. And then this idea arose of giving voice, literally by creating a choral work in which people could be sung back into being. The human voice is a very powerful evocation of presence. So that’s what I did, I found a choir and had one person (voice) stand-in for each of the absent people in a very large family group portrait. When you experience the piece, which is presented as a video installation, for a very short time the audience shares the same temporal space as the image. In this way, I am seeking to suspend time and bring the people in the image “back to life” or at least to conjure their being. The image is projected life-sized, so this brings the audience into a one-to-one relationship with the sitters.
FF: What’s next for you?
SA: I’m really excited to be working on a project with the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) which will open in February 2017. It’s a project that includes photography, audio, video and sculpture too. The AGH invited me to do something for Canada’s 150th anniversary. I was born in Hamilton and my parents and extended family immigrated there. I decided to see if there was something I could do with the factory where my mom first worked when she came to Canada — Coppley Apparel, a factory which manufactures high quality men’s suits. I think this place is special for a number of reasons. It has been in continuous operation since 1883 — and it largely employs women immigrant workers. As such, it has employed every wave of immigrant since the late 1800s. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the past six months. The company chairman and staff have been incredibly cooperative and open to my ideas. I’m photographing and conducting audio interviews with sewers (mostly women). The project is called Piece Work because that’s how the sewers earn their living: they are paid primarily by the number of pieces they are able to sew in a day.
Magical things keep happening as I work on this project. One day I arrived at the factory and the Chairman, Warwick Jones, said to me… “I have a surprise for you. I found someone who used to work with your mother.” My mom worked there until about 1968, and she died quite young — so I never expected that there would be anyone still working there who knew her. Low and behold there was Rose Vartanian who started working at the factory when she was 18 and who still works part-time because she doesn’t want to stay home! Then I found out a grandmother of one of the AGH curators I’m working with also worked there. I’m enjoying this project tremendously. It has great resonance for me and I hope the community there too.
An internationally exhibiting artist, Sara Angelucci is an Instructor at the School of Image Arts, Ryerson University, Toronto.
Arboretum continues the artist’s exploration of themes previously pursued in Aviary. Project statements for each body of work can be found HERE (under ‘Artist Docs’).