Art & Photography / Culture Talks

An Artistic Melodrama of Dreams and the Recumbent Body

British artist Elizabeth Price curates an immersive new exhibit which highlights the power of the reclining body in different states – staging works by Jenny Holzer, Guy Bourdin and more – but why? AnOther talks to Price to find out

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Guy Bourdin, Guy Bourdin Archives, Circa 1977© The Guy Bourdin Estate 2016, Courtesy of Louise Alexander Gallery

Watching one of Elizabeth Price's climatic video installations can have a profound effect on a person. Connected by a technical or social historical reference – such as the gesture of a singular arm movement in her Turner Prize-winning The Woolworths Choir of 1979 – the British artist spins archive footage, still life images, motion graphics and fragments of text into a sensual and strongly evocative narrative that lapses between the conscious and the unconscious to a pop-inflected soundtrack. Diligently crafted and cut, each video is the result of a laboured and extensive creative process, requiring months and months of research to build and layer her required narrative. The resulting footage – enigmatic and ephemeral, yet completely plausible – plays out in one's mind long after it has finished, begging to be decoded. "I like to think that there are many different ways of approaching a subject, with the many different kinds of knowledge that viewers might already have, that might give them a different way to think about it," explains Price on a hotline from Manchester, in the midst of installing her upcoming touring Hayward exhibition. 

But this is no ordinary set-up, as this time, the work Price is presenting isn't her own, but that of her most admired contemporaries. Titled: In A Dream You Saw A Way To Survive And You Were Full Of Joy (after Jenny Holzer's cult 1984 artwork of the same name) she has curated and staged an "artistic melodrama" which considers the psychological and formal power of the horizontal body in art. Constructed narratively, in a similar approach to her signature video compositions, the exhibition comprises four themed sections or "episodes" that unite a diverse array of pieces that she feels plot the dialogues for each story. "It moves in an order," she says. "starting with sleeping and working, then moving onto mourning and finally, dancing. The viewer will experience sculpture, photography, drawings, prints and projections. I'm really interested in the atmosphere that the blending of these multifarious works – many of which are quite autobiographical for me – will create," she adds. Below, Price talks in greater detail about the show and the artists involved in its creation. 

On her creative practice... 
"For over 12 years I’ve worked in moving image and video. They don’t usually feature much human action, but I do document some objects, architecture and photography to tell stories and they explore social histories, and they often include music, and dance in various ways. Generally, I work with existing images and work them into a new narrative that tells you something about those things – about the history of them – but also then starts to move often into a kind of fiction." 

On how the exhibition came about... 
"The Hayward approached me to curate one of their touring shows. I think they understand that artists tend to approach curation in a very different way to someone that works as a curator professionally. I feel that I've approached the creation of the exhibition in pretty much the same way that I would do one of my artworks, in that it's constructed narratively and is really quite immersive." 

On selecting the works to include in the show... 
"Well, there were a few pieces right at the beginning that I was really certain I wanted to use, because I had a strong autobiographical connection with them. For example, there's a beautiful sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford called Snowdrift from 1901 that I’ve been fascinated by since I saw it in a gallery over 20 years ago. Also, [Giulio] Paolini's Necessaire (1968), which I first discovered in 1993, and which marked a time when I felt really lost as an artist. I remember looking at this piece of work and being amazed at how disciplined and bold and completely unapologetic it was. At that time, it felt like an artwork that was about the anxiety of making art – it was really quite something." 

On one of her personal highlights of the exhibit... 
"In the mourning section, I chose to show a clip from the [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder film The American Soldier (1970) – the final scene where the American soldier is killed, and his brother, overwhelmed with grief, rolls around on the floor with him in this strange horizontal dance. It goes on for about three minutes to this kitsch pop soundtrack, but I was completely undone by it, it's overwhelming. I love how Fassbinder stylishly removes the viewer from the event, you really feel the kind of alienation, you’re never quite in the moment. But at the same time there's this intense emotion that manifests, and it's very strange and very powerful." 

On the unique opportunity to curate other artists' work... 
"The opportunity to work with many, many different kinds of art, and art made at many different times with different commitments, preoccupations and technologies was really very exciting. I certainly felt that I wanted to create a situation where you could engage with these works in terms of the objective – the original objective of the artist. But, I also wanted to create a supplementary narrative through the exhibition. So, I suppose it’s slightly different from a curator – I’m not commenting specifically on the history of the art, but I’m trying to kind of create something that feels like another artwork, from all of these artworks, which retains their autonomy – I haven’t reappropriated them." 

On what she's learned from curating the exhibition... 
"Probably that I had the chance to provoke thought. This is a very measured, intellectual thing that art does and is one of its main pleasures. But also, I think it’s a sense of how this work touches other things, the psychological and emotional aspects of your life at a particular time – and those two things are connected – the thoughtful questioning of things you go through, the impression that the work is making on you effectively, and its materials and its relationship to your own body. So bringing these works together in this way was very important, it acknowledges the ways in which art moves you to think, and also moves you emotionally, or makes you more sensitive."

'Elizabeth Price Curates: IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY', A Hayward Touring exhibition from Southbank Centre, London, runs from June 10 until October 30, 2016 at The Whitworth, University of Manchester. 

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