Virginia Lee Montgomery
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
May 11, 2018
Drawing upon the human body as a sculptural media, Virginia Lee Montgomery and Selva Aparicio play on synecdoche and corporeal materiality through unsettling inversions of individual and object. Catching body oils on copper plates and marking wrinkled crevices in concrete tiles, Aparicio harvests forms from human cadavers, suspending traces of decaying flesh. By contrast, Montgomery extends her physical presence through synthetic surrogates which act as alternate selves, grounding Montgomery in spaces where her actual body is absent. In alternate interpretations of the material self, Aparicio and Montgomery speak to the memory and animation of material, subjecting bodily time to elisions and cuts that may both preserve and destroy.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Virginia Lee Montgomery and Nicole Kaack. The full conversation can be found at the following link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition OPEN MIND.
Nicole Kaack: [to Virginia] I thought it would be nice to launch in with the text, ‘OPEN MIND,’ that you wrote for this exhibition. I was so stricken by the image that you recount again and again of Selva’s hands making this incision into a cadaver’s skull. Perhaps we could focus on how that image informs the title of the show and continues an investigation into the transformations between material and memory.
Virginia Lee Montgomery: Absolutely. Selva and I had a really intense bond in graduate school. As the text lays out, we had our studios side-by-side in this removed corner of the Yale sculpture building. Our practices shared many interests, even though what we make is very different. A lot of what we do is about being out in the world, constantly absorbing experiences with our bodies and our minds, and later trying to translate that through whatever it is that we make. And always being hyperaware of the paradox of contextualizing that within the ivory tower situation of Yale.
There was this one strange, surreal morning when I was coming back from taking business classes at the Yale Management School, which was this really intense experience that I was seeking out for the sake of research. It’s actually, extremely hard to even get inside that ecosystem because they don’t want MFA students. It’s a separate entity that exists outside of the academic pedagogy. I was the first MFA to successfully get business school access. Selva had similarly started up a relationship with the medical school at Yale and was actually taking anatomy classes through the surgery group, spending most of her time in the morgue hanging out with dead bodies. Versus what I was doing in terms of weird anthropological but very earnest research with the business school students.
One morning, when we were about to go to our departmental meeting, Selva just grabs me. She just keeps saying to me, “My hands, my hands.” And I’m slowly putting together what happened. I was the first person she encountered after she left that particular medical community, so she’s recounting the memory but building it out spatially with her fingers and also with these rapid eye movement blinks. She was telling me this because she’s trying to ground it in me. In like 20 minutes we’re about to go sit down around a departmental meeting board room, and talk about, I don't know, who put black paint in the sink, and eat donuts. The kind of bullshit that you experience in grad school. So I had this 20-minute window with her, where she was trying to tell me about the experience of cutting open this body.
It’s one of these moments where we’re realize, ‘Oh my god, yeah, this is really what we’re doing.’ How weird is it that we now have to sit in a department meeting and talk about bureaucracy. The strangest thing that I later realized, when talking with her a year later, is that she had no memory at all of telling me any of this. It had been internalized, but it was also interesting actually understanding how trauma and shock operate within the body. You can be moving forward in time, saying things, speaking things, but have no conscious memory of what was going on.
I was on the phone with Selva, and we were both talking about what it is to be making work. We were recounting, trying to trace back to the last time that we were together, and I mentioned that moment of when she cut open the head. She’s like, “How do you even know that I did that?” And I say, “Girl, you told me.” So I started telling her what she did. She was totally freaked out that I remembered it and in such detail. I was like, “Yeah, I’m storing information in my body constantly, Selva.” And she says, “That’s so weird, because I’m just interacting with dead bodies all the time.”
Nicole Kaack: I like the idea that the body can be separate from the mind and still have that sense of storage. These ears offer some sense of the things that they’ve heard, can still function following a different logic.
