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Virginia Overton 弗吉尼亞·奧弗頓

Signs of the Times / By Christina Ko /

When you are dealing with works as large and savagely stark as Virginia Overton’s installations, it’s easy to reduce the importance of a scattering of pieces on paper, which might initially seem to be simply two-dimensional precursors or stylistic explorations that precede their sculptural siblings, forged of aluminium and light. To many artists, paper is usually just a canvas, its function no more than to support the paint that sits on top of it; to Overton, it is a material with a history and significance equal to that of the salvaged aluminium that forms the rest of the pieces.

Overton’s practice is not defined by any overarching message or cause, and, by her own admission, defying categorisation can be “problematic” in a world that loves a pigeonhole. But if there is a connective thread, it is that she works exclusively with salvaged materials, and that respecting the past life of said materials is an important aspect of the process – whether they be her go-to industrial fodder, such as a pick-up truck that’s seen better days, a Dan Flavin-esque neon tube light, a music composition or something even more innocuous, like books. “Consistency for me is more based in being aware of and inclusive of the space and material, and creating gestures thinking of those in combination,” she says.

In the case of the works on paper, Overton used blank books, prototypes created by a book designer friend to judge the look and feel of a finished product, but ultimately destined for the recycling bin.

Untitled (V) by Virginia Overton, Painted aluminium and LEDs, 76.2 × 76.2 × 15.2 cm, 2020.
Courtesy the artist and White Cube.

“He gave me a bunch of boxes of stuff, and in it were these letter sets and these vinyl sticky letters. So I was cutting them up and making various compositions, and never really thinking much about what I was doing, kind of letting it flow – it kept me active at times when I was relegated to a small space or travelling,” she says.

“I taught some beginning-level sculpture at a university here, and I said to the students, ‘I want you to pick a monograph of any artist, from any time frame, but I want you to be driven by the book itself: how does the book feel when you hold it? Is the paper thick? Is it easy to flip through? Everything about it as an object. We’re thinking about books as sculpture, in a three-dimensional space.’ That was an interesting conversation to have with these students who are new to making sculpture and 17, 18, 19 years old. I do think of books as sculpture.”

Overton works with many materials concurrently, in series of experiments that prioritise exploration over output, so after she found the aluminium signage debris in the middle of a field near her home in Tennessee in the southern US while driving one day, she didn’t have an inkling even when it arrived at her studio that these two diverse materials might become partners in crime at her show in Hong Kong’s White Cube, which also happens to be her first solo exhibition in Asia. “I was just really intrigued by it and the fact that it had been such specific signage with specific meanings,” she says. “Dismantled, cut apart, and when I found it in a big pile in a field, it certainly wasn’t this pristine message of power on a high rise. It was in its twilight stage, headed for a metal scrapyard.”

Eventually, the link revealed itself, and the final pieces are unified in that they subvert a very fixed design language – that of typography – in creating new forms of life that retain vestiges of their past selves, whether it is in the curve of a serif or more overt representations; for example, the letter V is consciously left decipherable in Untitled (V)

“I wanted that to continue to be a piece that could be understood, and add to whatever was the new object I was making,” she says. After all, materials do have their own inherent personality – “[they] have things they like to do, things they don’t like to do. You can melt them and they become liquid, or they might burn and won’t turn back into what they were. It’s just ash and charcoal – although that can serve a purpose, too.”

Overton isn’t just interested in the past lives of her materials, inherent imperfections included – usually even glorified. She acknowledges that they grow and change in context and meaning as they move on from her studio, whether to places of exhibition or to collectors’ homes. “I have ideal ways that I like to see work installed and shown, but as soon as others lay eyes on it, that interpretation changes. It’s a mode of communication for me, making art and sculpture, so I do my best to get that right when I’m doing it, so that when I put it out there, it will hopefully maintain some of that.” 

What she does goes beyond change of context, although that is important because her process involves quite a personal, intuitive response to space and architecture. Some past works have also literally changed, such as Late Bloomer (2018), a truck filled with aquatic plants that evolved organically throughout its installation period. To her, that seems as natural as a conversation: “Conversations are these creative organisms that are particular to the people speaking and all the other things that are happening around those particular people, so [even] that is interesting,” she says.

