Familiar yet Alien: The pursuit of Ambivalence and Uncertainty
This conversation took place on February 8, 2022, when Myrna D'Ambrosio joined Michaela Schweighofer on her daily walk from her home in Anderlecht to her studio in Schaerbeek. Regular stops include the flea market at Jeu de Balle and a few other second-hand shops from which she regularly sources materials.
Myrna D'Ambrosio: When I first heard you speak about scarves at your studio in residence at WIELS, you spoke about the “cringe moment,” which seems like an unconventional method of selection. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Michaela Schweighofer: [Laughs] Yes, I always go for things that I’m really attracted to but that also make me cringe… I am seeking a sense of familiarity but also something that is alien to me. When I love and hate at the same time. I have the feeling that’s what we do in life with people and things: we look for a sense of familiarity but are also attracted to the contrary of who we think we are. Ambivalence makes things interesting to us.
MD: Can you tell me about the textiles that you look for, as we’re doing today here at the Jeu de Balle market? Do you exclusively purchase scarves?
MS: No, I don’t exclusively look for or work with textiles, but at the moment I am looking for scarves for sculptures that embody that very ambivalence. I know it when I see it. I like scarves in particular because they’re a unity in themselves, constricted to the size they come in, specially designed for their shape, which makes them very different as sculptural material to buying fabric by the metre. Usually they are hidden somewhere at the bottom of a box—the lowest in the hierarchy of social fabrics at Jeu de Balle.
I typically go for silk, velvet, or organza scarves that my grandma, my mum, or my aunt would like—even if I initially don’t. I’m thinking a lot about taste and class, my own social upbringing, the middle-class household I grew up in, the women that surrounded me. My matrilineal lineage. Bold and strong women who were or are primarily homemakers for their working husbands, even if they had higher education.
I am thinking of the endless hours my siblings and I spent crafting and painting silk scarves together with my grandmother. The house became a source of creative production—as a pleasant pastime but also as a means to add to her very humble housekeeping allowance. The subversion of the traditional domestic space into a creative, commercial space in the absence of the husband is a motif in the history of women's emancipation. I am very interested in that.
I am also just really into anonymous design, which sometimes but not always aligns itself with bad design—which I love. [Laughs]
MD: The lovely kitchen towel you just spotted is more of a domestic textile. Do you also buy those, or did you just make an exception because of its unusually large size?
MS: I’m not typically interested in those, although I am definitely interested in labor and the domestic space. But my objects usually come right out of the closet [laughs] or, to be more precise, they are made out of clothes or accessories that are connotated with femininity or camp/queerness.
Materials like spaces and labor are deeply gendered. I think about that a lot. When I do my daily walks through the city of Brussels, the beautiful narrow single-family homes which hide so much undervalued, unpaid labor and violence are omnipresent. But it is not just them, it is the combination of the art nouveau family home, the glass buildings, the skyscrapers of the EU district and the modernist brutalist post-industrial buildings that make this city romantic and problematic at the same time. They are inscriptions in space of the social relations of a society that built them. Feminist geographer Jane Darke says: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” And it is true, they continue to shape and influence social relations, power, and inequality.
The sculptures I make in the studio merge the two: the city’s architecture and the home’s interior. I have the city's neon lights coated in silk scarves, metal merging into light beams covered in fabric: objects where the exterior is melting into the interior, the city into the home, the feminine into the masculine.
MD: I was thinking about an interview with the artist Pae White in Lydia Yee’s book Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, where she recalls ironing the Vera Neumann scarves she collects—the steam from the iron would evaporate the perfume permeated into the scarves, as if their previous owners were being temporarily revived.
MS: When I was studying literature, I did a seminar on magical realism and one of the books we read was Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, where I first encounteredthe idea of clothes containing the ghosts of their previous owners; something I keep coming back to of lately when thinking about my work or works of my colleagues.
There’s an interesting added value to working with materials that already had a life. Taking something that was discarded—thrown away, once in good taste, now void of value to its previous owner—and giving it back its dignity, enabling an afterthought or afterlife, is precious to me.
MD: I would like to know more about your habit of shopping at thrift stores and flea markets.
MS: Chance-based finds and solutions are a big part of my practice. You look for something specific and might encounter something else, something you would not have found otherwise.
Thrift stores and flea markets are always a good way of getting to know a new place, and walking the city has become a part of my practice during the multiple lockdowns in this pandemic. For me it’s about mapping the city and its people, by looking at what is discarded and out of fashion and what people might keep here that they throw out in other cities. Brussels gives out so much material—it’s no wonder so many artists work with what the city freely provides.
When I walk through the city towards my studio, I am emptying my brain of the house I just left, the housework I had to do, the duties a home forces upon you. I can relate to the flaneuse seeking meaning from city spaces while also bestowing individual meaning on them. But I feel more akin to the figure of the female detective, collecting clues to the metropolis, seeking to bring insignificant details and seemingly fortuitous events into a meaningful constellation and reading the traces from the details.
MD: Is mapping the city through found objects something you have done in different locations?
MS: Yes, and I like reflecting on how things differ. What you find in Brussels is so different from what you find in Vienna. Here you find much more wool, velvet, organza—darker colors, warmer materials. I actually started collecting silk scarves in Vienna, in 2020, because it seemed such a great way of gathering materials with great patterns in great quality, really cheap—one euro a piece. That’s impossible to find here in Brussels, so my materials changed with the city. They have become darker, dirtier, more broken.
MD: When you are on the lookout for new materials, do you already have a purpose for them in mind?
MS: The further I am into the production of a sculpture, the more I know what I need. And then I also specifically search for something. For example, this here, I’m going to buy it because at the moment I am working within a red-green spectrum and I know I will need more of these.
MD: As we stand in your studio looking at newfound items, what I am most curious to know is whether you consider yourself a collector? Or do you perceive the scarves just as any other tool or material that can be shaped into a sculpture?
MS: Although we are looking at this vast collection of scarves now, I don’t see myself as a collector. I really see them as material that at some point will merge into a sculpture. But I do engage in a dialogue with them; I look at them for a long time and there is an ongoing conversation between them and me. It’s a negotiation around how to proceed. In the end I have to do the work and sometimes materials ask for the most outrageous things and I have to ask myself whether I am willing to give that time and energy. I have no interest in dominating the material but also no interest in being dominated by it.
Michaela Schweighofer is a visual artist from Austria, based in Brussels and Vienna. She has an inquisitive approach to sculpture that often leads to immersing herself in handicrafts and new techniques. Michaela is interested in sociopolitical and feminist questions, which she explores within her practice and in various collaborative formations. Her work takes shape in texts, lectures, sculptures, and sculptural installations. In 2020, Forum Stadtpark published her book FROM THE PROP TO THE INSIDE, a theoretical-subjective anthology in which she interrogates her own practice by writing and gathering texts on the concept of the sculpture as prop and the stage as installation. It was recognized as one of the fifteen most beautiful Austrian books that year by HVB (Main Association of the Austrian Book Trade). She studied English literature, psychology, and philosophy at the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz and the Université VII in Paris, as well as video and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg. She met Myrna D'Ambrosio in 2021, while she was an artist-in-residence at WIELS.