INTERVIEW WITH ISABEL ENGLEBERT

MARINA. Let’s start at the beginning. How was your transition from designer to visual artist?

 

ISABEL. I never really identified myself as a designer, but rather as an artist who made Wearable Art. That’s why I was always interested in the transcendental aspect of design, in which the pieces communicate something beyond the aesthetic and formal dimensions. In my designs, I worked thoroughly on this area, looking for the pieces to transmit a message, to tell a story. The sensations that emerge from the materials, shapes and colors are fundamental to me, and I progressively started working on them on a larger scale. Thus, jewelry became furniture, and furniture became sculptures, every time increasing the conceptual aspect. At some point, my works reached such a level of abstraction that they became artworks, whose main goal is to express a concept, an idea that gives rise to reflections and thoughts.


 

M. Language is one of the main axis of your work. When did this interest awaken in you, and how do you approach it from your artistic practice?

 

I. Well, I think that at this point it is quite relevant the fact that I am a communication professional. This has always been an area of focus in my way of perceiving the world, in my way of understanding things. In fact, in my career as a jewelry designer I was always interested in communicating a message beyond the aesthetics of a piece, to be able to perceive the different nuances that convey a concept. When I turned to the realization of this exhibition, at first I was very interested in language as the most effective means of communicating ideas. My artistic practice began with a questioning of the role given to ideas in the history of Conceptual Art, in comparison to the importance assigned to objects. Language caught my attention because I found in it a strong power of conveying ideas in an efficient and direct way, and I was interested in working on its relationship with artistic ideas. Being an intrinsic part of culture, I believe that the role of language is fundamental in the transmission of concepts and understanding; a characteristic that interests me a lot. Since I come from the field of communication sciences, I believe that the work on language that I carry out in my artistic work is a continuing of my research as a professional. All the disciplines that traverse me converge at this point to create something new.

M. Research is a crucial part of your work. It can mean having to discard material that, for one reason or another, won’t end up being shown. How important do you consider this process, invisible to the viewer’s eyes?

 

I. I think the research process is a fundamental part of an artwork. All the thoughts, beginning with the first idea, the mutations of it during the development of the work, until the last reflection once the decisions have been made, are central to my work. It often happens that a first concept transforms and evolves, and this requires active and conscious reflective work. A lot of research and field intertwining is needed in order to delve into all the themes I seek to work on. In fact, for the realization of some of my pieces, I took a course in Medical Neurosciences at Duke University, in order to understand in depth the concepts I was handling, and thus convey what I was looking for. In addition, I always consult with experts to have the most complete vision as possible of the topics I cover. During the making of my work I usually get involved with scientists, with other artists, even with photographers who work with microscopy, in order to reach the level of abstraction and depth I look for. During the process, I always make different tests in various materials, shapes, colors and scales, until I find the combination that really has the desired effect. The technical execution of the pieces themselves does not particularly interest me; I think the process is much richer and more valuable. However, the final pieces produce a strong visual impact, which is the condensation of all this development that interests me so much.


 

M. Would you consider your work to be performative?

 

I. In a way, I would. There are many pieces in which action is crucial, and all reflection derives from it. In addition, audience participation is also essential, so many works reveal their performative character by interacting with the spectator. In the same way, I believe that the final object, the piece, has equal importance, so I would not define it only as performative or objectual, all reflections are valid.


 

M. From what you say, you are especially interested in participation.

 

I. That’s right, I think the audience’s action is vital for the development of my work. I’m very interested in the spectator’s action, how he reacts and articulates, what he does and what he doesn’t do, what sense he makes - and perceives - of what he sees. I believe that the pieces are not complete until they are affected by the participation of the audience. There are even some pieces that explicitly call for a certain action, without which the work is meaningless. Many significations end up being constructed and understood at that moment. The reflection of the spectator, and his reflective processes, are an intrinsic part of my work.


 

M. It’s interesting what you say about the decisions you make when originating the series. I have a doubt about the formalization and production of the pieces you exhibit; in your trajectory you mention the production of design pieces in your studio. Now that you have evolved to the intrinsically plastic, do you still work as a team when it comes to production?

