Frottage and Zen – a conversation with Aude Hérail Jäger

Back in 2011, I was part of the curatorial team for an exhibition put on at the Yardley offices on Stratford High Street opposite the developing Olympic site. It was a site I had recorded archaeologically in 2004 (Carpenters Road Studios standing building report Dixon J 2004), my first job in London and the first official piece of mitigation fieldwork in advance of the London 2012 Olympic development. Unearthed created a counterpoint to the ‘poisoned wasteland’ narrative of the Olympic development by bringing together works by 70 of the 500 or so artists who had been resident at the ACME studios in the old Yardley factory on Carpenters Road. All of the works had been made on the site and in response to it, the time, or the landscape location of the studios, the largest in Europe at the time. There’s a film about it here.

I wrote a piece on the exhibition some years ago, but withdrew it from publication as it just wasn’t good enough. I’ve been revisiting the work recently and started by interviewing one of the artists included in the exhibition, Aude Hérail Jäger.

Although much of the exhibition was archaeological in a variety of ways, Aude’s work struck me as being particularly interesting for its approach to bodily exploration of space and understanding contemporary architectural spaces.

The two works we discussed were connected to Aude’s first encounters with her new studio at Carpenters Road and consisted of a series of paint and other fragments, removed from the floor and displayed as an archive, and a rubbing/frottage of the whole studio floor, something that Aude has continued to work with and explore.

We met in Aude’s studio on Orsman Road and this edited extract from our conversation focuses on the ‘archaeology-ness’ of Aude’s work.

James Dixon: I’m interested in to what extent some of the work we showed could be seen as archaeological in its own right and to what extent it can be a cross over between art and archaeology. Your work is obviously archaeological in a number of ways, partly in that you are intentionally recording, with the paint you were taking things from the space, from the site, and archiving them in a particular way. What were your intentions in doing that as an act in the first place? Was it something that you intended at the time to turn into a piece of work? Or was it through the act of clearing that space that it started to feel like something different that might feed into an artwork for you?

Aude Hérail Jäger: I entered that studio space and I was so delighted, except it been a painter’s space, probably several painters before me. And it was filthy because paint splashes all over, and it stays on the walls and the floor. I’m very attached to the ground for my work, it’s very important, so that was immediately something I had to make decisions about. Of course, it can also give freedom, when the floor is covered with stuff, just to splash myself in my own way. Probably it was mix of needing to claim it for myself and also very practically, if I wanted to sand it, which later I did, I had to first extract whatever objects were implanted there, otherwise you would split the sandpaper. I think that’s how it started: both wanting the other people before me ‘out’, wanting to make a clear floor for myself, and as I was doing it, I think I started to… I suppose I was curious, for example, about how there were bits of metal embedded. It started to be really interesting because there were also holes; and I wondered what activity, at that corner of the floor, could have created holes. It just didn’t make sense and I got really excited. There were also gestures of anger like staples; I’ve collected staples, where someone went ‘firing’ with a stapler across the floor. I could recognise this difficult feeling, when you’re working in your studio totally alone, and you can get elation and joy and despair and anger and frustration; and all these little bits, then, started to talk to me and become quite precious as witnesses of what had happened before me. I quite quickly bought those little plastic bags, but it wasn’t a simple process. Should it be material with material, colour with colour, time with time? Some stuff was much older obviously than some others.

Archive of paint fragments, nails etc, Unearthed, 2011

JD: When there is that sort of installation of the archive, as we did for the Carpenters Road exhibition, how much do you feel you’re exhibiting your own act of your discovery of your studio? How much do you think you’re displaying something more archaeological that’s consciously about the previous occupants of the studio? Do you feel you’re displaying them or do you feel you’re displaying your own discovery of the space, or both?

