Interview with Aprille Best Glover. January 21, 2001
Aprille, I understand you moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Lavardin, France. You live now in a cave, in France. Has your living environment effected your artwork? Yes and no. In most ways living in a cave is surprising normal. I have electricity, a regular bathroom on city water and sewage, a telephone, the internet and a great view from my front window,. In some ways it's like living in a beach condo where all the windows are on one wall looking out into a picturesque French village instead of the ocean. But cave life is also totally unique. There is not a single straight line in our entire home. All the walls arch into the ceiling and then arch down to the far wall. The walls are almost alive with small pits make by the handtools used to cut out the stone. Tuffeau, the local stone from which our cave is quarried is a warm white. We are high up a cliffside facing south west so we get lots of light. It's very cozy and secure feeling. Our cave is not, by cave standards, very old. It's just a little over 350 years old but for an American that seems pretty ancient. It may have made me a little more conscience of history but I don't think cave living has effected my artwork directly. French culture has had a much greater effect.
In what way has French culture affected you artistically? This show definitely emerged from my personal encounter with European art since I moved to France. Europe is overwhelming sensory experience. There is sheer number and variety of objects, paintings, sculptures, and architectural detail from a living culture over 2,000 years old. These are not all objects in museums. Art is everywhere. Romanesque frescos in our little village church, in the houses we visit, in every town square everywhere. Gradually, I found myself gravitating towards Medieval churches. They have a certain atmosphere. The air inside seems to have weight. What struck me was this experience didn't feel like a standard reverence for the old but somehow very, for lack of a better word modern. The same sort of experience you might have at a Turrell installation or a decent biannual. It wasn't a one trick pony. I had the same sensation time after time. I took many field trips to different sites and Chartres Cathedral in particular trying to figure out how or what part of the whole generated that powerful sensation. I started out pretty sure it wasn't any one detail or sculptural element. Gothic art retains it beauty in a gallery or museum setting but not that sensation you feel as look up at the statues on a church portico or looking down at weathered carved tiles on the nave floor.
One thing is certain if you spend enough time in European churches especially the great pilgrimage churches like Lourdes, Vézelay or Chartres, you are bound to get interested in reliquary. Important relics are a large aspect of a Cathedral's fame. Usually relics are associated with various saints. It might be a bone shard of the Madeleine(Mary Magdalen) like at Vézelay or a fragment of cloth worn by the Virgin Mary at Chartres. Each relic was prominently placed in elaborate reliquary where worshippers can file by and see the precious object faintly through a small glass window or perhaps only see and kiss a shrouded box. After some research I discovered those ephemeral little bits of saints were the raison d'être for those huge complex structures. A Cathedral derives its sanctity from its holy relic and in many ways the whole of those grand uplifting spaces serves as an eminence reliquary around a smaller one. Even the smallest parish church has a holy relic, but often the relic was an object that has been in contact with a true holy relic and so had been liturgically infused with the original's sanctity.
The history is interesting, but how does this relate to contemporary art? Slowly it occurred to me why Cathedrals have such a resonance. A key issue of the last half century is importance of process over product. That really what makes the product, the artwork, important is not its technical finish or craftsmanship but this quasi-spiritual quality of process. This is much like the notion that underpins holy relics, that the holiness of a saint can be mystically captured in their physical remains. A trip to a museum is like a miniature pilgrimage to look at post-Industrial martyrs. This conception rings true in many respects because it dove-tails with that rare but real mental experience of inspiration. This Greenberg-ish school of thought has been very fruitfully; producing art as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, Fluxus, New Expressionism etc., even whole new categories of art such as installation and performance art. It also produces an enormous tension. Artists and Art Lovers also love finish, love craftsmanship, love cool deliberate art that lays outside sacred notion of process. This approach also tends to produce art that is increasing difficult for a viewer to understand because it is increasing rooted in the artist's personal experiences. Completely rejecting this idea of subjective creative power in turns tends to produce art so devoid of human experience, it is equally incomprehensible to most viewers.
A reliquary is fascinating because it points to another way of thinking and making art. It uses the most mute and personal of artifacts. Really, what could be more enigmatic than a fingerbone or scrap of material? Then medieval artists used every esthetic trick in the book, from craft, sumptuous material, scale, you name it , to help the viewers understand and perhaps even experience directly a complex array of religious and philosophical insights. Reliquary were enormously successful at reaching a all-inclusive spectrum of society. Kings, illiterate peasants and all groups in between came on pilgrimage. The modern tourist industry is born out of the popularity of relics and reliquary. If you are interested in communicating the difficult to explain, the ephemeral, to a broad audience reliquary are a great place to go looking for pointers. Reliquary are also the only element of a Cathedral that retain their visceral power out of context. They fire the imagination even in a museum or gallery in a way an equally elaborate snuffbox or altarpiece can not. You can't look at a reliquary with a lock of saint's hair and not wonder at least a little bit about what Saint Bonadventure looked like, was his life was like, or something similar. I went to Vézelay with a friend who is sacrilegious to say the least., his response was indifference to the church, one of the greatest of the Gothic Cathedrals but he couldn't resist the two reliquary of Mary Magdalen. He spent over an hour on bad jokes and hypothetical lifestyles of the long dead Madeleine. He may not believe but those reliquary made him think. That's real visual power. Any artist in their right mind wants that kind of power in their own work.
