Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Nancy, you are preparing your next exhibition in a couple of weeks in Malmö. You will show for the first time this huge cycle, new cycle about the number "III" of the "Black and the Red".
Nancy Spero: Yes.
HUO: What was the origin of the "Black and the Red" series?
NS: Well, the origin of it was I was doing a series, kind of generically titled "To the Revolution" and I had some figures like fertility figures that were inspired by the Prehistoric, or, let's say, Indian tribes in Alaska, and I made versions of them myself such as a female fertility symbol that is just a torso, from the top of the breasts to the thighs. I combine this with a figure I had taken from some Greek pottery. It was a dildo-dancer, and I didn't use the dildos, and it was transformed by my redrawing it. I put those two images together in black and red. And so I entitled this diptych which is two nine foot panels, one on top of the other, or it could go in the elongated, extended linear format to 18 feet, "Black and the Red". I was also thinking, in a rather ironic way, both of the Greek – because it was a contemporary and fond comment on Greek art which I love – and then of the novel "The Red and the Black" by Stendhal. So I did this and then a few years later with five panels using this time four images, two different fertility figures and two other figures. One was a Greek figure, she's dancing, and this figure I had transformed. There's usually a transformation – they aren't literal, the figures that I use in the work but recognizable for what their original place was.
HUO: So a transformation from the source is like when you use what happened in other works, male figures, and transformed them into female figures.
NS: Yeah. And that's what I did with one of these figures – she's dancing, and it's quite an aggressive, yet graceful pose. Pushing her head forward. But it is a transformation from a male figure. But the movement was powerful, and I used that as one of the figures. The other was from the Greek as well, but that, too was a transformation. I put together two figures of classical images of women, combined what they were wearing. One of the fertility figures was of – originally it had been a skull, you know like one finds in the desert – dried bone of a ram's head, and I think it was a very old one, and I looked at it, and it looked like an ancient fertility figure to me. And I gave it four breasts, the ears became breasts and the eye sockets became breasts. And then I added arms under the breasts as there was in prehistoric times, you know the figures, the hands would hold up the breasts. Just as it happens in porn-magazines now but I'm sure there's a difference in the similarity of the two. But if you look in porn or soft-porn photos of women, nude women, they're kind of jutting their torsos out and holding their breasts just as these ancient fertility figures. But there must be a huge difference in the impetus of it, because in these fertility figures, it must be for a real kind of bedrock fertility, I imagine.
HUO: But you used, like in most of your works, these mythological elements in a very fluid way. They are not fixed, they are very fluid. You change them and it is like . is it a way of putting mythology into motion, into present?
NS: Yes, it is. And actually, I describe myself as non-academic in the way you said it in a positive way, saying it was "fluid." And I like to feel it's fluid and an ongoing process, an open-ended process. And perhaps that's why I've done "Black and the Red III" now. Let me see, if I did the first one in '83, this is 1994, there is an eleven or twelve year difference between the two. And I like to feel that there's a continuation from one series to another and from one work to another. That there's a relevance, even though my work has, you know, shifted and changed over the years from oil painting to painting on paper to hand-printing on paper, collaging, to using only language in the early seventies, for one year.
HUO: Then, like in the recent works, in many of your ephemeral installations or also permanent works, like at the "Ronacher" in Vienna, the figures are basically coming out of the paper or the canvas and are floating, migrating in terms of leaving their support.
NS: Exactly, they are, very much so. And they are literally dancing off the paper, that's the way I figure they are. There's no paper work at the "Ronacher." Nevertheless that is the impetus for it, the images playing along the walls. And at the "Ronacher", was a celebratory piece. After all, it was a nineteenth century theater-opera house in which variety shows and all sorts of "circuses", went on there. And so it's lighthearted as I took that into consideration. This wasn't about dealing with tragedy or the grim realities of life that I depict as well. I chose some images of actresses that appeared during that span of the "Ronacher", and I interspersed them, along with some of my usual cast of characters – the "personage", I call them – the actors in my stock company. There are ancient Egyptian flute and lyre players, acrobats and aborigines. There's an aboriginal figure that looks like an insect. I have Josephine Baker done her in gold leaf; she's wearing bobby-socks and she's waving her hand and smiling in the Josephine Baker way. I also have a very young Yvette Guilbert from a Toulouse-Lautrec drawing, and she's leaning over, you know, like over the doorway, or, what do you call it, she's leaning over a .
