Elizabeth Burmann Littin:
A Craftsperson Naturalist
Interviewed by Sang Hyun Koh.
Elizabeth Burmann Littin (b.1992) reads the world through the language of nature and culture. In her inquiry into natural phenomena, she observes key structures of the Anthropocene that drive nature, debris and human constructions of cultures both through history and across societies. This naturalist’s way of making art constantly explores the position of art as the outcome of human community, and that of the artist as an observer of nature.
Sang Hyun Koh: Buenas tardes. When you make work, is there a feeling that you try to achieve?
Elizabeth Burmann Littin: I'm not sure if there is a feeling or specific goal that I'm seeking with my work; certainly, there’s something that is constantly being crafted and it's not planned. But I do feel that in the process I experience moments of a certain "amazement", and somehow, I do not feel that something is "set" until a bit of that feeling has emerged. It is then that the work starts to make sense for me. To seek those material moments, and finding a new way in which they behave, I look mostly to essays.
SHK: Can you explain in more detail the structure of your “amazement”? I feel you lean more on the visual aspect of your work, as in your remarks about your search for something “that is constantly being crafted”. And, what is the difference between the craft in your work as art, and the craft which is practiced in institutional craftsmanship or “arts and crafts” as it might be seen in stores?
EBL: I think what I like about moments of “amazement" is that there's no hierarchies at all, or the hierarchy doesn't correspond to the traditional way of using the term... I think that many times my personal “amazements” occur at such a small scale, that to notice them, you have to see the materials very closely. In this case, the question of hierarchy comes when I try to show that to others. So, how to amplify that phenomenon or install the piece becomes another important problem of the work. Those can be considered visual aspects, but I think the gear that articulates the process is nurtured by constantly tracking similar relations and behaviors outside the work. That's why I’m interested in craft and I sometimes return to it to resolve my pieces, because I feel that making things from the place of craft, gathers the material seek, the visuality, but also the social engagement to a way of production that for our current commercial time demand is considered a waste of time. I really don't know what the difference is between my work and one made by someone that considers themselves as craftsperson, but I like to think that we are both wasting/investing more time with materials than capitalism requires.
SHK: How do you select the materials that you work with?
EBL: I think that in the first place I have a very tactile and intuitive approach with materials. I like to work with materials I consider porous, so they can absorb and leak physical and metaphorical properties. In this sense, decay is an encounter point in my work, because it affects all kind of materials, both organic and industrial in ways that evince how the normative conception that separates nature from culture doesn't consider the entanglements of our surroundings. The materials that I use have to carry some of that degradation, of that dust or contamination.
SHK: I notice you are using both organic and industrial materials in your work which reveal the state of natural actions and reactions. How do you determine which materials to use? In other words, when do you choose organic materials and when do you choose industrial ones?
EBL: I think that the question of what to use is something shifting constantly in my work, and I think it also depends on the available materials as well as their economy and ecology. For example, as an undergraduate I start to collect a lot of industrial debris that I found during walks in the streets of Santiago along with their surrounding organic residues. These two types of materials were connected by a third, which is a combination of both. Then I started to collect granite, because I realized that many leftover pieces ended up as commercial trash. Now, I'm trying to be much more aware of not adding too many extra components in my work, and trying to use the entire material cycle of my process. That's why I've been experimenting with materials that are bio-degradable, and trying to make with them what in a previous moment I used to do with industrial materials. I feel that in this sense I'm in a kind of transition between trying to work with what is available in the local economy and its leftovers, and also combining that with materials that I create with a logic that is more ecological.
SHK: What places or times are important to your work?
EBL: I grew up in Santiago de Chile, but most of my memorable childhood moments were in the country house of my family in the south of Chile. This is a very old colonial house that my grandparents bought after coming back to Chile from more than 20 years of exile because of the dictatorship. The house is in the town of Palmilla, where my grandfather was born, and it somehow bloomed as a new homeland for all of us replete with historical and mythological melancholy. For me it is like a fortress, where you can find fallen old walls eaten by the garden, some rotten grapes that are now mixed with a plastic bag thrown by the river, flowers, and mud… They all inform the scale of my materials which I feel is the foundation of my artistic practice.
SHK: Is your practice now similar to what you liked doing as a child? Where did it all begin?
EBL: Yes, I think so. As I was telling you, I felt it all began there in Palmilla, collecting things that I'd found in the ground, making potions with flowers, and papier-mâché or whatever... Also, I was playing with many objects charged with memory and material history. Permeated by all that mixture and with that synesthesia that kids have, I also remember that I wanted to design furniture when I was little, but now I see that it always was about creating things, that it wasn't just one object. It was more about creating environments, like worlds and the things that inhabit those worlds.
SHK: What are some of the the contexts in which you like to see your work? Both physical and social? Tell us about a story of a particular space you work lived in and the experience.
EBL: When I think of the ideal context for my work, it certainly isn´t the experience that you can obtain from a gallery. I’m probably more attached to the idea of creating an ambience, that the work could inhabit, permeating the experience of the people there. That’s why now I'm thinking more about the feeling of being comfortable in an exhibition like you might feel when on a walk, going to the market, or getting an invitation to dinner. Maybe that’s because, I often feel awkward, and the hygienic space and the traditional dynamic of exhibition-making invites me to leave rather than to stay. I would like to see my work in an environment where people could interact with it and feel that they want to stay, to contemplate, to sit, to eat, and to recall other things... Maybe something similar to what happens when you enter to a place that provokes your curiosity, whose details provoke some kind of affection.
SHK: Thus, you want to trigger an affect with your images which is connected with almost everyone’s emotional contingency. Then, would you say that you care more about the problem of the how than the why in your work?
EBL: Yes, I think so... honestly, I don't know the "why", and instead of trying to answer that big question, which I personally find terribly overwhelming, I prefer to build my work through many "hows." In that sense I perceive my work as an amalgam of many parts and the whole as a fragment as well. I would like that others could also contribute, and link their own fragments to the ones suggested by the work.