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Make Meaningful Work - Sylvia de Swaan, Visura

7 years ago

Visura member Sylvia de Swaan is a Romanian born visual artist/photographer who has lived and worked in Mexico, Europe and the United States. She moved from New Orleans to Central New York in the late seventies and has had a multitude of involvements in the region and beyond,  – among them as an internationally exhibited practicing artist and founding director of Sculpture Space, Inc. Sylvia recently won the Photography Fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts

Hi Sylvia, thanks for chatting to us. How did you get involved in photography?

I started my career in Mexico City in the 1960s (I lived there for eleven years from 1962-73. I was a painter, collagist and maker of artist books. I had many solo exhibitions and was an active member of the arts community. At some point when coming to the end of a body of work I was thinking about what to do next, when the photographer, Rodrigo Moya offered to take me on as an apprentice. I traded him a transistor radio for an old Nikon and headed out with him to “shoot,” and what was meant as a temporary digression ended up being a change in medium.


You were Director of Sculpture Space during a successful time for the organization, which has since gone on leaps and bounds. Tell us about your time there. What did you learn most?

I was the director of Sculpture Space from the fall of of 1979 to July of 1995. The job was offered to me because of the availability of the CETA program, which offered funding for staff training positions to non-profit organizations. My original title was Executive Secretary, but when the CETA funding ended after eighteen month I was designated Executive Director. At the time the organization was still a fledgling endeavor, teetering on the edge. The year before I took the job, the NEA cut the funding on the grounds that it was aesthetically passe and a bit incestuous. Many people didn't believe it would last very long. Though I had lots of experience in the arts I didn't have much administrative experience, which in a sense stood me in good stead. What also stood me in good stead was that I wasn't originally from the area. I didn't have the attitude of some locals,who felt that "it's only Utica, why bother".

I believe that if one does something of value anywhere, it will get noticed. The New York State Council on the Arts and the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) both responded well to my grant proposals and started giving us increased funding, and under my watch I was able to expand the organizational international reach, getting women to apply, and inviting artists who were doing more innovative work. We were also awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur award that helped us buy and start refurbishing the building that we had been renting from the (now defunct) Utica Steam Engine & Boiler Works. We were nominated and won a New York State governor's Art Award for the "uniqueness of our services to the field."

It was a wonderful job and I loved coming to work each day, but naturally I had less time and energy for personal work. though I continued working on photographic projects, they were relegated to weekends and vacation times. In 1990 I took my first leave of absence to travel to Eastern Europe to begin that long term project that I called 'Return'. I also started applying for residencies and was awarded some prizes for my personal work.  At the end 1994 I gave the Board six months notice that I would be leaving at the end of the fiscal year. I can't even begin to say what I learned - but it was a wonderful experience that I'm grateful to have had. 


How do you juggle these different roles: educator, curator, visual artist, arts consultant?

It's certainly a juggling act. As an artist one often either has time or one has money. Lucky are those occasions when one has grant money that provides both at the same time. Since Sculpture Space I have worked temporarily for other organizations and in 2008 was invited to teach at Hamilton College. It was initially just one course, that expanded to a ten year Visiting Faculty position, that was sometimes half time, sometimes full time. This was an ideal situation for me, because it gave me a block of time to travel and focus on my projects. Presently I'm "self employed" ... alas a lot of the funds that were available in the 1990s have dried up and though I love having free time to develop ideas and spend my days doing the work I love, from a financial point of view it's gotten a little harder. I currently have several proposals out for grants and other opportunities and I'm waiting to hear. But I know that there are a multitude of other artists who are making the same efforts as I. So I maintain a philosophical attitude, the same as when I was the director at Sculpture Space, that if one makes meaningful work anywhere, it will get noticed.


Do you have a photographic philosophy?

