Doing Life: A conversation with Maggie Cardelus

Viktor Misiano

Most of your works are built on very particular and time-consuming technique. As an explanation for this practice you refer to everyday women’s work, which is coherent with the main task of your poetics: to express and reflect on the female condition. In fact, your painstaking, virtuousistically cut photos have something to do with the traditional female work like meticulous embroidery. But at the same time that propensity to link your work to a precise skillful procedure could be understood in a purely aesthetic way – as nothing other than “art as technique.” And there is no doubt that the result of your efforts is really masterful, spectacular and visually seducing. I see this direct link from the ethics to aesthetics, from a conceptually founded performative procedure to visual impact, as one of the main strong points of your work. At the same time I wish to ask you to discuss how you feel about everyday female labor being so easily reduced to beauty. Is it losing its social and ethical complexity? And how would you respond to anyone who said that you might be romanticizing female duties to reveal its secret poetry and goodliness at the cost of hiding its grim realities, like fatigue and routine?

Maggie Cardelus:

You bring up many important questions in one, and to answer well I need to give you some history…

My family moved from country to country throughout my childhood and adolescence, so my sisters and I became a travelling homeland complete with its own rituals and culture centered around making. When I moved to Italy I missed this culture and I missed them. Family snapshots, which had always made me uncomfortable, suddenly became a means by which to deal with my new situation living abroad with my husband. One of my first cut-outs was Four sisters, a sphere made up of finely cut snapshots of the four of us. Before this I had been embroidering and it was a pretty smooth transition to start cutting into pictures. The family portraits that I made in the 1990’s were devotional early works; making them was consolatory. It was through this work that I developed a fascination with the vertiginous world of the snapshot and its material potential.

This travelling homeland was peopled by women, because my father was usually at work or abroad. It was a natural and completely unselfconscious next step to attend a women’s college and place the female experience squarely in the center of all experience. My experience thus far told me that the “female condition,” as you describe it, was the human condition. So, though my feminism isn’t militant it goes very, very deep. It is hardly remarkable that when I had my first child I knew that I would need to figure out how to be an artist and a mother at the same time; the obvious solution was to merge these two life projects.

At that time I had not yet read Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ momentous Maintenance Art Manifest (1969). Reading her later I discovered an affinity with her ideas and her commitment to both art and family, even though her amazing work later developed very differently from mine in an arena outside the home. I have always wondered what happened inside her home and once, in a friendly email exchange, I asked her about it, but she never wrote back, so I’m still curious. Anyway, well before Ukeles I was inspired by Sally Mann and Louise Bourgeois (you may have noticed that all these artists have 3 children), among others. It was Bourgeois who really taught me that it is ok to use art to talk about, and deal with, ordinary family-related pain. Perhaps my greatest influence was Sally Mann, because of how she worked with her children. There is a kind of remarkable freedom in how she allowed herself to simply adore her children with her art and still make great work. So my feminism has to do with claiming the freedom to do what I want to do and claiming what I do as a serious subject, but it has nothing to do with any specific technique or way of working—I have never seen activities like embroidery as intrinsically female. It also has to do with resolving the age-old conflict between family-centered fulfillment and self-centered fulfillment.

I discovered that the family album, because of its fundamental role within family culture (not just my family culture, but most family cultures) is a powerful and potent material for my work. It is the repository of our deepest fears—fear of time passing, of loss, of death, of oblivion…and the object that memorializes a family’s self-presentation for the future and for those outside the family. People’s family images are often their most valued possessions. They respond to so basic a human need that the absence of a family album is fraught with meaning. It has become a powerful presence only in the last hundred and fifty years or so; the proliferating images of those we love (or the absence of an image, now a potentially acute problem—“how do I not have a picture of that moment?”) is a very contemporary and pressing issue in our psyches.

When I began my work on cutting out family snapshots I found that when I worked on someone’s image, that person felt the focus as a gift, enabling a kind of silent devotional communication. So began my exploration of the relational potential of working on images of people I knew, that later developed into the work I do more openly and actively with my children. It’s interesting that you find the work beautiful and wonder whether it calls the social and ethical claim of maintenance work into question. I feel that, if anything, it creates more complexity around it, showing one person’s very personal response to the need to discover and to acknowledge meaning in domestic life and the care of people: my way of exploring what the artist Allan Kaprow called “art at the service of life.” Laura’s Inheritance (2003), for example, speaks almost directly to my anxiety about my daughter and her future, and by imagining her pregnant, imagining my grandchildren, imagining her an adult like me, giving form to these imaginings, I was able to exorcize my expectations and leave her to be who she wants to be.