Untitled (Late bloomer) by Virginia Overton, Dodge Ram 150 pick-up truck, jack stands, rubber wheel chocks, mirrored vanity plates, decal, rubber hose, water pumps, water, lotus and fountain, 2018. 
Photo © Jess Wilcox. Courtesy the artist and Socrates Sculpture Park.  

Overton singled out White Cube’s Hong Kong space as a point of interest for a show when she first joined the gallery’s roster. Her first visit to the city came in the mid-2000s, when, as part of a competitive dragon boating team, she travelled to Malaysia for a race, and ended up in Hong Kong for two weeks afterwards. Something of a nomad who grew up in Tennessee but has also lived in New Mexico, North Carolina and now New York, she fell for the unique vibrancy of the city, and the way it transformed with the rise of the moon, bold neon signage lighting the darkness.

When it transpired that she wouldn’t be able to travel before the exhibition and potentially source materials here – she has a naughty habit of creating work on site at the 11th hour, a practice she says gives her focus and her friends anxiety – it seemed logical that as her version of a response to the city, she might instead work with billboard-sized lettering, of the scale and ilk that so struck her on her first visit. 

It also seemed logical to title the show Alone in the Wilderness, a reference to the state of the times but a title that also has many other layers. Contrast it with the name of her Zurich show in autumn 2019, Fresh Hot Pizza, exhibiting pieces from the same exploration with these large letters. “It was the first time I had shown any of it, so it was like, here it is! Hot from the oven. It’s a gathering of people, and everybody’s going to have a little bit,” she says.

Virginia Overton, Exhibition view, White Cube Hong Kong, 2020. Photo: © White Cube (Kitmin Lee).

“[Now, by not coming to Hong Kong, I’m] missing that opportunity of engaging with people who are familiar with the space, familiar with the surroundings” – an engagement format she considers as much a part of the making of the work as collaborating with engineers or other experts on large-scale projects she cannot execute alone.

“[Alone in the Wilderness] is the title of a documentary that I grew up watching. It was a documentary about a man who removed himself from society entirely and built a cabin in a very remote part of Alaska; he intended to be there one year and ended up there for 30. He had a friend with a seaplane which would land there once a month and bring him very specific supplies and then he would send these reels of film and photos back. It was this amazing thing, because the remote wilderness of Alaska was documented in a way that nobody else had ever done, over a 30-year period. And it felt apt for me because every time I do a show, I feel I am entering into this wilderness, this unknown. And I am bringing myself to that thing. It quickly becomes an engagement with other people, but there’s an element of it that is me doing my own thing in the wilderness – and this show sure felt that way.”

時代的標誌

觀賞如維珍妮亞.奧弗頓的裝置般龐大而無情的作品時,很容易就會忽略了紙上所散落的碎塊的重要性。這些碎塊起初看起來,可能只是鋁和光雕塑的二維先驅或造型探索。對許多藝術家而言,紙張通常只是一張畫布,用作支撐油彩;但對奧弗頓而言,紙張的歷史和意義與作品中其餘的鋁同樣重要。

奧弗頓的藝術實踐並不受任何中心思想或原因所定義,她自己亦承認在喜歡分類的世界中,不歸類可能會「有問題」。如果說要找出作品之間的聯繫,大概就是她會專門使用一些遭棄置的材料。無論它們是否她喜用的工業素材,例如是殘舊的小貨車,丹.弗拉文風格的霓虹燈管、音樂作品,甚至書本等無傷大雅的物件,她都會尊重它們的過去。她說:「對我而言,一致是基於對空間和材料的了解和包容,並在這些原則下表達。」

以紙品為例,奧弗頓使用了朋友丟棄的無字書創作。那些無字書是書籍設計師朋友創造的原型,用作判斷和感受成品外觀,最終只會被送往回收箱。

她說:「他給了我一箱物件,裡面都是這些信紙和字母貼紙。我把它們剪開並製作不同組合,但在製作過程中我只是隨心所欲,沒有太多的計劃。在身處狹小的空間或出行時,它們給了我一點活動。」

她續說:「我曾在這裡一所大學教授入門雕塑,我對學生說:『我希望你選出一本任何時期任何藝術家的著作:根據這本書的本質,拿書時感覺如何?紙張厚嗎?揭頁容易嗎?從物件的角度出發,把書本視為立體空間中的一件雕塑。』與這些剛接觸雕塑的17至19歲學生對話很有意思,我的確覺得書本就是雕塑。」