My work explores themes where the personal and the political intersect, including individual and collective memory and identity, the state of the world and the neighborhood where I live. I work on long term projects and take pictures in a documentary tradition, un-manipulated, un-collaged in Photoshop – but I stretch the boundaries of that tradition by incorporating symbolism and metaphor through those naturally occurring juxtapositions that one can frame in the real world and pair often unrelated images that play with storytelling and the relationships between truth and fiction. I work around centralizing themes, like personal history or the state of the world, but use these themes more as a voyage of discovery than a charted course.

I’m interested in the construction of narrative and how meaning is created through juxtaposition and editing. I began both 'Return' and 'Sub-version' as “field notes,” random single photos to record what I was seeing along the way. In 2006 I read the “The Conversation: The Art of Editing Film,” by Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje, and was inspired by Walter Murch's intricate splicing of film and sound to create intense moments of tension and drama – as for example, the iconic pairing of a ceiling fan in a hotel room in Saigon with the clatter chop of a helicopter in "Apocalypse Now."

I heard something on the radio while driving yesterday that stuck in my mind: one of those blips one hears between errands. So I don't remember which program or who was being interviewed, but this musician said "the less I listen to other people's music, the more I create my own sound", and I thought of its applicability to photography to visual art to my own work.

My work is often informed more by film and literature, sometimes by dance and certainly what's going on in the world around me.


Talk to us about your personal photography series, for instance ‘Return’ and ‘Sub-version’

I work on several long-term projects concurrently, often informed or influenced by world events. Thus the impulse for this work was the fall of Communism that made it possible to travel East of the Berlin Wall to witness history in the making and explore the almost forgotten terrain of my early childhood. It was a voyage of discovery into a dark and sometimes frightening terrain. My biggest challenge was how to represent that which was no longer there - the bygone, the invisible. How do I depict an absence? How do I give it meaning? I experimented in various ways, interspersing documentary and staged photos where I entered the picture frame, holding a small I.D. photo from my refugee papers, plus other items of personal significance to mark my connection to the lands of my ancestry.

Between 1990 - 2001 I’d traveled extensively through Central Europe loosely following the routes my family had traversed as “displaced persons”. I took pictures, kept a journal, wrote four personal essays, earned grants and residencies and presented my photographs through exhibitions, publications and websites – and though there remained many unanswered questions, things that I would never know because of all that was lost in the maelstrom of war and genocide, my metaphoric quest nonetheless fulfilled my need to see the land where I was born, acknowledge the collective history of which I am a part and to make a body of work about the process.

Eventually I discovered an online chat room, whose members, all Holocaust survivors from my native city - now in their late eighties and nineties - communicate online, reminiscing about their youth, exchanging stories about daily life before the war. Through their conversations I learned new details, corroborated vague memories and started gaining insight and inspiration to work on a sequel to my original work.

During the sixteen years since I began this project I’ve changed the title from 'Return' to 'Narratives: the Landscape of Memory' and I’ve gone from single images to using the diptych format to expand my interest in narrative and cinema. I’m also seeking to abstract from my personal story to encompass the collective history of the region and beyond - to reference our present world situation, when there are increasing numbers of wars, massacres and displaced people who are losing everything, history repeating itself over and over again.  

'Sub-version' was inspired by 9/11. “The Ticking Clock,” is one of my most recent diptychs in the series titled that I began on 9/11/01. By the time the second plane hit the South Tower and the tragedy of the day came into focus one knew that a page in history had been turned. The first picture I took was of my hand blocking the view from my kitchen window to keep the horror of it out.

Today the clock is ticking on multiple fronts, including growing sectarianism, divisiveness, polarization, violence, war – the earth, the environment, dwindling energy resources – the lack of vision of our world leaders. I recently read that NASA is already paving the ground for us to migrate to another planet as soon as this one becomes inhabitable.

'Sub-version' is about life in the 21st Century - terror, surveillance, mass media, popular culture, post-millennial anxiety, dual realities, shadowy threats and ominous rumors.

What are you currently working on and what's next for you?

I've been invited to NYC to meet with an independent publisher to talk about making a book from my work. Since nothing is sure until it's etched in stone, I'll say no more about it now, but look forward to speaking with these folk who have been so enthusiastic about my work.