The Physicality of Shadows: A Conversation

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)


Red Gold, After Hailstones, a collaborative exhibition by visual artist Sienna Freeman and poet Justin Robinson, opened in our gallery space on January 3. There’s a reception and reading on January 12, and the closing party is on January 26.

Below, Freeman and Robinson ask each other a few questions to provide further “color” to their show, touching on hoofed animals in Russia’s Silver Age, the significance of cloth, and the physicality of shadows.


Sienna Freeman: What is your favorite ritual or ceremonial object (religious, personal, or otherwise) and why?

Justin Robinson: Stones mean a great deal to me. Something tragic happened recently in my life. The shock prompted hallucinations. I was completely lucid—no drugs or alcohol. I had aligned, over the years, many rocks in my house. After this event, I gathered all of my rocks and I returned them to the places where I had found them. I gave back what they gave me. All that physical weight, weather, and time. 

JR: The human body plays a large role in your art. Do internal organs intrigue you?

SF: I was born with a hole in my heart, a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), a break in the central barrier between chambers that separates oxygen-rich blood from mixing with oxygen-poor blood. It grew to about the size of a penny before I had open heart surgery at age four. There I acquired a zipper like scar down the center of my chest which has grown thinner, fainter, and longer as I have also grown.  

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)

A few decades later I was diagnosed with endometriosis during an ovarian surgery. Endometriosis is a disorder where the tissue that normally lines the uterus migrates and grows outside the uterus. These rogue cells bleed sympathetically with uterine cells on a monthly cycle, causing in my case, years of immobilizing pain and unexpected ovarian growths. 

Both conditions are cause by internal boundaries being breached by biological error, corrected by external boundaries being breached by surgical procedure. While these experiences are my own, they are reminders that we are all bodies caught in states of simultaneously predictable and erratic transition. I think this is important to remember. 

SF: How would you explain the physicality of a shadow to someone that has never heard the word?

JR: Shadows, to me, are icy, watchful. They are our past selves. They walk in front of us. I can’t communicate with a shadow, but I can encounter one, which adds to their eeriness. Physically, they’re distant. They’ve always seemed distant to me. 

JR: Many images in your work are veiled in cloth. Can you tell me about this?

SF: To me, cloth signifies notions of birth, death, rebirth, and experiences of life in between. Humans are born naked but are wrapped in cloth upon entering the social world, after exiting their mother’s bodies. Dead bodies are ritualistically wrapped in cloth during mourning ceremonies and in preservation rites such as mummification. The same stock of satin fabric could be used to sew a wedding dress, a christening gown, or the lining of a casket. Cloth can be used to swaddle or suffocate, constrain or comfort, celebrate or shame. I like the feelings and ideas that are sparked by these dichotomies.

SF: Describe the most impactful encounter that you've had with a hoofed animal (from art, literature, poetry, film, etc. or IRL).

JR: I remember reading a page in Nadezhda Yakovlevna’s second memoir Hope Abandoned where she, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam are walking down a street in, I think, Saint Petersburg, then named Leningrad. This is during the 1930s. The prosecution of Mandelstam is increasingly punishing. The scene is from memory, so I will get the details, large and small, wrong: there are two or three children ahead of them pretending that the broom they’re riding is a horse. All of a sudden, Mandelstam breaks from Yakovlevna and Akhmatova and mimics the children riding the horse. He is so elated that he begins riding his own pretend horse in an effort to join up with the kids. Between the baseless ideological policies and human atrocities enacted by Stalinism, there is in this moment room for play and imagination. Both Yakovlevna and Akhmatova hold Mandelstam back and teasingly pronounce that he is their horse, that he has to lead them through the dangerous years ahead. This passage sticks with me. Under the most terrifying circumstances, Mandelstam found traces of euphoria in his everyday life. Mandelstam sums it up best in this poem translated by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago: “I’ll stare at the world some more, / amazed by children and snow, / but smiles are incorruptible, like roads, / disobedient, no one’s servant.” (Voronezh, 10-13 December 1936)

JR: What book(s) do you hold most dear to you? 

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)

Sienna Freeman, Excerpt from "Red Gold” (F U Z Z Press, 2018)

SF: For pleasure reading, I am a sucker for artist autobiographies. Some favorites include Dorothea Tanning’s “Between Lives: An Artist and Her World,” Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Net,” and “The First Wives Tale, A Memoir by Louise Straus-Ernst.”  For research, I tend to go back to theoretical essays by George Bataille, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, although in no way do I claim to fully understand them. I am also a fan of writing that re-thinks the histories of modern or contemporary art and culture, with soft spots for Rosalind Krauss’ “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” and Whitney Chadwick’s “Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation.” In terms of fiction, I have reread Margaret Atwood’s “The Edible Woman” at least a dozen times.

Excerpt, Hailstones by Justin Robinson:

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