The British-American artist Sarah Morris sees connection systems – metro networks, city maps, cobwebs – everywhere she looks. Since the mid-1990s, Morris has been refining a visual language from geometric, color-blocked paintings and installations derived from the man-made structures and systems of cities around the world. She dedicates entire series to individual locations (Los Angeles, Midtown Manhattan, Washington DC, Beijing … the list goes on) and thinks about public transport, architecture and industry. She also makes films – atmospheric and vaguely exciting montages of the cities that point to the endless experiences in them.
When the world was locked in 2020, Morris was in the middle of a project focused on Hong Kong. Morris was usually jet-setting around the globe and quarantined in rural Massachusetts, and her macro view became downright microscopic: cobwebs in house corners, trees and unexpected nooks and crannies became objects of her fascination.
The paintings created during this time – a series called “Spiderwebs” – can currently be seen in her exhibition “Escape routesâAt the White Cube Gallery, London. Morris recently spoke to us about how the pandemic has changed the way you understand cities, time and perception itself.
Your new series âSpiderwebsâ often looks like color-filled nets or radial cracks on a frozen lake or a pane of glass. Can you tell me a little bit about the series and how it came about?
I had left town when it was cordoned off in the Massachusetts woods. The first painting I made from this period is called dilemma. During this time I had started thinking about the scale in relation to the city. On the one hand, the population density gave cause for concern about the pandemic. On the other hand, the city suddenly seemed deserted.
At the same time, I had become more aware of the details in my own new environment, and I was intrigued by the cobwebs I kept seeing and their constructions, their improvisation and their kind of ingenuity. I took a lot of photos of these webs and thought about this microscale. Suddenly I saw the city as an organic entity – yes, it is man-made, but organic in the sense that it is permeable and vulnerable. Like any other structure on earth, it can simply suddenly disappear or be extremely endangered. A city is a fragile form, an ephemeral form that can be emptied and then clogged or condensed again.
Where do you see the similarities between spider webs and cities?
Cobwebs are constructed. You are extremely strong. You are predatory. They are also a living space. And yet they can suddenly disappear; they appear overnight, they disappear, things run through them. You keep going. The wind blows and they change again.
I see the images as a kind of modality of how one thinks about the perception of time, the city and the disorientation around us. I usually look at the macro – New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Beijing – and how these chains of cities are connected. Places are connected to other places and it is impossible to isolate them, not because of globalization, but simply because of the history of civilization.
These network structures became, in a sense, diagrams – I use them in a very loose form – as a way of looking at the situation we were in and the spatial disorientation around us.
This microstructure has it all. Maybe, I thought, it has some properties to think about. There is a lot of ingenuity in these little shapes. People wipe them away, but actually they are absolutely necessary for a whole chain of existence. There’s no place that isn’t tied to any other place, is there? What is going on in South Africa has to do with London, has to do with New York.
Your film Sakura, which you completed before the pandemic, can also be seen in the exhibition. Can you tell me something about the film?
I made Sakura in Japan in 2018. Many of my films are very specific to one event, be it the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing or the end of the Clinton administration in the Capitol. This film was shot exactly when the sakura trees were in bloom for about three days. I knew about the flower and found it to be very beautiful and meaningful, but it turned out to be a huge tourist attraction. We landed at Osaka Airport and there were crowds of people on pilgrimage to see these trees in bloom. I understand why.
The timing has become even more unpredictable due to climate change. The trees are now blooming about three weeks earlier than before due to the change in temperature. Ultimately, however, we have the footage. In all of my films, it’s kind of an accordion of many different places and situations moving in and out of space.
For example, for this film we shot in the Bunraku Puppet Theater, which was designed by the architect Kiro Kurokawa. We were also in the laboratory of Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered the omnipotent plural stem cell in 2012. There is also a great scene in a famous biscuit factory. As in all of my films, there were about a hundred locations to be seen. It’s supposed to be an A-to-Z in everyday life in a city – full of non-linear fragments that become a hypercollage of what could happen in a single moment in a place.
Have you been able to travel a lot since the pandemic started? It seems like an integral part of your job. I know you are meant to be making a film about Hong Kong …
We started filming in Hong Kong just before the pandemic started. This project is currently on hold. The quarantine rules are such that it is very unaffordable to go to Hong Kong. I think it’s a 21 day quarantine. But I’ve traveled to Europe a few times and of course I installed Means of Escape at White Cube.
Nonetheless, since you are mostly locked up, you will be caught observing your actual existence wherever you are, wherever it is.
Do you think the lockdown formally influenced your work – besides forcing you to take a closer look at the immediate area?
What I would say about the pictures is that there is a growing element of – not of disorder – but of chance. Where is the reference? The reference in these pictures is no longer the city, but time itself becomes elastic. We don’t really remember what day of the week it is – or how long ago that was. The word âpost-pandemicâ is a bit optimistic in my opinion. I think our realities have shifted under our feet and we are trying to keep track of time, but at the same time we are severely disoriented.
The tough deadline for this exhibition was actually very good for me – to have a date that I can work towards. I have a number of moon works on display that are my own pandemic diary. Every month I painted a painting which is my interpretation of the lunar calendar. Thatâs, in a way, a timestamp of the show. That is the most solid thing that can be found on the time grid, the grid of the calendar.
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