Sarah Tulloch in Conversation with Marjolaine Ryley
Object Image interrogates the material fabric of the image, the object, and the image content of the photographic subject. Tulloch’s work stems from her inheritance of her grandfathers’ extensive collection of photographs, slides, and cine films. Faultline and the subsequent Cut Series and Postcards re-work these black and white family photographs in unrehearsed and irreversible fashion.
Marjolaine Ryley: It has been two years since I was first introduced to your work so it’s fascinating to see the development. It’s an exciting time as you prepare to do your first book. I think it would be nice to start with a bit more biography. Where were you born and how did you come to live in Newcastle?
Sarah Tulloch: I was born in Ottignies, Belgium, and we came back to the UK when I was four. I grew up and went to primary school in Aberdeen, Scotland. I came to Newcastle to study for my MFA [at Newcastle University], and I loved the city, it’s a good place to be an artist, so I stayed.
MR: When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
ST: I always wanted to do art and at first it was just an impulse to draw things. At school and at home it wasn’t seen as an option for me though, and I went to university and did a humanities course. I did have one art teacher who was different and she told me I could pursue this, which stuck with me. I did night classes when I was living in London and gradually realized I had to find a way to pursue this. I had an educated family, but not an artistic one, so I didn’t understand the art education process. I started from scratch and did a foundation course part time while working. Then I went to study full time and art school was a revelation.
ST: Well, a whole world opened up that I had been skirting around!
MR: It becomes a community, doesn’t it, and initially you don’t realize how much of your creative process can be tied up with the people you meet. You feel like the whole art world is a mystery, but then you reach a point where you can be part of it and you can just turn up at openings!
ST: Yes, I did a degree in theology, ancient history, and philosophy. I was a bit more mature and I knew what I wanted as an art undergraduate.
MR: So you did a BA and an MFA?
ST: Yes, I did my BA at Bristol School of Art and my MFA at Newcastle. I also worked and did other art projects. I got a fellowship and a Small Wonders moving image commission at Picture This, so I ended up going to Filmwerksplatz in Rotterdam to make a 16mm, Double Exposure, and went on to show it at the 16mm festival there. After that, I wanted a change and the MFA at Newcastle was a two-year course, which was quite unusual. I felt I would benefit from two years to work on my practice.
MR: Did you feel you had a strong practice from your BA, or did that develop from your MFA? I know for me it wasn’t really until I did my MA at the Royal College of Art [RCA] that I conceived of myself as a practicing artist and realized there was an ongoing dialogue between myself and my work— and also having the confidence to say that.
ST : I was lucky because while I was doing my BA, I got my grandfather’s photo collection. They were the other side of my family and I didn’t know them so well. My mother died when I was quite young. They were from Clydebank [Glasgow, Scotland] but ended up living in Australia. My grandpa Jim was an engineer and helped build power stations all over the world. They were a mystery to me. We had visited them in Australia but it is quite a long way! We did funny things as kids like sending tapes, so we tried to stay in touch, but it was difficult. Then I inherited his collection. He was a keen amateur photographer; he had an eye for it. There was tons of it and he took both photos and slides.
MR : That’s interesting. I wonder, did you find that inheriting that archive inevitably led to you searching for your own family history within that? As well as working with the physical material, did you look at the genealogy for instance?
ST : It was in the background. I was aware of that but perhaps went around that. I think I felt it might be clichéd or nostalgic. I circled that and found other material from unknown sources. I made a lot of work related to landscape and color, and I was making sandwiched negative slide projections— projecting them onto walls. It be- came about the materiality. Those themes came early on. I found that material appealing to work with as “material,” so my practice became an investigation of the fabric of the photograph and what the possibilities were.
MR: : What’s interesting about that kind of “quotidian” [everyday, found] photography is that you can almost see that your images are the same as everyone else’s. I collect a lot of albums from flea markets and there is a sense they are all the same, yet they are incredibly poignant. They are a record of people’s lives, but in themselves they tell you nothing. So when you choose material, are you looking at them as physical objects and how they can be used in your work, rather than feeling they are precious and you should be saving them?
ST : Yes. I noticed a generic element to these images and I started categorizing them in terms of this type of material. For example, there are many images of gardens. I began reordering them, so putting together gardens, landscapes, and the kind of photos your parents or grandparents would take together. You move from the personal to the general. But later I also had in mind the idea that this is social history. There is an inherent element of ideas around memory or lack of memory but also what these photographs can do now.
MR : The work has a strong sense of the archival. Do you think your personal experiences, like losing your mother so early, were a way of ordering or containing the world? I know with my work, it is a way of taking a forensic view and trying to come to terms with what the family is and what it means. It can creep up on you that you have made an archive. But I found it comforting and reassuring in a way. Is that something you relate to?
ST : Initially, yes. I remember as an undergraduate I hung photos on strings and weighted them with objects, and belongings or picture frames—some from my family house. At that point I was investigating the work as an archive but between two things: investigating it as material and as archive. In critiques there were comments that it might be manipulative in some way, but I didn’t see it like that, rather more as you describe it as a type of archiving. Physically handling the material you are trying to understand, but on different terms to any sort of traditional notion of archive. That’s probably led to my intervention with the surface of the photograph itself. At that point, I am moving to explore other things, dislocation and the material qualities of the photograph.
MR : It is interesting to see the trajectory of your work from the early cut outs where you are going around the edges. There is a reverence with the early work, like the Oasis show, Gardens of the Imagination. They remind me of Nancy Spero’s cut-out goddesses. But as your work progresses, it feels more subversive or violent, using family photos in that way creates tension—these objects should be precious and kept safe but your interventions make them exciting again and stop them being just dusty images in a box! And with the Newspaper Heads series, they feel different again but actually the same cut runs through all the work. Do you see a “cut line” leading through the work and will you continue with that? Are the new works a political commentary?