NS: A balustrade, yes, and she's looking across the room and down the stairs to an old Yvette Guilbert, again by Toulouse-Lautrec, who performed until very late in her life – and the old one is done in a shocking pink and she's standing against a falsely painted column – I worked with the and the trompe l'oeil columns. So she's leaning against it and it's as if this tiny figure, she is relatively tiny to the rest of the figures, and she opens up this whole panoply of characters that run around the room.
HUO: So these floating figures, it's like an infiltration of space?
NS: Yes, that's a good description, yes, very much an infiltration. And the architect Luigi Blau enclosed this nineteenth century entrance where carriages used to drive in, and I guess there were just kind of columns in this foyer. They would drive up to the box office in the carriage, pay for it and then drive out. But we don't drive up in carriages at the end of the twentieth century, so he filled in the walls and it makes a beautifully simple room, and he had the new walls painted blue. The painter then, in the play on the architecture, went along with him and painted some false columns. The old columns came out in bas-relief in the restoration, and then in turn I played with the columns and the architecture in having the figures run toward and then emerge behind the columns. So a play with the architecture and with the actresses juxtaposed with the ancient figures and the other contemporary figures. And for instance, I a very coy Mistinguett. she has written on it to a fan – it says "Mes amitiés. Mistinguett". So I have her; like she's being borne on a half-shell as in Botticelli's Venus but she's being borne from the hand of an ancient Egyptian acrobat.
HUO: Very non-monumental?
NS: Yeah, yeah.
HUO: However, it's permanent, non-monumental.
NS: Yes. That's my intention – an ephemeral seeming monument that does not cover the architecture. The basic idea I have about the wall installations is that the architecture comes through, that I stamp the relatively small. They take their space, and they can cover a hell of a lot of space but they can also be confined or running around a small room, such as the box office, the foyer there. It's not a mural in the conventional sense of the word.
HUO: It always seems to me in the ephemeral and permanent works and these infiltrations of space, the situation is almost that of détournement, of deviation, of deviating things which already exist, almost like putting into question all the ingredients, all the elements which are already there, by very punctual .
NS: I try to do that. I try to incorporate the elements that are there in a way to make it relevant to the location or the situation. I can't always do an exact transition or do what I did at the "Ronacher". For instance in Malmö, I at first thought, maybe I would try to get some contemporary or not even necessarily some Swedish women's poetry and some images, let's say, from myth. But somehow, it just didn't work out in quite that way. It just didn't prove feasible to work that way in Sweden. I had another agenda altogether. But in other situations I have related these casts of characters which are female. I decided in the early, the mid-seventies, I had joined an all-women's cooperative gallery in New York City and before that, I had been in some women artists political action organizations.
HUO: The Women Artists in Revolution?
NS: Yes, WAR, Women Artists in Revolution, and then .
HUO: And that was when you came back from Paris to New York?
NS: Yes, a few years after. And then the ad hoc committee of women artists in which Lucy Lippard played an important role with the artists. And so, in that way, we were analyzing the art situation. There had been a group of men and women who had done these actions, some of them pretty wild, called Art Workers Coalition, in the late sixties. And this was kind of simultaneous with radical women's groups that I wasn't really focused on or knew about so much, maybe peripherally. And they were analyzing the art in terms of "reality", the power structures within the art world itself. There was lots of money around, it was the wartime, the Vietnam War, and there was money for art and for alternate spaces. The arts were flourishing within the restricted way that it happens. But even some very well-known artists had joined Art Workers Coalition a few of the women decided that the men were not addressing the particular needs of women artists. And they then formed WAR. I was not in at the inception of WAR, I was still with Art Workers [Coalition] but I realized that something was slightly remiss, that I wasn't totally interested. And later, I figured this was simultaneous with the student revolution in Paris in '68 within intellectual and artistic circles, when women didn't want to bring coffee to their male revolutionary peers on the barricades – they wanted to participate themselves.
