Interview: Jillian Billard
All Images Courtesy of Antonia Marsh
Antonia Marsh always knew that she wanted to be a curator. Driven by her desire to offer a platform to underrepresented voices; Marsh is known in the art world as somewhat of a rebel. Her practice sets the precedent for what the relationship between curator and artist should look like. For Marsh, putting a show together is an intimate, symbiotic process in which both she and the artists she represents grow alongside one another. Considering the vast repertoire of shows that Marsh has curated around the world, in London, New York, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Mumbai, and Tokyo; along with founding a residency program for female artists called “Girls Only,” which has since evolved into her project space Soft Opening in London’s Piccadilly Circus; it is evident that her devotion to the practice has paid off.
In her most recent exhibition, “Vanquished by the Fickle Goddess,” currently on view at Spazio Ridotto in Venice, Marsh features the works of Peruvian, New York-based artist and model Daniela Lalita, and New York-based multimedia artist and writer Carly Mark. Both emerging artists whose work should definitely be on your radar if it isn’t already, Mark and Lalita’s practices interrogate the normalization of refracted projections of self that have become omnipresent in contemporary culture. Bringing to life hyperbolic interpretations of traditional archetypes, Mark and Lalita revel in the modality of a funhouse mirror; constructing elaborate, deliciously grotesque costumes that are activated through performance to explore the absurdity of existing simultaneously as a human inextricable from corporeal form, and as a curated virtual representation on various social media platforms. The works; while gloriously fun and hallucinatory; highlight the often insidious effects of straddling these disparate realms.
“Vanquished by the Fickle Goddess” offers a new dimension to both Mark and Lalita’s work. In one room, Mark’s video Know Nothing (in which Mark and Lalita star as demonic creatures) and Lalita’s Madre: A Disruptive Environment are played on loop. In the second room, Marsh displays relics of production as works in themselves, including elements such as Mark’s character study videos; Nick Sethi’s print of Carly’s discarded prosthetic face from her haunting Know Nothing video and a chain-adorned fluffy cap worn by one of her earlier characters; and photographs taken by Rebekah Campbell of Lalita’s performance Madre: A Disruptive Environment at New York’s The Aula last year. The inclusion of these documents invites the viewer to reckon with the monstrous masks, sculptural, body-engulfing suits, and prosthetic additions as costumes that exist within the “real” world. The addition feels integral to the work, as it incites the notion that the effects of our virtual selves, though seemingly of another world, seep into our realities beyond our control.
I spoke to Marsh about the show; how she came to curation and her experience with facing adversities in the contemporary art world; and searching for authenticity in a culture so heavily inundated with social media.
Can you talk a bit about how you first become interested in curation, and when you started?
I’ve been interested in curation since I was little; I used to cover my bedroom walls in torn-out pages from art magazines. It really took off after I did a few work placements and assisting jobs at institutions and commercial galleries. However, I found that these roles didn’t allow me to think or work creatively. I didn’t feel I had much freedom or contact with artists or artworks, which is what I love the most about curating. I realized that curating independently was the only way to go if this was what I wanted to do. My first shows were in tiny spaces in San Francisco where I was studying. I kept it small for a long time. I’ve always worked with artists whose work I get to know closely and can understand and grow in my practice alongside theirs.
A lot of your shows have featured predominantly women. What is your experience with navigating the social climate of the “art world,” which has historically revolved around the works of cis white men; and what measures do you take to challenge these structures?
I think the disparity in representation in the art world really shocked me when I first finished my studies, and it still continues to. I had been surrounded by such talented women, and couldn’t believe that they were finding it so difficult to exhibit or find work. Since then it’s been a major focus of mine to do as much as possible to rectify this imbalance. It’s great that we are universally more aware of this disparity, however I do think we have to adapt our practices on a daily basis in order to help combat underrepresentation in the art world.
My project “Girls Only,” which I started in 2014, came about precisely as a reaction to this disparity. I wanted to give women more opportunities as an attempt to re-establish or at least move towards more balanced representation. The project moved from NYC to London, Copenhagen and Mumbai and evolved in each city to meet the differing needs of female artists in each location. I haven’t curated a project for “Girls Only” since 2016 for various reasons, but its core ethos still very much informs my curatorial work. I just launched another residency program that supports my new project space Soft Opening, so that behaves quite similarly in terms of methodology. Right now I’m working on re-introducing more voices into my shows without restricting the conversation to just women. I think it’s really important to consider precisely what is examined in shows in terms of subject matter, not just who is exhibiting.
Can you talk a bit about some of the frustrations you have faced with your curatorial work; and conversely its most rewarding aspects?
It can be very difficult to break into the art world, or to feel recognised in critical conversations. For a while I was curating shows on the outskirts and even deliberately avoiding specific art circles; I think largely because of fear and some kind of inferiority complex. I’m less bothered by this now, I think because either I care less, or I realised that those paranoid thoughts were just made up in my own head. The most rewarding aspect of curating is hands down working closely with artists: getting to know them and their work absolutely gets me out of bed in the morning.
You’ve live and work between London and New York, is that correct? What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between the cultural and (particularly emerging) artistic climates of each of these cities?
Actually, I’m settled back in London now. For a while I was trying to do that bi-coastal dance, but it’s really exhausting. New York is such a fast-paced energetic city, these days I prefer to work in London where things happen more slowly. I used to churn out shows like a nutter; the more the merrier sort of thing; but now I want to take my time with them and I think London suits that kind of rhythm better. Fast-paced shows arguably allow for more creativity in terms of display or utilising alternative spaces, and this is very emblematic of the NYC emerging art scene, and there is considerably less of this DIY style/rogue curating in London, but I think it’s important for London to see its potential in this arena… that’s what I’m trying to do with Soft Opening, my new space in Piccadilly Circus Underground Station.
