THIS IS US: Sang Real
Andrea Scrima talks to Patricia Thornley about Sang Real, her third multi-media work for This Is Us, an ongoing series of interview and song. The series, begun in 2011, consists in highly mediated encounters the American artist stages in different environments.
AS: Patricia, there’s a strong sense of place in this piece that I’d like to ask you about. Perched on a stool on the banks of Port Medway Harbour, with domestic objects scattered in the sand and the tide rising rapidly around him, a rugged man stems himself against the cold and speaks about his connection to the landscape of his birth: “most people stayed within five miles from where they were born.” Surrounded by what appears to be the detritus of a life, he adds: “it wouldn’t happen today; there’s no work … you’ve got to go where the work is, I suppose.” As you question him off-camera, and as he offers his laconic answers, I find myself thinking about uprootedness and what it means when people lose the economic ability—and by extension right—to stay in the place they come from. The socio-political undertones in all the works of the series This Is Us probe questions of individual and collective identity; here, one of the themes is displacement, a fate this man has managed to defy.
PT: Yes, people seem to leave home for different personal or economic reasons now, as a matter of course. In the different pieces in this series, the notion of moving “forward” is key. In both the interviews and the songs I try to be inclusive of what exists on the back and the front of that movement.
AS: In each of the pieces in This Is Us, the people you interview are people you know personally, people you admire for a number of different reasons.
PT: Yes, the subject of this piece is a friend, and someone I hold in high regard; he lives in the community and takes care of property and houses there, mine included. I’m dependent on him in that sense. We often work together; I’m an outsider, and I’ve learned quite a lot about how to be in the landscape there, and how to be, through him. He has a way of coping, and laughing, and thriving. I’m interested in the way our lives and worlds cautiously, respectfully collide. It was a big step to ask him to participate in the piece.
AS: You mentioned to me that the title Sang Real comes from the Old French and combines the meanings of holy grail and royal blood. I noticed that at the end of the piece, as a kind of spontaneous afterthought, the man—who has been sitting on a kind of throne as the wind picks up and the waters rise alarmingly around him—fishes an object from the water, an old lamp that could be understood as a metaphor, a sort of grail. To an English-speaking reader, an entirely different meaning presents itself, of course.
PT: Actually, late medieval writers devised a false etymology for sangréal, an alternative name for “Holy Grail.” In Old French, san graal or san gréal means “Holy Grail,” whereas sang réal means “royal blood.” The objects placed on the beach were pulled from an old house that he no longer lives in and now uses for storage; they’re a combination of domestic objects and tools that he no longer needs. In keeping with the theme of home and place, I do imagine my subject as royal, and the harbor as a center, a life force erasing the detritus and then offering up what he is owed, a birthright retrieved in a casual gesture that speaks of essential instincts of survival.
AS: As the waves come in, themes of danger and mortality emerge; lost in his own thoughts, the man seems circumscribed in a very particular space, the space of his life, in a sense. And then, in a kind of superimposition or even violation of that space, you appear in the frame and approach your subject with a microphone attached to a boom pole, which has something almost weapon-like about it, or you wander about in the distance in a somewhat predatory manner, carrying a large round reflector. These are stark moments in which different levels of reality collide, where life and art seem to hit up against one another in an uncomfortable way.
PT: Yes, there’s always a deep ambivalence involved in casting a friend in a piece. On one hand I’m paying homage; on the other, I’m making them an object of scrutiny. The impositions are inevitable and endless. Inherently, my “contribution” can only exist apart from real experience, and in counterpoint to my subject. We play what’s wrong with this picture as soon as I introduce my tools—my ideas, branding, props, equipment, music—into what implies or refers to a clean and honest inquiry.
Going in, we knew the shoot would be cold and awkward, but of course we didn’t know that the wind would kick up like it did that afternoon, that a storm would be rolling in. You can’t see it in the footage, but it’s snowing at the end of the shot. To the work’s advantage, this underscores the sense of danger, of human frailty in the piece, but it was nearly unbearable for the subject and crew. The harbor did give it back to us that day.
AS: There are several distancing devices used throughout the piece: you enter and leave the frame; off-camera, you discuss elements of the footage that can be changed, post-shoot, on the computer. Though I have seen incongruous props in other works in the series, I now find myself wondering about the false eyelashes.
PT: I’m interested in showing impulses and gestures rather than outcomes, in embracing contradictions that are present. I think of the shots of the crew at the end as a kind of nightmare hallucination from the point of view of the subject. The lashes are meant to be a gesture of submission to him, but they’re also a discordant detail that may reek of insincerity, especially in this landscape. In the song the repeated phrase I’m Your Man is sung in earnest, but it’s the chorus of a song about money. The crew and I have feminine decorations glued to our faces, but they are mangled by the weather in the end.
Published in Lute and Drum, issue 1