HUO: And when you were in Paris, there were all these French feminist theories which appeared later.
NS: I was in Paris 1959 to '64, they appeared later, and I was not aware really until they were translated, I must confess.
HUO: But it's more or less the same, one could say, non-academic way you treated texts as what you say about images. Like using fragments of these texts. Gilles Deleuze once said, he talked about "Le vol créateur", stealing creatively, "Le vol créateur" as a way of citing.
NS: The thief, right? That's really what I am, both of the contemporary and the past. And also, you know, in the early seventies, before I got into the women's series, I used language. After the "War" series, for four years, I took and fractured the language of Antonin Artaud. And I did that because., well I was very angry. The "War" series addressed peripherally or directly the war in Vietnam.
HUO: The bombs?
NS: Yes, the bombs and helicopters. There are two subjects in that series in the five years, bombs and helicopters, as you know. And it's a very angry series as I'm sure you've perceived, also the "Artaud", the "Artaud paintings" and the "Codex Artaud". And I used the language, the writings of Antonin Artaud – I fractured them – to show my anger and disappointment through his, at the art world and at the world – an existential stance, really. I couldn't find any other writer like this. And I still wasn't attuned to thinking of woman as subject but yet, in retrospect, too, I realized in using Antonin Artaud's language, that he was doing a lot of things that perhaps women are accused of in a negative way but for him, he became a "monstre sacré", he became this fabulously idolized outsider for Paris, for French intellectuals. He was hysterical; he was judged insane; he felt silenced. And that was one of my main reasons for using his writings. He talked very often of his tongue being cut off, that he was castrated. You see, as an artist I felt that I couldn't get the work out. I just felt so frustrated. There was no entry, somehow. I couldn't get a toehold. I mean, I had exhibited. I had exhibited in Paris, in Chicago where I am from, that is where Leon Golub and I met. But, nevertheless, I still felt so frustrated because if an artist, and not just a visual artist, can't get her work out, it means that one is silenced. You see? And Antonin Artaud talked about this.
HUO: So it was about finding a language of your own.
NS: Exactly. To find another route – to disrupt the canon.
HUO: First of all it was paintings? And then there was a shift to the .
NS: "Artaud paintings" because I would paint . well, at the end of the "War" series, I started the collaging, which I do so much. I started collaging images, but I would make paintings for the "Artaud paintings", and then collage them onto a small piece of paper, 19 inches x 25 or 25 inches x 19 inches, collage the head or the painting of a figure onto it using classical images, intermingling them with contemporary figures. And then with my left hand I would write, very briefly, I would fracture a quotation from Antonin Artaud onto this, just scribble it with my left hand to make it look more insane. And after two years of that, from 1969 to 1970, (and I had worked for five years, from 1966 to 1970, on the "War" series which was relatively small averaging 24 x 36 inches) to enlarge my format. It's then that I began to glue sheets of paper together to form the longer scrolls for the Codex Artaud.
HUO: Most of them are very fragile papers.
NS: Yes, very, very. So I decided I wanted to expand in space and I tried painting again, and I hated it! I had stopped painting on canvas in '66, when I decided to do the "War" series. It was a kind of personal rebellion against the art world and against, let's say, self-importance like doing any seemingly important, commercially viable works. Not that I was selling or that this was happening but it was just like a defiance and a sticking-my-tongue-out which I did a lot in the "Artauds". I literally had a lot of tongues sticking out, they are phallic and they are angry and they are defiant. These are defiant tongues. They're also razor-sharp, you see? And it's this tongue that Antonin Artaud speaks about, that's been castrated. But through my art, I attacked the art world. I even did in the "War" series like on a few white on white paintings of victims around a crematorium chimney. With just a little bit of black or red to show the figures. I always kind of played with these ideas along with the ferocious content.
