Kim Fasher in conversation with artist Sarah Mosca

Kim Fasher in conversation with artist Sarah Mosca about Mosca's new body of work, 'Untitled Walks'.

KF: In the winter of 1974, filmmaker Werner Herzog made a three-week solo journey on foot from Munich to Paris. Believing in the special power of walking, Herzog thought it was the only way his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, would survive a horrible sickness that had overtaken her. What does the practice of walking mean to you?

SM: Herzog's walk you mention is fascinating, I am in admiration for his optimism, resilience and self-belief. I find 'walking' and accounts of epic journeys in general captivating - historic and personal stories full of triumph, uselessness, meditation, political agenda or religious intent. There are so many amazing examples; like the Peace Pilgrim, that woman who walked the continents for 25 years living only off the kindness of others; and then there's the young man who tried to attempt the same thing years later lasting only days before his retreat. Another favourite is definitely the race to reach the South Pole on foot back in the day. It was between the Norwegians and the British. The Norwegians arrived first, raised their flag and returned home safely. The British took a different route. They eventually made it to the pole but upon seeing the Norwegian flag, realised their defeat. This disappointment or psychological state perhaps contributed to the fact that they all perished on their walk back. Ahh the burden of failure.

Werner Herzog and Lotte Eisner

KF: Oh yes, what did one of Scott's men say on that journey before he walked out into the blizzard never to return: 'I am just going out. I might be some time'. Something grand about leaving on such a poetic note (or having a great saying on your tombstone like Spike Milligan's "I told you I was ill").

SM: Yes! Wonderful quote.

KF: I've definitely always been drawn to accounts of crazily ambitious walking journeys too like Jon Muir who completed the first unassisted crossing of Australia from Port Augusta to Burketown. Then of course there's also a long history of walking works in contemporary art. Artists such as Richard Long, Francis Alys, Sophie Calle and Janet Cardiff come to mind. Is there a particular walking artwork that resonates with you?

SM: Not one in particular really, all of them, none of them. All those artists you mentioned have very different approaches to ‘walking’. I certainly acknowledge the lineage but I wasn't really inspired to make these works because of a certain artist or artwork. Actually, in this case, I think Herzog was the most influential.

KF: So tell us about your walks and the new body of work that came out of them.

My walks were in no way as brutal or iron-willed as Herzog’s, but I guess there are similarities. They came from a longing to connect with the landscape and a more personal and psychological journey about solitude and absence.

I started the walks while I was staying in a mountain area in Italy - a place where my father was born and where I'd spent a lot of time at as a child and as an adult. Although I'd photographed the area before, this particular visit was at a strange time in my life, a time of upheaval and uncertainty so I decided I wanted to somehow record my experience of the place in a different way. Each day I would go for these epic walks up the mountain taking a different path each time, I guess like Herzog, in an attempt to heal and gain understanding. I walked with a piece of 4 x 5” negative film taped to my chest across my heart. I was attempting to embed the negative with my experience of the landscape whilst also trying to capture my psychological and emotional experience.

Sarah Mosca, Untitled walk # 1 (absent gesture) & Untitled walk # 2 (vague silence), 2013

KF: Interesting, a completely different way of capturing the landscape that you have photographed again and again over many years.

SM: Yeah. The chemistry of the film was altered by the temperature of my body, my breath, my sweat and the environment. I wasn’t sure what image would be created. What they became were these abstract colour-fields, with punctures, marks and no decipherable image, a photographic failure I guess.

KF: It's a very physical engagement you've developed with the work. Do you see the action or the final image to be more important?

SM: Yes it is more of a physical engagement. Although I've never really made performance works before, in this series, image and action are both very much intertwined.

KF: A lot of your work has been focused on this mountainous region in Italy. Apart from the personal significance, what else do you find interesting about the place?

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized what a fascinating history it had. Five years ago the area suffered a massive earthquake which completely destroyed the historic centre. It is the strangest place now, almost like time has just stopped. Although a lot of the old buildings are still there and look inhabitable, on the inside they are completely in ruins. People now live surrounding the centre in new yet temporary camp like structures that have no connection to the environment. There is a heavy social and political unrest taking place. It's very strange.

