After winning a big competition last year Ruth Sacks jetted off to the Canary Islands, then not long afterwards Paris. She talks to Sean O’Toole about her next big stopover: the Venice Biennale. Ruth Sacks is Art South Africa’s sixth Bright Young Thing for 2007
It’s been a whirlwind year and a bit for Ruth Sacks. After winning the 2006 Absa L’Atelier, she jetted off to the Canary Islands late last year to install a work on the inaugural Biennial of the Canaries. Not long afterwards, she found herself in Paris, at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, where she is presently on a six-month residency. To top it all, documentation of Don’t Panic (2005), her charmingly slight yet massively affirming skywrite installation, is on display at this year’s Venice Biennale. The work, which forms part of the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, has been curated onto Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami’s group show Checklist, on display in the African Pavilion. In a country prone to tall poppy syndrome, Sacks’ achievements have prompted jealous backbiting. Art South Africa recontextualised some of these barbs, formulating them as questions. Sacks’ response offers a lucid elaboration of her practice.Recent works like Don’t Panic (2005) and Artificial Moonlight (2006) are very ephemeral, as distinct from insubstantial. The latter reminds me of Martin Creed’s Work No.227: The lights going on and off(2000), which I saw installed on last year’s Berlin Biennale, Of Mice and Men, curated by Maurizio Cattelan. I mention this for a reason. Your practice seems to share certain affinities with both their conceptual strategies. Agree/disagree?I agree with regards to specific works, but not their overall strategies as I understand them. But I like their sense of humour. The ambiguous message of Creed’s public intervention Everything is going to be all right (London, 2002) always makes me smile. I think Don’t Panic picks up on this. When I first started this body of work, I looked at Cattelan’s work from the 1990s quite a lot (especially Another Fucking Readymade from 1996) but not so much anymore. With Artificial Moonlight, my intervention was site-specific, as opposed to Creed’s Turner-prize-winning lights that can be placed within different contexts. When I attached very powerful, rotating, lights to the Los Lavaderos gallery building in Tenerife, I was referring to the latter’s history. There is a long tradition of a festival being held at that site every year for the Virgin of Fatima who is meant to have revealed herself to three children through a supernatural light show. Also, in keeping with the central theme of the biennial, the piece took on the greater context of the Canaries’ political situation through the gallery doors being locked as soon as the lights went on. The beams of light moved around like searchlights, but also gave the impression of some sort of event being advertised. When people came to see what was up, access to the interior of the building was barred.In a related vein, you mentioned previously (in correspondence) that your focus is generally “on aspects of my personal life, especially insecurities, which I try to communicate through a variety of mediums”. Doreen Southwood has pursued a similar strategy, which I see some of your critics have picked up on. Are you at all an admirer of her work?I would be interested to know which critics you’re referring to here. But I do like Doreen’s early works, specifically The Diver (2003) and Floating Trophies (2002). I enjoy the fact that we sometimes share similar urges to express neurotic tendencies while our mutual aesthetics and production mechanisms are very different. To me it seems gutsy that she displays so much about her personal life in a piece like Floating Trophies. In my own work, I tend to use visual decoys to try to gloss over any direct intimate details.One criticism of Don’t Panic is that it’s all been done before: James Turrel, Sam Francis and Marinus Boezem. Personally, I don’t place much store in the fact that because someone else has done something it’s now proprietary. Artmaking would be far less well-off if such a narrow view of creativity became an orthodoxy. What though were your intentions when you made this work? And how do you respond to the ‘seen it all before’ attitude expressed by some in relation to your work?Yves Klein would be annoyed he was not mentioned in that list. The man was convinced he had signed the back of the sky in an imaginary journey and said he hated birds because they made holes in what he believed to be his greatest artwork. I think it would be really tricky to make any work at all if artists weren’t allowed to experiment with mediums that had already been used. Entire traditions of oil painting, wood carving, etc, would have to be dismissed. Which would be a pity.Similar to Don’t Panic, your work For You (2007) uses text to communicate an idea or thought. Unlike the former work, it is verifiably an object existing in space, a sculpture if you will. Can you speak about the relationship between the two works, also your motivation for making the latter?The word “SORRY” is purposefully absent in the label so that the viewer has to work a little harder and walk around two-metre high stacks of cardboard letters in order to figure out what they spell from the shape of the forms and the knocked over “R”s. The idea was that an environment in which the word “sorry” is repeated over and over again is one which feels awkward and clumsy. So the apology accounts for the shoddy presentation as well as the lack of legibility.I like using text pieces because a lot of the way in which I work relies on textual support in some form. My process with these works is one I have often applied whereby I refer to my personal collection of phrases. These are taken from other artworks, novels, adverts, graffiti, conversations and pop songs. In the examples of For You and Don’t Panic, I came across a medium that I thought would suit a specific context and then sifted through my list in order to find suitable words that were applicable.Your SMAC exhibition included an installation, in your words, “contrived to look as if 2.5 years worth of work had been done there”. I smiled when I saw two books by Walter Benjamin, both of which I own, one of which I’ve partially read, the other simply a hefty bookend (for now). So, did you read Benjamin? And which of the books that you haven’t read but displayed on the shelf would you read first? Why?I have read Benjamin and referenced him in my real life MFA dissertation with a clear conscience. I don’t claim to have gotten through the whole of Arcades Project, though. What with currently being in Paris and all, this would be number one on my reading wish list. I did also attempt to plough through the second-hand books inside the fake covers which make up that piece. I hope I am remembering correctly here, but I think the fake Walter Benjamin covers concealed an illustrated boy’s annual and also a really trashy novel with a buxom lady in distress on the cover.The piece on SMAC was only the bookshelf from a big installation in which I made of a fake studio that self-consciously presented the illusion of representing all the work I’d made in the last 2.5 years. There was a lot of fantasy fulfilment there too. For example, I included faked photographs of people who I would have liked to have been my friends on the pin board (like Richard Prince).Two related questions, which I hope you’ll answer spontaneously. Does a bitchy remark on Artheat hurt? And what’s the difference between a bad review and bad publicity? Bitchy comments always hurt. Whether they’re delivered in the school playground, a cocktail party or a blog, that’s their point. I believe they say more about the people making them than the topic of conversation. For that reason, I don’t read Artheat much and when I do I avoid the comments sections. I’ve had this policy since it started getting nasty. If someone isn’t prepared to put their name to a statement, or maintain some kind of fixed anonymous identity, then all the fun is gone from having a nice big art fight about it. On the other hand, if a review is well researched and written by someone whose work I respect, I take it seriously. Bad or good.