Lani Asuncion, The New Connecticut School

lani-asuncion-1This conversation presents the work “Three Sisters” by the multidisciplinary artist Lani Asuncion, part of what curator and artist Olu Oguibe defines as The New Connecticut School.
The New Connecticut School, as defined by Oguibe, embraces artists brought together by their desire to practice away from the pressures of the big cities. It centres on themes such as a sensitivity toward the environment, as well as a bond with the place and its inhabitants. These are all artists who live and have studied in Connecticut. In addition to Lani Asuncion, Ted Efremoff and Colin McMullan, also included by Olu Oguibe, will shortly be presented here.

This conversation took place during Lani Asuncion’s residency at Bilpin international ground for Creative initiatives (BigCi) in Australia.  As we spoke, Asuncion reaffirmed the importance of developing personal relationships among any community she works with.  She elaborated on her multimedia work “Three Sisters”: it is focused on the role of the oral tradition in a contemporary setting and is composed of elements of sculpture, video, installation and performance.  The project originates in the complex relationships the artist has with her six sisters.  It calls on legends whose protagonists are the Three Sisters mountain peaks, tales which have evolved over different times and countries and cultures. The work is divided into three parts: “Lost Myth” (2013), Sisters (Oregon); “SustainABLE” (2014), North Carolina; “Dreamtime: Cat’s Cradle and the Lost Bone ‘Stolen Dreams’” (2016), Bilpin (Australia).”

You might also be interested in:
A conversation with Ted Efremoff
A conversation with Colin McMullan
Olu Oguibe talks with us about his work for Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel

Full conversation transcript below

  • A conversation with Lani Asuncion (full version)

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation

  • Part I – Lost Myth [Three Sisters]

  • Part II — SustainABLE [Three Sisters]

  • Part III — Dreamtime: Cat’s Cradle and the Lost Bone “Stolen Dreams” [Three Sisters]
All videos have been kindly provided by the artist

Tiziana Casapietra: Lani, I was discussing with Olu Oguibe, when I invited him to do some names of artists to be involved in the project, and he was mentioning the Connecticut Art School. Of course, it is not a building or an institution, but he was considering it as representative of all those artists that are leaving the big cities to go to work in smaller realities where life is more kind of connected to nature. It would be nice if you could introduce this idea of leaving New York and also your own work and your own approach to art. And also it would be nice if you could talk about the residency you are doing now. 
Lani Asuncion: Yes, so it’s all kind of interconnected in a way.

TC: Yes, I can imagine. 
LA: Being where I am in Connecticut and the reasons of being there and working there outside of the city and then also why I’m here, all of that is connected with the idea of working within nature and working within local communities and creating not just a social practice but a local practice and a really personal one-on-one connection that I seek to have within my work and with the way that I work within the communities that I go to. For example, in New Haven I have a working-studio and I am actually currently going to be working at Artspace. I’ll be working with them and I’ll be helping them for the next three months, coordinate their City-Wide Open Studios, which I’ve been a part of for about three and half years now. So it’s nice to be on the other end and try to facilitate, coordinating and helping artists to show their work. In Connecticut I actually live an hour away from my studio, so I’ve moved even more into the country currently.

TC: The entire world is looking at New York as the place where we have to be in order to develop our projects in the art world but it seems that you decided to live a different lifestyle.
LA: Yes, I think the peace and really just the space to think and the space to work in a more quiet and in a little bit of more low-key environment, has really enabled me to take that practice and bring it to places like here at Australia BigCi, where it is a lot more quiet and it’s really low-key. I am in a really rural area in Australia really close to the Blues Mountains which is about thirty-five minutes to an hour depending how far in the Blue Mountains you go. Just today I actually met some local people that live here that are interested in being a part of my project and performing with me in my video, performing for my video and my work. It is so sweet, we just sat down and we basically just talked about the local history and things going on in the different towns. And someone even gave me jackets and more clothing because it’s so cold here and I only brought so much clothes. But it is so nice to make the connections. I’m not only meeting people that I’ll be working with, but I’m also making friendships and making closer connections which I really enjoy.

TC: I would like you to tell us something about your work; it would be nice also to show your work.
LA: Then I have to go downstairs because I am in a separate area.
I don’t know if you can see.

TC: Yes, I see you. Maybe you want to talk about your residency there.
LA: This is something that I have been working on today. So the project that I’m doing here is the third part of my “Three Sisters” series (E.d. Part I: “Lost Myth,” 2013; Part II: “SustainABLE,” 2014; Part III: “Dreamtime: Cat’s Cradle and the Lost Bone “Stolen Dreams”,” production in progress) which is based off the Three Sisters stories. I’ve gone to three different locations: the first one is in Sisters, Oregon, where I began, with the Mountains there, the Cascade Range. It’s a story that I made up about the geographical location of the Three Sisters and more about the elements of the actual mountains. Then I went over to do the second part of the series. It was done at Elsewhere Living Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I worked in the tri-state area with local organic farmers and other local people and interns that also performed in the work. But I spend a lot of time in the landscape and talking to local farmers and asking them what their experience is and the hope it is entirely sustainable. I wanted to kind of get an idea of what it was like being an organic farmer in an area that was predominately a GMO planting. Then the last part of the “Three Sisters” stories is here — not quite Bilpin —, in the New South Wales in the Blue Mountains, so I’m doing the story of the Three Sisters in the mountains here. And that’s titled “Dreamtime” and there is going to be a title that is conjoined to that and it’s going to be called “Stolen Dreams, Stolen Stories.” It talks a little bit about a critical backing of the history of the colonial taking of the land here and aboriginal people and how a lot of their stories, a lot of their culture has been in a sense exploited.

