In Conversation: Josephine Lee
Ada Dragomir and Genevieve Michaels
Josephine Lee engages with history, process, and material in her public installation ‘/born ignorant in an abyss of light.’ Born from research into nuclear history, Lee progresses into interrogating nuclear weapons testing’s interaction with notions of contamination, violence, and dispossession enacted by the nation state. From these heavy themes, the final work creates an atmosphere of surprising lightness and beauty.
In this interview, we spoke to Lee about her research, her plans for the future, and the materials she used for the installation, from plasma to ceramics to handblown glass.
Your love of history is palpable throughout your oeuvre, as are your attempts to trouble the naturalness of constructs like home, citizenship, and the nation. What originally drew you to making work about the very first nuclear weapon?JL
It began through my material exploration at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, New York. I became fascinated by the cultural history of glass and learned about trinitite, which was formed when the first nuclear bomb detonated, melting the surrounding desert sand into radioactive glass. Through trinitite, I discovered the McDonald Ranch House, the site for the literal assembly of humanity’s very first nuclear weapon, Trinity. What is still less known is that the plutonium core for the first nuclear bomb was assembled within the master bedroom of this otherwise innocuous domestic space.
This was a critical moment in my research, and when I became drawn into nuclear history. Nuclear history and the works surrounding it primarily focus on the iconic image and imaginaries of the mushroom cloud. It was precisely that this house was located at the periphery of such a moment that fascinated me—that this occupation could decenter the icon and interrogate the mechanisms of power that unfold within the spaces we believe are shielded from ideology or violence. The literal occupation of the home by the nation state emerged as a devastating level of poetical happenstance I could not make up if I tried. It was also the beginning to a deeper work into the constructs of place, belonging, citizenship, and nationalism that continue to unfold in my practice.
Your work brings elements together in ways which, at first glance, seem disparate, but after a moment’s recognition, are very intentionally and thoughtfully connected. For something which takes as its point of departure themes of violence, dislocation, and contamination, the installation you’ve created for the Garage is so evidently full of care. What is the relationship between your art practice and the practice of care?JL
Interesting that this question of care emerges, as I had earlier last year participated in a workshop on radical care. The theme of radical care was related to interdisciplinary practices and ideas surrounding ecology, sovereignty, political community, public memory, private space, and labor, much of which my practice connects to. For myself, the space of radical care is also one that we must hold together. I believe my practice of care rests in the connections that I carefully construct within my work. The research, experimentation, and exhibition of my work feels similar to that of language. I am trying to construct meaning, whether it is through syntax or art. It carries meaning insofar as it can, and I lay a considerable degree of care in viewers to hold the work with equal measure.
Your work contains hand blown glass, ceramic, video and electronic components. Could you share with readers how you fabricated /born ignorant in an abyss?JL
As with my other works, I fabricated most of the work by hand. The plasma pumping, ceramic firing, and electrical wiring is done by professional technicians to make sure nothing catches on fire or explodes. With all my works, whether I fabricate my final piece or have it made to my specifications, depends primarily on time, but I always start by making my own. I may have the final iteration fabricated to a specific chemical recipe, but I start with building things out with my hands to get a sense of the material and object and understand how it interacts with the rest of the work.
Will you talk to us about the work’s title?JL
The title (/born ignorant in an abyss of light) is derived from the poem “Plutonian Ode” by Allen Ginsberg. It encapsulated this intimate, home birth of the nuclear age inside the McDonald Ranch house, and the subsequent history of our humanity. I read the line early into my research and I knew that was it.
Between our historically ingrained reticence to touch art, Benjaminian notions of objects’ aura, and what can sometimes come off as ‘gimmicky’ ploys at engagement, viewers can often feel disengaged from participatory work— that is, work where the viewer is required to engage above and beyond the contemplative norms which are expected from art viewership. What do you hope that viewers take away from the interactive component of your work?JL
Interactivity is not a particular focus of my work, and I hope that viewers do not take too much out of the sensor, other than the practicalities of maintaining an exhibition containing charged plasma for months on end. The plasma itself would react to touch, grounding its circuit through the viewer’s body, and the criticality of this rests in the notions of containment that are important to those of toxicity, contamination and nationalism. I am interested in the impossibility of containing violence and ideology, and the interactivity of the plasma can offer a literal connection alongside its poetic one.
What are you most looking forward to as 2021 continues to unfold?JL
In terms of work, I am most looking forward to continuing to develop my research as I continue to examine how experiences of transgenerational and transcultural upheaval, marginalization, violence, and unbelonging can conversely enact resistance and protection against power and subjugation. In terms of everything else, goodness knows.
See ‘/born ignorant in an abyss of light’ in the Garage at Burrard Arts Foundation until March 20th, 2021.