Some questions for Peter Sacks

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with Jean Migrenne

Q: Tell me a bit about your childhood and young adulthood in South Africa? Can you describe the physical circumstances of your life then? I'm sure it has changed. Has something not changed about it?

PS: I grew up mostly in Durban, on the Indian Ocean. Still quite wild in parts, coastal jungle, empty stretches of beach with heavy surf, rolling midlands north-west to the Drakensberg Mountains. Staggeringly beautiful, huge in scale. A serious chunk of the planet earth, whose forces felt very present, mysterious, primal, even as it collided with a political situation which even to a child felt horribly warped, the cruel opposite of everything that might have felt natural. Of course, as a child I was effortlessly, even ecstatically open to the outside world. Still am. But the sense of possible encagement is that a word? – seems to have been no less a part of me. Caged in, caged out. Caged.

Q: How did you live in the social order of apartheid? Were you conscious of this from early childhood?

PS: Everything in the human world struck me as being upside-down and inside-out. I knew as a mammal that there were really no differences between any of us as creatures – especially in Africa, for god's sake, where one's sense of being the merest sub-particle on a colossal continent should have been not just obvious but primary.

Q: How did you see yourself?

PS: Well, sight was pretty damn immediate: in the fifties, before the Group Areas Act moved large portions of the population into outlying “locations”, later called “townships”, the city held a lot of people whose outside appearances, all categorized by racist laws, were immediately vivid. Not just skin color, but customary dress. On an average half-hour walk to school I'd see Zulu people then still wearing what I was told were “tribal” blankets, or elaborate beadwork, men carrying shields and knob-kerry sticks, women quite often topless, most barefoot, many bearing loads on their heads, or I'd see gangs of black men in overalls or sometimes in striped prisonwear laboring on the road with pick-axes, chanting, just as I'd see men and women from India, both Muslims and Hindus, wearing dhotis, saris, or “western dress”, even as I walked past in my little school uniform (safari suit and sandals in my weirdly white skin). To be white was inseparable for me from being small.

Q: You were obviously in an “all-white” school?

PS: Look, I was waking up always too late in a ravishingly beautiful garden mostly run by thugs, and guess what, I was one of them. I remember being driven home from the beach once by my aunt, this was down the south coast in a small village where my uncle was the local doctor. I must have been about eight at the time. We were flagged down by a group of Xhosa sugarcane workers a few miles out of town. One of them, a young man, had a very badly crushed, near-amputated left hand, he held it against the side window while my aunt was winding down the glass. There was blood everywhere, he sat with us with a beach-towel wrapped round the bottom of his arm while we headed to the hospital. I realized there was no way to get his hand back, the blood back inside him. In a way it's still on the window glass. It comes before what I see outside. My own hands still feel strange to me.

Q: Does Africa feel like home still? Are you everywhere, as William Corbett's essay suggests – can one be anywhere but in Africa once one is of the place? Could you address your idea of place and its hold on one? Is that an illusion?

PS: It's no illusion, the hold. Clearly I'm still psychically and emotionally very attached to Africa. Its force, scale, complexity, residual expanses of wildness. I have traveled quite a lot, often on foot, several continents, and I suppose I've felt occasionally as if I might be engaged in some attempt to have migrated everywhere as a way of proving the degree to which I can only be from one place, a few square miles along the Indian Ocean. When I think of the map of Africa, changing “colors” all through my childhood as it gained independence, getting out from under the imperial reds, greens, yellows, I realize how bizarre it felt that any actual terrain could be mapped as property, though they also used words like “protectorates”. Of course this was on colored maps. More dramatic were the black and white maps in the newspaper. The morning of each new country's independence – and there were many during the sixties – The Congos, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia several each year – you'd find this map of Africa in which the independent state had gone literally from white to black on the page. Soon, South Africa and Rhodesia started looking pretty insane down there. That sense of estrangement, of a sort of political extremity even, was coupled with a physical sense of being literally at the bottom of the world as mapped. I could practically feel the weight of everything between me and the North Pole as if it were pressing down on my head and shoulders. Maybe I try to paint bits of Africa, not map it, but capture actual pieces of it.