HUO: There is this – like in the Antonin Artaud when you had this transition then to the "Codex Artaud" .Isn't it with the "Artaud" works that you, for the first time, work on a text-image relationship which is much more complex than an illustration because it is not about, it seems to me, illustrating Antonin Artaud but much more about something between text and image, going back and forth between. Also something which is not only a presentiment of your work now but seems to me a presentiment of what is becoming very important in computer practice with hyper-text right now, this extension of the text to almost hieroglyphs which you made starting from these Antonin Artaud texts.
NS: Yes. Exactly. A friend said at the time of the "Codex Artaud" that the quotes were like messages on telegrams (as you say, a terse sort of pre-computer hyroglyph). I claimed the texts and images as extensions of one another as well as in tension with one another. That's true about hieroglyphs. After using a great deal of text in the '70s with "Notes in Time on Women" completed in 1979, I decided to use only figures as the text itself – with body language and gesture as the symbols. For the "Codex Artaud" I rented a bulletin typewriter, and I quoted at more length than I had with this left-handed, graffiti kind of writing. I also quoted some letters of his he had written when he was a very young artist to Jacques Riviére for the "La Nouvelle Revue Française". He was editor then, and these letters were pleading. I thought they were quintessential artist's letters, begging to have a showing. He wanted his poetry printed. And so Jacques Riviére wrote these letters back, saying "You sound like a very interesting young man", finally, and he said "Come to my office, I`d like to meet you!" and ironically these letters but never his poetry were printed in "La Nouvelle Revue Française". So, anyhow, with the "Codex Artaud" and wanting to go into space, I started gluing some of the art papers that I had around the studio together, because I didn't want to go back to painting. And so that is how this extended linear format started in 1971 with the "Codex Artaud".
HUO: With the scrolls then also?
NS: Yes, yes. Both, mostly horizontal, but vertical as well. And then, in '72, I did a "Codex Artaud" that's 25 feet long. That's about 6 meters. And now, I print on walls, and I print all over the place. As large a place as I'm given.
HUO: And so after this beginning of using text and images with the "Codex Artaud" in a more interwoven way, maybe let's come to your work from 1979, the "Notes in Time on Women" which is almost an encyclopedic work, using all these different sources and quotations. You have a very open list or series of images you use, and at the same time you use them very regularly, almost like using words.
HUO: How did these sources come together? Did they start from an open archive or are they more accidental meetings?
NS: I would say it's like an open archive; and once I had decided to do this, I had an archive and then Leon Golub, particularly, was alerted to what I was doing and a few friends but he would find something in his readings that I did not do. You know, the books in my room were a little different from the books in his room. The magazines. It was actually a very arduous process but again there was no academic rigor in doing this. It had to do with the idea of showing woman's situation and status through time, through historical time. Hence the title "Notes in Time on Women". And I wanted to show many aspects but it turned out, to my horror, to be about all the misogynous, the really denigrating things up to the present that philosophers and mostly men had said about women's situation through the ages. I used quotes from women too in which they talked about these problems; but on the other hand, I thought as far as imaging goes, what can I do? I was using typewriter collage and hand printing. Printer's wood type, old-fashioned wood type alphabet, printing directly on this. So I thought, what can I do to counteract this? I'm not a philosopher, I'm not a scholar in any way but I have this very powerful impetus to say something to bring women to the fore. And there's another thing about women's history, both politically and in the arts, it has been undermined very much by history. And so I thought, women have always been present, and I would like to bring them forth, whether they are well-known or anonymous. So, I thought I would start making figures, painting figures and drawing figures of powerful, athletic women. Running through and leaping over all these quotes. So, for instance, I have a nude female athlete, painted and collaged, jumping over a Derrida quote that's kind of splayed in the printing, it's in something like a fountain. The language is done in a semi-circle of lines in which Derrida says that the essence of woman is nothing, goes on and on, and then says the feminist woman is a man. And so I have this tough woman athlete just leaping, legs akimbo, over this quote. And I have a figure that I drew running through some misogynous quotes of to contemporary philosophers, just kind of running through. It's ritualistic.