奧弗頓同時會使用多種材料創作,進行一系列勘察多於成品的實驗。有一日她在美國南部田納西州的家附近駕車,無意間在田野中發現了一塊鋁招牌碎片。她把碎片帶回工作室時,沒有想過這兩種不同的材料會成為她在香港白立方畫廊首次亞洲個展中的好拍檔。她說:「我真的很被它本身和它特別標誌帶來的特殊含義所吸引。」她續說:「我在田野發現它時,它搖搖欲墜,肢離破碎,肯定不是這可以放置在高樓大廈中的全新面貌。那時它正值生命最後階段,走向金屬廢料場。」

終於我們找到了連結,作品得以統一,是因為它們在創造新的生命時保留了過去的痕跡,無論是在襯線的曲線上或其他更着迹的表達,例如故意在《無題(V)》中讓人看得出字母V,顛覆了非常固定的印刷設計語言。

她說:「我希望它繼續是一件可以理解的材料,並添加到我正在製作的新物件中。」畢竟材料確實有其個性,她續說:「它們有自己喜歡做的事,亦有不喜歡做的事。你可以把它們融化成液體,但它們亦可能會燃燒且無法變回原貌。它們可能會化為一堆灰燼和木炭,不過當然也有其作用。」

Virginia Overton, Exhibition view, White Cube Hong Kong, 2020. Photo: © White Cube (Kitmin Lee).

奧弗頓不僅對材料的過去感興趣,還包括其不完美之處,甚至會對之歌頌。她認為當材料從工作室搬到展覽場所或收藏者的家時,它們的內容和意義會不斷發展變化。她說:「我對安裝展示作品有一套理想的方法,但在其他人看到作品後,詮釋就會改變。對我來說創作藝術品和雕塑是一種交流方式,所以我會盡力創作,希望當我把它展出時,它可以保留當中一些意義。”

由於她的創作涉及對空間和建築的個人直覺反應,改變內容很重要,但她所做的改變不止於此。過去一些作品也曾有一些確實的改變,例如在《Late Bloomer》(2018年)中,水生植物在整個安裝過程中都在貨車中自然生長。對她來說,改變就像對話般自然,她說:「對話是富創造力的生物,為說話者和周遭事物所有,所以單是這樣已經很有趣。」

奧弗頓首次名列畫廊名單時,就已經選定了香港白立方畫廊作為她的展覽空間。她第一次到香港是在2000年代中期,當時她所在的競技龍舟隊要前往馬來西亞參加比賽,後來她就在香港逗留了兩週。這位在田納西州長大,但曾住在新墨西哥州和北卡羅來納州、現居紐約的游牧民族愛上了香港的獨有活力,為城市隨月色而變、霓虹燈牌照亮黑暗而傾心。

她有個調皮的習慣,就是在展覽臨開場時現場創作,她說這樣可以令她集中,不過同時令她的朋友不安。當她得知無法在展覽前到達香港並在這裡採集材料時,她便順理成章使用了她初次到訪時就深深著迷的廣告牌大小字體,作為她對這座城市的回應。

展覽命名為「荒原獨處」亦非常合邏輯,名字參考了當代的情況,也包含了許多其他層面,與她2019年秋天在蘇黎世同樣以這些大字母作品展示同一探索的展覽「Fresh Hot Pizza」(新鮮的熱薄餅)有明顯反差。她解釋:「那次是我第一次展示那些作品,感覺就像剛出爐的薄餅,大家聚首一堂,分一杯羹。」

她續說:「現在不能到香港,我失去了與熟悉空間和周圍環境的人互動的機會。」她認為這種參與方式對創作非常重要,如同她創作一些無法獨自執行的大型作品時必須與工程師或其他專家合作一樣。

她指出:「『荒原獨處』是我成長時期觀看的紀錄片的片名。影片講述一個完全脫離社會的男人在阿拉斯加一個偏遠地區建造了一間小屋的故事。他原本打算在那裡居住一年,一轉眼卻是30年。他有一位朋友每月會乘坐水上飛機為他帶來特定的補給品,然後他會將菲林和照片交給朋友。在那30年間,他以前所未有的方式記錄了阿拉斯加偏遠的荒野,非常厲害。我覺得很有共鳴,因為每次展出時,我都覺得我把自己帶進了未知的荒野。當中我會與他人互動,但其中一個元素還是我在荒野中繼續自己的創作,而這個展覽肯定會帶來這種感覺。」

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