Q: How were you educated? Did you receive religious training? What languages did you speak in – different languages to different people?

PS: Well, I mentioned walking to school. Education started right there of course. School itself was quite British in feel. Schools were segregated by gender as well as race. Discipline was strict. Punishment was very much a full body experience: bend over, x many “cuts” or “strokes” of the cane, layered into you with the whole kinetic energy of what felt like a large man. That's apart from the less formal violence of slaps, punches, imposed physical ordeals (from measuring large distances with a matchstick – a punishment my dad used to recall from even his schooldays – to writing out hundreds of “lines” in alternating colored inks so you had to change pens every word). Why do I start with discipline?

Q: And high school?

PS: A government school, long pants even in summer, tie and jacket, hard straw hat (not to wear it – even to wear it at the wrong angle while walking home, or miles from school – was punishable). To my joy, I later learned that the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa had been there. I think he won a prize for his English essay on Shakespeare. As for languages, it was an English-medium school, but Afrikaans was compulsory, along with Latin (there's a weird combination – one of the oldest, and one of the youngest languages around, one built on universals, the other on what felt to me like doom-laden particulars and the horrible tone of nationalist decrees).

Q: Religion?

PS: Religion? How complicated do we need to get here? Yes I was osmotically downloading a worship of the natural world, and yes there were the sounds of mosque, Hindu temple, outdoor Zulu religious drumming; and there was school prayers, sort of Anglican. But my family was Jewish. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, and a heavily accented inaccurate English. My paternal grandfather was very observant, very orthodox, morning and evening prayers with full tefillin, prayer shawl, the works. I did have to learn Hebrew, although I wasn't genuinely interested, and as a twelve-year-old, I couldn't get anywhere near the God of the Old Testament – transcendent guarantor of so much flat-out unfairness, it seemed, from stolen birthrights to stolen “promised Lands”, even if you believed in him. And what was “He” doing at the bottom of Africa? Anyway, I'm no more of a believer now than I was in 1963, but I certainly have a larger sense of anguish and bafflement than I did then.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a person who is part of a group – a religion, a people, a race, a culture, a geography? What defines one once one is in a state of exile from one's home?

PS: Being white in South Africa for me at that time meant feeling illegitimate, ashamed. Being Jewish meant being a minority within a minority. I'm not comfortably part of any “group” at all. Having traveled, having lived in several countries, living in two right now, the U.S. and France, I feel hopelessly “global”. Milosz said “after many years in exile one tries to imagine what it is like not living in exile.”

Q: Was it hard to leave? Has it continued to be a sensation you feel – that of being in exile?

PS: It was hard to leave because I had become politically involved and felt that by leaving I was abandoning the situation. Also, I felt a physical grief. So sadness as well as guilt. Even to leave meant that one was free to leave. I still have the physical sensation of a kind of tearing – or that the actual edges of my body are somewhere between where I am now and where I was there. I probably go to the canvas with some desire to make a balance out of these feelings. And that extends, itself, into the troubling of the painted mark or line – any sense of contour or definition is charged and in question. And I think that my interest in multiplicity at the level of the surface has to do with the desire to register multiplicity of place and of time. A painting can include many “places” at once. Above all, there's something unfathomable in the act of looking back at what you are still making – you're looking back and forward at once.

Q: It seems, from looking at your paintings, that the landscape and topography of that continent, and of South Africa in particular, affected you? Can you speak to this?

PS: In addition to what I was just saying – there's trying to do justice to a sense of scale, to the presence or trace of large forces. There's definitely a mapping impulse which works as much at the level of relief mapping as of contour.

Q: Why is that?

PS: I have this desire for the form to press up from its bedrock, probably more than trying to demarcate strict borders. There's a certain roughness or ruggedness that I've wanted to maintain. I wanted physical expressions as much – or more than – legible references. Part of some visual tectonic plate. Growing up alongside the ocean meant that I wanted to keep a wavelike sense of energy and rhythm, however troubled, in the canvases. Forms will often jut into, or out of, sight. Also many of the works allude to processions of people – a familiar sight in Africa – people walking along the roads, in towns and in the country.