There's also a science laboratory concealed inside the mountain where they conduct extraordinary experiments into ‘black-hole/time travel/collecting atoms from the Sun' type of things. To add to that, on the top on the mountain is an old rundown hotel where Benito Mussolini was held captive by the Americans during the war. I drove to see it and was amazed the hotel still operated (kind of). I asked the receptionist about Mussolini so she gave me a key to the room where he was held, apparently with all the original furnishings including his sheets still intact. I was left alone to just do as I pleased (which I found particularly odd), so I took some photographs, sat in his bath (as my little ode to Lee Miller when she photographed herself sitting in Hitler’s bath in his Berlin apartment), spent a little time sitting on his bed then returned the key to the receptionist who didn’t really seem to care less.

After my visit I became kind of obsessed with this odd place that had been used as a temporary prison for the dictator. I later found out that actually none of the furnishings were original (of course), but what I did discover was the foyer floor had been retiled at some point to alter and conceal the swastika that was originally laid in the floor. I find these new truths and concealed histories particularly interesting.

Corno Grande peak, Apennine Mountains, Abruzzo Region, Italy 2013

KF: Yes, false histories, like when the Russian's erased all the cosmonauts who died in training out of the photographic archives to make their space program seem more efficient than the American's.

SM: Exactly.

KF: In the past you have worked with erasure and overlaying to create images that are hard to pin down. You extended this veiling and obscuring in the Untitled Walk series, creating camera-less images that steer the audience even further away from a literal reading of the landscape. Can you talk a little bit about these processes?

SM: Yes it is definitely about creating a tension between form and formlessness and somehow testing failures within the photographic language. I am really interested in how much information can be erased in a photograph so only an impression is left. The images are very much talking about absence and presence. In a sense I guess they attempt to talk about memory, or the fracturing of memory, like glimpses of what is there and what has passed.

Sarah Mosca, Untitled (Pause), 2012 Pigment print, 450 x 600 mm

KF: What techniques have you used in the past to achieve this?

SM: I take both film and digital photographs and then use techniques that originated in the dark room but now can be done digitally. My use of digital technology really only started out of necessity, I was travelling a lot and didn’t have a studio or dark room so it seemed the only option. Working mainly with light and colour my techniques are simple. It is important for me to operate within the photographic language. I am interested in talking about photography itself in my work. I also use sculptural materials. I've often used Perspex for example. Sometimes the Perspex pieces are autonomous objects and other times they become a part of the image, veiling and concealing it.

KF: To me, the techniques that you use are photographic but also painterly, with the erasure being more photographic and the veiling of colour being more painterly. It's interesting that you seem to find images more appealing the less information they contain. In that way I think you really successfully avoid description and denotation, instead focusing on impressions and suggestions.

SM: Interesting point, perhaps I have always wanted to be a painter? No not really, I think maybe it comes from the nuisance of what photography should be; a description of ‘the real’, I simply see it as a recording of light. I don’t like to determine in my work how it should be read. Much of my work comes from a more psychological or emotional position so I don’t feel those things can be statements as such, only suggestions or ideas.

Sarah Mosca, Document II, 2011, Installation view, MOP Projects, Sydney

KF: Your work often plays with the relationship between images and objects. In the 'Untitled Walks' series would I be correct in assuming image and object have collapsed into one another - the photograph has become an object where the material surface of the negative has become more significant than its image capturing/reproductive ability? What interests you about the sculptural possibilities of photography?

SM: You are completely correct. The idea of collapsing, unfolding and imploding are all present in the new work. I guess there are two ways that I approach the sculptural possibilities of photography. I have always been interested in the photograph as an object in itself. It is something that has a sensitivity, a life, a materiality that is dependent on so many things. Then there's as you say the relationship between images and objects in a space. My work has always had sculptural components. When I show my work I see the exhibition as a whole; how one object sits next to another, how it reflects, talks to or against the others. The object, the image, the space all share the same weight. I am influenced by other artists such as Sara Van Der Beek, Becky Beasly and Carol Bove who also work in this way collapsing the image/object relationship.

KF: And finally, when will we get the chance to see these new works?

SM: I presented two of the works from the series recently in a show at Sydney Guild titled Conquest of the Useless. The project explored the precarious relationship between aspirations and failure in reference to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. The faulted hero Sisyphus was sentenced by the gods to his interminable fate; of rolling a rock up a mountain only to watch it roll back down under its own weight. It seemed all too fitting to include these works in the show. I am currently working towards my solo exhibition in July 2014 where I will show the complete series.

Sarah Mosca is an artist and curator currently based in Sydney. She has exhibited in Berlin, Iceland, Sydney and Melbourne and is currently represented by Galerie Pompom in Sydney.  

Kim Fasher is a curator and co-director of SuperKaleidoscope.