All this doesn’t happen in isolation. I have time to devote to the happenings of my everyday life because I work within a specific context I have made of people—family, friend, collaborators–who are as invested in an environment of making, giving, and taking.

Viktor Misiano:

You say that your work was an “exploration of the relational potential of working on images of people you know.” And in fact your work could be defined as a relational practice, but, I would specify, a very particular case of it. First, as you describe, in the contrast, for example, to Mierle Laderman Ukeles, you do not attend to the macro but to the micro social relations. That is, you focus your lens on what remains in the house and not outside it. And second, the relational dynamic you set up in your work is ultimately choreographed by you, asking the people, objects, or circumstances you focus on to accept your pre-conditions and final oeuvre…

Maggie Cardelus:

Your description, “what remains in the house,” makes the exploration of the home and family sound small, but it is the basis of human experience. It is something that every human being on Earth has lived and must continue to live in one way or another, until death, with a large part of his or her happiness depending on the quality of his or her experiences therein, yet because it has been a traditionally female domain it is marginal, a “remainder,” so to speak. I myself find that a genuine engagement in the “micro,” leads to a very deep understanding of the “macro.” It is “doing life”—Allan Kaprow again. Any deep engagement will eventually yield up all of knowledge, but the home and family yield it up especially fully to me. I should specify that by family I do not necessarily refer to tradition family structures, but to any group of tightly bonded persons who support one another and share experiences on an ongoing basis.

My actual relationships with people always go both ways, of course, but when it is part of a mutual experience through my work I do necessarily set-up the relational conditions because otherwise I would have no way to pursue it with any sort of structure. And you are right that how it is ultimately received and lived by the other is, of course, beyond my control and rarely appears in the work. I have cared very much about the making, too, so have tended to keep that hands-on part of my process for myself. I did start giving the children a voice within my work, however, in 2007, when I worked on a piece that has three versions and three pseudonym titles: Mervyn, Ela, and Cy, and that led to a series of collaborations with my son Zoo (now almost 16), a project we developed for Japan, and two wall murals he made for my two most recent shows—one, a self- portrait, and the other, a portrait of his sister Laura. I will carry on these collaborations in the future projects: in November with Laura at an art foundation in India, and with all three children for my next show in Milano with a project entitled “This was meant to be”, where they will pretend to be me during the opening.

Viktor Misiano:

How would you respond to those who say that you see your family – its history and roots, its intense emotional life – as a refuge from an outside world that can become unmanageable and unpredictable? You highlight the celebratory side of your work with family, so how do you explain the gestures of destruction and reduction at the center of your work? Why do you cut into small and unidentifiable pieces the signs of the family and your belonging to it? Why the need to annihilate your micro-social memory and archive?

Maggie Cardelus:

If only life “outside” were as unmanageable and unpredictable as family life, I might have found there the most compelling subject-matter! If what kept me awake at night was the mortality of a stranger, then I would have dug deep into that! If only my relationship with light or shadow or color or politics or science or whatever were the thread by which my happiness and unhappiness are spun: the fog and the compass through which and by which I must understand life and loss and suffering and death. The greatest inconvenience of the home and family as material (and, obviously its greatest gift to the artist) is that it never allows me to present a finished product, much less a finished self, instead, it pushes me this way and that against the edges of myself, forcing a constant self-revision and life-revision. It is never settled and I am never as honest, or as transparent, or as humble, or as tolerant, or as forgiving, or as real I would hope for myself.

I should make clear that I never truly destroy a photograph. How could I? I am the custodian of the family album. It is an heirloom, and my job is to maintain it so that anybody in the family can use it freely as I have. I work on copies and enlargements of the originals. Annihilation of my archive has no part in my work.

To answer to the illegibility of some of my cut images, I don’t think it matters much whether the people are identifiable or not. The titles let you know who is in the pictures. Pictures don’t speak and tell us about themselves, so picture albums and snapshots are extraordinarily similar to one another, even interchangeable. To a certain extent we all have the same snapshots…don’t we? I don’t need to see the image of your mother to imagine what it might mean to you, I have such an image myself. My White pieces, where the image actually faces the wall, are snapshots of Zoo but you don’t need to see them. When I work on my snapshots I feel like I’m working on everybody’s snapshots, not only as “Maggie” working on “Zoo” but as “mother” working on “son”, or “daughter” working on “mother”, etc.