Q: Processions seem to figure a good deal.

PS: Yes – processions need not be just ceremonial – people walking to work, or walking from place to place, in numbers, give one the feeling of what in other circumstances may have been associated with pilgrimages. On a different level altogether, watching large groups of animals moving in migration, or approaching a water hole, gave me a sense of what it is for the body to move across the surface of the earth. I think I'd like the eye to move over a canvas as if it were walking in that way.

Q: In fact your canvases seem cinematic, and often ask the viewer to move from left to right – is that correct?

PS: It's probably more true of some of the more nearly “figurative” works, in which there's some element of implied narrative, so that a figure, or certain elements, may seem to move from left to right. It's also the way many of us read. How most painted Annunciations work. But I would never want the movement to feel unimpeded, and I would certainly want to keep a force pushing back from the right edge.

Q: And animals seem to appear everywhere, more frequently of late.

PS: Well animals certainly walk back and forth. And given my anxiety regarding the human impact on the creaturely world, it would be easy to see why I feel closer to them than to most humans. But this is not addressing what it meant to spend time near wild animals. To take in not only their beauty, their ruthlessness, their responsiveness, but also to learn how just how attentive one can become in their presence. If I could make a painting that would ask you to do as much work as a wild animal might if you were in its presence, I would feel I was getting somewhere: the very first works of art to which I really responded were of animals.

Q: Really?

PS: Yes. Before I'd ever been to a museum I had been in the presence of cave paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains. These follow the natural contours of the stone, incorporating its very matter at the level of texture and color, so these animals are both of the stone and yet not. How could they be there? They were both accurate and stylized at once. They felt natural yet sacred. Somebody had observed these animals with a closeness and a mastered sense of being mastered by them, and it set the standard for any genuine art for me. Some were mythic. Some of the human forms d'anihad animal heads. They were also unavoidably marked, for me, by the knowledge that the people who had made them had been killed or driven away, leaving these as the only trace of their existence. On several occasions, from early childhood, I would sleep in these caves during periods in the mountains. This involved something I've not often considered: what it means to fall asleep and to wake in the presence of a work of art. The paintings themselves seemed to emerge from the stone and recede into it with the darkness, almost as forms of consciousness itself. And looking at these paintings – often looking hard at patches of walls to see if there even were paintings there, at all – would occur while one's other physical senses were very much at work. One had been walking or riding for hours. There was the smell of each cave – trace of fire, whiff of damp maybe. There were the sounds – often one would take shelter during a thunderstorm and would see the paintings while hearing the rain fall, or, when the rain stopped, hearing it drip… To see these in a cave meant that you were both in, and yet also under, the earth. Another part of the planet's psyche. An underworld. And this certainly prepared the ground for my subsequent love of fresco painting – as well as large scale, off the easel abstraction. The colors themselves have stayed with me – blood, iron, manganese, colors of vegetation, as well as the sense of fragile yet enduring textures.

Q: Is your color-sense African?

PS: A lot of my recent work has made very pronounced use of black and white – there's no getting away from the emotional resonances of that polarity. When there is a use of chromatic color it tends to be quite stark or un-modulated, as if under the glare of a fairly harsh sun.

Q: Can you say something about your relationship to the ocean – how did it come about? Was it because you were a serious swimmer? Do you feel it impacts your paintings – either through method or content?

PS: It definitely informs the paintings. I'd like each painting to feel as if it were a part of a larger force-field that includes tides, currents, frequencies, a lively interplay of surface and depth. But beyond the visual aspect, I have to say I feel that in making, and usually in judging whether or not a painting is working, I am probably trying to see whether the painting will allow me to swim in it. By which I mean will it be an element that is at once enfolding and yet partially buoyant – the ocean being salt water of course. I'd want the paintings to be salt water rather than fresh water. In a conventional sense the ratio between the extremes of calm and storm – the mood – is something I carry from the ocean. It is true that I spent many hours a day either in the ocean, or, more grimly, in a swimming pool as a competitive swimmer.

