It was such a pleasure to put together the exhibition at SPE National – it feels like a homecoming of sorts since SPE was consequential to the beginnings of this work.
In 2013, I spoke during SPE’s 50th Annual National Conference in Chicago, IL. That lecture led to a series of conversations that landed me an invitation to the Digital Artist in Residence at Columbia College, and ultimately awarded me the space to experiment and develop the work that is now on exhibit at SPE’s National Office in Cleveland, Ohio. Think of it as a Midwestern incubator of sorts. The work has become an evolving collection of photographs, reflective materials, and faceted sculptures that engage our perception of light and wonder. This collection is titled “Glowing Wavelengths In Between."
The installation choreographs how one moves through the space, reflecting, and refracting around image and form, light, and illusion. I am interested in exploring knowledge creation in the spaces between seemingly opposing kinds of concepts: weight/lightness, micro/macro, fleeting/fixed, part/whole, mind/body, and self/other. Is it possible to perceive the trajectory, to trace between a source and where it lands?
I wanted to use the exhibition “Your White Light,” at SPE’s National Office, as an opportunity to focus on the prismatic, the rectangular, and the rhombus. The installation fixes and manipulates one’s experience of light itself. There are three areas in the gallery, and within each space the installation is structured around mirroring the photographic space in the architectural space. I wanted to implicate the viewer with the title, pointing to the individuality of our perceptions. I am interested in this visual and visceral experience constructing an embodied knowledge.
I have been thinking recently about a conversation I heard with artist Ann Hamilton, for two reasons. One, she talks comprehensively about embodied knowledge in her practice. I value the knowledge manifested in the body as well as the mind. This has me recalling Moholy Nagy’s Vision in Motion, “to learn to see and feel in relationship.” This simultaneous comprehension is something I seek to embrace. Secondly, Hamilton frames her making, her teaching, and her mothering as one united practice. I am modeling that way of thinking in my own practice – to see things as a part of a collective whole rather than at odds with one another. My time in the studio, with my students, or with my children, all feed my research on wonder and perception, and allow me to create from a place of curiosity, discovery, and delight.
Last month, scientists were able to confirm the existence of gravitational waves. How exciting is that!? We now have “proof” of the bending of the time space continuum. There was a palpable sense of wonderment and enthusiasm in the scientists’ voices – many of them professed that they did not believe that this could happen in their lifetime. Is it possible to perceive the trajectory, to trace between a source and where it lands?
One of the earlier pieces in the show, “power of ten,” pictures a folded image of the epilogue (titled Reading the Rainbow) from the book The Powers of Ten, the relative size of things in the universe by Charles and Ray Eames. I think of this photograph and its found poem as an artist statement of sorts. Here, in the Eames work, design, art, science and family merge. I am interested in the intersections of these axes and what happens when they fold in on themselves. I am grateful for the space to improvise in the gallery and that SPE National allowed me to unfold some these ideas.
Sonja’s exhibition “Your White Light” will be on view at the SPE National Office through March 28, 2016. An environmental installation, “In Orbit,” furthered by her exhibition at SPE National, will be on view at the John Michael Kohler Art Center's Glass Gallery up in Sheboygan WI, April 2 through October 2016.
Sonja Thomsen is an SPE member and Milwaukee-based artist. Starting her career as a student of science, Thomsen later earned an MFA in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute (2004). She has exhibited with Higher Pictures, DePaul Art Museum, Center for Photography at Woodstock, the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Galerie f5.6 in Munich, among others. Sonja Thomsen is a member of the international photography collective Piece of Cake – POC, the co-director of The Pitch Project, and is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sonja Thomsen Interview by Gregory Harris, Assistant Curator DePaul Art Museum, Chicago, IL, 4/13/15
Gregory Harris: Glowing Wavelengths in Between is, in many ways, about light and exploring the material possibilities of light. To do this you work across media with photographs, collage, and sculptures, but a single piece, a sculpture, forms the backbone of the project. How did this project begin?
Sonja Thomsen: The most important thing to know about making this body of work is that it’s a process of discovery. I’ve made a lot of the work in response to the large sculpture in the show, “Trace of Possibility.” The idea for it came out of a residency I had in Iceland a few years ago. It was the first time where I had a vision of a thing—it was actually an architectural space, this crystalline cave—in a dream that I felt I needed to recreate. I took a leap and made the piece and have been in the process of working backward to try to understand it as an artistic gesture as well as its relationship to photography, light, perspective, and distortion. By making the sculpture, it became really apparent to me that so much of my photographic work up to that point had been about the perception of light and how light behaved on a two-dimensional surface. Ultimately, I’d been exploring what can happen when you’re physically in the experience of light.
GH: This body of work is called Glowing Wavelengths in Between. Where does the title come from?
ST: I created an image of the light spectrum by holding a sheet of paper to catch the light reflected off an iridescent surface. I showed it to four or five different people and asked them to describe what they were seeing with using the work “rainbow.” It was a fairly abstract image. Some people just described colors, some people described things that they saw in it or what it could be a metaphor for. I took those short phrases, pulled out one word out from each and reassembled them. It all came through these attempts to try to explain a rainbow. I had been wondering what would happen if I just asked people to enter a space where you can experience light and then asked them to articulate that experience. How well can language be used to describe something that is such a known phenomenon but is also magical? One of my goals is that the experience itself is the artwork and all of the elements that make up the installation are there to facilitate it. Maybe it’s a naïve goal, but I’m trying to create a space where it’s okay to let go and experience wonder. Olafur Eliason said, “Rainbows matter. I just want people to think about how rainbows matter.” I think that wonder is important. If I can make you, for even a split second, get lost and find yourself in a new space, then that’s really exciting.