HUO: So there was action and then acceleration, one could say, of bringing women in I think you once said about the collage that you use it in order to accelerate the process.
NS: Yes, yes, absolutely, to accelerate the process. And also, this printing technique and thinking about was to accelerate the process and to show a continuous presence. By multiplying, repeating the same image. Hand printing gives it a very low tech look. And this process also in printing a figure walking or running, even though it remains in the same position, looks as if she is moving and as if the expression changes; because I inked it with various colors, different tones and values and pressed it, either harder or with less pressure, so it would come out in different ways, and put one behind another, or whatever. And so that does accelerate it. And these figures do run through the piece. And they become celebratory and again defiant in a different way than I was in the "Artaud" series.
HUO: Yeah, I think in the "Notes in Time on Women" it's also a different notion, maybe not only of space but also of time. There is a rupture of the linearity of male history writing. So how would you define this rupture of the linearity?
NS: It's non-sequential. A linearity, I would imagine, has to do with putting things in their proper time or trying to pigeonhole them, in a way. Whereas I have, literally, messed things up by putting an ancient Hittite goddess with a contemporary female athlete or an Egyptian acrobat or the goddess Nut or Marlene Dietrich, for instance, a modern goddess. I don't know if that answers your question.
HUO: Another definition of the question is, how you would see this now? You once added to the notion of "Écriture féminine" the notion of "peinture féminine". How would you see this from the present point of view?
NS: Yeah. Well, at the time in the mid 70's that I read about "l'écriture féminine" I got excited about what I was trying to do as a visual artist. And so again rather facetiously, I think, I said to Jon Bird that I was doing "peinture féminine". Because it had to do with the writing of the body, almost literally, as I was using women's bodies in all sorts of guises. I wanted to show a difference among women, not a similarity. So I wanted to show the differences in time and cultures and, in a way, not to be essentialist, that I was not making a statement that was final, that I was only speaking for myself, that I was not speaking for other women. And I wanted to investigate the imaging of women from the present into the past. And just what it means to bring a figure of Artemis, the way I drew her, almost like a Pop figure – clenching her fist – and the idea of Artemis. And somehow I think these things can be as contemporary as a contemporary person, someone at a rally, let's say, fighting for a cause. That these things, these myths are so powerful; and I am not a goddess-worshiper or into that, but I have reacted when I have seen some of the goddess images because they are so beautiful and powerful. And that myth is, because of its complexity, once I learn about it like the complexities of a normal, an average human being; that we all are complex and have various aspects which the gods and goddesses seem to have their positive and their dark sides. I've used a Sheela-na-gig, it's an ancient image but was used, the pagan one, by the Early Christians in the Northern British Isles. Much is not known about her, but it's a very childlike figure and she doesn't have ears, usually. She usually has no breasts, and she's kind of squatting, her legs are apart, and she's opening up her vagina. So it's both a fearful image of death and destruction, the place of burial and it is almost another, the opposite of birth and fecundity.
HUO: So there is attraction and repulsion.
NS: Yes, and as with Artemis, there were so many attributes, she was ferocious, a huntress of men, she had her little band. But she was also a healer of women, and she had other aspects, as well. So, it's complex, it's not just a simple notion. And these myths, I guess, without my realizing it, come to us, watered down. I'm not aware of it most of the time, but when I work with these images, I realize how powerful these things are.
HUO: So they are all in an action in the present, so to say – I think it's very interesting what you said about death symbols which you use in the present. There is a book by Elisabeth Bronfen which just came out, about the representation of women in art history, in male dominated art history. The book is called "Nur über ihre Leiche" – "Only Over Her Dead Body". It is very interesting because it shows that in fact most of the women are depicted as the other, as the dead. That 's why, I think, all over Symbolism until Ferdinand Hodler, there is the representation of the woman as dead.
HUO: And in a certain way, it's the absolute inversion, it's the action, even if it's coming from very far or if it's contemporary images.