AHJ: That’s a nice question; it’s quite subtle because I don’t think it’s separate. I don’t think it’s easily two different issues. I’ve always been collecting, until I moved from Carpenters Road. Collecting was something I was familiar with, I used to go to skips and collect from them. Surely, there was something about the space that was specific, and there was no way I could have thrown it away; but why exactly? I don’t know if it was about embodying the fact they were now gone and it was me, so whatever had happened was now logged, separately from my creativity, my creation; or there was a little bit of honouring the effort of people before me. Yes, there was some of that, and also of witnessing them, because who knows what happened to these people? A lot of artists give up because they can’t survive, or they’re not fashionable and so there’s no market for them, and so on. So, somewhere I probably wanted to mark their effort, all the ‘stuff’ they had put into that space. For all I know, their work was destroyed. Whatever I had traces of could have been put in skips, or not. How much is that my own work is also an interesting question. I was a bit disappointed in the way it was received before showing them for this exhibition. I was invited in France for an exhibition in a little village in Brittany (Elles sont passées par ici…’ Loguivy de la Mer, 2005, cur. Karine Pradier). The shops were opening themselves and we could choose where to show our work. I asked if I could go to the Épicerie (Grocers), which had big transparent glass windows and you could see all the shelving behind, with separate items with labels. I put my collection on the front window, and with the marker I wrote something like, ‘glue’, ‘paint’, and the place and the date. I didn’t have much feedback from it at all. People didn’t see why I would put this as a layer between them and the shelves with other itemised things, which look the same, but were different, but were also vital in some other way.

JD: When we spoke to the artists who gave us work for the exhibition, a lot of them were giving work from the 80s and 90s, or from very clearly earlier parts of their careers. There was definitely a feeling that people were revisiting their own younger selves, their first studios as artists. How much you feel you were doing that in showing the inventory as part of the exhibition. Were you consciously trying to show a particular aspect of yourself and your career through giving that particular piece and how it related to that very specific moment of moving into the studio?

AHJ: I think, following that first exposure of the work (in Brittany), I think I had faith in this piece. I had such faith in what it means that I really wanted it to be seen again. That was the absolutely perfect opportunity; so yes, it was representing a piece of work I still think is very important for all sorts of reasons, including this connection to your work… You’re not talking about the piece that came right afterwards, which was taking the rubbing of the cleaned floor; they’re related, or is it less important?

JD: I have some questions about that later but it’s fine of you want to talk about them together. Do you see them as the same piece? It’s obviously part of the same overall action.

AHJ: Yes. Part of the same action. I think it’s something to do with understanding the space I’m working in. I did the same for my studio here, except I didn’t collect anything… so either there was nothing to collect… I don’t remember. Whatever it was is to do with making the space my own. I had left college recently before moving in Carpenters Road, so it was particularly important to own that space, to repaint it, to clean it, to fill all the little holes, to make it mine. But not in the sense of control. More in a sense of knowing, accepting the walls and their imperfections, and working with them.

JD: It’s obviously a very similar process to what we do to spaces in archaeology. We are sent to them and we systematically strip everything out and turn it from wherever it was when we got there into a piece of archaeology, which is a scientific thing because it’s being excavated in a particular way. We create certain archaeological or scientific objects ourselves like drawings, and bits of survey. In fact, that’s very similar, how we strip it and turn it into drawings, black and white usually, that are very similar to your tracings. But it’s also very much about creating our own archaeological work spaces by taking all of this past stuff out. Usually, drawing in archaeology is about measuring and putting your own scales and controls over the way you’re depicting, whereas when you’re tracing there’s much more of a connection between the person doing the tracing and the thing being traced because they’re both acting directly on the tracing paper. How do you feel about how the tracing work was displayed in the Carpenters Road exhibition? I know that the reason it wasn’t displayed at full scale is because we didn’t have the space for it and it’s rather fragile, but how did you feel about how it was shown compared with how you’ve shown it elsewhere where it has been at full scale.

Studio floor frottage displayed in a vitrine, Unearthed, 2011

AHJ: Frustrated of course! I trusted the curators completely and it’s their job, their decision, so I didn’t even argue. I was, maybe frustrated is too much, but disappointed, a bit sad because it became something else that I hadn’t meant. I understood why it was done like that, and that’s ok. But, of course, for me, the real piece is when it’s all up on the wall, and we can experience the scale and the material and the light and the discoveries I made. The best was up on the wall for the O Pas Là’ exhibition in France (Lieu d’Art Contemporain, Sigean, 1999, cur. Aude Hérail Jäger). It was really wonderful because the frottage’s overall dimensions are 9 m by 5 m; I displayed it on the wall and so I was playing with the enormous room it was in. There was a window there and the gallery asked if I wanted to block it and I said ‘no, no, don’t block it!’. It was great because, in the day, there was this light coming from that window through the tracing.That was fabulous, to play with the planes of the room, of the studio and the gallery. And the other surprising and exciting thing that happened, the tissue paper I did it on started to distort just a little bit. It ever so slightly, after 5 weeks, sagged, like a belly. That first frightened me because I wasn’t having control of the piece, but then I saw it was wonderful; the piece was breathing and doing what it wanted, out of my control. So, I let the paper decide what it wanted to do.