GH: You have a background in the sciences. How has your scientific training shaped your current practice as an artist?
ST: I wouldn’t say that science is what molds or is the driving force in my practice, but I’ve always been interested in the ways that we create and retain knowledge. Approaching that process in a scientific way as well as an artistic and aesthetic way is something that is really fascinating. I was also a student of dance, so this idea that learning something or getting to know something through your physical experience of the world is another way of gaining knowledge and understanding space. But there is something about the poetics and the irony of science that I’m drawn to. Scientific knowledge always seems to be state of becoming, in that appears to be based in logic and reason and proof yet ideas are often disproven since the disciplines are always evolving and the limits of understanding are constantly changing.
GH: Glowing Wavelengths plays on many different dualities: flatness and dimensionality, weightlessness and grounded-ness, photograph and sculpture, light and pigment, to name a few. How do you use the interplay of these dualities to affect the viewer’s experience in the gallery space?
ST: That’s something that I’m intuitively trying to work out. It’s very important to me that there is an echoing throughout the work. When it happens and when it works well, you see or experience something at the beginning of the installation and then at the end of the installation you see a similar idea or concept play out but in a different form. That echo between what you saw when you entered the space versus what you’re seeing now, I like how that all of sudden connects to a timed understanding and maybe makes you revisit where you were and trace yourself back. It’s similar to how I’m trying to trace or understand where I was with the earlier work. Those dualities that you described are how I start to play with the echoing. For example, you’ll see light refracted in the gallery and then you’ll see a photograph of that light rendered in pigment on paper, but because of the proximity to the refracted light itself, you’re actually not sure if you’re seeing the refracted light dancing on that piece of paper or an image embedded in the paper as pigment.
GH: Right. It creates tension between the two things that you’re experiencing. There’s a pull between the two that makes you question what you’re looking at.
ST: Yes. I want the work to make you aware of how you can actively see. By disorienting you a little bit through that duality or echo, an awareness of how you’re seeing at that moment becomes clear.
Thomsen Digital Artist in Residence at Columbia College Chicago Interviewed by Jennifer Keats Columbia College Photography Department , September 2013
Explain your creative process.
My goal as an artist is to construct an authentic experience in which to recalibrate our perceptions.
I wrote during this summer's residency: “channeling our collective unconscious, digging up the ideas of the past to construct my own compass.”
I was a dancer. Throughout my adolescence, I trained rigorously everyday for a minimum of 2.5 hours – 6 hours on Saturdays. Two key elements to my practice stem from this history.
One is the intensity, discipline and physicality I try to maintain in my creative process. You have to show up everyday to; look, make, listen.
The second is about improvisation. I learned to trust my technique and just move through space, exploring how to make it my own. Improvisation is a little bit like a free fall. Sometimes you discover something amazing about yourself, about movement, and other times you (literally) fall. When you come across that discovery, you repeat it, study it, try to add it to your vocabulary. That free fall of improvisation is something I’ve been trying to embrace this summer. (I also have always loved chance dance and admired the collaboration between Cunningham and Cage. Collaborations and collectives have become integral to my creative person.)
It’s a series of attempts at describing the wind.
Who is your biggest influence artistically?
This is always a tough question. I’m always looking at work, but one I always find myself coming back to is Roni Horn. All facets of her practice interest me.
Has the residency helped you to develop a body of work and discover yourself as an artist? If so, please describe how. If not, please tell us how the residency has influenced your work.
I recently described this residency experience to someone as the artist in chrysalis, wrapped in a cocoon of new ideas and modes of thinking, fostering new relationships to the work and process. This summer has been a transitional state for me, although now I don’t know if I would liken it to such a dramatic metamorphosis... maybe more like a snake shedding its skin for the sake of growth. Time will tell.
Not only has the residency been a rich place to work and produce, it’s also provided me with an incredible platform to connect with the Chicago art community. Columbia alone has an incredibly rich community.
Working in the open space of the lab was somewhat intimidating compared to the safety net of my private studio. It was a bit of a challenge filtering the diverse feedback and maintaining my creative space in the midst of distractions, but the spontaneous conversations with artists, faculty and students that came about were so rewarding.
One of my goals for the summer was to schedule studio visits with some of the minds I admire in Chicago. It was great to shake things up with twelve visits and countless converstaions. I would like to thank everyone for their time and support.
I’ve noticed that you often incorporate "reflective materials" in your work. Can you tell us about significance of these materials?
I think the attraction to reflective or transparent materials speak to the way understanding reflects more of our selves and at times opens up the world. There is also the long-standing relationship to the photograph being a window or a mirror and my materials inhabit that metaphor.
The prismatic vinyl that I’ve been obsessed with this summer is a bit different – it’s more like water, much more complicated to define. It’s definition depends on your relationship to it in physical space with light and perceptions at work. It’s also a way to fix a rainbow – an ephemeral phenomena – much like a camera fixes light.
What's next for you? What are your plans after you have completed this residency?
Who knows…During a recent studio visit with artist/curator Nicholas Frank, he said to me, “That’s why you’re an artist, you don’t want to know what’s going to happen next.” Maybe he’s right. I know I’m not alone in harboring anxiety about the future, but I continue to work hard, trusting the process and crossing all fingers and toes.
More seriously – lots of seeds were planted this summer. My horizon is exciting and full of new partners. I’m a new member of the Piece of Cake international network of photographers and look forward to connecting with many of them for a winter workshop. Thomsen&Carr, a public art collaboration I’m apart of, is launching Listening to Mitchell on Milwaukee’s south side. I’m also a co-director of the Pitch Project, a new contemporary art and studio space in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Crazy enough to believe it.