 

I. Well, the production of each work is a complex process. I have always liked working in a team, I think that the different contributions and points of view enrich projects. In general, the most conceptual part of a work I carry out on my own, but I always like to talk about my ideas with other artists or referents. I learn a lot from the ways of doing and thinking of others. Turning to the work of the big names, like Duchamp or Beuys, is always a great way to go deeper into concepts. My work is usually heavily influenced by Duchamp, with his ready-mades and his ironic and humorous nature. The study of Kosuth’s writings also plays a key role, his research on the construction of meaning in art, the links to language and conceptual art deprived of any morphological presence. The notion that art is not to be found in the object itself, but in the idea or concept of the work, is much developed in the series "Art as idea as idea" (1966-68).

 

In terms of the technical production of the pieces, I always seek to work in a team. I feel very comfortable working with other people, going back and forth with tests and proposals. I believe that art is a collective process, so the different contributions greatly enrich my work.


 

M. What is the procedure or mechanics you follow for the realization of your artworks?

 

I. In the first place, I reflect on a first idea previously pre-selected, I don’t work with the first thing that comes to my mind, I build concepts and ideas that I gradually discard. I document everything that revolves around it, and I go circling on it until I squeeze out all its meanings, concepts and connotations. Often, this results in changes to it, and it can evolve and mutate as the series develops. For this to happen - or not - I make special emphasis on research, so that every decision made has a reason, a justification, a "raison d’être". I get deeply involved in each subject, educating myself and consulting with experts and specialists. In parallel, I carry out material tests, in different colors, scales, volumes and shapes, to see how the materials react visually - and vice versa - , working together with the concepts I want to express. This process, which I call adjudication, is necessary to find the right material to help me express the concept I am trying to convey. That is why I always do a lot of research on materials and techniques, all of them subordinated to the original idea of the work. All the pieces are developed simultaneously, so that, on many occasions, the decisions taken for the making of a piece can cause changes in another one that I thought was finished. The aim is that all the elements incorporated are aligned, in order to build a strong discourse with the series as a whole, clearly expressing the original ideas or concepts.


 

M. I understand what you mean, the idea transcends the pieces I have seen, the discourse is impressive from my point of view. I want to focus a little more on the actual pieces, specifically on the final works. What can you tell us about the purely handmade, the techniques you have used, how has it been for you to experiment with new materials, to get to know them, to think about them, to combine them with the sketched ideas you had for the works?

 

I. This question is very interesting, because the techniques I use for the works are very different from each other. It often takes me a long time, and a lot of trial and error, to find the best way to express the concept of a work. This aspect of artistic practice is very interesting to me, because I always find myself in unfamiliar territory, and I love that challenge. For example, some of my most recent pieces led me to incorporate something totally new: biological studies. The experience of working on my own encephalogram was exciting, and it allowed me to discover several new things. I think it gives the work a very authentic, first-person feel. Other works led me to explore virtuality as an extension of reality. Each new discovery excites me, and broadens the meaning of the works.

 

“No one makes a sculpture just because they like wood, that would be absurd. One makes a sculpture because wood allows him to express something that no other material would let him.” (Bourgeois, 2002:88)

 

I do not identify myself in a permanent way with any of the techniques or materials I use, because I consider that precisely, as Bourgeois says, materials are subordinated to ideas, to what one wants to express, so if the concept changes, the technique and the material do too.


 

M. We have talked before about your career and your studio. Your background is essentially in communication and design, I understand that somehow this has given you certain virtues and values that you have incorporated in this new artistic stage. What has this aspect of your career influenced you?

 

I. Personally, I think that each stage I went through helped me to walk the path that makes me who I am today. I consider myself an interdisciplinary person, with multiple interests, renewed constantly, in a state of flux and change. I am very interested in the convergence of fields, that which lies between defined concepts, which for me is something blurry and interesting. My corporate background instilled in me a great deal of discipline and neatness in the way of doing things, with a certain scientific rigor, which results in every decision taken having a justification behind it, in an almost academic way. This experience also taught me through traveling, how to live with other cultures, other forms of worldview. Communication provided me with a way of seeing the world through language, both verbal and visual, placing great emphasis on the messages to be communicated in each situation. I learned to strategically analyze each aspect that is part of a message, the choice of words, graphic elements, the language of images. This allows me to break down a communicative situation, paying attention to each decision made when expressing an idea. Design taught me to think about a problem in all of its aspects, to find appropriate solutions for each one of them. I learned to pay attention to the morphological aspect and the material, always according to what I wanted to express, getting to the core of the matter, to the deepest part of it. The design process also instilled in me a great sensitivity for materials and their aesthetic impact.

