Covert Entwined Heart, 2004. Metal, bamboo, textile, and foam, 300 x 200 x 180 cm. View of exhibition at De Paviljoens, Almere, The Netherlands, 2010. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

Restless and Alive: A Conversation with Jennifer Tee

Dutch artist Jennifer Tee works across sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and collage. Her experiments with space, form, materials, and imagery (particularly her development of floor pieces and her fascination with curving lines and their associations) all focus on evoking “the soul in limbo.” For Tee, the soul in limbo is “restless and alive, caught in an unnamed place—a conceptual, mental, psychological, and physical space—on the border between the here and the possible.” As expressed in her work, this open and malleable state becomes a means of accessing spiritual realms and exploring the freedoms of cross-cultural identity. Though reflecting the instability and complexity of contemporary life, Tee’s work also offers a utopian vision with the potential to create a new, more beautiful, and soulful world. 

Robert Preece: Could you explain the “soul in limbo” and why this idea has become such an important touchstone for your work?
Jennifer Tee:
I have been working with the idea of “the soul in limbo” since 2004, when I first used it in I am the soul in limbo/Eu sou a alma no limbo, a text performance for the 26th São Paulo Biennial. I came across the line, “I am the soul in limbo,” as a statement by Nadja, the central character in André Breton’s Surrealist novel of the same name (1928). The sentence made me realize all the different ways that you can feel in limbo—mentally and physically. 

In “Let It Come Down” at Camden Arts Centre (2017), I made a constellation of knitted floor pieces with vibrant hues. Viewers, at unannounced intervals, were invited to recline on these floor pieces and listen to readings from a selection of books, which I called The Resist Stack of Books. All of these books focus on personal, spiritual, physical, or political forms of resistance. Many of the selected texts evoke a particular color, either as motif or subject, to imply the ways in which color can symbolize actions and emotions connected with resistance.

Ether Plane~Material Plane, 2014. Glazed ceramics, wooden bow, neon rings, cylinder plaster pedestal, and travertine stone base, 87 x 246 x 34 cm. 33rd São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo, Brazil, 2018. Photo: Pedro Ivo Trasferetti, Courtesy the artist, the 33rd São Paulo Biennial, São Paulo, and Galerie Fons Welters

RP: What role does sculpture typically play in your practice? You also work with installation, performance, photography, and collage.
JT: I started out making immersive installations that included objects and video, but I noticed that video tends to dominate and reduce the objects to props. I got more and more involved with the making of sculpture, which I referred to as “making a sculpture out of a moment.”

In my fragile balancing sculptures, such as Subtle Planes~Spirit Matter (2013) and Ether Plane~Material Plane (2014), I’m interested in philosophical questions like how the soul or spirit could be connected to the body. I also started to be interested in using materials that bring cultural associations to the work, like bamboo. Bamboo is associated with Asia, and it is also known for its properties of being strong and flexible. What I like about the bamboo in Subtle Planes~Spirit Matter is how, when painted white, it looks like the vertebra of the spine. The ceramic swirls on the ends of the bamboo, stamped with the words SUBTLE PLANES and SPIRIT MATTER, came from observing people worshipping at a Buddhist monastery while holding incense above their heads. Thoughts and prayers appeared to coil up in smoke. I tried to capture this in the ceramic coils. 

Ether Plane~Material Plane was made for an exhibition called “Occult Geometry,” for which I looked into the practices of Hilma Af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky, two powerful artists who were interested in the spiritual in art and who sought to unite abstraction with mythical concepts. Af Klint made a lot of notes and drawings that display her interest in the search for knowledge. Sometimes she would function as a medium, transmitting messages from higher powers in her drawings and paintings. I took a drawing from one of her notebooks titled From Notes on Letters and Words (1907), which consists of five small ovals or egg shapes drawn with a red pencil. I made a sculpture of this drawing, balancing five mirrored golden eggs. In Hindu tradition, the golden egg is connected to the “Swan of Eternity,” whose egg is the Word made manifest. Primordial Chaos~Selfhood Meltdown (2014), the third balancing sculpture, was inspired by Af Klint’s drawing Primordial Chaos. No. 19, which shows her interest in the time before time and the creation of the universe versus the inner self.

Primordial Chaos~Selfhood Meltdown (detail), 2014. Glazed ceramics, wooden bow, neon rings, cylinder plaster pedestal, and travertine stone base, 104 x 303 x 34 cm. Photo: Anders Sune Berg, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

RP: When did you start exhibiting floor pieces? Do you see this as energizing your practice because it adds such an emphasis in installations? 
JT: I started my first floor piece in the U.S., during a residency at the Hudson Valley Center of Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York, in 2009. I saw a store selling amazingly vibrant, dyed skeins of wool. I had been interested in working with local materials for a while, and I had also been interested in work that could both take up space and be folded. I had been looking for a temporary presence, very much related to the domestic blanket or rug, which at the same time could also function as a metaphor for the psychological (female) interior and the complexity of the inner self. The knitted floor pieces are geometrical shapes derived from crystalline forms and structures. They hover between sculpture and stage, their arrangement forming both a negative and positive space, simultaneously taking up the room’s volume and cutting into it. 