NS: Yes. Exactly. Man is in action, woman is, as Simone de Beauvoir said, immanent, the waiting figure or the dead figure, as you say. And a lot of the contemporary and not so contemporary French, I quoted a few in the piece "Notes in Time" a philosopher describes the male contemporary philosopher as fucking the still warm corpses of two prostitutes, to reinforce his philosophical ideas. So that, in a way, parallels what you're talking about, doesn't it?
HUO: Yeah. So this leads to your Bertold Brecht piece?
NS: Yes, I made a small paper work which has grown large with hand printing on many walls in the U.S. and in Germany, France and The Netherlands of the Bertold Brecht poem done during the Nazi era, '34, '36. Evidently it's not a poem, a young artist told me this summer in Amsterdam, it's more a song, a ballad, that you sing in a particular way; I guess Bertold Brecht kind of shouted it out, which would have been powerful about a young woman who sleeps with a Jew, and how then she is walked down the street, in disgrace, her hair is chopped off; and it describes her slip being askew, and she is walked down the street to the drumbeats, probably to her death. And evidently this happened quite a bit. n. And it tells about what is going on in the streets – it talks about the price of meat rising which actually has something to do with female sexuality. And evidently, which I didn't realize, this is one of Brecht's very famous ballads or poems, very well-known in Germany. So I did this first in English translation at Smith College which is kind of remote from New York City. It's a women's Eastern college, an establishment school, as part of an installation there. Then I decided when I had my show in New York that I would do it again. It's a very powerful message and I am a conduit for this message. Also, a year before I found this Brecht poem, Leon, again he found a photo for me in a magazine of a woman bound, she's nude except for her stockings and shoes, and the stockings are rather disheveled, and she's bound very tightly, and she has a gag on; and there's a rope around her neck, she's about to be hanged. And if you look at it briefly, it's like porn. You know, it actually is real pornography. That's the true pornography. And in French, underneath, it says "Found on a member of the Gestapo" so it probably means that this soldier or officer had taken the picture of this woman about to be hanged; it's really grim. And I had made a plate of this, and I didn't know what to do with it until I heard the Bertold Brecht poem; because this was of a similar era and subject, I put them together. So I do the two; it's a very simple presentation which I will do in the Paris installation in September at the American Center.
HUO: So it's an encounter of the text and the .
NS: The text and this image, yes.
HUO: There are other works about victims you mentioned there is the Vietnam, for example. Is this an open series you are working on?
NS: Yeah. I leave it open. Because the "Vietnam" was painting directly on the paper in the sixties, and now, in the eighties, I used some of the photos I had saved from the war era. I copied photos, I did some drawings of an old Vietnamese woman, and she's the symbol of a survivor. I have her walking off piles of corpses and stuff . She has a cigarette in her mouth. And I have mothers and children. And these figures appear, and she may appear again on walls in Paris. Paris, you know, France was intimately, more than intimately, involved in Vietnam as well before the Americans. And that exhibition is under the title of "War and Memory", shared with Leon Golub.
HUO: Another recent work of yours in public space was in Northern Ireland. Was this .
NS: Yeah. Derry, Northern Ireland.
HUO: Was it the first time you used the migrating figures on an outdoor space?
NS: Yes it was. And it turned out to be a highly controversial space that I used, because a group of Derry artists had this space. You see, Derry is highly politicized, of course, it's a war zone, and the British troops are there. Very young soldiers, my God, they're 18, 19 years old, in these tanks. And there are these murals all over Derry. In this really very beautiful city – it's hard to see from a distance, it's so impoverished. There are political murals, some more temporary than others, all over the city. And I had been invited by the director of the Orchard Gallery, Declan McGonagle. He and some others had made an agreement, and he had gone around finding six sites for artists, one of whom was a young Derry artist, to do works for a temporary show. There was a show of four cities in the northern British Isles – Glasgow, Britain, I forget where, and two in Ireland – and I was one of the artists. So I was given this wall that a group of local artists paint murals on for two month durations. They were transient. And I was to do a mural on the wall. And when I came the fact that an American was coming, or [that] anybody outside of the city was taking over this very precious wall because exhibiting space in Derry is so limited, they didn't want me to do it without a big discussion. And I thought that it had been discussed and planned, the wall had been painted clean, except for some graffiti – IRA – you know scrawled all over the thing. So I had a huge discussion with a representative of this group of artists which lasted a long time. Then he said he had to go back to the group, and we had to have another discussion; and I said I really understood but had been invited. He wanted to have another discussion. And so I said, I couldn't possibly; I had my tickets to go back because I had another appointment in New York. And I did it. And then, when I was doing it, this group of mostly younger working class Irish women, somehow misinterpreted what I was doing. They started saying it wasn't a collaborative work, it was my work, even though I had assistants and I had used three young Derry artists assisting us. It goes out in my name. I am the director. Yet all these young artists who work do generously collaborate, contribute with their ideas and work.