Virginia Lee Montgomery: There is that classical philosophical argument about the difference between mind and body, which I love on a romantic level. But I also grew up with a very close family member that had Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which breaks down the body while the mind stays perfect and brilliant. That’s a really fascinating thing to watch, that literal separation between mind and body. It’s a horrific disease where the synapses, the nerve endings, just start to erode, but your mind stays crystal clear. So you become really aware that the body is just a functional vessel for a soul. You still are interacting with someone’s consciousness, even though they may not have the ability to relay information out. Selva and I both have this obsession with the question of what is a spirit and how do you interact with it. Selva’s always talking about the “husk,” the material. She’s very aware of bodies, but curious about when it quits being a body and starts being material.
Nicole Kaack: Or when does a body cease to be human, perhaps.
Virginia Lee Montgomery: When does the body cease to be a human and when does it cease to be a recognizable form. Selva was explaining to me that when you’re actually working, there is a breakdown process that continues to occur, regardless of the capabilities of deep freeze. It’s never truly a suspended form. At a certain point, it does get cut, cut, cut. Or it just starts to break down. And then, you don’t recognize it.
Nicole Kaack: Thinking about husks and synecdoche, in terms of representations of yourself within your films, might we talk about your literal body surrogate, the ponytail. How does that function?
Virginia Lee Montgomery: For the past six years I’ve been traveling with this four-foot-long ponytail in my suitcase to different jobs around the country. I’m a graphic facilitator, so I do professional mind map scribing work. At conferences or private meetings for any type of client, from pharmaceutical to fashion, whenever there’s a group speaking together in a room, I’m there in an organizational capacity, trying to map out the conversation. Almost every week I get on an airplane and fly to a different location. I’m in New York for five days and then I’m going to Seattle — that’s where Ponytail and I are going. When you become hyperconscious of being embodied as moving in space or identify as dislocated, you develop a desire for forms of psychic consistency.
The blonde ponytail prop comes from the fact that the consistency between these different events and locations is that I’m always returning at the end of the night and sleeping in a bed. What is the material that I’m interacting with at that moment? Clothes, bed. But my direct point of contact is usually my hair. If I have to leave that for the business environment, how can I still preserve that consistency as a material structure? Perhaps the blonde hair lies on the bed eternally, until I return to it again. Regardless of where my physical body was, at least that was a consistent thing in time and space. It’s always there, sleeping on the pillow. It’s there right now. It’s totally bananas, but it’s the thing I’ve been doing. Then, over time, I started documenting it. A lot of this video is the ponytail in hotel rooms.
In terms of making this work, I thought, I don't know if I can make a three-hour film of just ponytails on pillows. I could, but… I don't know if I want to. The ponytail body-prop surrogate maneuver came as a means of facilitating a tangible form of psychic dislocation. It also allows me to make something that I could then bring with me in a suitcase, sets up a system within the confines of my usual business job.
Nicole Kaack: You purposely sought out business classes at Yale and are now in this job which places you in contact again with that kind of corporate environment. Something that you speak to in OPEN MIND is the function of internalizing yourself enough to mask your encounter with situations that are other or unfamiliar.
Virginia Lee Montgomery: I’m here with you. I don’t know what everybody’s relationship with their body is, but I am super aware of myself as a spirit inside a thing. I see this, my body, as an apparatus for my spirit to move. And I work from there. I’m really interested in absorption. Psychic absorption. It’s hard to map out things that are invisible that you’re absorbing all the time. That’s why memory is really fascinating to me.
I also wonder what it means to, as an artist, try to build an installation that then refers to metacognition. Because this in itself is its own type of artificial apparatus.
Nicole Kaack: Or logic.
Virginia Lee Montgomery: Yeah! It’s like a logic. I’m really interested in circles or when things start to spin. I think about it in terms of spatial dimensions. What’s the difference between a circle and a sphere? Because they’re fundamentally the same thing, they both have this [gestures] going on. But when one circle starts to bisect another circle, that starts to bisect another circle, that starts to bisect another circle, you get a sphere. And then, in the progression of that build, you start to spin. When something starts to spin, and spin, and spin, and spin, that opens the possibility of a glitch. Or for something from the real to come forward.