AUGUSTA SZRAK GETS HER SHOES DIRTY AND TALKS WITH THE ARTIST
I am going to meet Sylvia Steel at the hard-to-find Richard Famous Gallery, where her new exhibition Mats opened last week. I am a little late. To get into the gallery I have to walk through a shallow tray filled with compressed earth, and then onto a beige mat, now quite thoroughly soiled by the feet of other visitors. About a dozen worn and dirty mats of varying sizes hang on the white walls of the asymmetrical space. I introduce myself to the woman sitting on a sofa in the little niche but it turns out not to be Sylvia Steel. She has hardly finished rolling her eyes when Steel arrives. The other woman (Steel later refers to her as “Bad Penny”) surrenders the sofa, and after a little small-talk I turn on the recording device.
AS: How did you get the idea for Mats?
SS: There is a corner dairy near where I live. One day I was waiting at the counter and I looked down and saw the most incredibly worn and dirty mat…
AS: Is that mat in the exhibition?
SS: Yes, it’s the first one you see when you come in. Anyway, I looked down and saw this incredibly worn and, I must say, rather dirty mat, and I thought how so many people have been standing on the mat - but not seeing it - when they have been waiting to get something they wanted from the counter. The rather sordid mat was the locale in which they were intent on their desires. I thought, maybe there is some sort of perpendicularity between desire and actuality.
AS: We are focused on what is ahead of us and don’t look down at where we actually are?
SS: Yes. Our attention is on the desired thing or destination – now I’m talking about the entrance mats, too – and not on the dirty mat, the here-and-now, the dirty mat where everyone else who had the same desire also stood or walked. There is a – I don’t know – a communality, I suppose, between all the people who walk on the mat and dirty it and wear it out when approaching the same desire, or similar desires. The dirt and wear is the only cumulative mark of the community of that specific desire.
AS: Do you think we all have basically the same desires?
SS: Well, yes, I do, mostly, but that’s not what this is about. What I’m interested in is the communities created by various specific desires and evidenced by the cumulative trace of this community.
AS: The dirt and the wear?
SS: That’s it.
AS: Do you think we are aware of these communities of desire?
SS: Mostly not. We don’t think about it. We are intent on our own desires, that is, on ourselves, and we are usually separated from the other desirers by the passage of time.
AS: We can’t all be standing on the same spot at the same time.
SS: Yes. And the gaze is to the front, towards the thing or destination desired, towards what is not yet. The gaze is to the front and not downwards – perpendicular – towards the actual present location of the desirer in the spot dirtied by the desires of others.
AS: Do you think people would be resistant to seeing this?
SS: Yes! Our whole culture is predicated on avoiding looking at this. We have even evolved eyes that are not only on our fronts but right near the top of our bodies, bodies which have evolved an upright stance precisely to cast our attention out in front – we are frighteningly aspirational animals – and not down and below. To look down and below we have to bend our bodies forwards, which undoes our structural evolution, if you like. We are mentally and physically programmed to deny the dirt, but, of course, the dirt is where we are, and what we are.
AS: And the wear too?
SS: Absolutely. We are even more wear than dirt.
AS: Do you think all this, this looking up and away, is a bad thing?
SS: I’m not really interested in making judgements about it, more in observing it. I must say though, I am strongly drawn to wear and dirt and what they mean and how they connect us is different ways. I think a lot of our problems are caused by aspirational behaviours, but then, a lot of what I enjoy and think is worthwhile is the result of exactly these sorts of aspirational behaviours. Ambivalence sharpens my observation, perhaps…
AS: Tell me about the other mats in the exhibition. Where did they come from?
SS: Well, first I got the mat from the corner dairy. I offered the owner another mat the same, a new one, for the worn and dirty one, and he accepted.
AS: So you went the streets crying ‘New mats for old’?
SS: Well, yes, that’s basically it. I’ve got mats from a bank, an art gallery, the municipal baths, a creche, an airport, three shops, a sleazy stairwell, a couple of private homes, my own front doormat…
AS: Did you have any trouble?
SS: Some refusals. I got strange looks pretty much everywhere, but if you tell people you’re doing something as art you can get away with just about anything. I didn’t tell them I was going to label the mats with their origins in the exhibition, so there might yet be a bit of trouble. Only if I get noticed though, which is unlikely.
AS: Tell me about the photographs in the catalogue.
SS: There are photographs of what you would be seeing if you were standing on the mats and, of course, not looking at the mats. The photographs are the horizons of desires, if you like. At first I was going to put the photographs on the floor of the gallery, about where you would stand to look at the mats, a simple inversion of the perpendicular arrangement of the pair, to encourage the viewer to consider the relationship between the two, between where we stand and what we desire, but it just didn’t seem to work in the gallery, I don’t know, it seemed too forced, perhaps, so I just had them in the catalogue in small alongside the documentation of the mats themselves.
AS: And the works are for sale!
SS: Yes. They weren’t going to be for sale, and Richard [Famous] was teasing me about this so I thought I will make them for sale - they’re very well priced too, I might say - and maybe someone will buy one and put it on their floor and it won’t be art any more, just a dirt old mat…
AS: And begin to accumulate the dirt and wear of new desires?
SS: Yes! The trace of old desires overlaid or augmented or obliterated by the new. It’s worth thinking about!