 

I believe that all these learnings converge today in my plastic practice, and can be perceived in each one of my works. They have provided me with a kind of visual culture and intellectual knowledge that allows me to establish certain associations between images and concepts, to make certain readings, and to look for different ways of constructing meaning.


 

M. You have talked about the influence of other artists such as Kosuth and Duchamp, it is clear that the great masters opened the doors to current artists. I certainly see these influences and references present in each of the works of the show.

 

I. Sure, of course the big names have had a lot of influence on my development as an artist. Michael Craig-Martin is another great artist that I have taken as a reference. His work "An oak tree" (1973) influenced me a lot. It consists of a half-full glass of water, placed on a transparent glass shelf 253 centimeters above the ground. The artist explains, through a booklet in a Q&A format, that the object exhibited is not a glass of water, but a full-grown oak tree. He states that he has not changed the accidents, i.e. the color, the weight, the size, of the water glass, but that he has still turned it into a tree. He has transformed the essence of the object, without changing its appearance.


 

M. To what extent did this transformation that the artist talks about affected your artistic projection?

 

I. This statement has awakened many reflections in me, allowing me to discover the essence behind the work of art, which goes beyond its material characteristics. In fact, this concept governs some of my latest works. 


 

M. Craig’s work, since we are talking about him, shows the influence of Pop art and minimalism. This last exhibition you are presenting has a clear influence of conceptual abstraction that leads me to relate it to minimalism, video art, happening and performance.

 

I. Yes, I think all these currents and movements converge in a certain way in this exhibition. I am very interested in an almost absolute abstraction, in the use of only essential elements necessary to awaken a reflection, especially when we talk about material elements. That’s why I think my work is very much related to minimalism, to conceptual abstraction. Besides, the fact of allowing the idea to be the one that leads the material decisions brings me to use several different artistic media, such as the ones you mentioned, video art, happening and performance. They are practices with particular characteristics that allow the expression of the original idea, each one in its own way. Video allows documentation, putting the focus on the process. Happening and performance give way to action, which also speaks of processes, and to the spectator’s reaction. I believe that the convergence of all these elements shows in my work.


 

M. I want to go back a little bit, earlier we were talking about language and time as part of your work. Something I see in many of your works is an expression of yourself, a self-portrait. What can you tell me about this?

 

I. Of course that is true. I think every artist reflects part of himself in the works he conceives. The expression of oneself is very important, it is the transmission of all those concepts, ideas and sensations that one has, in a synthetic and abstract way. One discovers more of oneself, and the public can glimpse part of the artist’s essence. Often, this factor is very necessary when it comes to understanding a series of works of art. But beyond transmitting part of my essence in all my works, I think there are certain specific pieces that speak of this more explicitly. For example, "El incalculable valor de una buena idea" is a very concrete portrait of my mind, it is the possibility of capturing my ideas in a material and real way, so that the viewer can perceive them in a piece that speaks of myself. Here, I would like to name the British artist Marc Quinn as a reference. Quinn elaborates sculptures of his head with gallons of his own blood, and then freezes and exhibits them. About this work, he explains:

 

“The idea came from a desire to take the art of portraiture to the extreme, a representation that not only has the form of the model, but is made of the model’s flesh.”


 

M. Therefore, in a certain way, could we say that we are talking about an autobiographical work?

 

I. Definitely. As I said, I think all my pieces speak in one way or another about myself, my ideas and thoughts, my sensibility. In all of them you can also see my journey, my evolution as an artist, condensing all the disciplines that interest me and cross me.

 

This is something that I capture in "Máxima abstracción en su mínima expresión", for example, by including images of my own blood seen through a microscope.