For some of them, I was interested in Navajo weavings and American quilts, and in the illusion of space within geometrical patterns. In my recent installations, I have combined Crystalline Floorpieces with sculptural objects and choreography. Here, the floor pieces were used as an enclosing space for the mind and body to connect while also serving as a meditative setting for readings. 

For Crystalline Floorpieces/Yellow Ochre (2017) and Crystalline Floorpieces/Raw Umber (2017), I used a net-like knitting technique; when I started making them, I was thinking of human skin cell structures and molecules. Combining the very tactile wool with glazed, oval ceramic shapes makes them look very sensual and otherworldly. The skin defines the interaction between the opaque interiority of the body and the exteriority of the world. 

RP: What issues do you see yourself as exploring in relation to cross-cultural identity? How personal is this for you, and how has your thinking changed over time? 
JT: I have a very mixed cultural background. I was born in the Netherlands, from an ethnic Chinese-Indonesian father and a half-Dutch, half-British mother. Cross-cultural identity issues appear in my work to varying degrees. For example, in Star-Crossed (2010–12), an installation that I made for the Shanghai World Expo, I chose to learn more about my Chinese background. I started working in Jingdezhen, a center of porcelain and ceramics production. The installation was made up of five knitted floor pieces and 12 different vessels made from clay from the Yellow Mountains. Words are stamped in the clay: SECRET SELVES, SPIRITUAL RETREAT, ANCESTRAL SACRIFICE, and STAR-CROSSED. The phrase “star-crossed” comes from astrology and refers to the inevitability of paths crossing. It’s also used to describe a pair of lovers whose relationship is doomed to fail, most famously as with Romeo and Juliet. The Chinese have a similar, but more dramatic story, “Butterfly Lovers,” with characters from different cultures and backgrounds. I used “star-crossed lovers” as a metaphor for how people or cultures can meet, but possibly never align.

Crystalline Floorpieces/Raw Umber, 2017. Resist shape, hand-dyed and hand-knitted wool, 175 x 530 cm. Photo: Mareike Tocha, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

RP: How do you approach new works? Do you make sketches or models? Does the process vary?
JT: When I’m working on a show, I usually start getting ideas for the next one. I work with a lot of source material—content that keeps me thinking. I make a lot of drawings in sketchbooks and write notes. Often I make models, sometimes a maquette of the space. With the floor pieces, I usually start with swatches. I’ve been working with ceramics for nearly 20 years. I mostly work with casting, less with modeling, and I’m very invested in glazing. It’s the firing that finishes the work, so there is this other element in the making that makes your heart race.

RP: I understand that you sometimes purposely choose materials from different countries or sites. 
JT: I do. For example, I made a large sculpture, Covert Entwined Heart, for the São Paulo Biennial in 2004. The shape is reminiscent of a DNA double helix structure and a swirling heart. It partly referred to the architecture of the building by Oscar Niemeyer, but it was also inspired by Tristes Tropiques (1955) by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, which in its essence is lamenting the tropics and its native culture. The work was made of beads of bamboo that I imported from China, with reference to cacao fruits to make chocolate; and a freshly cut palm tree sourced from Brazil hung inside the suspended heart shape. 

RP: Could you talk about your interest in curving lines?
JT: Lines~Swirls~Bones (2017) is a floor work made from different colors of clay—white, black, yellow, red—with different textures and sources. When I was looking at the work of Af Klint and Kandinsky, I became interested in their use of swirling lines. Those lines partly refer to unseen waves, as in light and sound, which, for me, are undercurrents, movements that surround us or are present in us, like bodily fluids. I have always been influenced by Taoïstic drawings—the manifestation of the elements, captured in beautiful snake-like lines. These drawings were made to meditate over, to activate, to carry as talismans; they were secret. I like how Lines~Swirls~Bones is made from just coils—the most basic form to make with clay—and then bent into shape, using another property of clay. Laid out together on the floor, the coils look like extensions of the body.

Room Divider Tao Magic/Blazing Yellow, 2017. Wooden panels and glazed ceramics, dimensions variable. Photo: Mark Blower, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

RP: Do you always make your own works?
JT: For most of my sculptures, I work from my studio: for instance, the clay lines were prepared in my studio and then transported to a place for firing. On bigger projects, I work with an assistant, who has been working with me for several years. I’ve also worked at the TextielMuseum in the Netherlands with their weaving looms and made a series of works with embroideries that I commissioned in southern Sumatra.

RP: Who would you describe as your artist influences?
JT: When I started out as an artist, Hélio Oiticica was very important to me, specifically how he combined life with art. Others are Franz Erhard Walther, Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeois, Anna Maria Maiolino, Shelagh Wakely, and numerous indigenous artists and folk—or what some would call “outsider”—artists, like Henry Darger and Anna Zemánková.

RP: To what extent does “the soul in limbo” apply to your work, and to you personally?
JT: It has been suggested that the character in Nadja was possibly someone whom Breton met. Possibly she was mentally ill, or maybe she was just there and not there. I have also been interested in the writing and art of mentally ill people—how darkness can manifest itself, and how frighteningly close this altered state can cast a shadow on anyone. I try to translate those undefined borders in my work. I recently made a series of room dividers; and attached to them are penetrated and dented domes, and bone-like ceramic swirls. For me, the soul in limbo is soulful. It’s not a static place—it’s in movement, it’s restless.