ST : Yes, I think so. The different series are related but they inhabit slightly different realms. The Newspaper Heads are more like a witness of another type of image procession. They do come out of a desire to use more contemporary images, but also out of a continued desire to work with everyday materials and chance. I use whatever images are in that day’s newspaper.
ST : My interest is in what happens when you start to work with those types of images and in the natural and bizarre juxtaposition that happens in newspaper layout. You can have an image of great human suffering next to or overleaf from a car advert. It’s a sort of collapsing of categories. If there is a political aspect to the work, it revolves more around noticing this and that we live in complex, simultaneously multiple and contradictory worlds. Again, I’d have to reference John Stezaker, who makes a distinction between political photomontage as trying to treat images as particles of speech that can be combined to make meaning, and collage where his position is about the total illegibility of images. I feel images still retain something legible of their past selves even when they are radically altered, but agree images are not fixed in the same way as speech or words—that’s what makes them so exciting to work with.
MR : With your recent work you are also enlarging some of the smaller works and using scanners. How does that feel to take these intimate handmade objects and display them at exhibition scale?
ST : It took me a while to dare to do that!
MR : Was it a bit like the rst time you cut an image? Were you poised with the scalpel not daring to cut? Did you feel bad once you did it?
ST : Yes and no! [laughing] It took me a while, but it was very liberating. Letting go of that preciousness is so important. I have to keep going over that line! It is really important!
MR : I think that is in part because we are confused about photography. You can make multiple reproductions, but when all you have is a found photograph disconnected from its original negative, you are destroying the unique object. And with the newspaper works you are taking something everyday and throwaway and making it into an art object, so it’s almost a reverse action.
ST : I think there is an element of resisting the effects of an amnesiac society that is permanently forgetting. I think we tend to see the rise of digital media as responsible for all of this, and to an extent it is, but actually it has always been problematic. It’s this sense of how you look at what has gone before but exist in the present and also reinvent and renew and consider the future.
MR : There seems to be playfulness across your work—a sense of wanting to reanimate and reassemble and to make a comment there, but there is humor and a more serious element. Some works where people have literally disappeared from the image are quite provoking.
ST : Yes, it is quite a violent act but also a necessary and honest one to acknowledge unknowing or illegibility. I’m interested in pushing notions around juxtaposition—it feels creative and fertile. You also physically investigate what the material is and literally explore it. Going back to the question of “aura” and Walter Benjamin’s idea of something sited on the physical artwork or object, I think Steven Shore has a really nice way of putting it:
“The quality and intensity of the photographer’s attention leave their imprint on the mental level of the photograph. This does not happen by magic.”
I think this statement deals with some of the hang-ups around the notion of the original that seem to plague us. It is the quality of attention of the artist and, I would add, the attention of the viewer that matters.
MR: Has becoming a mother changed how you feel about your work or the way you work?
ST : It has shifted my focus, and having my daughter has made me more politicized. I am more aware of the potential consequences of world events for her. The Newspaper Heads came after she was born and they are inevitably more political works. I think because my mum died when I was quite young, I already had quite a close relationship with my grandmother, so having inter-generational bonds felt natural. Becoming a mother gives you a sense of thinking beyond your lifespan.
When I was in America, we visited Mesa Verde and within that community, there was a lovely idea about the way that when you are born you are connected to three generations behind you and three in front, so when you make decisions you should consider the wisdom of your actions in relation to those that have gone before and those that will follow. I always remember that, it is a good way to live your life, a shared responsibility.
MR : That is so interesting. Yes, having a story about where we come from is so important. I am grateful that with my book, Villa Mona, I can hand my children the story of their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives and a slice of the history which shapes their lives now. Being able to pass on a piece of history seems really important as a way of understanding our experiences.
ST : I agree we all need origin stories but with my work it is not straight forward because at the same time as there is a nod to that idea, there is also a refusal, a sense of things being incomplete and in flux. My use of photography for me is that it can only represent so much—you have to hold in your mind also what’s been left out or what is unrepresentable. I literally don’t know many of the places or people in photographs I use. So I try to acknowledge this unknowing in the work.
MR : Because of course our families are not perfect, there is that duality of experience and your work hints at that.
ST : Yes, the use of photography for me is about a relationship to family, wider society, and history, but also I am looking at the unknown and the possibilities for re-finding the image in that moment of imaginative flight or release. It’s important to be open to the possibilities for change.
Graduating from Bristol School of Art and Design with First Class Honours in 2005, Tulloch was then awarded the UWE/Spike Island Fellowship 2006-7 and a Small Wonders Award with Picture This. In 2009 Tulloch gained an MFA with distinction from Newcastle University. She has exhibited in the UK and internationally including Rotterdam International Film Festival, Berwick Film and Media Festival, Plus Arts Projects, London, Motorcade/Flashparade, Bristol, Spike Island, Bristol, Baltic 39, Newcastle upon Tyne and Bergby Konst Centre, Sweden. The series, ‘Newspaper heads’ was shortlisted for Jerwood Encounters: Family Politics. In 2015 Sarah was commissioned by New Trust Arts to make a three channel video installation at Biddulph Grange Gardens, Stoke. Forthcoming exhibitions in 2017 include Platform A gallery, Middlesborough and The New Bridge Project, Newcastle with fellow artists Annie O’Donnell and Katy Cole and a solo show at The Bonnafont gallery, San Francisco.