Viktor Misiano:
Could we see the cut as a gesture of liberation? Could we see it as recognizing that the family is not only a stronghold, but also a cage? Could we interpret it as the recognition that micro and macro realities are profoundly interrelated and that there is no refuge from modernity and its contradictions? Of course such a position – if you have anything to do with it – is a contradiction, too, though not only yours. This is only one of the many contradictions of our age…

Maggie Cardelus:

I do like the fact that the work does, as you say, suggest a struggle with contradictions that exists at the heart of many things we do and is one of the more fascinating aspects of our human condition, but my initial impulse to cut into snapshots was in response to the limits of the medium, not family.

One reason people create albums is so that they give a good impression and to forge a public identity that is almost programmed by society in the way in which it satisfies requirements like happiness, harmony, status, propriety, physical beauty etc. You see the proliferation of these snapshot norms in Facebook, for example, where the creation of your public persona—and by extension a family image–is not much different from traditional album-making. One interesting difference that online albums have with traditional albums is the fruition time—pictures are consumed and metabolized at incredible speed, unlike the classic family album that was viewed and shared over the course of years, even decades, and venerated alongside the family Bible. Digital high-speed viewing falls into even sharper contrast with the way I invest and draw time out of my snapshots. You could say my work sits in direct opposition to online albums.

Now it has become within everybody’s reach to make and diffuse their albums, and it has become recreational to distill an overall family “picture” or identity from these images, but these remain, as stubbornly opaque, secretive, and redundant as ever. And one might think that these images remain digital and never reach material form, but digital service technologies can make images take any material form you want—from crystal incisions to pillowcases. Our photographed selves are ubiquitous and do indeed mask, and even repress, our private selves.

So yes, you are right to say that cutting into family pictures is liberating, but as I already mentioned, it frees me from the constraints of the photograph, not of the family. This is different from the often powerful denunciatory/expository work done on the family, for example by the British artist Jo Spence. Her need to work on family images was closer to what you are describing—a need to re-represent herself through photographs, replacing false happy-family imagery which she felt were a “cage.” This process led to her fabulous photo-therapy work in which she helped people recreate truthful family photos that exposed the terrible and true problems of family. In a way, I also use family images to help improve human lives, but, unlike Spence’s photo-therapy work, I want to explore the snapshot’s relational potential within a social group that is not bound to the past.

Right now, for example, I’m working on a portrait of my son Kiko, now 10, using an old snapshot. Who he was then, however, is incidental—it emerges within a dynamic taking place now. He comes into my studio several times a day to talk about the work. This piece gives us a series of conditions that only this experience can give us, where we talk freely about things that would otherwise go unnoticed and un-addressed. He senses the focus of this work on him for the devotional, celebratory act it is, responds positively to it and becomes the stronger for it. Pulling this off is not easy; it is something I have learned by making mistakes. I made one in 2004 when I exhibited Zoo, age 5, a rather monumental piece in which I really claimed and celebrated the glory of a mother’s ecstatic gaze before the sensual beauty of her child’s body. Zoo cried during the whole vernissage because someone had bought it, not because he was confusing himself with the image, but because of the time he had seen me devote to the piece and thus to him. He had watched me cut it all summer on the dining room table. So, after that, I was more careful until they were old enough to process the complexity of what was happening.

To finish my answer, I want to address the micro-macro question again…. Family is the world, it is not something other, or something that stands in relation to the world. We can begin to see now how the changing family structures in recent decades are connected to changes in all aspects of society and life. These family worlds are one of the most important subjects in all of human experience, not to mention one of the most fraught and charged. Intimate human relations and all the other aspects of one’s life are contiguous and interdependent– “profoundly interrelated” as you say—and my work brings this into relief.

I work with a material both immediate and universal, something that is utterly banal and familiar to you and to all our contemporaries—the family snapshot– but is, at the same time, a deep mine for intellectual and artistic research and work. Utterly familiar to you, too, is your need to nurture relationships you have with those around you—these too are rich with possibilities, and how you do it will have enormous repercussions in your life, in their lives, and in lives you are not even aware of. The work, in its constant claim to importance, in its insistence on being and in its insistence on becoming, both within and without the home, addresses the skewed world-view that somehow they are or should remain disconnected.