TC: Can you tell us more about these stories and the titles of the stories?
LA: The Three Sisters stories are stories that existed within these locations and these places. The first one I made because I had hard time finding it locally, I even went to the local library and I was given stories about these mountains here. So there was this really kind of disconnect between the use of the Three Sister story and the one actually being told. So I called that title of that work “Lost Myth.” The second one was “SustainABLE” which is something that I based off the Three Sister story of corns, squash and beans which is a traditional companion planting that in a sense is Thanksgiving kind of came out of in the US. And then the third one; there is a couple stories at Three Sisters Mountains here, but in all of my work I’m thinking about those stories, but I’m also really thinking about the history and some other local issues. It’s an abstract story, so it’s not like I’m really living the story or playing out; I’m using it more as another contemporary way to have a conversation about what’s going on in every place.

TC: Is this project going to be a video at the end?
LA: There are videos that I make of each of these stories and I have video component, but when it’s installed, that’s done as whole installation in depending on the size of the place and the venue that shows it. Ideally there would be elements of performance that would happen either during the event or at a certain time of the event, but overall there is video elements and sculptural elements that exist within the exhibition.

TC: And now are you going to include these clothes that you are showing to us in your work? 
LA: This here is a cyanotype that I made from some local eucalyptus leaves and the ferns and all the different fauna. They are all different… There is actually a storm, a really windy storm that came through the other day so a lot of the branches were knocked down. There is a lot of plants on the ground, I have just gathered a lot of the eucalyptus branches and and I am printing them on the fabric. This is what the performers will wear and so I’ll make this into a dress.

TC: Ok, that is beautiful.
LA: All the dresses and all the clothing are a little bit different in each piece. I’ll bring this here. And there is also other elements that the three sisters will wear. So this is my sculptural component that I produced.

TC: What kind of materials have you used?
LA: This is found cardboard and then right here it is jute. I’m doing a macramé back in this one and then I’ll be putting feathers within it too.

TC: Are you wearing it during the video or is it just going to be shown as a sculpture?
LA: All the women that perform in the videos have these backs, they are just different. The last one was made out of a corn husk and as it is installed then it becomes a sculpture that is installed with the videos.

TC: What do you get the inspiration from for this kind of sculptures?
LA: I was actually thinking a lot about women, feminine deities and how do you portray feminine deities without being with too much of a loaded image. It was really tricky in the very first project to try to figure out how do I portray earth and strength in a really masculine kind of feeling within the form and I was lucky enough to find this recycled cardboard. It’s actually wine crate shippers, so it is what wine is shipped in. And I wanted it to be strong and tough, but I wanted to be light so when the performers are wearing it is not heavy. It’s also actually easy to ship because I work remotely, I work in different places, but most important is that the performers are not weighed down by it.

TC: Yes, of course. When are the videos going to be ready by?
LA: The other two are already done and this one, the rough draft should be done by the end of September. But the audio for this one is gonna be a little trickier because I’m wanting to try to connect with a local artist who plays the aboriginal instrument.

TC: Is it the story of the Three Sister also written now? 
LA: I have one of them that I wrote. I actually wrote the story of the geographical facts of mountains. So the story that I couldn’t really find, I wrote one on things that I learned by explorers and people who actually are navigating the mountains. The other one I haven’t really written because this is not my main concern and I’m actually more concerned with the oral tradition that I am on a written one.

TC: I very much like the approach you have with your work and life in a way, because we are all living in such hectic world where things are always going on so quickly and then we rarely have the possibility to sit down and reflect. Your approach seems to be actually different because you are really trying, I think, to find this time to reflect and understand things more deeply. I find it very fascinating.
LA: Yes, so the time is slowing down, that is a really good example of today how I was working. It’s been so windy here and not sunny, and then sunny but really windy, and it does not help with printing because all the leaves fly around. So I found myself like watching the sun and watching the breeze and I was just like “Oh, c’mon breeze” as I was talking to the wind and asking it to slow down and to be calmer, but it doesn’t work like that. I wasn’t really fighting, but really being conscious of the environment and that’s what I love about my work is that it forces me to really take heed on the sun, on the day and on what’s going on, and what does the sun look like, on one location or few locations everyday, and how does it change. In Australia the light is totally different than anywhere I have ever been, so it’s like an all new thing that you have to get used to.

TC: I would like you to talk a little bit more about the Three Sisters story. How have you discovered about it?
LA: The first interest came because I was at a place called Sisters Oregon, I was doing research on the location there. People ask me all the time why are you interested in that and it’s not just about that location, but I found the connection with the story when I was there because I have three half sisters and three step sisters. I actually have six sisters and so technically that makes seven sisters and just the other day I was told the story about the Seven Sisters that is actually seven sisters in the Three Sister Mountains here, but the mountains fell apart so you don’t see them anymore and so this is interesting and I was “Oh wow, I really find a connection there and I feel connected to that.” I think it’s interesting to be able to do that and to still in a sense live my life, even I’m doing contemporary art I can still live my life in a way while I may make connections with the world and the environment and the work itself it lives as a video. So I like how there is this parallel with me. It is based on transmedia storytelling and I’m really interested in what that means and how do I continue to respect the oral tradition but at the same time build my work in a contemporary practice.

TC: Do you know the origin of this story? 
LA: Yeah, the origin of that story was told by a local aboriginal elder to another aboriginal person who then told it to me. There is a lot of aboriginal stories that have been changed and manipulated and translated into a colonial aspect of a story. So that’s where I’m actually interested in that translation and how do I interpret that within my own work and a lot of it is very complex and it’s very embedded. So the work looks very abstract and simplified but at the same time, it’s not that I’m simplifying it, I’m just doing it in a more abstract way.