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Exploring a Second Skin: A Q&A with Melanie Teresa Bohrer

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
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Andrea Peterson  is an artist and educator. She lives and creates work in northwest Indiana at Hook Pottery Paper, a studio and gallery co-owned with her husband. She teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a 2016/17 recipient of an Indiana Arts Council grant. She combines paper arts, printmaking, and book arts to make works that address the human relationship to the environment. Andrea Peterson (AP): Tell us about your practice, describe your artistic process, and how it developed.  Melanie Teresa Bohrer (MTB): I am interested in loss, and in turn the adaptation of our bodies and minds to traumatic experience. My work is in direct conversation with my internal and external landscapes, as I process personal and national suffering. I grew up in Munich where the trauma experienced by a previous generation is echoed in my own. As a German artist living in the United States, I translate—both through visual and literary language—the collective guilt of my home country.

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This indebtedness has born a fascination with the human desire to communicate despite cultural, physical, or other impediments. As a multilingual I am interested in etymol¬ogy, the nuances of words, and the relationship between linguistic and visual language.  Both writing and object making allows me to understand the emotional implications of living between continents and customs, as well as my existential longing to comprehend and share pain. The sculpture and imagery I create evoke the human form, explic¬itly referencing displacement and uncertainty of abstracted figures through scale, shape, and structure. I investigate both art and lan¬guage as objects indicative of human interaction. I ultimately allude to undefined, ritualistic uses that these objects may hold or have possessed. During intensely physical periods of making, followed by reflective research, I re-conceptualize the body, and its persis¬tence as a fragile form. With a minimal yet emotionally heavy aes¬thetic, I urge the viewer to slow down and examine the coexistence of restlessness within stillness, positioning them between comfort and discomfort, as well as pleasure and displeasure. ap: How did you become interested in paper and how has working with abaca skin paper influenced your art practice? mtb: I am technically trained as a printmaker and bookbinder, and have always been interested in process, material, and surface. In the last few years, I have worked mostly sculpturally using fabric, plaster, and ceramics. More recently, my practice has moved into wearable sculpture, and photographically recorded performance. Alongside my visual work, I have been building a dictionary from which I create hybridized written work that navigates the intersec¬tion between poetry and project statement.  I am drawn to hydrophilic materials, predominantly paper, plaster and ceramics, combined with time-based processes, such as performance, photography, and artist books. I have become par¬ticularly fascinated by the possibilities of working with handmade paper, after it drains and forms hydrogen bonds, yet before it dries. I investigate sheets as a fabric-like material. Through handling and drying, the paper becomes a remnant of the process of making and my interaction with it. As a time-sensitive medium, handmade pa¬per speaks to my conceptual interest in capturing the futility of re¬cording or (re)creating something that is lost or inevitably will be lost in translation.  I have become especially infatuated with abaca paper when it is highly beaten. It is attractive to me given its translucency, its crack¬ling sound, and inherent wet and dry strength. As opposed to work¬ing with fabric as a protective layer of armor, I am engaging with abaca as a material that replicates the surface I am covering: skin. ap: How do you see this abaca paper project as an extension of your current interests of veiled figures? How does it differ from your pre¬vious exploration of and references to the human body? mtb: I have been investigating permeable membranes as wearable sculpture for performance and inanimate art objects for the past two years. I enjoy exploring the transition from flexible to rigid, whilst playing with functional versus unusable remnants. When consid¬ering performed bodies in space, I often pose the question: how does a wearable act as stand-alone sculpture? In this project, titled Untitled (entanglement), the abaca work exists mainly as a remnant of the making, removed from the human form. The viewer is forced to wonder about the interaction that is impressed into the flattened, vacated hood, and how this may imply ritualistic use.  Thematically the abaca work is a reflection on the restrictive¬ness of mourning, which physically limits vision, respiration, and motion. Previously I was working on felt hoods and chiffon veils, which physically tied two people together in mourning. These older forms force codependence between figures, and mimic a prosthetic or ritual that is unknown and indefinable. Beyond mourning, I am interested in both hoods and veils as contradictory symbols. Men¬acing or seductively mysterious, worn by both oppressor and op¬pressed, these forms are tied simultaneously to both freedom and restriction. Beyond the racist and sexist discourse carried by the forms, I am interested in the power and physical sensation evoked when covering or hiding a person's face. Conceptually the new abaca-skin pieces originated from a similar emotional landscape as the felt and chiffon work, yet they are solitary, wearable forms. The process is much different from working with fabric. Pho-tographs reveal how I lift and handle the hood onto my head, and document the action of making. The paper is restrictive in its heavy wetness as it air-dries to my face and shrinks into a shell. It is eerily reminiscent to a second skin; yet faceless, malleable, and leathery. The remaining exoskeleton is tied to a singular body, trapped within itself. A reflection—like words echoing through your mind, quiet and unsettling in their truth. the aftermath of entanglement. our bodies: vacuous structures, oppressed by veiled memories. wedge-shaped wounds embrace our core of darkness. subjects convert to objects, as corpses amass, and history forces us into its world. Samsa's torment—our warning spirit. mania bordering insanity, as the dagger of doubt envelops shrill uncertainty. your tears transmute to stillness I question truth's authority: for pain, and snickering.