Q: For how many years?

PS: From the age of about 8 till 19. This meant swimming about six miles a day, five or six days a week.

Q: You were known for your backstroke?

PS: That was my most competitive stroke. It meant that I also spent a lot of time looking up at the sky. I think this way of being in two elements at once, and somehow afloat, affected my relation to painting as such.

Q: When did you start working in visual art? What forms did those beginnings take?

PS: The first images I made were on the pages of bound notebooks. They were entirely private. They were both mementos on the move and distortions of those mementos in the direction of certain kinds of emotions which I couldn't name. Many were of landscapes and architectural details.

Q: So where are these images?

PS: These notebooks?

Q: Yes.

PS: Well, since there's about 30 years worth of them, those that haven't been lost are in various storages places with my dispersed library, and some are in the States on shelves or lying around in the studio. Most of them are closely written, highly detailed, responses to looking at particular paintings.

Q: Particular paintings?

PS: Just about everything I looked at for 30 years was accompanied by long notes and visual responses, the latter usually regarding structure. I have notebooks on – some from my late teens early twenties – Giotto, Piero, Michelangelo's drawings, Gericault, Manet, Goya, far too many artists to name, on through to Rothko, Kline, Stella, Still, Bacon, Freud, Kiefer, others nearer in time. Even a small show will give rise to a book of notes. It's endless. But as for my earlier independently visual work, some of the notebooks were exclusively visual. Tiny pictures. Seascapes. Trees, Studies of the lunar eclipse. Record of walks. Some sequences of semi-abstract images where one image would lead to another. Over the years I have taken many very long – months' long – walks. Through parts of North Africa, much of South America, the Himalayas. These walks gave rise to sequences of notebooks – so I think of the walking and the making of notebooks somehow in tandem. But I'll also get going on certain writers whose works I will copy out by hand, and accompany with abstract imagery, often applying marks directly over the written text, to create an interference or collaboration between word and image. Sometimes I make erasures – of a hymnal for instance – or I make private anthologies – a whole selection of Dickinson poems written, drawn and painted into a palm-sized 19th century French prayerbook. A notebook of retranscribed lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg address – including burned and torn 5 dollar bills. I was working on this after the second Iraq war in a kind of despair. Whitman's Drumtaps is another sequence. Kafka – although that went haywire. Wittgenstein's Notebooks 1914-1916. Camus' last novel – these are almost entirely composed of miniature paintings.

Q: What kind of materials are we talking about in these notebooks, then?

PS: Oil, oil-pastel, ink, acrylic, pencil, torn paper – sometimes bits of cloth. I can't do what I can on a canvas otherwise the book won't close.

Q: You mentioned the book on Kafka “went haywire”. What do you mean?

PS: What happened is that the Kafka went off the notebook page onto larger, individual “made” pages. Each is 50x65 centimeters. Most of them are built up on the back sides of FedEx boxes. And they do use odder materials – though each page includes a large passage from The Trial – which I type out on an old pre-electric typewriter. I use scraps of 19th century linen, which I feed through the roller, and onto which I hammer out the text. I began by thinking I would do a few excerpts. But it turned into its own Kafkaesque penal colony when I realized I needed to keep going.

Q: The whole thing?

PS: Yes. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I've already done about three quarters of the novel.

Q: It must take a huge amount of time.

PS: Many many hours – I've end up typing with braces on my wrists! – though it's hard to explain just how out of time the experience feels. Also how absolutely riveting it is to move sentence by sentence through this work, or rather to have it move through one's body.

Q: You seem, in the Ancestor paintings in particular, but in others as well, to be composing figures out of some physically longer sections of text – what are those – how are they selected and are they made the same way?