JD: Archaeology could really experiment with that – not really a loss of control – a ‘non-claiming’ of control, choosing to let stuff be. I can see that it would be a lot of fun to do more 1:1 work with archaeology because of course what we always do is make everything smaller. We take huge sections of trench and make them small so they fit in books. I was in Japan last year looking partly at how archaeology is shown in museums there and one thing that was very striking about almost every museum was that when they had important archaeological sites, they had sections of the archaeology and features often displayed at 1:1 scale, which is interesting in itself just as a scale thing because even though I think I ought to be able to look at small drawings and imagine what they look like at full size, just being confronted with 1:1 huge ditches in a museum makes you completely, in that moment at least, understand the scale of the features they’re talking about completely differently. It’s also interesting that these aren’t 1:1 drawings they’re putting up. They’re actually, in a lot of cases, using plaster or resin and actually taking very thin slice of archaeology and showing that in the museum. So it isn’t strictly speaking a 1:1 scale representation, it’s actually just the thing taken straight out of the ground and shown. It seems such a great thing to do that I wonder why we don’t do it much over here. Certainly seeing the photographs of when your tracing work had been shown in full, you can see how different that is to how it was shown in Unearthed where it was reduced to being part of the archive of the range of work that had taken place at Carpenters Road, probably more than it was being shown as a piece in its own right.

AHJ: Yes, I agree. It was over, finished with. That floor had gone. I’ve noticed while you were speaking about looking in Japan at the drawings in scale, I noticed I had a big emotional lump in my throat. I’m not sure why that is. I think somehow the word ‘generosity’ flashed in my mind at the same time, about taking the time to experience the piece physically, not just as an intellectual concept, and that is a big big thing in my work, in my life I suppose as well, about how we can learn so much, communicate so much from receiving sensations from our bodies; like looking at large scale things at real scale impacts us and maybe makes us feel smaller. It’s so important. There’s often no time, no physical space to set up this work. We had about 243 sheets to place on the wall; it took an assistant and I two to three days… so that’s funding again. Maybe that’s why I had this lump, hearing how you appreciated, in Japan, to experience 1:1 scale. I so wish my work could be up again, so it could be fully appreciated. The other thing that clicked in while you were talking, the previous point about how as an archaeologist, in archaeology, you discover something, peel it away from where it’s embedded and bring it inside, and at the same time, I think what I did when I excavated my things, was to extract them out of my creation, out of my activity. Safely, respectfully, but maybe that is a distinction to make.

Archaeological drawings by James Dixon and Stuart Watson (c 2004), Unearthed, 2011

JD: I guess a last point to make is the relationship between photographs and drawing. I drew that space at Carpenters Road, I assume I drew your studio although I don’t know which one it was.

AHJ: You did?

JD: I drew all of the studios on the first floor.

AHJ: I was on the first floor. Did you do the entire first floor?

JD: Yes.

AHJ: Then you will have done mine. I would love to see that.

Archaeological drawings of the studios by James Dixon c 2004, left 1:200, right not to scale, Unearthed, 2011

JD: It’s a very small drawing which will maybe surprise you if you compare it to your 1:1. It contains virtually no detail at all, because of the specific type of drawing it’s trying to be and the kind of job it’s trying to do. I’ve been trying to do a bit more experimentation with my archaeology recently, I did a project up at the Olympic Park a few weeks ago where I tried to take a few of the stages of what we would do in a normal archaeological investigation of this space – it was one of the underpasses of one of the motorways – and tried to do them very differently so, thinking about the site boundary, where we would normally have a red line on a map, I instead wrote a long written description of the site boundary. For me this created a very different relationship with the site because not only do you end up having to look at things in a lot more detail to accurately describe them instead of just drawing the line on a piece of paper, it also becomes very unclear quite exactly where those boundaries are and where they meet. It also makes you as a person spend a long time doing something and it makes your arm hurt, writing for an hour, it’s just a very different kind of relationship. But also thinking about how we might record and draw that space, normally I would make a line drawing and take some photographs, but I decided instead in this one to have a go at recording textures from the space on my body, so pressing myself against things.

