Spirited Away : Pippa Sanderson. 28 APRIL - 15 MARCH 2004

Spirited Away was an installation work by Wellington artist Pippa Sanderson. Installing a collection of second-hand spirit levels into the darkened backroom of the HSP gallery, Sanderson created a window into a world which was both nostalgic and beautifully dusty. Projecting light through the glass bubbles of the spirit levels Pippa Sanderson is a visual artist and writer who teaches in the Design School at Massey University in Wellington.
There is an HSP catalogue for this show with an interview with text by Jared Wells and an interview with Pippa by Hamish Win. There is also a package review by Sally Mcintyre.
An Interview with Pippa Sanderson

>> HAMISH WIN: It seems like the spirit levels cluster around that section of the wall in the hope of opening out that space. That you project another dimension onto the wall which leads in that direction kinda of provokes this reading. I was wondering whether this was intentional and whether there was some sort of mathematical-geometrical equation involved in the sequence and patterning of the levels. I know it may seem sort of farcical in say The Ghostbusters with all that science, but we tend to suppose the after-world to be a fairly anti-science, intuition kind of thing, is that the attraction of the spirit level, its position within the building industry as a proof of straight (read sane) level(headed)ness?

>> PIPPA SANDERSON: The positioning of the image on the wall was directed by what people see when they walked through the white curtain into the space, and also by the dimensions of the gallery. I wanted a sense of turning / swivelling into the room, and seeing the installation, so there was a subtle dance there. It couldn't have been at the end because of the windows. Using an image at all was indeed about extending the physical space into another room, another time and place. It was also deliberately a room in a house, evoking the intense associative thing of domestic spaces - at some level people 'remember' that space, or the sight of dust catching light. It has a sort of quietness that is about consideration, considering relationships between things, people, architectural domestic spaces. For me seeing the installation at the opening when the room was filled with people activated the anthropomorphic aspect of the levels, in that the crowd of people sort of faced off against the levels, and they mirrored each other in a way that doesn't happen as directly when one of two people are wondering around the gallery space. The long narrow dimensions of the gallery heightened that - the opposite wall, the mirrored space.

Level headedness - I hadn't thought of it that way, but it makes sense. That from another position, or context, there is something everyday and accepted about the idea of parallel realities (cultural, geographical, ideological). Because of course there is always another way of looking at things, another way of organising the world. I was using the spirit level as a signifier of empiricism, of an approach to things which is simple and straightforward and based on concrete experience and doesn't allow for relativism - By lighting the levels in a spooky way, and having their shadows fall on the image on the wall, and paradoxically, illuminating that image I was really just trying to fuck things up, toss things around, upset the accepted order of perception.

>>HAMISH WIN: Yeah there’s definitely that sense that something has shifted in the room. But I was wondering whether the spirit levels themselves, the way in which you transform them into aesthetic and almost totemic organisms (you talked about their anthropomorphism) and whether or not there’s a sense that their clustering organises say a zone of intensity so that perhaps it wasn’t really just the projected image that gave that real sense of a portal, parallel world ready and waiting.

>> PIPPA SANDERSON: The totemising was deliberate by the time I installed it at High St - I stumbled upon it when I first set up the installation in my test space. Maybe there's something about that quietly uncanny anthro thing that does activate the space and suggest doorways. Elsewhere I talk about 'the hole in the hardware' as a metaphor for uncertainty, when you try to measure or pin something down (true horizontal, true vertical) as you get closer to what you think is the kernel, it becomes
more and more elusive.

The clustered space is intensified by the warm cast light. The
levels/ancestors feel benevolent to me actually, which is something I hadn't thought about, or not consciously.

>>HAMISH WIN: I’m wondering about how easily you slipped over the Ghostbusters’ reference in my first question and whether or not this has something to do with your preference for an older system of contact. This fascination with the Victorian spiritualists seems to come through in your work. The aesthetic of your show was very dark-lit, archaic almost, the levels with all their markings and scratches suggest themselves as heirloom objects. Their value as totemic object seems to increase due to the spirit level’s nostalgic value as prised and valuable pragmatic objects (just think how many buildings, structures, people they would have helped along). The complete opposite of this is of course a kind of Disney ghost world where the aesthetic is very shiny, friendly and comedically grotesque. Which is all true of Ghostbusters, the arch-villain is a giant marshmallow man, there’s a friendly (and cosmetically unchallenged) ghost helping out the good guys, and the badies are sinister and grotesque but never too much of a challenge. So I’m wondering if you feel slightly trapped by this dichotomy and whether or not its impossible for yr work to reference a more contemporary, pop-culture “ghostville”.

>>PIPPA SANDERSON: So you picked up that I didn't pick up the Ghostbusters' reference. Actually I didn't really understand what you were getting at. But I'm glad you referred back to it, because it's clearer to me now where you were coming from. I'm reading it as a question of style in a way, and of tone - pop-culture irony v 'high' culture earnestness.

Another dichotomy (risk of reductionism circles around us here) is between history, or historicism and The New. There's something about pop-culture that erases the past, that's about the latest rather than the late. A central mechanism of capitalism is cultural amnesia, positioning a person as an individual, discrete unit of consumption. I like to counter this by generating a sense of collectivism and history (like the evocative reference you made to the 'buildings, structures, people they would have helped along') Growing up, our family often lived in collective situations - communes (like the film-making Murphy, Bollinger, Sanderson, and Lawrence one at Waimarama) or just with other families/people (Dural, Australia and Pondicherry, India). It was partly about artists having to carve out an alternative situation in which to make work, and partly about getting together with your mates and partly a rejection of mainstream values and nuclear family units busily buying one of everything. we have a strong sense of extended family, with all the attendant rifts etc, but also the sense that 'we are not alone' and our identity is in part a collective one...

A bit utopian really, in that the eponymous Utopia was a socialist state.

Anyway, back to my point - pop-culture - I enjoy pop-culture references, some of my best friends are cartoons, but I hate Disney with a passion - too much to even refer to it in my work in order to dis it to the ground. That effectively screens Casper and co from my lexicon

The Victorian spiritualist ref is a vehicle for exploring postcolonial dialogue through personal history. In my view the most engaging work is that which is activated by the maker's personal narratives (eg. Bill Viola etc) so I'm gradually making my way, not methodically, through the interesting bits in our family narrative.

The points of contact between that branch of the family (dad's side) emigrating from late Victorian England and NZ - Hokianga in the late 1800s, between science, art and crazy spiritualist beliefs and practices in NZ and England is so fertile and fascinating - it's a micro and macro history of colonial contact in NZ. I'm interested in which aspects of those times leak through into the present day, and it seems like the holes are not firmly plugged!

I think it might be hard for this installation work to ref pop-culture ghostville for reasons I’ve outlined above (ref to history embedded in work), but I do want to move on to explore the 70s filmic aesthetic in dad's films - particularly the Ned Kelly experimental one A Stone in the Bush – but that may be because it's a historical subject!!

A logical contemporary phenomena would be the internet, exploring how contemporary technology (as opposed to Victorian style photography etc) informs our sense of place, and relationship to the other world. Susan Hiller works in this area, and does great work, but I'm not so interested in the internet as an arena for making art. I like the solidity of the spirit levels, as objects - I like to work with objects, whether found things or paintings or photos.