PS: This is both simple and complex. It began with my wanting to type out the entirety of the passage in The Trial known as “Before The Law”, along with the ensuing conversation between K and the priest, all without a page-break. So I needed a long piece of linen to keep it entire. I tore off a bedsheet-length strip, fed it into the machine, loose threads and all, and just typed my way down. When I saw this long vertical – which I then worked into a very heavily built-up mostly white painting using cardboard and lace and other materials – I realized it had assumed the form of a standing figure. I was really taken aback, because the figure seemed to have emerged from inside the canvas, and it was a figure made of words, and it stood in the doorway of the painting. It felt right away like a shroud, a mummy, in its graveclothes. And its ghostly-yet-material, posthumous power brought to mind the carved wood vertical spirit markers which, in parts of Africa, designate the presence of an Ancestor, or a spirit.

Q: Are all the Ancestors from Kafka?

PS: No, this one painting seemed to beckon other spirits – or something like that. So that's how Yeats came in – his tower, his shrouds, his other Civil War poems and on through to Cuchulain Comforted, which really was weird to type out onto a “bundle of linen”. Then one made up of African lore. Then Mandelstam.

Q: The series?

PS: Yes – The small pieces long precede and succeed the single large Ancestor version. I've carried his work around literally, and in my head, for more than thirty years. Several years ago, I began making a series of “postmodern” Russian icons, featuring repeated images of his face as photographed at various times during his life, now framed and revisited and re-touched through my own screes of marks. They're a way of keeping him physically as well as verbally present – his ongoing, minute-by-minute resistance, his shocking fate. Also, how do a soul and a voice remain literally en face and in the room?

Q: OK, let's back up a minute: how did the transition from notebook to canvas occur? Although of course you seem to still be making small – and canvas-sized notebooks. So, there isn't such a clearcut distinction. Perhaps we should just go for size! How did the notebook pages become canvases?

PS: Inevitably, certain images couldn't stay on the page. I began putting pictures on the wall. First were a sequence, in threes, of completely whited-out landscape images coming out of a month of all-day and often all-night walks in the semi-desert along the Texas/Mexico border near Marfa, Texas. Then I mixed vegetable dyes into the white-out to get reds and greens, also ash, and bits of burnt wood for greys and blacks. These were all very small, close-up backgrounds, or just grounds. Then they exploded. I made a series of 33 “doors” – each just under life-size, variegated, flat, color-field rectangles with illusionistic hinges – I was trying to paint a door and a doorway at once. I've painted over most of these since then. Then came large forms, further colors, shifts of surface texture. Soon I was settling in at around five by twelve foot paintings, spaces which something unforeseen and larger than my own body might inhabit.

Q: All the while you wrote your now-legendary critical work on the elegy, and five books of poetry. How do you see the relationship between that work and your current works?

PS: Painting completely beyond notebooks really came after the Elegy book, and after the first few books of poems. Much of the painting does feel elegiac, hovering between loss and retrieval, between grief, anger, and the sense of something no longer visible yet possibly returning in a transmuted form – unreal, imaginary but physically manifest. I'm sure I want the surface of a painting to solicit the kind of “close reading” which lyric poems especially allow. What's the visual equivalent of a syllable, of prosody? And however immediate at first impact, I do want the painting also to invite the slow work of interpretation itself, along with the sense of possible argument, tone, narrative (however torn or blocked), inference, revision, drama. Poetic temporality, and the “call” of poems in and across time, are so complicated. Spatially, in relation to poems, paintings have a different way of being there/then and here/now at the same time. That sounds obvious, but the experience isn't. Where is the painting, as object and event? And where or what exactly have we come to be while looking at a painting? What creatures have been brought to hang and to be left “hanging” here?

Q: Are you an abstract painter? How do you understand the terms of abstraction? PS: Well, I'm painting very much in the wake of “abstract art” in the mid-twentieth-century sense, especially the particular current of that art which carries an explicitly materialist freight – in my case via the use of materials, and via the physical attention to history as much as to geography. Where iconic or literary stuff inheres, that exerts one kind of drag, or “traction” on the term “abstract”, just as do the visible pieces of cardboard, cloth, and so on.

Q: Can you describe the actual making of your paintings? Maybe the different makings at different times?