AHJ: But how did you record that?

JD: We did take some photos of it. The photos don’t really show it well, so it’s essentially what it was intended to be, which was to take the idea of a permanent, scientific archive and to replace it with something that’s ephemeral and temporary. The idea of an archaeology that results in a temporary, ephemeral archive is the opposite of what we usually try to do.

AHJ: It’s about the experience in situ at that moment. It’s very Zen in a way.

JD: Is Zen something you think about a lot?

AHJ: Yes, yes, yes. Zen. It’s a huge concept… I think that I couldn’t reconcile myself with my religious upbringing – because Catholicism is so misogynist – I couldn’t find my place in there. For many years I’ve tried to find another principle that would suit me. I am a Yoga teacher and meditation is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. I also spent four or five years studying Japanese Zen calligraphy. After all of that, ten to fifteen years later, I spent one month at the British School at Rome. It was my first time in Rome. I was walking and drawing, and there was a church and it was open; I opened the door and suddenly I was at home, I recognised everything, the words, the rites – while in Japan for example, when I was in temples, I was always slightly uneasy: is it ok to clap my hands too, or is it going to be considered disrespectful? Suddenly, here, I was in a place I knew exactly how to operate, and that was quite peaceful, so in a long way, I kind of came home, but without discarding all these other things. What you just said was totally down my street, about the experience in the moment, and also the registration of where one is through the body. I’ve read somewhere that we communicate with others more than 80% non-verbally, there are so many other things we are able to take in, readings from everywhere and everybody and every event that we don’t even consciously recognise. But they’re there, and this is a bit what you were… well that’s what I picked up when you were saying how you decided to record that space under the motorway; and I don’t know how one can, then, convey this work as part of one’s work, but to me this is an aspect of creativity that we need to think about. Especially these days when everyone seems ‘lost’, eyes on the screen and fingers tapping; investing more and more is so crucial to remember this other capacity we have and join the whole lot.

JD: Speaking about Japan has been really interesting. It struck me reading a book about wabi-sabi that your tracing work is a great example. I think it has a very wabi-sabi visual aesthetic, but also the way that its creation is about a certain relationship between you and the space. If I could just ask one last thing about Unearthed, I’m interested in how much and how you think that one act of cleaning and recording, recreating your studio at the point when you moved into it, has stayed with you and influenced any later work.

AHJ: I wonder if that was my very first tracing work. I think it may have been. Certainly it was my very first large scale piece, the tracing of the studio floor. What has happened since, again with the floor, gravity and ascent, those kind of vectors of forces, I have translated it in, or tried to understand that by taking the frottage of stairs and steps and staircases. I think I must have two or three different sets of steps and staircases that actually nobody has ever seen because I’ve never had the exhibition space for it. Also I just work. I don’t set up to say ‘I’m going to do steps’, it comes if I meet a stairs or steps that fit with the rest of the work, and then I say that I must take that frottage and then I will set out to do it. I have some next steps in sight in Ireland, and that was probably a direct follow-up. I did another couple of floors after that, table tops and three-dimensional objects through frottage. So, yes, from there, from that need to claim my new studio space and discard, log or scoop out the walls and floor; it led to this other frottage of steps and stairs, which are quite different because they are about up and down, down and up, but still quite based on this horizontal and vertical, domestic or working space. And that reminds of the Zen story of a university professor who visits a Japanese master to learn about Zen. The master serves tea, pouring until his visitor’s cup is full and then keeps on pouring. The professor watches the overflow and says: ‘it is overfull, no more will go in’. ‘Like this cup’, the master says, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’. It’s something to do with that, that action that happened in my studio or this studio when I came in. So still quite a wide bandwidth, but several recurrent themes seem to be passing through both your work and mine.


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