HUO: And what was the context related to?
NS: To Derry. Yes, I honored Derry women's political actions in the seventies. Figures of Greek goddesses, Athena and a symbolic figure, a Greek figure, and contemporary athletes and all in friezes around images of Derry women, women banging on the garbage lids warning that the British troops were coming in 1971 to Derry, the funeral of Bobby Sands, and then of picketing, saying "No more strip searches." So it turned out there was this enormous discussion, a panel, when all the artists had finished our work, and I was attacked for two and a half hours. And I was supported, too, by half the audience. They had threatened to paint over the mural. So finally, at the very end, (and this was all taped by Irene Sosa) I said "Well, paint over it if you must, I understand." But then finally, toward the end, I did get angry. You know, I really understood their frustration, because the question of public art is a sensitive one. You come into an area, even ones own city, and there are problems about public art. You come into an area, and you do your artwork, and you go out. And does it relate to what the local citizenry reacts to or wants? And there are always all these fancy art commissions choosing the art. I mean, it can be problematic, too if it's locally chosen. So I realized quite palpably then – I had known about this before – I realized the delicacy of doing something like this and the invasive aspect. But there is also hopefully, in some cases, a potential for dialog. And it was rather wonderful doing the mural, because the Irish are of a speaking culture. Many people would come up and give us their opinion when we were working on the mural.
HUO: But so the dynamics in a certain way there. Your figures all of a sudden appear on the street.
NS: Yeah. It's so rare when it does become an interaction.
HUO: So it's something you are basically interested in doing again?
NS: Yes, very much so. Yeah, there's a certain protection, or has been, in using certain subject matters within museums or galleries. But even that is gone in the United States now with the problems of censorship; even the "hallowed" spaces in museums and galleries are now invaded by our politicians trying to get some cheap votes and big votes by saying "This is not religious" or "It offends our morals" and "This is publicly funded, we don't want to do this." It's so complex, all this .
HUO: There's also an interior space when your figures leave the drawing and directly walk in a certain way on the wall. There is a quality of homelessness.
NS: Very much so. It's almost like squatters; they take their space on this wall. I mean, it radiates space, you can still see the space, as I said before. The space that leaves the pillars and the architectural details evident. It doesn't cover it up. It's transparent, really. And also these figures, another thing that a young Greek friend of mine described, he said how the figures disappear sometimes into great heights and beyond escaping the controlling gaze of a viewer, beyond grasp. You can't catch these figures. They're just running beyond one's reach.
HUO: So it's at the edge of visibility?
NS: Yes. I have printed in all sorts of spaces or rather I don't actually print myself on the walls, I mediate it through our assistants. In Frankfurt it was four stories high in the cupola of Schirn; you looked up and there was Sheela-na-gig and Artemis and some contemporaries looking down on everybody .
I still vividly recall while in Spain in the 1960's, seeing in one museum many old flags, some with coats-of-arms, heraldic. So in a way I want this piece to be heraldic, like a flag, announcing the celebratory work's political intent to show woman as a strong physical presence. It's almost utopian. It's a way of saying that there's a sense of possibilities, this is not realistic, but it's woman in control of her own body, present. Woman as protagonist.
(Vienna, August 1994)
Conversation with Nancy Spero
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Nancy, you are preparing your next exhibition in a couple of weeks in Malmö. You will show for the first time this huge cycle, new cycle about the number "III" of the "Black and the Red".