PS: A moment ago, I mentioned working with a tiny white-out brush on the first non-notebook erasure paintings. This is one end of a spectrum of methods and materials. En route to the most recent works, I've used a lot of corrugated cardboard, linen, hand-made and machine-made lace (I feel a strong distinction here), Fedex boxes, wood, paper, slate, rope, sand, clothing (most of it coarse nineteenth-century linen, found in junk shops in Normandy). I live near Omaha Beach here, so things found on that beach come in – war relics as well as things the ocean brings in naturally. Almost always these materials go into the “subsoil” of the painting, along with gesso, acrylic, various adhesives. There might have been a yet prior under-painting which shows through in places and leads me on during the process. The play of strata sets up its own lines of force, its own balance of disappearance and emergence. Then whatever follows follows.

Q: There is a great feeling the paintings give one – more some than others – of being objects of “use”, as in, for example, ritual objects – or more to the point, objects used in a ritual. Does that seem right to you? What would the ritual be?

PS: It's true that I'm wholly influenced by ritual objects, especially African ceremonial objects incorporating bits and pieces of non-indigenous materials, things whose making or breakdown or resistance are already in the grip of an autonomous techne, with its own medley of tradition and invention, its own ways of conjuring. Sure, one of the hallmarks of modern and postmodern art is the self-conscious obsession with the “medium”, itself, with “mediation” as such. I'm trying to keep alive also the sense of the usher, the go-between, the hermetic conductor. When I get the sensation, while making, that there's something standing or floating behind me, then okay. Better yet, when the thing in front says let me through, get out of the way.

Q: You use fire, high and low materials, iron, slate, lace – you like disappearance itself, so how does the acute non-disappearance of such materials fit in?

PS: I have done a lot of burning in the studio. There's a whole conversation to be had on art and fire. To your question, though, I'd say I'm clearly drawn to the after-burn, the mark itself as injury, not just as the trace of a passion, the vestigia veteris flammae as we have it from Virgil to Hardy. I like the paintings to be tough to the eye and touch, however delicate in feeling some passages may be. And at the moment I feel more comfortable with suggesting sheer stubborn survival despite, and within, transformation – rather than the more redemptive lift of something annealed or refined. Also I guess I like working till my fingers give out.

Q: One of your obsessions is Lincoln – and Whitman behind him – could you speak to this? How are these figures, and this history, perceived from the point of view of a South African? Does civil war itself figure in your larger thinking?

PS: Ah, thank goodness for an easy question! Right! We touched on the Lincoln and then Whitman notebooks earlier. One of the fairly large paintings has the entire text of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed buried under mostly black paint. All sixteen sections of the poem on the old typewriter. I really hoped they would remain legible. Yes, elegy again. And civil war. Especially now that all war feels like a version of civil war. And where is the sacred language? For all the joy of making and discovery, some of the paintings do feel to me like some cross between battleground and cemetery. Where are we “gathered” now, to use Lincoln's word. Where should we be?

Q: You are, as most South Africans – and much of the world – very taken by the Truth and Reconciliation trials. In fact a major painting, and the show that surrounds it (your second show in Paris) revolves around this event. Could you address this?

PS: I guess the existence of the Truth and Reconciliation work in South Africa is the best answer to what I was just asking? It's probably the most humbling and inspiring collective action in any recent history. Everyone should read as many of the transcripts as they can, and at least read Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull.

Q: You often use the figure of Africa itself, as a continent, as an emblem in recent paintings. Why? What does it mean and feel like to use it?

PS: I think we're near the subject of ritual object again? Flag of a continent, rather than of a nation? Work of mourning, with its repetitive imaging? I know I wanted each image of the continent to feel as if it were itself an actual chunk of something more than paint. Most of the Africa paintings include shirts, as if for the torso. Some bear the typed out text of one of the most devastating stories I know regarding the making not just of art but of an artistic instrument – the story of Gassire's Lute. The wood won't “sing” until it's been soaked in the blood of Gassire's sons. He carries it into battle each day, and when he rides back he's also carrying one more dead son on his back. After seven sons have died, Gassire's people force him away, into the desert. This is when and where the lute begins to sing.

©2006 - Jean Migrenne/Galerie Pièce Unique, Paris