So where did the idea for reliquaries come from? When the idea for the first reliquary, Seed Requiem, appeared a few months later, it just popped into my mind fully realized. It was so exciting because I could see immediately reliquaries as a vehicle for all kind of ideas I was interested in exploring sculptural but I could never find an appropriate 3-dimensional form. Before that my interest in reliquary had been a sidebar that was in no way directly connected to my artwork. Seed Requiem suddenly placed it front and center of my occupation.
The connection between a Requiem which is funeral music and Seeds to death and dying is pretty clear but what is the connection to the environment or food for that matter? I'm ardently pro-environment but much of the environmental message is delivered by implying that we are destroying nature. Now humans can deforest a region, make a species go extinct, or make a planet with a climate too turbulent to support human life but we can't destroy nature. Nature is just fine. If nature has to start over from cockroaches or single-celled liveforms, it will. The question is can we humans chose to fit inside nature's rhythms. We as a species are writing our own funeral music through our collective actions but of course we could chose to tend nature as gardeners rather that exploiting it. As for food, well food symbolizes just about everything pleasureful. Food is love, family, health, security, childhood, conversation, sensuality, life, guilt, beauty, shame.... I mean what can't you associate to food?
That's pretty open-ended isn't it? Well yeah, It is. I don't make art for art sake. Everything I do has a meaning. There is a real language to the visual arts. I am definitely trying use that language to communicate visually. A lot of artists refuse to admit or discuss the meaning of their work for fear of misinterpretation. To me, that's garbage. Yes, it true that because a visual symbol, say a seed, has complicated multiple meanings it easy for someone to find a very different interpretation than mine. In Seed Requiem someone might find a meaning diametrically opposed to my own. But that is the power of visual communication. We live in a world of pundits who yell cardboard one-dimensional ideas across the table to someone who yell equally one-dimensional ideas back. Our written and oral discourse leaves no room for ambiguity or complexity. The possibility that we could both be right. Or maybe both be wrong. The strength of art is that ability to communicate those gray areas that written language usually can't handle well.
That's great in theory, but the title of your exhibition Open Secrets implies something very different. Perhaps that your work my not be what it seems. How can you keep secrets and expect to communicate openly with the viewer? Hmm. That is an interesting question. First all, the title is largely relates to the fact that many important elements of the work can't be seen directly from outside. Those elements reside in the interior and have to be imagined in museum setting. But unlike a reliquary in a church which is always locked or closed to the public, with these reliquary it is possible to discover what is inside. Each work is photo-documented so the viewer can see inside indirectly. But more fundamentally the meaning of each sculpture is open and decodeable. It may seem indecipherable at first glance but all the information needed to understand is available. You don't need any personal information or my artistic history. You don't need to know my favorite color or my bad relationship with my parents. Although my symbols come from many different cultures, as well as literature and art history I use them in a straight traditional way. Dogs symbolize loyalty, roses symbolize love, feathers symbolize arrows or angels or Indians or birds or flight. It makes a puzzle but a solvable puzzle. Puzzles are fun. Of course, the viewer is equally free to walk in and judge based on external appearances but I think most people like a puzzle if they are certain it can be solved.
The Karpeles is a manuscript museum rather than a traditional fine art museum. How does this relate to your exhibition? I think it makes for a remarkably good fit. While I love traditional museums, the aims the Karpeles parallel my own. If you get a chance you should look at their website. I personally lament the current educational system that leaves the general student with so little basic knowledge of their own culture and its history. I use images drawn from a wide spectrum of sources which should be general knowledge but unfortunately just aren't taught as such. I'm want to reach a wide audience who through not fault of their own may or may not understand the symbols inside my work, so I must incorporate a vast quantity of documentation that might not have be necessary two generations ago. In doing so, I have gotten very involved with making artist books. Each reliquary in the show has a corresponding manuscript. The best part about being an artist is that all your interests can become part of your finished product. These reliquary hold subjects as diverse as Proust, Astronomy, Lost Love, African symbols/signs and world politics. I'm forced to get engaged in education. Education and public access to our real cultural heritage not a water-down version are the core mission of the Karpeles as I understand it. I'm looking forward not only to returning to Jacksonville for the exhibit but for the chance to explore the Karpeles collection of manuscripts. There are some very interesting books from the turn of the last century about medical practices in their collection. Those books may find their way into some new artwork later.