How do you discover new artists? How often do you know the artist personally before exhibiting their work?
It’s a balance, but I usually get to know artists as I work with them. You have to have some level of personal relationship with an artist before you exhibit their work, because an artist’s work is so personal to them. If I didn’t, I would run the risk of misunderstanding or misrepresenting their work.
Let’s talk about your exhibition now on view at Spazio Ridotto Gallery in Venice, “Vanquished by the Fickle Goddess,” featuring the work of Daniela Lalita and Carly Mark. I must tell you, I haven’t been so excited by a press release in a while. I love the quote you included from C.G. Jung, “the mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor.” Was this concept something that you were already interested in when you reached out to Carly and Daniela because their work wrestled with similar notions; or did the theme of the show come together after discovering their work?
As with all shows, a mixture of both. I knew Carly and Daniela’s work well before I was offered the opportunity to do a show in Venice, which came about after I saw the Biennale there in October of last year. I went for my birthday and had a single meeting there, and then three months later it evolved into an exhibition. It seemed perfect to use the space to do a show about character development, masking and costuming in a city that is so familiar with that kind of visual language. Both artists look at augmenting and perverting personas online through social media via their characters and so that links their work for me. They also perform in each others’ videos, so showing their work together didn’t seem too far-fetched. Daniela is interested in Jung’s archetypes, so that quote felt particularly applicable especially when considering this interest in social media personas.
Where does the title of the show, “Vanquished by the Fickle Goddess” come from? What does this phrase represent, for you?
The title came from a book Daniela was reading of 13th-19th century poems and songs about costume. This felt appropriate to both the work but also because of the context of the show itself—Venetians have been wearing masks and celebrating their notorious Carnevale for hundreds of years. While discussing the title, we came across a line that read “The virulence of satire, the ridicule of song, like the preaching of moralists, have however in all instances been vanquished by the fickle goddess, fashion.” We lifted our title out of this sentence because of its potential. Removing “fashion,” although interesting itself, leaves space for the “goddess” to stand for anyone.
I’ve always worked with artists whose work I get to know closely and can understand and grow in my practice alongside theirs
Both Lalita and Mark create work that includes elaborate costuming; which is usually either activated by performers, or stands alone as a sculptural work. How does the work operate differently in a predominantly video and photo-based show, as opposed to the performance and installation-based exhibitions of the work that we’ve seen in the past?
Well it’s not easy to ship six massive sculptures to Venice, so the decision to go with mostly photo and video was largely practical; BUT I chose to use this as an opportunity to think about how works by artists who work largely in performance and installation can be exhibited elsewhere. A concern of mine was demonstrating how these artworks exist once the performative elements have come to a close, how they live on and how we can continue to relate to these characters IRL. Using photos by other artists was one way to do that. Rebekah and Nick’s imagery shows a different side to these characters, as BTS imagery they almost bring the to live in an even more tangible way because we see them interacting with the camera and individuals in a kind of quasi-natural way.
A major aspect of this show is the documentation of each artist’s practice alongside their work; including photographs by Rebecca Campbell of Lalita’s Madre: A Disruptive Environment last year at the Aula in New York, for example; and Mark includes three “screen tests” that show the creation of her characters Tiger, Cake and Gold-Bear. Can you talk about your decision behind including these elements in the show?
These were included to complicate our understanding of the artist’s work. Including these strata of documentation, develops a mythology initiated by each film and tease he characters out into the gallery space. The line between fantasy and reality becomes even more blurred. I wanted to raise three core questions: What realm do these characters inhabit? What resides behind their masks? And more broadly, is mask-making and character-building now absolutely omnipresent online, and to what extent can we rely on our own authenticity?
In the press release, you ask “is mask-making and character-building now absolutely omnipresent online, and to what extent can we rely on our own authenticity?” Can you talk a bit about this cultural shift, where virtually everyone is to some extent forced to participate in the dialogue between created personas, which exists separate from our lives IRL?
I mean, it’s totally bizarre. I think we are beginning to rely on our social media personas to such an extent that we lose our true selves. Carly and I discuss this a lot. As one example, it’s mad to consider how we quantify success these days, we look to likes to release dopamine in our minds and so lose touch when something actually empowering or encouraging happens. We look to the virtual realm for our self-worth but this is based on our constructed selves, so it backfires and we end up suffering even more. Also, this leaks into the notion that we are living in a post-truth world, with fake news and all that, where literally nothing can be trusted anymore. What is authentic if we ourselves cannot even be?
How does this distrust of authenticity relate to abjection, and a fascination with the grotesque that exists in both Carly and Daniela’s work?
I think what’s more interesting is this idea of the monstrous. There’s this great writer from the UK called Charlie Fox who writes a lot about this subject in relation to contemporary culture and society more broadly. Carly and Daniela pervert, subvert, dement and augment characters all based on reality, to the point that they become barely human, barely recognizable. This functions as a parody of what happens online and how we eventually lose so much of our authentic selves.
What are your thoughts on social media specifically in relation to the roles of artist and curator? How has it changed the way we look at art?
Looking through a screen definitely affects the ontology or an image or an artwork in many ways, which can be both limiting and expansive. Social media is definitely extremely helpful in knowing what’s going on locally and globally, and of course in terms of connectivity it’s fantastically useful, however I am a big supporter of IRL interaction with artists and artworks so I think in my own practice I’ll keep that up.
Carly and Daniela pervert, subvert, dement and augment characters all based on reality, to the point that they become barely human, barely recognizable.